Why ThinkPads are overrated and misunderstood

Before I begin, I’ll make a note that I actually do like and use ThinkPads. However, I hate how technologists (well, the ThinkPad enthusiast community, often seen on thinkpads.com, /g/, or /r/thinkpad) have constantly misunderstood them, be it celebrating workarounds for clumsy flaws, or are completely ignorant of their history. Nowadays, I’ve switched to a MacBook Air (since I want a compact laptop that was lightweight and got good battery life… and I am a sucker for an actually good RISC CPU), but I often buy ThinkPads as a “known quantity” for whatever age of machine I need. That is, I know exactly what I’m getting into, and they’re widely compatible with whatever you throw at them. However, I often recommend other lines of machine, be it something radically different like a MacBook or Surface, or something that’s actually more like what a ThinkPad enthusiast’s platonic ideal of a ThinkPad is, like a Latitude or Let’s Note. This post sums up my opinions why.

For disclosure, I’ll note that I have the following models of ThinkPad (I have a bias towards the X series and similar models, and prefer slimmest examples of):

  • 701cs (two of them), in bad condition (one needs a recap, one has a broken screen)
  • X40 (what I use for XP shenanigans)
  • T42 (used to use, became a parts donor)
  • X61 (not really used right now)
  • X61 Tablet (used for travel – haha, remember that?)
  • X201 (was my daily driver for 4 years)
  • X230 Tablet (used for college, now signing PDFs)

I switched to Macs for laptops when I got a used 2013 11″ MacBook Air for a reasonable price (used Mac prices rarely are reasonable), actually liked it, and got the M1 MBA when it came out. I’m still not sure if I like Mac OS, but the hardware is exceptional and closer to what I value in a laptop.

Screens

The screens on ThinkPads have been a mixed bag. While some were quite exceptional for the time, the offerings for them were sporadic. While FlexView in the 2000s was available, it was also rare. In reality, most people got dim, low-resolution TN panels. They aren’t even good TN panels, like the kinds you saw on older MacBook Airs.

When they started offering IPS panels, the fact they were IPS alone was a huge boon for readability. Unfortunately, they were pretty rough – the IPS panel in my X230t has noticeable ghosting.

This is less true nowadays, where Lenovo offers actually good panels. But good luck convincing the company you work for to spend more money to save people’s eyes.

Batteries

ThinkPad battery life is often touted, but the reality isn’t as good as people claim. The battery runtimes claimed by Lenovo are usually done under very unrealistic loads (i.e dim screen, no radios). The average-sized battery (the ones without a “hump”) in a normal scenario will get far less.

The longevity of ThinkPad batteries is also terrible. My machines tend to wear out the maximum capacity after a year or two to almost half in worst case scenarios. To actually keep a ThinkPad’s battery viable involves hypermiling that a user should never have to worry about. Apple and Panasonic can manage this fine in their lines of laptop – why can’t Lenovo? It’s even worse if you had a model that could do an UltraBay battery – it would suck it dry before using the main battery, which was terrible for battery lifespan.

Ultimately, you don’t need all these parlour tricks around batteries if the platform can simply just make effective use of batteries. I’m not a fan of how Apple makes it harder to service, but part of that is simply due to how compact the machines are – what I view as an OK tradeoff. Even if they did make them serviceable, that doesn’t mean hotswappable, which is another can of worms. I’m OK with using a screwdriver to swap a battery, because swapping a battery in the middle of the day is an absurd solution.

Keyboards and cursor input

The keyboards are fine, nothing to say about that. I will say the keyboards on the newer ThinkPads feel fine to me – enough I wouldn’t ever bother installing an X220 keyboard into an X230. Likewise, the keyboard in my MBA isn’t as good, but it’s certainly adequate.

Oh, and fn belongs to the left of control. Apple and Lenovo get this right, why can’t anyone else?

The trackpads for years were mediocre, but it’s a ThinkPad; you’re not supposed to use the trackpad. I’m used to a trackpoint, after all. However, having used trackpads, I do miss the gestures you can do on them. It’s like keyboard shortcuts, but even more convenient.

Thickness, durability and upgradeability

I think this is where many self-proclaimed ThinkPad fans are ignorant of history. ThinkPads might stand for a lot of things, but being chunky wasn’t a priority in the IBM days. They extrapolate from their X220 or T60 and don’t know about anything older.

ThinkPads, unless you bought a workstation or desktop replacement model, were rarely intended to be some kind of thick monster. The T series originally started out as the successor to the 600 series, which was intended to be a svelte line of executive laptops. While the T20 continued in this respect, the T30 was forced to grow due to the Pentium 4. While the Pentium M in the T40 could allow it to shrink back, it just subsumed the A series line of desktop replacements and carried on being a thick laptop. (Despite this, ThinkPads are still often more compact than the comparable, say, Latitude.)

ThinkPad durability is a mixed bag. While they often have good industrial design, each generation of ThinkPad can have notable issues. The T30 had RAM slot failures, the 15″ T40 had a very bendy chassis, and of course, every high-end laptop in 2008 had GPU failure. Ironically, the well loved for supposed durability X220/T420 have poor quality plastics that also effect the newer X230/T430. (My brief experience with the 40 series models felt like they had significantly improved in that regard.)

Many of my ThinkPads have soldered RAM; the X40 and 701, certainly. Not that having slots would save you – just ask people with a T30 (Remember, slots are mechanical points of failure.). Of course, these are ultraportable models – the sacrifices make sense there. Just don’t expect all things labelled ThinkPad to have the same values as a workstation laptop.

Well, what do you recommend instead?

What I recommend is dependent on what someone’s looking for.

If you’re looking for a chunky business laptop that you can easily find cheaply (handy for those in poverty), I would often recommend Latitudes or even ProBook/EliteBooks. They’re thick (ha) on the ground and emphasize the things ThinkPad enthusiasts like, though I’m not as big of a fan of the industrial design.

If you’re looking for an exciting business laptop, look at the Let’s Note line by Panasonic. These are Japanese-market only (with few exceptions branded as Toughbooks overseas) that are both very lightweight, yet very flexible. They’re built domestically in Japan (an increasing rarity) for exclusively Japanese tastes. My friends with them report the batteries in their years old model still get hours of battery – it makes sense considering Panasonic makes batteries. They’re everywhere in Japan, but getting them elsewhere will require some importing online or knowing someone.

(I have less experience, first or second hand in these categories, so I’ll be brief.) For workstations, look at Precisions or zBooks. For tablets, look at Surfaces. (I have an RT and like it, but that is the least Surface model of Surface they made.)

Honestly, for a general-purpose laptop recommendation, it’s hard to recommend anything but the new ARM MacBooks. With the performance and battery improvements, I went from hesitant (recommend, but look at alternatives first) to recommend a MacBook to suggesting it to almost anyone. They really have changed the game here.

And worst of all, I like ThinkPads! I just hate the cult of personality around built around a ThinkPad that only exists as a shadow in a cave. That makes them hard to recommend, because people get the wrong idea starting off, and rarely consider alternatives.

8 thoughts on “Why ThinkPads are overrated and misunderstood

  1. Denis April 1, 2021 / 4:12 pm

    How easy is it to install something else than macOS on a Macbook (Ubuntu for example)? Doesn’t help much if the hardware is good if I have to use macOS in the end. Like most people who use their laptop for work I have a docking station So I can connect external monitors, keyboard, etc.

    • cb April 1, 2021 / 4:27 pm

      On the ARM ones, people are still working on the port, but I don’t really care about OSes – they all suck in their own unique way.

      I used to use a docking station with my X201, but I stopped doing that, because it was rarely ever convenient. Nowadays, I just use a laptop and a desktop.

    • Enlightened Doggo April 1, 2021 / 4:28 pm

      Not the author, but I would personally advise sticking with MacOS as your desktop on a Mac, then use either traditional virtualization or Docker if you want Linux environments to augment your software development or other OS endeavors. You’ll lose many of the benefits of owning a Mac if you swap out the base OS. If you’ve never owned a Mac, then you may be surprised by how much the OS feels like a Linux desktop, but without the immense amount of jank.

      • dmbaturin May 10, 2021 / 11:02 am

        To me it feels nothing like a Linux desktop. All opinions about GUIs are subjective, and my subjective opinion about the macOS UI is that it’s horrible. It’s also unchangeable, take it or leave it. So I leave it. 😉

  2. Jack Dave April 2, 2021 / 2:38 am

    As a user of the Thinkpad T450 provided by an employer, I can agree. Been using Thinkpad for few years different models but always T series.

    My keyboard a little unresponsive, maybe due to using a different kernel/driver. But I won’t be taking more time to debug, long time ago I happy to debug it my self, but as ages older I prefer stable and usable machine which I use Macbook Pro M1

  3. someone April 2, 2021 / 4:14 am

    After years of Thinkpads, I’ve switched to XPS and I am very happy..

  4. CS May 11, 2021 / 1:59 am

    FN key left to the Control button is the right thing to do, and everybody gets it wrong except Apple and Lenovo, WTF?
    The only reason why FN is left of Ctrl on a Mac is that Apple gives a damn about desktop standards (yes, this is a thing) and mapped the Ctrl key functions on the CMD key. As they were always “special”, think of that silly rounded mouse they launched in the late 90ies with one fat button. What do they even do with the Ctrl key? It just sits there and gets used… exactly when?

    Lenovo, like many, many other Chinese companies tends to copy Apple’s ways and concepts about what a computer should be like.

    Did you have typing class at school? Did you learn the standardised ten finger typing system? It’s exactly the pinky pressing the Ctrl key without the necessity to look at the keyboard, or fondling around until it hits not-the-fn-key-but-ctrl. How often do you press the FN key? How often do you press the Ctrl key?
    What do you do on a desktop computer, where there is no FN key? Muscle memory is a thing, you know?

    • cb May 11, 2021 / 6:57 pm

      IBM did it first 🙂

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