The ThinkPad: an elegant weapon

I like ThinkPads.

They’ve never been cool. Ownership marked you as one of two equally unhip tribes - either a drone in a suit, bashing out spreadsheets and TPS reports kilometres up while some entitled bastard makes hamburger mince out of your knees, or a 400lb hacker well-actuallying usenet threads and prefixing “GNU/” on every project in sight like a crazed graffiti artist. Nobody’s ever headlined Lollapalooza on a ThinkPad.

And yet. If laptops were violins, the Thinkpad is what would happen if Stradivarius decided to make his next project bulletproof for funsies: Linux-friendly at a time when debugging X11 configs and sound drivers was a mandatory rite of passage, rugged enough not to be precious about, and sporting a tall screen for extra code space. A ThinkPad was a reliable comrade in the war on complexity.

And the keyboards! It’s as if they’d actually talked to users who typed for a living - hardware buttons for sound control and brightness, a proper function key row, and a bouncy, kinetic key action that let you know the machine was listening.

The last usable keyboard on a laptop was on the T420, in 2011. Apple lured every other manufacturer into a doomed arms race of making laptops thinner and lighter, far past any possible utility. I fully expect to see a monomolecular laptop running MacOS X in the near future, and its keyboard will fail every time Schrödinger’s cat meows.

I don’t mean to discount other brands. My tankish HP, my cute little ASUS netbook, and even my MacBook Pro were instruments of creation. They had keyboards with satisfying, chunky actions, and they invited you to do something cool, not just passively imbibe the work of others.

But somehow, despite the proliferation of tablets, phablets, and voice-activated TVs, the market has decided that the one portable device which was useful for producing things is now primarily for Netflix and Youtube. Who cares if the keyboard causes you to mistype a few words in the comments section? Nobody’s going to be able to distinguish it from the background roar of illiteracy.

The ThinkPad fought the good fight for a long time, longer than almost every other, but even Lenovo folded in the end. The 25th anniversary edition is almost mockery, planting a reasonable keyboard on an otherwise painfully mediocre machine.

I haven’t given up, though. While I write this on a sticker-covered T410 and my travel T420s sits at home charging, my mailbox awaits a T70. I paid $1500 5 months ago for this machine: an unofficial, homebrew chimera, modern innards transplanted into a T60 chassis by the incommunicative wizards of LCDFans, a fever dream of a laptop that might never arrive: this is how deep the yearning goes.

(Thanks to the stubbornly unwebby Alec Heller for edits.)