The ThinkPad is IBM's only brand of notebook (laptop) computer. Introduced in 1992, the ThinkPad has remained popular throughout its lifetime. Although IBM frequently introduces new alphanumerically-named models, the look remains largely the same.

The Look

All ThinkPad notebooks are packaged in a nondescript black case adorned with a red, green, and blue IBM logo in the corner. The logo was originally so colored to highlight the fact that ThinkPads featured color displays; in 1992, most laptops had greyscale screens to reduce costs. To make the case appear slimmer, most of the edges are beveled. Nothing else about the case looks distinctive, but the stoic black looks have set IBM apart from its competitors.

There have been ThinkPad models in every sort of size configuration, from "thin and light" (currently, the pricey X series) to "desktop replacement" (currently, the inexpensive G series). All share the same general design.

Open the Lid

Starting from the very first ThinkPad, every model has featured the TrackPoint pointing device. Also known as the pencil eraser or nipple mouse, the TrackPoint utilizes a cap that the user pushes to move the mouse cursor around the screen. Three buttons, including one that switches the pointer into scroll mode, are located next to the space bar and are meant to be pressed with the user's thumb. Some models also include a touchpad with a second set of buttons. All include a PS/2 and/or USB port to plug in an external mouse.

The Page Up, Page Down, Home, End, and other such keys are placed at the top of the keyboard, leaving the full width of the board for the all-important "caps lock through enter" block. The absence of Windows keys (RPGeek tells me that some models have these keys; many models do not) and generally well-documented hardware has made ThinkPads well-regarded among Linux enthusiasts.

While there's no backlit keyboard like on the newest PowerBooks, IBM offers a ThinkLight which sits above the screen and shines down on the keyboard. The ThinkLight is controlled by a keystroke.

A few quirky input methods have been tried and phased out. The ThinkPad 750P in 1993 featured a fold-flat screen for input with a stylus in Windows for Pen Computing. In 1995's ThinkPad 701C, the standard keyboard was replaced by the butterfly keyboard that folded out slightly wider than the base of the laptop when the case was opened. Consumers didn't like the awkward placement of the outwardmost keys, and the butterfly keyboard was phased out. Perhaps the most bizarre trial was the TransNote system, which coupled a ThinkPad with a pad of paper on either the left or the right. Software would translate handwriting into data. The resulting contraption was huge and couldn't sell enough to justify its existence.

Under the Hood

Generally speaking, IBM offers the latest x86 hardware in their notebooks. As of October 2003, they offer laptops with integrated 802.11b to meet Intel's Centrino specification. Other whizbang features include an integrated security system, Bluetooth, and optional 802.11a and/or 802.11g built-in.

As an interesting side-note to the ThinkPad story, IBM planned a PowerPC version of the ThinkPad in 1995. The ThinkPad Power Series would have featured a SCSI hard drive and a 100 MHz PowerPC 603e processor. However, the weight (over 10 pounds) and price (over US$12,000) were big deterrents. The lack of operating system support (Windows NT, OS/2, and Solaris for PowerPC? I've never heard of them either) killed whatever audience was left. The division in charge of the PowerPC ThinkPad was shut down in 1996.

ThinkPad notebooks are known for their modular UltraBay system of exchanging drives. CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, Zip, floppy, and other drives have been sold for ThinkPads under a variety of bay sizes. While you won't be able to plug a current combo drive into a five-year-old ThinkPad 600, most optical drives can be swapped among current models. IBM also offers modular batteries and portable media slices. With a ThinkPad X31 and its media slice, you can use three batteries for over nine hours of battery life!

Most ThinkPads come with either a 1- or 3-year warranty, extendable to as many as four years of mail-in or on-site service. IBM's service placed first among laptop manufacturers surveyed by PC World magazine in their October 2002 critique of computer support. The last time I've dealt with IBM service personally was in 1999, and I was pleased to be kept on hold for five minutes or less before talking to a technician. Once you can get past the level 1 tech's scripts that basically boil down to "Insert the System Restore CD and press any key to continue," you'll find some competent help.

Looking Forward

Generally speaking, ThinkPads are viewed as premium products with a premium price tag. While the recent i-Series and G Series models have appealed to the general public consumer who wants a good $1,000 notebook, a fully loaded X Series model could cost as much as $3,000. However, ThinkPads are very durable and come with good support, so IT managers justify the high list price with a lower total cost of ownership.

IBM is always trying new concepts, both in its R&D lab and in the marketplace. While some of the features like a height-adjustable screen look like pure fantasy, their sleek black lines and unassuming case makes them look like any other standard-issue business machine. Much like the Mag-Lite flashlight, the ThinkPad has won numerous awards for its utilitarian yet elegant design. While nothing lasts forever, the ThinkPad has withstood the test of time like few computer designs before it.

Sources include:,,,aid,105854,pg,11,00.asp

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