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ThinkPad no longer the Rolls-Royce of laptops

There was a time some years ago when the ThinkPad, that boring, ugly, black notebook made originally by IBM, was referred to as the Rolls-Royce of laptops.

Sadly, that time has passed. We have ThinkPads in production today, made by Lenovo, the company that bought IBM's personal computer division. But they are nothing like what was once the hallmark of reliability as far as laptops are concerned.

The original ThinkPad was black and as far from sexy as was possible. But every business person owned one. It was something like a badge, going with the anonymous suited worker, the one who did the drudge work in an office.

It was reliable, at least as reliable as the operating system it ran. It would be a stretch to describe Windows as reliable, but then with the ThinkPad being the product of a big computer company many kinks that haunted the average home and non-business user were absent.

The longevity of those ThinkPads was something. They just ran and ran and ran. As long as the user's needs did not change, one could count on at least seven years of use from a ThinkPad. They were built well and could take a fair few knocks without coughing up their innards or letting anything get dislodged.

thinkpad laptop touchpad new

We're all one: The amorphous touchpad on the new ThinkPad.

The keyboards were great, so too all the ports, and the power adaptor would last almost as long as the device itself did.

For Linux users, there was an additional attraction: it was relatively easy to install and run the operating system on a ThinkPad, with drivers not being much of an issue. One must bear in mind that some years ago, it was not exactly easy to find open-source drivers for many Wi-Fi chips. The safest solution for someone thinking of using Linux on a laptop was to buy a ThinkPad.

My first ThinkPad ran for nearly 10 years, and had I been able to find a bigger disk drive — the one on the machine was an 80GB IDE drive — then I would probably still be using it. But since a search for something even a little bigger, say 120GB, drew a blank, I reluctantly gave away that ugly, black, square laptop and bought another one in June 2014.

The new ThinkPad, made by IBM's successor Lenovo, isn't cheap, costing well in excess of $1000. But it is a poor substitute and after just 2½ years I have already started to realise that I will soon have to shell out a goodly portion of my hard-earned to replace it.

For one, it is made of cheap materials and has felt really flimsy from day one. One can't do anything about the 16:9 ratio of the device as that is dictated by Hollywood. But the materials are quite bad and I wonder how many international trips it can take before something just falls off. The old one travelled a fair bit and saw both East and West.

thinkpad old touchpad

Common sense: Until a few years back, the touchpad on the ThinkPad was well thought-out.

The biggest bugbear on the ThinkPad which I use now is the touchpad. IBM had a measure of sense when it made the old touchpad and provided little levers for the left-, right- and middle-clicks. Once again, for Linux users, the middle-click has significance because it is used to paste text after highlighting. There were also two buttons for left- and right-clicks.

The new ThinkPad has one big amorphous touchpad. Apparently, one moves one's finger to the right, left or centre and one is supposed to get the same functionality as one did using those three little levers. Alas, this touchpad is so clunky and insensitive that one rarely gets those functions right. And it is the same with Windows too – I tested it out in the day or two after I got it when it still ran Windows.

Poor design and even poorer execution. That's all I can put it down to. And every click on that touchpad produces a loud thud. It would, literally, raise the dead.

Lest one get the wrong idea, this is not some budget device. No, it is a 15-inch laptop and boasts an i7 processor and 8GB of memory. It performs much better than it did with Windows, but that is not surprising as that is generally the case with Linux which extracts every last bit of grunt that common hardware has and manages memory very well.

After two years of use, the latest issue to surface is the charger cable. Laptop manufacturers change the shape of the charger plug every few years to ensure that you will never be able to use your old charger with a new laptop. After all, these poor souls do require some income.

The charger plug has now gotten loose to the point where I often find myself running low on battery even though the charger is plugged in.

Then one has to move the charger cord around a bit until the indicator on the laptop tells me that a charge is indeed taking place. It's just very poor workmanship; on my old ThinkPad, the charger lasted for eight years. And it never got to the point where I had to fiddle around; no, like a battle-hardened veteran it just gave up the ghost one fine morning.

One thing for sure: my next laptop, whenever I am forced to buy it, will not be a ThinkPad. Given the poor quality of the machine I have now, it might be prudent to avoid Lenovo altogether.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.