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Is a Thinkpad Still Like a Rolls-Royce

For a long time the Thinkpad has been widely regarded as the “Rolls-Royce of laptops”. Since 2003 one could argue that Rolls-Royce is no longer the Rolls-Royce of cars [1]. The way that IBM sold the Think business unit to Lenovo and the way that Lenovo is producing both Thinkpads and cheaper Ideapads is somewhat similar to the way the Rolls-Royce trademark and car company were separately sold to companies that are known for making cheaper cars.

Sam Varghese has written about his experience with Thinkpads and how he thinks it’s no longer the Rolls-Royce of laptops [2]. Sam makes some reasonable points to support this claim (one of which only applies to touchpad users – not people like me who prefer the Trackpoint), but I think that the real issue is whether it’s desirable to have a laptop that could be compared to a Rolls-Royce nowadays.

Support

The Rolls-Royce car company is known for great reliability and support as well as features that other cars lack (mostly luxury features). The Thinkpad marque (both before and after it was sold to Lenovo) was also known for great support. You could take a Thinkpad to any service center anywhere in the world and if the serial number indicated that it was within the warranty period it would be repaired without any need for paperwork. The Thinkpad service centers never had any issue with repairing a Thinkpad that lacked a hard drive just as long as the problem could be demonstrated. It was also possible to purchase an extended support contract at any time which covered all repairs including motherboard replacement. I know that not everyone had as good an experience as I had with Thinkpad support, but I’ve been using them since 1998 without problems – which is more than I can say for most hardware.

Do we really need great reliability from laptops nowadays? When I first got a laptop hardly anyone I knew owned one. Nowadays laptops are common. Having a copy of important documents on a USB stick is often a good substitute for a reliable laptop, when you are in an environment where most people own laptops it’s usually not difficult to find someone who will let you use theirs for a while. I think that there is a place for a laptop with RAID-1 and ECC RAM, it’s a little known fact that Thinkpads have a long history of supporting the replacement of a CD/DVD drive with a second hard drive (I don’t know if this is still supported) but AFAIK they have never supported ECC RAM.

My first Thinkpad cost $3,800. In modern money that would be something like $7,000 or more. For that price you really want something that’s well supported to protect the valuable asset. Sam complains about his new Thinkpad costing more than $1000 and needing to be replaced after 2.5 years. Mobile phones start at about $600 for the more desirable models (IE anything that runs Pokemon Go) and the new Google Pixel phones range from $1079 to $1,419. Phones aren’t really expected to be used for more than 2.5 years. Phones are usually impractical to service in any way so for most of the people who read my blog (who tend to buy the more expensive hardware) they are pretty much a disposable item costing $600+. I previously wrote about a failed Nexus 5 and the financial calculations for self-insuring an expensive phone [3]. I think there’s no way that a company can provide extended support/warranty while making a profit and offering a deal that’s good value to customers who can afford to self-insure. The same applies for the $499 Lenovo Ideapad 310 and other cheaper Lenovo products. Thinkpads (the higher end of the Lenovo laptop range) are slightly more expensive than the most expensive phones but they also offer more potential for the user to service them.

Features

My first Thinkpad was quite underpowered when compared to desktop PCs, it had 32M of RAM and could only be expanded to 96M at a time when desktop PCs could be expanded to 128M easily and 256M with some expense. It had a 800*600 display when my desktop display was 1280*1024 (37% of the pixels). Nowadays laptops usually start at about 8G of RAM (with a small minority that have 4G) and laptop displays start at about 1366*768 resolution (51% of the pixels in a FullHD display). That compares well to desktop systems and also is capable of running most things well. My current Thinkpad is a T420 with 8G of RAM and a 1600*900 display (69% of FullHD), it would be nice to have higher resolution but this works well and it was going cheap when I needed a new laptop.

Modern Thinkpads don’t have some of the significant features that older ones had. The legendary Butterfly Keyboard is long gone, killed by the wide displays that economies of scale and 16:9 movies have forced upon us. It’s been a long time since Thinkpads had some of the highest resolution displays and since anyone really cared about it (you only need pixels to be small enough that you can’t see them).

For me one of the noteworthy features of the Thinkpads has been the great keyboard. Mechanical keys that feel like a desktop keyboard. It seems that most Thinkpads are getting the rubbery keyboard design made popular by Apple. I guess this is due to engineering factors in designing thin laptops and the fact that most users don’t care.

Matthew Garrett has blogged about the issue of Thinkpad storage configured as “RAID mode” without any option to disable it [4]. This is an annoyance (which incidentally has been worked around) and there are probably other annoyances like it. Designing hardware and an OS are both complex tasks. The interaction between Windows and the hardware is difficult to get right from both sides and the people who design the hardware often don’t think much about Linux support. It has always been this way, the early Thinkpads had no Linux support for special IBM features (like fan control) and support for ISA-PnP was patchy. It is disappointing that Lenovo doesn’t put a little extra effort into making sure that Linux works well on their hardware and this might be a reason for considering another brand.

Service Life

I bought my curent Thinkpad T420 in October 2013 [5] It’s more than 3 years old and has no problems even though I bought it refurbished with a reduced warranty. This is probably the longest I’ve had a Thinkpad working well, which seems to be a data point against the case that modern Thinkpads aren’t as good.

I bought a T61 in February 2010 [6], it started working again (after mysteriously not working for a month in late 2013) and apart from the battery lasting 5 minutes and a CPU cooling problem it still works well. If that Thinkpad had cost $3,800 then I would have got it repaired, but as it cost $796 (plus the cost of a RAM upgrade) and a better one was available for $300 it wasn’t worth repairing.

In the period 1998 to 2010 I bought a 385XD, a 600E, a T21, a T43, and a T61 [6]. During that time I upgraded laptops 4 times in 12 years (I don’t have good records of when I bought each one). So my average Thinkpad has lasted 3 years. The first 2 were replaced to get better performance, the 3rd was replaced when an employer assigned me a Thinkpad (and sold it to be when I left), and 4 and 5 were replaced due to hardware problems that could not be fixed economically given the low cost of replacement.

Conclusion

Thinkpads possibly don’t have the benefits over other brands that they used to have. But in terms of providing value for the users it seems that they are much better than they used to be. Until I wrote this post I didn’t realise that I’ve broken a personal record for owning a laptop. It just keeps working and I hadn’t even bothered looking into the issue. For some devices I track how long I’ve owned them while thinking “can I justify replacing it yet”, but the T420 just does everything I want. The battery still lasts 2+ hours which is a new record too, with every other Thinkpad I’ve owned the battery life has dropped to well under an hour within a year of purchase.

If I replaced this Thinkpad T420 now it will have cost me less than $100 per year (or $140 per year including the new SSD I installed this year), that’s about 3 times better than any previous laptop! I wouldn’t feel bad about replacing it as I’ve definitely got great value for money from it. But I won’t replace it as it’s doing everything I want.

I’ve just realised that by every measure (price, reliability, and ability to run all software I want to run) I’ve got the best Thinkpad I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s not like a Rolls-Royce, but I’d much rather drive a 2016 Tesla than a 1980 Rolls-Royce anyway.

3 comments to Is a Thinkpad Still Like a Rolls-Royce

  • Regis

    Nice article. I appreciate the fresh Thinkpad literature to satisfy my addiction while I eagerly await the release of the “retro” Thinkpad.

    Anyway, you should consider getting the extended battery for your Thinkpad. I have one for my T450, and get about 12+ hours in Debian Jessie. Newegg and Amazon have them for around $70.

  • Emmanuel Bourg

    I bought a T60p in 2006… and I’m still using it 10 years later. With the RAM maxed, the HDD replaced with a SSD and a sober Xfce desktop it’s still good for browsing and coding. I just had to replace the battery (twice) and the LCD panel which was turning red (replacement parts are still available 10 years later, that’s amazing). I’ve also been impressed by the support, during the first week I detected a faulty DIMM and a new one got delivered at home the next day.

    I really hope the Retro Thinkpad will materialize some day, hopefully with a non flat keyboard and a 3:2 or 16:10 screen.

  • http://blog.lenovo.com/tag/retro+thinkpad

    The above URL has the only official information on the Retro Thinkpad AFAIK.

    Regis: Batteries are expensive. I bought the current Thinkpad I’m using because it was almost exactly the same price as a new battery and new PSU for my old one. New official batteries are expensive enough that if you buy refurbished Thinkpads (as I do) then replacing the entire Thinkpad seems like a better option!

    Emmanuel: Wow that’s a long time! I replaced 2 of my Thinkpads due to screen problems. It’s no criticism of Thinkpads (it’s a large and fragile part), but it’s just so expensive to replace that it makes a newer model seem appealing.