'There'll never be a ThinkPad without the red trackpoint nub'
22nd Jan 2010 | 10:00
Lenovo on the thinking behind its laptop design process
The father of the ThinkPad
Arimasa Naitoh, Lenovo's Vice-President of Development is affectionately known as the father of the ThinkPad.
He's also the inventor of the ThinkPad's ever-present red trackpoint nub – an input device that tends to polarise opinion - but one he rigorously defends.
When quizzed about it, he's extremely defensive: "Everything I make will have it," he declares. Key to the ThinkPad philosophy is the familiarity newer ThinkPads offer even for users of very old machines.
"We do not want the end user to relearn how to use the PC. They just need to focus on themselves. [We want a] ThinkPad to be transparent and the least stressful to use," Naitoh explains.
Naitoh joined IBM 31 years ago ("even before the PC was born... you can guess how old I am") and began building the team which, in 1987, was tasked with coming up with a portable PC. The result was the last 18 years of ThinkPad releases beginning in 1992.
More recently he has joined the higher ranks at Chinese manufacturer Lenovo, who bought IBM's PC division in 2005. As head of notebook development, he heads up Lenovo's Yamato Development Labs. At a recent presentation he explained to TechRadar some of the design principles behind the latest flagship ThinkPad, the 14-inch touchscreened T400S, which is based on a completely new ThinkPad platform.
Battery life and connectivity are ongoing problems for all laptop manufacturers. "How can we make people more effective?" asks Naitoh. "You [shouldn't] have to think about battery life. When you go to other places you need connectivity."
Naitoh says there have been three generations of ThinkPad, from 1992-99, 200-04 and then on.
He says that there was a stage when more powerful laptops were a secondary consideration. "I am doing [simple things], I don't need any more power." But now? "Absolute performance is required," he explains.
"Cooling technologies are a big challenge for us... performance within size and weight."
New screen and touch technologies
The new T400s uses 25 per cent less power than the previous T400 model, while the battery pack weighs 10 per cent less.
The new iteration is also 25 per cent thinner and carries 20 per cent less weight than the previous model, while the motherboard has a 38 per cent smaller footprint.
"In order to make it thin we needed to minimise gaps, but there should not [be potential for] any spot damage to the LCD," says Naitoh. Rubber dampers have been added to the site of the screen for this purpose. "We also have a magnesium cage under the LCD for protection. It's an additional layer."
It combines together with the carbon fibre frame and antennae behind the screen but packs 40 per cent less weight.
Naitoh also talked about the work that went into positioning the wireless antenna correctly, saying that in the previous T400 the antenna needed to be moved to protect it. "That's why in the T400 I moved the antenna to the left," he explains. "But the location of the antenna was not ideal [because of interference]. We reduced the LCD noise with our suppliers and we now have an ideal antenna location."
He adds the new position in the T400s gives 14 per cent better data throughput.
In reference to the move towards widescreen displays in laptops and how Lenovo was responding, Naitoh mentioned "We're moving to 16:9. 14.1-inch is a current form factor for 16:10, so the new 14-inch is 16:9. The industry is already moving [to 16:9] so we think we have to move."
Naitoh said that all Lenovo's notebooks will use the 16:9 format with the possible exception of the X300 ultraportable "which we are still thinking about".
The new ThinkPad also has some other clever design touches, such as the rain gutter and pipes underneath the keyboard, the float-mounted hard drive and the torture tests used to test them. This even goes down to the level of reviewing the kinds of glues and soldering needed to ensure durability and the amount of force needed to dock the notebook (half as much).
"You'll bump your laptop in your bag – that's the kind of thing we need to simulate," Naitoh explains. As for the keyboard, that's a matter of subtle change, but it certainly gives you some insight into just how detailed the design process actually is. "I had not changed the keyboard layout [previously], but I decided to change it now. The Escape and Delete keys are bigger and the Caps Lock has an LED."
Amusingly, Naitoh says that one of the biggest problems with laptop design is thinking about dust, adding that the new system boasts 35 per cent better airflow over the previous model.
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