You’ve read it here first: the era of the comfortable laptop is nearly over. As laptops become slimmer and key travel of these thin laptops’ keyboards is ruthlessly diminished, laptops become less comfortable to use. The breathless and eager-to-make-a-buck tech media fawns ceaselessly over thinner machines with glossier displays and more complex and sophisticated design cues. They praise laptop makers for walking in Apple’s shadow. But they ignore, almost entirely, the issue of ergonomics. Surprise! A laptop can’t only look nice, it has to be pleasant to use, as well. In the age of aluminum chassis, sharp lines and aggressive corners, shallow keyboards, 16:9 display aspect ratios, higher surface temperatures, and whinier fans, laptops are becoming increasingly miserable to actually use.
Consider the Lenovo Thinkpad. The machine most known for its masterful keyboard and red TrackPoint has been under assault in recent years. Lenovo is investing more resources into 2-in-1s, tablets, and thin-and-light designs and this directive has unfortunately spilled over into its business-geared Thinkpad division. It is often alleged that businessmen don’t want a heavy laptop and they don’t need powerful hardware for Microsoft Office or Google Docs. While true, this analysis ignores all the other segments of users in the corporate sphere. Engineers are power users and need workstation grade performance. IT analysts and developers need more performance than what a 15 watt ultra-low voltage CPU can deliver.
Lenovo’s response? The discontinuing of its once-venerable W-series Thinkpads and the apparent lack of focus on its P-series workstations, which replaced the W-series. Lenovo is content to pour money into making the X1 Carbon and the X1 Yoga thinner and more expensive, claiming the expense is justified because of the “premium experience”. To wit, consider Lenovo’s total lack of interest in reviving its T-series ‘Performance’ laptops. The last of these, the T470p, was released in 2017; Lenovo announced no plans to release a T480p in 2018 and there is no evidence that a T490p will be released this year or in 2020.
Making matters worse, Lenovo’s current ThinkPad generation is the least repairable and least upgradeable line so far. The T480s retained one RAM slot while soldering 8GB of RAM on the motherboard, whereas the T490s features all soldered RAM, the jettisoning of more ports, a slimmer profile, and as a consequence, a worse keyboard. Even the T490 has dropped its second RAM slot and replaced the T480’s full size SD card reader with a microSD card slot–a strange choice which is proliferating within the business and consumer notebook segments alike.
Indeed, Lenovo seems to be following in Apple’s footsteps and moving in lockstep with the rest of the industry in their determined quest for thinness and port shaving at any cost. While their research may indicate that consumers won’t miss those ports and will appreciate the weight reductions in laptops, their research does not account for how these changes are making laptops less ergonomic and more unpleasant to use, generally. In Apple’s case, their insatiable urge to slim down the MacBook has produced the Butterfly keyboard, which is basically unusable. The key travel of these ‘butterfly’ key switches is nearly nonexistent, and the switches themselves are very prone to failure when subjected to any sort of dust or dirt ingress. Apple has had to spend millions upon millions of dollars to offer MacBook owners free keyboard repairs, yet they have no plans to redesign the keyboard itself, likely because such a task would be impossible unless the machines were made thicker again.
The end result of all of this? Perhaps Apple will soon move to a MacBook with a touchscreen keyboard, jettisoning physical key switches entirely. What then? Will PC makers like Lenovo follow suit in that hypothetical, as well? It’s safe to say if such a thing came to pass, the laptop would be dead. For a study in the frustrations of using a device with no physical keys, look no farther than the modern smartphone. Alas, phones are not productivity devices and laptops are. All the while, the media celebrates these perfunctory advances in thinness while seemingly oblivious to long term industry trends which are harmful to the end user experience. Given the platform the tech media has for opening up these issues to the public, which depends on said tech outlets when making their buying choices, they do a great disservice in simply functioning as glorified blogs for tech giants.
What might the solution be? Considering the trend of corporate consolidation doesn’t seem to be reversing, and probably never will, voting with one’s wallet isn’t the sage advice it once was. There’s a reason a small but vocal contingent of laptop users clings to older devices: they’re generally more functional and more usable, even if they are slower or have lower quality displays. The ThinkPad subreddit features prominently those individuals who are unhappy with the trend of the laptop industry, and who focus their efforts on refurbishing older machines and even going as far as to retrofit new hardware into ‘classic’ Thinkpad chassis of years past. And from where I sit, the dissatisfaction seems to be growing. When Apple users hold on to older machines to avoid Apple’s disastrous new keyboards and their now meme-worthy war on ports, it’s obvious there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.
The future of laptops is unclear. They might one day become entirely touch screen devices, with no more physical keyboards. They might then advance to being integrated into VR headsets or turned into head-worn augmented reality devices. The current paradigm may be in its death throes, but as the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. The human-computer interface has remained mostly unchanged for decades. The mouse and keyboard, while perhaps primitive considering modern technology, are proven input methods and give end users a great deal of latitude in determining what they need from those devices. The touchscreen is a regression, and seems to function only as a stopgap between the traditional keyboard and mouse, and what ever the next input revolution might be.
For the time being, it’s time to make laptops great again.