The ThinkPad line has offered one of the most recognizable, most consistent designs in laptops since IBM first introduced it 25 years ago. Indeed, with the possible exception of the MacBook—a relative newcomer, introduced in 2006—the ThinkPad is probably the most recognizable line of laptops on the market, with its matte black color, red highlights, and TrackPad pointing stick. Since Lenovo acquired the line from IBM in 2005, the company has updated design components here and there, but kept the basic look the same, all while keeping new models current with new components.
To celebrate the anniversary, Lenovo has released a version of its workhorse T470 14-inch notebook and added a bunch of design flourishes meant to harken back to the classic designs of the earliest ThinkPads. I’ve been using the ThinkPad 25 for the past few weeks, and it’s been a great reminder of both the classic design and of just how far portable machines have come.
When PCMag reviewed the first IBM ThinkPad, known as the 700C, way back in 1992, we were particularly impressed by the 10.4-inch active-matrix color display (an LCD) from Display Technologies, a joint venture of IBM Japan and Toshiba. (It wasn’t the first laptop with a color LCD—the NEC UltraLite SL/C and the Toshiba T4400SXC had shipped a few months earlier.) The display had a VGA (640-by-480) resolution, standard for the era. The 700C ran a 25 MHz IBM 486 SLC processor, an IBM-specific variation of the Intel 486SX with more cache; 4 to 8 megabytes (MB) of RAM; and a removable 120MB IBM hard drive. It measured 2.25-by-11.5-by-8.25 inches (HWD) and weighed a mere 7.6 pounds.
Fast forward 25 years, and the ThinkPad 25 I tested has a 2.7 GHz Intel Core i7-7500U (Kaby Lake) processor (with a maximum speed of 3.5 GHz); 16 gigabytes (GB) of memory; a 512 GB solid-state drive; and a 14-inch 1920-by-1080 IPS touch screen LCD. It weighs 3.73 pounds and measures 0.79 by 13.25 by 9.15 inches. In other words, it has a processor, memory, and storage that are a couple thousand times better in a package that is less than half as thick, for half the price.
That’s what a quarter century of Moore’s Law and similar technologies have gotten us. Not bad.
From a design perspective, the ThinkPad 25 has a number of specific changes from the T470 to emphasize the design heritage. The ThinkPad logos on the front and inside spell out Pad in red, green, and blue rather than in the single silver color used in modern ThinkPads.
The enter key on the keyboard is blue, which makes it stand out from the other keys, and the keyboard itself has a more classic design as opposed to the floating “chiclet” designs used in the current ThinkPad series. There is an extra row of keys above the function keys, with Print Screen, Scroll Lock, Pause, Insert, and others, as well as considerably larger Escape and Delete keys. It’s a bit old-school (though it is backlit), but I like it.
The TrackPoint pointing stick comes with three different tips to reflect different designs used in the different eras. I still prefer the TrackPoint point, though I’m perfectly happy on a laptop with a capable, full-size touchpad, which this machine features.
In other ways, the anniversary edition is very much like the T470 it’s based on, with a single USB-C port with Thunderbolt that you can use for charging, three USB-A ports, and the standard ThinkPad charging port still in use on much of the ThinkPad line (though you can also use USB-C, which is clearly in the process of becoming the standard). The machine also has a full-size Ethernet jack, HDMI port, and a full-size SD card reader. And, as is typical in the T470, it has a removable battery (something you won’t find on the thinner X1 Carbon, or X1 Yoga series.) It also has an integrated fingerprint reader, though one that I found flaky in daily use.
One big difference between the ThinkPad 25 and most current ThinkPads—or indeed most other business laptops—is that it has discrete graphics, with an Nvidia GeForce 940MX. As a result, it’s much more suited for playing games or running workstation applications. In my tests, it was notably faster than the X1 Yoga at graphics applications and a bit better on a Matlab simulation, but a somewhat slower on some of the other benchmarks. While it did quite well on PCMag’s rundown test—lasting over 11 hours—in our tests with the brightness up and Wi-Fi on, it fared less well than the X1 Carbon. For me, this did translate in practical use—it just didn’t last as long. With battery saver mode turned on, and the brightness down but Wi-Fi on, I had a bit more than half a day’s coverage at a conference, which is not as good as I’ve come to expect. Of course, you can carry a second battery, and Lenovo makes bigger batteries as well.
The ThinkPad 25 is more of a conversation piece than a mainstream business notebook. Unless you need discrete graphics in a business laptop, most people would be better off with the T470 or the thinner T470S from the ThinkPad line, or even stepping up a bit to the X1 Carbon. (Or of course, considering an HP EliteBook or Dell Latitude.) But the point here is really to celebrate an excellent design that has been successful for many years.