IBM/Lenovo ThinkPads: then and now (then was better than now)


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A story of my love for my old laptop, an IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T43, and my disappointment with the “updated” version, the Lenovo T61

I bought my ThinkPad T43 in August 2005. I love this computer. It is thin, light, powerful, and tough as nails. It may not be as pretty as an iBook or MacBook, but in size and weight, it compares favorably. Until a few weeks ago, I only replaced a trackpad button (too many video games) and the optical drive. Both were replaced nearly instantaneously by Lenovo’s outstanding on-site support (I am not kidding, they are awesome, both then and now).

It came with Windows XP Pro, but I started using Ubuntu Linux with it about a year ago, as well, and it works nearly perfectly with both operating systems.

A few weeks ago, the motherboard on my T43 fizzled. I was certain my warranty had expired, so in a fit of impulsivity, I ordered a new ThinkPad T61 with all the bells and whistles. I was even thrilled to order it with SLED Linux pre-installed instead of Windows.

(When I say impulsivity, I am referring to the purchase, not the choice of laptop. I have been pawing at laptops and comparing specs for months, if not continuously since I first logged on to the internet. However, I had never touched a T61; I was going on the educated assumption that it would be similar to my T43, being of the same lineage.)

But when it arrived, holy cow! What a clunky machine! Like I said, the T43 is thin and light. There is almost no wasted space that I can see. Comparing the T43 to the T61 was an exercise in contrasts. The T61 has about a half inch of wasted space on all sides, and is about .2″ thicker than my T43. And it weighs a full pound more. The screen sizes—15.1″ on the T43 and 15.4″ widescreen on the T61—should have made both laptops comparable in size and weight, but the two are incomparable. Apples and carrots have more in common.

Worse, they shrunk the trackpad. I would venture to guess the trackpad on a T61 is less than half the size of a trackpad on a MacBook Pro,and feels much smaller than the trackpad on my T43. Why oh why would they make the screen bigger but the navigation device smaller?

Could I have figured all this out from the specs? Blog commenters and forumgoers will be quick to point out that I should have. But no; the specs, the pictures, and the reviews do not convey how awkward and clunky this machine is when you hold it in your hands. The ThinkPad T61 is awkward and clunky compared with a ThinkPad T43, a Dell XPS M1530, a MacBook Pro, a Sony Vaio, and so on. It is simply akward. And clunky.

And what about the T61 with the 14.1″ screen? According to the Lenovo website, the smaller screen cuts the battery life in half (on further inspection, this is because the 14.1″ T61 ships with a smaller battery). Although it also cuts down on size and weight, that is not much of a tradeoff. And it still has that teeny tiny trackpad. Plus, the 14.1″ ThinkPad T61 has about the same dimensions as a MacBook Pro with a 15.4″ screen. If a T61 is “what happens when [Lenovo’s] engineers obsess about being thin” (PDF link), then those engineers might want to take another look at the competition, with whom they used to compare favorably.

I expected a successor to the T43. What I got was a computer apparently designed to please the assembly line, not the user. Thin and light? No longer: the T61 is thick and heavy.

After trying to make peace with the ThinkPad T61 for 24 hours, I got a return authorization from Lenovo and gladly paid the 15% restocking fee, shipping, insurance, and tracking (about $290, total) to send it back.

When IBM sold its consumer products division to Lenovo, a lot of people wondered whether the products and service would suffer.

Products? Yes. Absolutely. The T61, a Lenovo-designed machine, is a shadow of the T43, an IBM-designed machine. Is the T-series a just measuring stick? The T-series is one of the most popular computers in America, so yes, I think so. However, from what I have seen, the X300 ultraportable is a horse of a difference color, and a step in the right direction. Hopefully the T80 series will get the same treatment.

Service? Absolutely not. Lenovo’s service is outstanding, just as IBM’s was.

The happy ending: I actually did extend the warranty on my old ThinkPad T43 with a mail-in service plan, apparently. I mailed it on Tuesday, the day the T61 arrived, and I got it back yesterday. In other words, Lenovo turned it around in two days, including shipping time, and I am now happily typing away on my beloved ThinkPad T43 again, which is zipping along with a new motherboard.

I am going to call Lenovo today and extend the warranty again, just in case. I think I will wait to see what the T80 series looks like. Or, maybe it is just time to buy a Mac (and run Linux on it, of course). They seem to have the thin, light, and powerful thing all figured out.


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  • True true true. Found your site looking for an alternative to Lenovo. I had a t40 and a t60 – t60 was still the old IBM design and components. I now have a w500 and am extremely disappointed. A large part for me is about compatibility and software issues with Vista, but the build quality is noticeably lessening. This thing gets HOT, isn’t rock solid, etc. I don’t expect the new w series to hold up to my expectations of the t series, but I can tell what’s happening to this company as a whole.

    I haven’t heard that Dell is doing that much better though – they’re the main competitor besides Apple in the business space. I’ve never been wowed by their hardware. ASUS put out a business line about a year ago, but I haven’t heard anything about that either.