She also noted that the sheer sexiness of laptops today is being perceived far differently than even one to two generations ago in the ThinkPad universe.
"From an aesthetic standpoint, the 'kitchen sink' approach results in an unattractive box," Proctor said. "People today prioritize the visual aesthetic more so than ever before -- it's hugely important."
"People today prioritize the visual aesthetic more so than ever before -- it's hugely important."
Aesthetics are so important, in fact, that Lenovo has finally flipped the exterior lid logo so that it's properly situated when viewing it as a bystander. Parrish noted the logo's orientation was "a hot-button topic internally for years," and finally, feedback from customers persuaded them to pull a 180. Of course, some other laptop maker made a similar decision on its PowerBook line way back when, and that one turned out just fine.
Nuts and bolts
Aside from the macro-level view, I also asked Lenovo's team to talk about the specific changes that were made. Naturally, carving out a thinner, lighter and longer-lasting creature was a given, but what about the details? Why does the VGA port remain in 2013? Why isn't the entire bottom plate supportive of inductive charging? Why are those infamous LCD latch hooks gone? And, perhaps most importantly, why did Lenovo choose today to join the giant, no-button trackpad bandwagon?
Naturally, the ThinkPad line is foremost a business-centric machine. There's some consumer crossover -- perhaps more today than in decades prior -- but alienating enterprise users in favor of hipster demands isn't about to happen. That, in a sentence, is why there's still an Ethernet port and a VGA socket on the T431s. Anyone who has ever stepped foot inside a boardroom will recognize that business projectors default to VGA, but Proctor did confess that Lenovo as a whole is planning for a world where VGA connectors aren't necessary in 2015. In other words, don't bank on the next next-generation ThinkPad to boast such a superannuated port.
Lenovo did affirm to me that there are some inductive charging tests that are ongoing within its labs.
Without giving too much detail, Lenovo did affirm to me that there are some inductive charging tests that are ongoing within its labs. The reality, however, is that the power requirements for modern machines and the power abilities of modern charging pads create too wide a chasm for the company to reasonably address. Parrish and Butler both suggested Lenovo would be more than happy to issue laptops with wireless charging once the technology matures to a point that it would be more than an "expensive and unsightly add-on," further proving the proverbial chicken-and-egg problem is apt to hamper the technology's advancement. If you can't convince an OEM like Lenovo to take a chance with inductive charging in its current state, where's the funding going to come from to perfect it?
Among other subtle changes in the new ThinkPad line, the team decided to do away with the rubber "hot dogs" (as they're internally dubbed) and "sweater catchers" (again, a Lenovo designation) on the screen. Instead, the bezel has contracted and a redesigned hinge is in place, preventing the next wave of Lenovo laptops from needing physical hooks to remain closed. The reason? "It's just sleeker," said Parrish. Indeed, when gazing at the T431s in comparison to the T430s, everything just looks less busy. Fewer bumps here, a few less extrusions there -- reaching back to Proctor's point; these are things that matter today, but were in an entirely different sector of the priority chart just a few years ago.
ThinkPad loyalists will almost certainly direct their attention to the new trackpad when first laying eyes on the T431s. Or, perhaps, they'll spot the notable (and very deliberate) omission of the physical buttons that have historically sat just beneath and above a far smaller tracking surface. According to Parrish, the overall concept was to "simplify the appearance of two pointing devices in ThinkPad notebook design and maximize touchpad area -- while optimizing it for interaction with Windows 8." A tricky approach, no doubt, given that a solid swath of ThinkPad users have no doubt grown used to mousing with the crimson-clad, centrally located nub. The end result is a five-button clickpad, as it was detailed to me, which supports 20 gestures and handles northerly clicks for those who refuse to switch from using the aforementioned pointing stick.
In fact, it took Lenovo two solid years working lockstep with Synaptics to create a driver stack that would ensure optimal performance in this unique scenario -- a laborious process that I'm personally thrilled was undertaken given the woeful performance from most Windows-based trackpads. Moreover, in yet another nod to today's changing expectations, the top row of Function keys now default to handling multimedia duties; old schoolers who still need to hammer on F5 for any given reason can use a thoughtfully included Fn lock feature.
Not stopping here
Proctor had a palpable sense of calm in her voice when confessing that Lenovo started this redesign process ahead of an internal schedule. According to her, having 18 months to receive feedback, iterate, slash-and-burn, listen a little more and hammer on additional prototypes was liberating.
"It's a little like editing a book -- you never feel like you're done," she said. "But, of course, there are realities like schedules and roadmaps. We were very fortunate in this project to have started it early, so we didn't have to rush through it. Along the way, we kept a close eye on how things were progressing -- if something wasn't up to par, we kept going."
Having 18 months to receive feedback, iterate, slash-and-burn, listen a little more and hammer on additional prototypes was liberating.
Indeed, there's always some place to go. Parrish mentioned that the industrial designers were pushing hard to shove newer 7mm HDDs into the T431s, but things didn't quite line up. "We wanted to get that thinner hard drive technology implemented, but what we found from a scheduling perspective -- along with testing it to meet overall durability standards -- [is] it just didn't pan out." The hypothesized space savings? "It'd be around 1mm thinner on the front edge," said Parrish.
Next time, right guys?
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