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A former cubicle jockey's awkward ode to the ThinkPad

Whether you genuinely loved the experience, hated it wholeheartedly, or somewhere in between, the trusty ol' IBM, errr ... Lenovo ThinkPad likely represents a range of memories.

For the past 13 years, ending in January 2017, I worked for the same large technology publishing company. A lot changed during my time there. New websites launched, and websites folded. Talented writers, editors, managers and sales folks came and went. Entirely new forms of computers were invented. Tech giants rose and fell. But there was always one constant at my former company: More employees used ThinkPad laptops than any other PCs ... or Macs. By a long shot.

This is probably a familiar scenario if you have worked in the traditional corporate world, where IBM used to reign supreme — and where ThinkPads, now made by Lenovo, still hold their own.

Even if you've never called a cubicle home from nine to five, the ThinkPad phenomenon was evident in every major train station or airport in every big city in the U.S. and beyond. All it took was a quick look around to see a handful of men and women in spiffy business entire, dutifully clacking away on their unremarkable, matte black, boxy ThinkPads while they waited for their next train or airplane. If you weren't looking for it, maybe you missed it. But once you saw a ThinkPad and kept an eye out, they were — and to a lesser degree today, still are — everywhere.

How did this happen? And why?

How ThinkPads took the enterprise by storm

The answers to those questions are relatively simple, and they date back to the 1980s, when the following quote was well known in business technology circles: "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM."

The saying meant that for corporate technology buyers, IBM was the safe bet. And even if smaller players had more interesting and potentially valuable options, the risk often wasn't worth taking, because IBM was "good enough."

IBM and its ThinkPads became the safe bet because they got the job done.

No chief information officer (CIO) would be caught dead speaking that sentence today, but in many ways, the concept still holds true. And it's a real reason why ThinkPads took hold in the enterprise and then spread across large organizations like a Southern California blaze during dry season.

Of course, IBM and its ThinkPads became the safe bet because they simply got the job done. They were never sexy, hardly even a bit cool. But that was sort of the point. They were tools, like a Craftsman hammer, and they weren't supposed to be visually pleasing or trendy. That's largely changed today, thanks to PCs such as Lenovo's new 2017 ThinkPad X1 Carbon, of course. (If you haven't seen it yet, don't miss our review. It's one serious PC.)

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2017) is an iconic business laptop, perfected

See at Lenovo (opens in new tab)

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2017).

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2017).

And like any good tool, ThinkPads were (mostly) durable and reliable. The ThinkPads of old took a kickin' and kept on clickin'. (I literally tried to covertly damage my three-year-old work ThinkPad T60 at one point, for reasons that will remain unspecified here, and I just could not kill the thing. It was the Jason Voorhees of PCs.)

From a corporate IT perspective, ThinkPads checked all of the most important boxes. If something broke, they were simple to take apart and fix when necessary. Components were easy to come by and were for the most part relatively affordable. You could easily pop out the battery and click a clunky extended-life pack on there instead. You remember those big-ass batteries that stuck out of the back side of ThinkPads like some sort of rigid vestigial appendage, right?

And IBM, eventually Lenovo, made great docking stations that made it simple to "click" your ThinkPad in and out with the press of a button and connect to your monitor or other peripherals in a few seconds. (Man, I loved those docks ...)

Then there's the classic ThinkPad keyboard, with its perfectly contoured keys that seemed to snuggle the tips of your fingers, like a well-worn glove. I used to type on my ThinkPad's keyboard when it was connected to a monitor, instead of using an external keyboard, because it was that much better.

Oh, and that red TrackPoint "nub" — or as some of my colleagues affectionately called it, the ThinkPad "nipple." It's been called "the gold standard" for pointing sticks (opens in new tab). You either loved or hated the TrackPoint button, but I always fell squarely on the affectionate side of things. The little red button had a comforting bumpy texture, not unlike a cat's tongue, that always felt like home to me. When I eventually switched away from the ThinkPad, it took me months to get used to a more typical trackpad. In some ways, I'm still not used to it and still have "phantom TrackPoint urges."

ThinkPad TrackPoint 'nub cap.'

ThinkPad TrackPoint 'nub cap.'

These are just a few of the reasons why corporate IT departments approved ThinkPads and why the last couple of decades of cubicle jockeys often carried them in their shoulder bags or briefcases.

But the relationship wasn't always harmonious.

A love-hate relationship with the ThinkPad

I have fond memories of my many ThinkPads (I recall using at least four different models), and though it's easy to forget, I also hated my ThinkPads at times. A lot. Like, vitriol. (Remember the whole purposely trying to kill my PC thing? That may have happened more than once ...)

I have fond memories of my ThinkPads but I also hated them. A lot.

My ThinkPads always seemed to work fine for the first six months or a year after I got them. Then, inevitably, something would start to fall apart or fail. First, it'd be the "G" or "H" keys next to the TrackPoint nub. One or both would stop working, or even break off, presumably because I was always putting so much pressure on the nub when I used it for navigation. Then the battery life would get so bad that I couldn't go for more than an hour (sometimes less) without charging, which made covering large technology events such as CES, where power outlets were as scarce as empty taxis, lots of fun. (That's where those funky, clunky extended batteries came into the picture.)

The old school ThinkPad T42.

The old school ThinkPad T42.

I also used one of the first ThinkPads with a biometric fingerprint reader. I believe it was a T42 (opens in new tab). I thought it was so cool, I didn't even mind that it consistently took me anywhere from five to 10 swipes to authenticate.

But there was a big problem: My IT department had some policy set that after a certain number of failed swipes, corporate managed ThinkPads would be locked down. And the password wouldn't work. So, after IT spent a few days running around the office, dealing with people who'd locked themselves out of their own computers by madly swiping fingers, the tech services team quickly (and wisely) decided to disable the feature. Bummer.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon's fingerprint reader with Windows Hello actually works.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon's fingerprint reader with Windows Hello actually works.

I literally had to upgrade the RAM in every single ThinkPad I used. Again, things seemed to start out OK, but after a few months, my ThinkPads slowed to a crawl. Of course, swapping out a stick of RAM for some more isn't really a big deal, and IT usually handled it for me. But it would often take them a few weeks to get to me, which meant dealing with a sluggish machine until the problem could be fixed. Not really the ThinkPad's fault, I know. But still.

I could go on. However, this post is already longer than it should be, and I'm not even finished yet. Plus, you get the point.

What's next for ThinkPads (or, goodbye ol' friend)

Lenovo is at a turning point with the ThinkPad. In fact, it's probably past the turning point, and moving further and further away from the devices described here. That's OK, necessary even.

Dell and HP now offer comparable security and management suites that put them on par with Lenovo.

Enterprise technology has also changed, and companies aren't necessarily looking for the "safest bet" anymore — or at least all of them aren't. Many PC rivals, such as Dell and HP, now offer many enterprise-friendly machines with comparable security and management suites that put them on par with Lenovo's offerings in many ways.

And even Apple, which doesn't truly cater to IT departments — just ask any IT worker what they think of Apple's enterprise support — has made a lot of headway.

ThinkPads just don't stand out from the pack in business these days in the same ways.

As such, today's ThinkPads, like the sleek X1 Carbon 2017 and Lenovo's other best laptops, including the ThinkPad X1 Yoga, Ideapad 310 and the Yoga 910, look and feel more like Apple's MacBooks than the ThinkPads of old. Why? That's what modern users, and to some extent, businesses want today.

Traditional ThinkPads were unassuming, unremarkable and unabashed workhorses that were not designed to draw attention, only to help serious people get real work done. Because of these things, when you walked into a conference room or a press room in the early 2000s, sat down with a ThinkPad and looked around you, there was a slight sort of camaraderie between fellow ThinkPad users. It wasn't much, but it was something.

The folks with ThinkPads were there to get the job done.

The folks with ThinkPads were there to get the job done, not to show off their tech hardware.

Many of today's ThinkPads are built for business, but Lenovo is clearly going for a different crowd, as well, with obviously consumer-focused devices. Again, that's OK. It's just different ... and maybe a little sad, at least for those of us who remember a time when using a ThinkPad said something about you that may not have been cool, per se, but was still something to be proud of.

Check out our list of Lenovo's best laptops for a look at the company's latest PC lineup:

These are the best Lenovo laptops

Al Sacco is content director of Future PLC's Mobile Technology Vertical, which includes AndroidCentral.com, iMore.com and WindowsCentral.com. He is a veteran reporter, writer, reviewer and editor who has professionally covered and evaluated IT and mobile technology, and countless associated gadgets and accessories, for more than a decade. You can keep up with Al on Twitter and Instagram.

26 Comments
  • I use a high-spec ThinkPad for work.  Well, high-spec 2 yrs ago, lol.  It runs pretty good considering I do modeling on it, really few complaints.  But I never use the "nub", even when I don't have it docked. Just never cared for it.
  • Very well written. I am huge fan of ThinkPads. I take reservation on this point though "They were never sexy, hardly even a bit cool". Its more of a personal choice. I am a huge fan of no nonsense design of ThinkPads for a long time and it has never changed. ThinkPad was my first laptop, an R51 (IBM) to be precise. The only reason that my parents agreed on ThinkPad was because of its durability and nothing else and then I started loving this machine. ThinkPad is hell durable, I remember at one point they were the only laptops certified to be used in space, not sure about this anymore though. So far I have bought 4 laptops with my or my parents' money for myself, all lenovos, because I was so impressed by ThinkPad the first time. Doesn't mean I have not used other brands. After that I grew up and ThinkPads do not have great graphics or even config for the price point compared to others, and I needed those features so I bought gaming laptops.  But I still own one ThinkPad Edge 11 as a backup to my ideapad. One point which you mentioned that only long time ThinkPad users can relate to is the loosening of g and h keys near the nub. Very frustrating when the laptop becomes old. Still pretty cool laptops. 
  • Fair enough. Obviously, the whole "sexy/cool" thing was a matter of preference. Honestly, I always kind of thought my ThinkPads were cool, because they're weren't traditionally cool ... if that makes sense.
  • Yeah I agree. They never tried to be flashy and shiny just to attract customers. In fact they never cared about mainstream coolness. Needless to say I didn't like the silver colour of the new X1. Anyways, the japanese lunch box design seems perfect for the kind of durability they promise. Kudos to IBM and then lenovo for making and keep on making one of the coolest laptops. :) 
  • Well changing the keyboard is around 5 min job on the ThinkPad. So I wouldn't count "g" or "h" been broken to be that negative. It's like tires of your car, you change after you use it.
  • lol if its like a car then its a bad car (in that respect) because I have used other laptops for quite a long periods and keyboards tend to hold stronger. If its only happening in ThinkPads, its a flaw. But you are right, its still a minor issue. 
  • A trusty old steed indeed!
  • I have always only ever had ThinkPads. My 760c from 1997 still boots up in Win98 flawlessly. There is just something about the design language that appeals to me. Black, utilitarian, with only red and blue accents here and there. I'm so used to them that I can't use a non-Thinkpad keyboard without the UltraNav trackpoint. They really should be reviewed here more (WC seem to like Dell and HP at the moment).  Don't get me started on the keyboard layout change (shame on you Lenovo).
  • We just posted a review of Lenovo's X1 Carbon this week. But you're right, we tend to do more HP and Dell reviews. That might change in the future though. Stay tuned ...
  • Richard Sapper as opposed to Dieter Rams.
  • I have a ThinkPad that I got from my friend. I absolutely love it. I upgraded it to whatever it could be upped to. And it's way better than any other laptops that I have opened. Outside it looks rather dull or like any other laptops but less sexy lol
    But is way easier to change parts, clean, and even open up to check inside. And the keyboard, so good. I know I'll keep this one til it dies and probably buy another ThinkPad later. And I don't even work in office lol
  • Been using the W530 and P50 for years. They are beasts of machines and are some of the most reliable machines I have ever used
  • These were better under IBM
  • You say the ThinkPad was never considered or made to be "sexy", but you are wrong on that. In the early 90s when the first ThinkPad was announced, the Laptop market consited of Beige or Grey boxes with terrible small monochrome screens and trackballs as mice. IBM introduced a Notebook in Jet Black color, something unheard of back then, and with the TrackPoint, a much better mouse-control than the typical trackball. ThinkPads were considered cool and sexy at the time and they really were sought-after devices. In a sense, they were also a designers-piece, as Richard Sapper designed them - the designer that Apple also wanted to hire. ThinkPads did not originate from the typical IBM mentality. If so, they would have been beige and called "IBM PS/2 something". IBM was getting slaughtered in the mobile market by Compaq and they had to do a break-through to get back into the game. ThinkPad was that breakthrough. If you want to know more, I recommend this book: https://www.amazon.com/ThinkPad-Different-J-Gerry-Purdy/dp/0672317567/re... It offers great insight in the history of the laptop-market and how the ThinkPad brand came into being.
  • In a rather snivelling little review by a philistine you hardly begin to do credit to what from 1990 became a cult object. Richard Sapper combined function with timeless form. Anyone who wants a better understanding could do worse than start by reading this piece in the Verge a few years ago: http://www.theverge.com/2012/10/5/3451206/thinkpad-turns-20-ibm-lenovo-r... As for that iconic little red "nipple", it encapsulates the notion of combining design branding with ultimate functionality. It works better, interferes less with typing and takes up far less space than a trackpad. Some will always want the Emperors new clothes and be prepared to pay through the nose for them. Well done Apple for getting those people. For others the elegance lies in how well the tool is executed.
  • In a rather snivelling little review by a philistine you hardly begin to do credit to what from 1990 became a cult object. Richard Sapper combined function with timeless form. Anyone who wants a better understanding could do worse than start by reading this piece in the Verge a few years ago: http://www.theverge.com/2012/10/5/3451206/thinkpad-turns-20-ibm-lenovo-r... As for that iconic little red "nipple", it encapsulates the notion of combining design branding with ultimate functionality. It works better, interferes less with typing and takes up far less space than a trackpad. Some will always want the Emperors new clothes and be prepared to pay through the nose for them. Well done Apple for getting those people. For others the elegance lies in how well the tool is executed.
  • "It works better, interferes less with typing and takes up far less space than a trackpad"
    nope, nope and not a positive.
  • My T30 is still working with Win7, and its keyboard so good after years
  • After having used both an IBM and a Dell with pointing sticks, I hope to never have to use one ever again. It's just way too inaccurate and slow compared to a track pad.
  • Because you have coarse motor control or fat fingers. I see guys like you at the firing range every week, blaming the firearms instead of their inability to use them properly.  Cupcake LOL
  • You have to get used to them. And, they are not for everyone.
  • Still my go-to machine for day-to-day life in the IT trenches with the P50 being my current workhorse. My last Thinkpad (W510) lasted 7 years. The value proposition is like no other IMO - I always pick up a base memory/storage model and then upgrade it myself on receipt/day one. That means I can pay $1300 for a laptop that I upgrade to 32GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD and save over $1K compared to retail. Oh, and I also have a late 2016 MBP and Surface. If I need to do "light" work (like support/on-call) I may carry around my MBP, but for a 10 hour workday on the keyboard, nothing touches the Thinkpad experience...
  • I think that people should buy Thinkpads not for their specs, but for their ruggedness and reliability. Thinkpads are one of the few laptops that I've seen that are MIL-SPEC tested for durability but aren't built like a tank. The Panasonic Toughbook is an example of a lap-tank. It would be great if Lenovo built their IdeaPad line to these standards, then everyone would be happy​.
  • IBM workers I knew in Mexico used to call the pointers clitoris mouse. I loved using it. Wasn't until Surface that I got used to trackpad, but I still prefer the pointers. Dell used to have them too.
  • Yep
  • Best enterprise machine has been my ThinkPads.  Then the HP business class laptop I had.  Bottom of the barrel, lower than the dog $h!t on your feet are the last 2 "business class" Dells our company uses.  Utter garbage at everything.