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Friday, May 25, 2012

Looven Lenovo

When it comes to PCs these days, you’re either a Windows person or a Mac person. There are also a statistically small and brave group of you out there that might be running Linux. Largely due to my professional training and experience, I’m a Windows guy. For those that use and love (or hate) Windows, Lenovo is a name to watch. While their desktops aren't much worth blogging about, their laptops are where it’s at in the Windows world. 

Perhaps you guessed from my embarrassingly lame attempt at a witty title, but I love my Lenovo. I doubt the Chinese owners of Lenovo had any intent of choosing a name from which the scrambled letters can be used to spell love. Rather, I’ve seen suggestions that it was a combination of the old company name of Legend, with the Latin “novo” meaning new. The addition of "new" to their name was appropriate, since in 2005, they became the new manufacturers and owners of what was the IBM ThinkPad line. Perhaps I’m not the only one that loves them since they just announced record sales for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

The name IBM likely conjurers up images of boring, bland, business machines. In fact, the model I’m currently using (and pictured above) is a Lenovo T410s which is part of their business product line. I assure you though that despite the business roots, the Lenovos of today really are cool machines. In this post, I am going to focus in on their business-oriented ThinkPad line, but keep in mind that Lenovo makes some really nice consumer-oriented machines like their U series. Personally, I think their ThinkPads are perfectly suited for home use as well and I’d rather have a machine designed for the rigors of road warrior travel than one designed to primarily sit on a desk. Which one do you think will be more likely to survive a fall off the kitchen counter or months of back and forth to class in a student’s backpack?

Here are some of the qualities that drew me to the Lenovo ThinkPad line:


The ThinkPads are seriously tough machines. No I don’t think I could drive my car over one, but I feel VERY confident that my ThinkPad will easily survive the punishment of daily use. In a former life, I supported the needs of many clients that were frequently on the road. They tossed their laptops around, ate on them, spilled drinks on them, rammed them in briefcases, and knocked them off desks all the time. The company standard was Dell, but for these clients, we always chose Lenovo.

Nearly every model in the ThinkPad line has some sort of “roll-cage” technology. This is referring to a magnesium-alloy, or in the case of some of the newest models, carbon-fiber cage that surrounds the critical components of the laptop and helps prevent them from being damaged by any sort of flexing in the frame that can come from a large drop. Many models have this roll-cage surrounding both the screen and the lower-half of the laptop as seen in the image below, but some models like my T410s, eschew the screen portion of the roll-cage in favor of thinness. If you prefer the maximum amount of durability choose the non “S” models of the ThinkPad line as they are thicker and can accommodate more protection.

Roll-cage on a Lenovo T61

Video of the Lenovo T400 roll-cage

I don’t know for certain, but I am fairly sure the roll-cage is partially responsible for a ThinkPad surviving a serious drop like this:

Once when I was closely inspecting a ThinkPad during some maintenance (yes even these break down eventually), I noticed icons like the one you see below. I was dumfounded as to what they meant and asked our corporate Lenovo rep about them. Much to my surprise, I found out that these are purposefully designed points where liquid can drain out when spilled on the keyboard. I was informed that while other laptop manufacturers test their laptops for water spills, Lenovo goes above and beyond to test much higher volumes of water.

Check out their water tests below:

Even something as simple as the hinge of the laptop screen is solidly built and torture tested. Check out how Lenovo tests their screen hinges:

And take a look at this one of pressure being applied to the LCD screen:

In researching this post, I even found out that many of the ThinkPad laptops are Mil-Spec tested to survive the demands of military use. Here are some of the tests performed when testing the ThinkPads:

  • Low Pressure – Tests operation at 15,000 feet
  • Humidity – Cycles 95 percent humidity through the environment
  • Vibration (operational and non-operational) – Jostles and jolts the laptops to make sure they can withstand shocks 
  • High Temperature – Simulates high heat conditions by baking the laptop up to 140°F 
  • Low Temperature – Tests operation at -4°F
  • Temperature Shock – Fluctuates between -4 and up to 140°F to test operation
  • Dust – Blows dust for an extended amount of time

Still don’t believe me that these things are durable? Imagine you are stranded for months on the International Space Station and laptop repair techs are thousands of miles and billions of dollars away. What laptop would you choose for maximum reliability? You know where I am going with this. NASA has a had a long standing relationship with Lenovo (IBM before them) and uses their ThinkPad line extensively in space. 

Check out the image below of an astronaut on the ISS surrounded by ThinkPads.

Image Courtesy of Jaxa

Look and Feel

Rarely will you see a spec sheet or in-store laptop display talk about the feel of the laptop. Personally I think it is crucially important. You might spend all say looking at your laptop’s screen, but you’ll also be spending all day interacting with it through the keyboard and mouse. I remember showing a colleague a Lenovo a couple of years ago and the first words out of his mouth were, “Wow this keyboard feels great.” I find it hard to describe, but I will echo his words and say that not only does the keyboard feel great, but you can tell that a lot of design attention went into the smoothness and travel of the keys.

More recent ThinkPad models also feature a textured touchpad (consisting of very tiny bumps). Being the first thing I touched when I used the T410s that I own now, it was the first thing that wowed me about it. Again, it is hard to describe in words other than it is really fantastic to have a bit of texture to the touchpad and not feel like I am sliding my finger across a glass surface. If a touchpad isn't your thing, most ThinkPad models also feature the little red nub (TrackPoint) that IBM first pioneered decades ago.

Textured touchpad on the Lenovo T410s
I also place the monitor in the look and feel category, and Lenovo never disappoints here. Their ThinkPad screens are very high res, very bright, and a pleasure to look at for extended periods. Lenovo was one of the first manufacturers that I saw introducing bright and battery saving LED-backlit screens. 

Finally in this section, I’ll get to the biggest complaint I always hear about ThinkPads. Plain and boring looks. Well, I don’t know about you, but I actually like the jet-black paint schemes. I also love laptops that don’t have the fingerprint-magnet glossy surfaces that seem popular these days. I have never been a fan white laptops that look more like kitchen appliances, nor am I a fan of the plastic, break-prone interchangeable tops seen on many consumer-oriented laptops. Sure the aluminum look now favored by vendors is really nice, but for me, jet black goes with everything. It doesn't stick out like a sore thumb and say “steal me”, and frankly I’m not after looks; I’m after performance and durability. Not that I wouldn't buy an aluminum chassis ThinkPad if they ever offered one, it’s just that I don’t find that complaint to be very important.

Great Features

Many of the features I will list here have since been replicated by other vendors, but what I love about Lenovo is they always seem to be on the forefront of introducing innovative new features. Their history of often being the first to introduce something always gives me confidence that their future models are going to offer something really interesting. It also shows an attention to detail that I don’t think other manufacturers have.

Intel SSDs: For the past few years, Intel has been known for producing fast and reliable SSD hard drives with excellent management tools. Many other manufacturers have SSD options for their laptops, but very few besides Lenovo offer the excellent Intel option (others often choose Samsung). I may have another post on SSD drives in the future, but for now just remember that if you can afford an SSD, it will make a HUGE difference in the performance of your laptop. Not only are they fast, but they are drop-proof since they have no moving parts. 

Active Protection System: Long before SSDs were available, IBM was the first to introduce an Active Protection System in 2003 to act as an “airbag” to protect a spinning hard drive from damage during a fall. Traditional hard drives have a spinning disk with a magnetic head to read and write data. This head hovers just above the surface of the disk with less than the width of a human hair as clearance. If this head ever touches the disk, severe damage to the hard drive and loss of data can occur. As a safety measure IBM introduced this feature to quickly move the read head out of the way in a split second if a drop is detected. Lenovo has maintained this feature and all of their traditional hard drive options use it.

HD Webcam and ThinkLight
High-Res Webcams with Stereo Mics: All laptop manufactures these days offer webcam options, but what I like about Lenovo is that their options are always high resolution and tout good low-light performance. Also nice are their dual mic pickups for higher quality stereo audio during a call. 

ThinkLight: Also note in the image to the right a small light icon next to the webcam. This denotes a small LED light above it that will illuminate the keyboard in dark conditions and use far less power than a backlit keyboard. 

USB 3.0: Everyone knows what USB is by now, but some may not realize that it has been getting faster and faster as the years go by. Most recently, USB version 3 (distinguished by a blue USB connector) was introduced to enable very rapid transfer of files (like large video files) from gadgets like a thumb drive to the PC’s hard drive. Manufacturers were very slow to introduce this new version of USB (largely due to lack of official support from Intel until recently). Lenovo, on the other hand, didn’t wait around and began introducing USB 3.0 more than two years ago in their seriously powerful W series laptops.

Dual Battery Bays: On many ThinkPad laptops, a second battery can be added by removing the infrequently used DVD/CD-RW drive (with a quick release latch) and inserting a specially designed battery into the slot. This can lead to very long battery life. I can easily get more than 6 hours of real world use on my aging T410s, and Lenovo touts even longer battery life on their newer models with improved chipsets.

WWAN Gobi Mobile Broadband: When I was supporting a jet set corporate audience, these were a godsend to me. Lenovo was one of the first manufactures to introduce a single mobile broadband card, the Gobi chipset, that could be activated with either AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint in the United States without needing to choose a specific vendor at the time of purchase. The cards also offer the multitude of global wireless frequencies needed for international roaming. Other manufacturers at the time these were introduced, were only offering single vendor options that could not be changed after purchase and often did not offer international roaming. Many (including myself) have since started using MiFi devices instead of integrated mobile broadband cards, but this option is yet another reason why I love Lenovo’s attention to detail and desire to offer cool features before anyone else.

Anti-Theft Technology: Once again, a feature that others now include, but Lenovo has offered for many years is their anti-theft technology. They were the first vendor to include an Intel Anti-theft chip that can work in conjunction with Computrace software from Absolute Software (found for consumer use in their LoJack for Laptops product) to track a stolen laptop. Even if someone wipes or removes the hard drive, the chip on the motherboard can reinstall the software when a new hard drive is installed and allow a stolen device to be recovered. While the Lo Jack software does cost $20-$40 per year for the service, I consider this to be a valuable insurance policy for an expensive laptop, and the built-in security chip only enhances the value of this insurance.

Advanced Docking Stations: Since they are designed for business use, each of the models in the ThinkPad line has an available docking station with a very wide array of ports. In my opinion, these are just as useful at home as they are in the workplace. You can plug everything into the dock, and then just pull the laptop out when you are ready to go without messing with the cords. The docking stations even allow for multiple external monitors to be connected.

System Update: I have always loved this about Lenovo. Their mature and reliable System Update utility allows you to very easily update any of the drivers or Lenovo-supplied system software. Many people don’t realize that obscure bugs with their laptops are often fixed by means of driver software updates. How many of you actually go out and check for updates on a regular basis? I bet very few. Lenovo makes this easy and will even alert you if desired to new updates.

Power-On via Fingerprint: This is a feature that wowed me when I first saw it and I have yet to see it on another machine. Intended primarily as a security feature, the optional biometric fingerprint scanner allows to log into the laptop but also allows you to power on the laptop from a completely off state, simply by swiping your finger. Lenovo again shows their attention to detail by including micro red and green led lights on either side of the scanner to tell you when a finger swipe was or wasn't read correctly.

Accidental Damage Warranty: Lenovo offers excellent accidental damage protection that can guard against the times when something really unexpected happens. These things are built tough, but they aren't impervious to harm. LCD screens will still crack, keyboards will still break, and someday I fear that one of my boys will figure out how to throw my laptop off the deck. This warranty will cover all of those scenarios and is worth the added cost.

Geekbit: For detailed parts information and accessory ordering, see the Lenovo PSREF documents for an excellent resource on all available Lenovo models and accessories.

One major downside to Lenovos? You will pay a premium for all this quality. I can’t price out the new T430s (that is the most recent successor to my T410s) since it won’t be released until next month. For now though, a T420s configured the way I would recommend it would run just over $2000, not including an extra battery for the DVD slot or a Gobi card. Money can easily be saved though by eliminating the docking station, choosing a standard hard drive over an SSD, going for integrated graphics instead of the added Nvidia graphics card, taking a small step down on the processor speed, and choosing a slightly thicker and not as light T420 instead of the T420s. Do all of that and you’re down to a much more reasonable $1200 and still have an impressive, high quality laptop. You can also save big money with the various yearly sales, or in the Lenovo Outlet store.

Let me know your thoughts on Lenovo if you've tried one!