The new Lenovo Thinkpad’s terrible one-button trackpad & keyboard layout. It’s not going away.

Posted Thursday, July 3, 2014

I love the thinkpad.

It’s no secret. Everyday customers ask me what they can do to not wind up here again, and everyday my answer is the same – buy a Thinkpad!

These laptops are a joy to use. From perfect keyboards to indestructible design, I think it’s the best laptop around. For both productivity and longevity, I can’t think of anything better than a Thinkpad.

Good and bad.

Many in favor of the older Thinkpad keyboard are accused of being lunatics, luddites, and curmudgeons. We are the crazy people who are not in favor of any laptop that appears modern. I understand Lenovo’s side here – you read some of these comments and they seem like what you’d read on a forum filled with religious zealots. People who have never so much as touched the new design go on screaming on how terrible it is.

I’m a fairly unbiaed person. If something does what I need it to, under the circumstances I need it to work in, it’s welcome in my life. I am a fanboy of one type of product only – the type that make my life easier.

I can’t say the new Thinkpad trackpad & keyboard layout is an amazing improvement. I can’t say it’s a bumbling failure either, because as much as I dislike certain aspects of it, it did have benefits I noticed when I went back to my older machine to type out this post. Today I’ll be comparing the T520 from 2011 to the T440p from 2014.

First thing’s first – feel of the keys.

I wasn’t expecting to like the feel of the t440p better, but I do. It feels sturdier. The keyboard doesn’t seem to depress or move around as much. Further, the keys feel like they’re moving along with my fingers. It’s something you have to see in the video to understand. When you hit the keys hard, the keyboard stays just as sturdy as it is when you are not typing it. It doens’t flex. Further, the keys are contoured throughout, not flat, so the key natrually hugs your finger. It feels amazing. I make considerably less typos with the new Thinkpad keyboard.

New thinkpad wins by medium margin.

Up second – placement of keys.

This is what makes me sad about the new Thinkpad. What makes a thinkpad a thinkpad is that it makes me more produtive. Thinkpad users, for the most part, aren’t buying thinkpads for a 1% to 3% boost in performance over other brands. They’re not looking at cinebench scores and comparing back and forth. People buy thinkpads for the entire package – how everything works together – makes us more productive. The keyboard, the trackpoint, the durability, this all helps us be more productive, and part of productivity is being able to hit important keys on a regular basis.

What makes the key layout on the old Thinkpad amazing is that they didn’t mess up the design of the standard desktop keyboard. The key layout on a thinkpad is the closest to the layout of the standard desktop keyboard I’ve ever seen. Lenovo talks about the reseet time on their blog – http://blog.lenovo.com/products/why-you-should-give-in-to-the-new-thinkpad-keyboard , and this is precisely the problem. For people going from a desktop to a Thinkpad, there is no reset time!

The beauty of the Thinkpad layout is that it is so intuitive that there is no “getting used to it.” You can sit down at a Thinkpad to type and feel at peace with the world, for all the keys you need are within reach, without looking at the keyboard, without misstrokes. This is gone with the new layout.

The new layout places the key one would use to tell apart other keys on the outside, instead of the inside – making usage of the keyboard much more difficult.

On the T520, the delete key was to the left. On the T440p, it is on the upper right. The delete key is the one key in the upper right corner that is different from every other. Since it feels different from other keys, this is the key that works as a reference for me – I use it to tell where I am on the keyboard, and I use it to tell which keys are to the left & right of it.

Having this key on the inside of the keyboard meant that my hand never had to leave th ekeyboard to tell where I was. Now, I do have to leave the keyboard to get to the delete key. Home and end feel the exact same as F11 & F12 to me, which means I am constantly hitting insert instead of delete, home instead of end, and often even the hyphen instead of home. It’s downright infuriating.

It took me zero time to adjust to my T520 and my SL410 Thinkpad. From the day I got them, I typed like a pro, as someone who hadn’t used a laptop for a long time. On the T440p, I am into my third week of typing – and I’m a heavy user, and I can’t for the life of me get used to this. Unless I am looking at the keyboard, I do not dare mess with home, end, and delete, because I know I am going to hit the wrong key. How am I supposed to know where I am when my reference has been taken away from me?

Old thinkpad wins by a landslide!

Up third – combining of function keys.

Thinkpads used to have separate volume up and down keys from function keys. The t440p doesn’t.

I use alt-F4 a lot to close programs. I use F1 to choose which DM I wish to boot into. I use F12 to choose boot devices. I use F3 and F7 to go in and out of the graphical environment. I have to choose between being able to do these things, and adjusting the volume. You see, volume up and down have been integrated into F2 and F3. I get this for 12”ultrabooks, but who do this to a 14” laptop? Further, why do this to 15.6” laptop? The same is done on the t540p which has PLENTY of room for volume buttons!

Old Thinkpad wins by a landslide!

Up fourth – removal of media keys.

This has to be the most offensive change because it is not subjectively worse – it is objectively worse. This isn’t even a matter of design opinion, it’s fact.

The first change was the feel – island vs.chiclet. They have their compromises. Some things improve with chiclet, and some things you lose. I personally do not believe chiclet is a step backwards at all, especially with how Lenovo designed the keys. The keyboard layout again is a pereference. Yes, almost any sane person does appear to prefer the old layout, but again, that is an opinion – a preference. The same goes for combining of function keys. Yes, you are giving up a lot to save about 1/4”, but still, it is an opinion – a preference.

Removing play, pause, previous track and next track from up, down, left, and right was asinine. No space is gained, and nothing looks better as a result of removing these functions. You used to be able to hit fn-left to go to the last track, or fn-up to pause your media player. These keys are now gone, and there is no good reason.

The other changes were compromises. Something was given up in order to make something else better. I would like to hear Lenovo explain what was made better by losing the arrow function keys.

Old thinkpad wins by a landslide.

Up fifth – sodomizing of the trackpoint.

The new trackpoint has its buttons integrated into the trackpad as one button. This is absolutely terrible.

If you are a left click-right click user, it’s not a big deal. If you’re a middle click user, it is awful. Left handed middle clickers will be left clicking like crazy, right handed middle clickers will be right clicking like crazy. And don’t even TRY to use this laptop with one hand, you will want to strangle someone – it just doesn’t work. You will he clicking all over the place as your lower finger touches the right side of the trackpad as you try to middle, or left click. Good luck touching the left click of the trackpad with your right hand without taking your hand off the palmrest.

The entire point of a trackpoint is to avoid taking your hands off the keyboard area, but you’ve now done something that requires I always take my palm off and reach if I want to middle click without hitting left & right click.

On a classic Thinkpad, the trackpoint buttons respond to where I click. I can be touching the right click button all I want, but if I press middle click, I get a middle click. On the new thinkpad, where you click doesn’t matter. What matters is where the touchpad reigsters a touch. This is infuriating.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve middle clicked and gotten a right click. I mean I felt the dots, I knew I was on middle click, and I still got a middle click.

Try this. Have the slightest part of another finger on right click, then middle click firmly. It registers a right click anyway.

This ruins the trackpoint experience.

A second reason this one button nonsense is terrible, is that the trackpoint buttons are boxes. Do you see how the trackpoint buttons on a classic thinkpad are curved? The middle button is triangular in shape. IBM knew that people reaching their finger over would be doing so diagonally. They knew that we wouldn’t want to bend our finger so we would be touching middle click without touching right click. This was smart – I can now use the machine without having to think about it.

The new t440p has areas for left, middle, and right click that are square/rectangular in shape. No curves. No thought to the idea that the people using a laptop hit these at an angle.

Old thinkpad wins by a landslide.

Is the new thinkpad still a thinkpad?

This is a tough one to answer because it is highly subjective. I would say yes, but only in contrast to everything else. You simply aren’t going to find another laptop with as nice a feel to the keyboard, with a decent trackpad & middle scroll, with the same durability – the just don’t exist all in one package. So, in contrast to everything else, this is still the laptop to own.

However, compared to old thinkpads, the answer is no. This is far less a thinkpad.

You’d better get used to it, because It’s not going away!

I see people say “When Lenovo sees sales drop, they will bring back the old layouts”, but that’s not going to happen. That’s not going to happen. It’s not like I can go to Dell, or HP, or Acer and get a machine with Lenovo’s T520 keyboard layout, trackpoint, middle button,and classic durability. These machines do not exist outside of Lenovo’s X, T, and W series. Lenovo was the last company left making what I call “real” work laptops!

Since this laptop is the closest thing to a Thinkpad, people will still buy it. It’s not like we have choices. Customers aren’t going to cut off their nose to spite their face, and purchase an HP Envy or Dell Latitude with NO trackpoint just because Lenovo changed the trackpoint. As a result, I imagine sales of these machines will remain steady. If sales remain steady, Lenovo will have no financial incentive to go back to the old keyboard layout, the old function keys, and the old trackpoint. That is a true shame.

 

The only way for us to vote with our wallets will be for us to keep our old machines alive as long as possible.