While laptop and PC line-ups come and go, some things tend not to change. And while most laptop lines are better identified by model numbers, some are better known by iconic names. Sitting proudly alongside popular names such as the Mac, Surface and Area 51 is a name that has endured the test of time. An icon in the world of business laptops, the Thinkpad turns 25 this year.
Launched in 1992 as an IBM product, the Thinkpad line-up has grown, modernized and improved greatly over the years. Lenovo’s acquisition of IBM in 2005 saw the range continue to grow, and this year marks 25 years of the Thinkpad name. We look at some of the iconic products in the line-up through the years, and just what makes the Thinkpad so special.
It all started with the Thinkpad 700C
The Thinkpad range started with the IBM Thinkpad 700C, which was the first laptop with a thin film transistor (TFT) display. Although three products were launched that day, the top-of-the-range was the Thinkpad 700C, with the ‘C’ denoting a color screen. While the laptop came with MS-DOS out of the box, you could load Windows 3.1 onto it. Priced at over $4000 at the time, it was among the most powerful business laptops in 1992 and also introduced the popular TrackPoint, which can be seen in Thinkpad devices even today.
The TrackPoint itself was revolutionary at the time of its launch. It allowed for the point-and-click form of system navigation without the need for an external device to be plugged into the laptop, and took up very little space on the device itself. Sitting at the center of the keyboard between the ‘G’, ‘H’ and ‘B’ keys, the TrackPoint offers a joystick-like way to move around. Today’s Thinkpad devices continue to feature the TrackPoint, although you also get a typical track pad, and can also rely on an external mouse or a touch-screen for navigation if you have the option on your laptop.
I spoke to Kevin Beck, worldwide competitive analyst for Lenovo, and one of the key spokespersons and product champions for the Thinkpad line-up, about what he felt was the USP of the TrackPoint. “Sure, you have the option to use an external mouse, a touch-screen or a trackpad. But with the ThinkPad, the TrackPoint remains an integral part of the system. It remains the easiest way to move from corner-to-corner quickly, and it’s something I swear by,” says Kevin. He further elaborates that it takes the least amount of physical effort, and it’s often possible to use just two fingers to get around. In the early days before trackpads, it was the only way to navigate without attaching an external pointing device.
The earliest Thinkpad computers also had a unique design language, inspired by the Bento box, the typical Japanese lunchbox. The Thinkpad was designed and created by IBM Japan, under the leadership of Arimasa Naitoh, who has now earned the title of ‘father’ of the Thinkpad. The earliest devices were boxy, thick and had everything contained within, much like the Bento boxes served in Japanese retaurants. Other innovations also took into account the box-like shape of the device, including the popular butterfly keyboard which opened out and sat outside the box when the laptop was in use, and folded back in when it wasn’t needed.
The Thinkpad goes to space
Thinkpad laptops are also known for durability, damage resistance and rugged build. Thanks to the focus on these aspects, the earliest Thinkpad laptops were the only devices certified for use on the International Space Station. 1993 saw the first Thinkpad go to space, and was used extensively for space station operations, as well as on space shuttles during the most active period of the program till its eventual end. The durability remains in Thinkpad models even today, where devices can go through a certain degree of drops, shocks, water and dust exposure without being affected adversely.
The year 2000 saw the ThinkPad line-up bring another first to the world – it was the first laptop with built-in wireless capability. Today, Wi-Fi on a laptop is not only a given, but often the only way to connect to the internet thanks to thinning laptops and the eventual obsolescence of the Ethernet port. 2004 saw the Thinkpad become the first laptop to feature a built-in fingerprint reader, and 2005 saw the Thinkpad line-up move to Lenovo as the Chinese company acquired the personal computer business of IBM. As of 2010, 60 million ThinkPad devices had been purchased around the world. As of this year, the brand has already crossed the 130 million mark for devices sold.
The Thinkpad is still available today, albeit in a modern form that suits current needs from a work laptop. The Thinkpad X1 Carbon and Thinkpad X1 Yoga are the best devices from the range you can buy today, with the latter featuring the same design language as the former, but with a screen that tilts back all the way like the Yoga range of laptops. Slimmer, more portable, more powerful and more contemporary, Thinkpad devices today have kept up with the times. But what remains a core part of the Thinkpad, apart from the TrackPoint and iconic black color, is the philosophy of making devices that are reliable, durable and capable.