Step Inside a Real-Life Laptop “Chamber of Horrors”

Kevin Beck is something of a legend at Lenovo HQ. His knowledge of all things ThinkPad is well-known to colleagues in Raleigh, Beijing and everywhere in-between. When he agreed to do an interview about the abuse tests we do on our iconic business laptops, I knew he’d have some good stories. I also knew he’d hit me with a lot of technical stuff I didn’t understand (what is electromagnetic noise?) so I started him off with a zombie question just to throw him.

Hi Kev, I know you’re going to wax poetic and tell me all about some complicated military laptop spec tests but let me just cut to the chase and ask the only question our audience cares about: when the zombie apocalypse comes, how will ThinkPads fare?

Just fine! The testing on ThinkPads is the product of 24 years of real world experience, and while our testing doesn’t specifically include zombie-related incidents, it’s really, really extensive.

OK, good to know. Three more scenarios for you: how would ThinkPad do vs. a wicked Sharknado, a weekend at Burning Man and—the big test—a day inside a middle school classroom?

Ha! Of the three, the toughest would obviously be the middle school classroom. As I said, all ThinkPads undergo a massive amount of lab testing, as well as 12 Mil-Spec methods. We also have ThinkPad education models that undergo even more testing. Sharknado and Burning Man are cake compared to what a 10-year-old can do to a laptop.

No doubt. With that out of the way, let’s get serious. I’ve heard you say there’s a certain “philosophy” behind ThinkPad engineering, one that’s very much informed by 24 years of history and testing experience. What is that philosophy and what benefit is there in having all that history behind us?

Without getting too “marketing-ish,” I think a large part of the continuing success of ThinkPad is the underlying philosophy behind it. Simply put, a ThinkPad should—through engineering, testing and intelligent management of tradeoffs—represent an awesome tool for the productivity of our users. The reliability, durability, features, construction, etc are all just parts of that. A ThinkPad is ultimately a tool for someone to use to get something done that they need to get done. Our engineers are trained to think not only about what users are going to do with a ThinkPad but what they are going to do to it.

Acoustic noise test

I get that—laptop abuse is real. I’m always trying to cut through marketing hyperbole and understand what makes us different or better. We don’t like categorically saying ThinkPads are tougher than A or B laptop made by our rivals. So why should anyone choose us over them?

ThinkPads are indeed tough and compare well to what are commonly marketed as “business rugged and semi-rugged” in the marketplace but, as you say, that’s not the only reason we think someone should choose a ThinkPad.  For us, it’s about managing all the variables involved in laptop design to come up with something that really meets the needs of a varied group of users with minimal compromise.  Some people need massive 17” mobile workstations, some need/want sub-3-lb ultra-light carbon-fiber notebooks.  With ThinkPad, we don’t compromise at all on the engineering or testing on any system.  They are different designs but are all engineered and tested to a common standard.  It’s that philosophy that lets us solve for the totality of what a ThinkPad should be and to do it right.

Makes sense. I know you lived in Japan and have visited Lenovo’s Yamato Lab (now actually in Yokohama) many times. You even referred to it as “Geek Paradise.” Paint a picture with your words & tell those of us who’ve never been there what the scene is like inside those walls.

It’s heaven—at least for a guy like me. Imagine labs and labs full of stacks of notebooks in varying levels of development and disassembly, whole rooms full of esoteric and complicated looking engineering tools and testing equipment. Stacks of various PC innards, motherboards, fans, casings, processors. You know, toys! And the place is run by the most dedicated and obsessive engineers I’ve met in 20 years in the business.

Drop test

Screen stress test

Sounds amazing. I keep trying to con the boss into sending me there. Alright, let’s talk about the individual tests—awful, brutal tests—that we conduct on our commercial ThinkPad laptops. (In other words, ThinkPad T, X, L and P Series.) Did I get this right: there are 20 test procedures in 12 Mil-Spec categories (or, in military terminology, “methods”)? Dish some dirt, so to speak, and tell us what these tests are…

People who have visited the lab have described it as a “chamber of horrors” for notebooks.  There are tests for Mil-Specs, of course: heat, cold, humidity, vibration, fungus, drop, etc. But the standard tests that every ThinkPad is subjected to are even more horrifying. Screens are bent, steel balls are dropped, notebooks are dropped on corners, shaken by robot arms, vibrated at high and low frequencies.

Screen-hinge test

Good lord, a cheap laptop’s worst nightmare! Tell us about the screen and hinge durability test.

OK, so all ThinkPads are tested for 30,000 open and close cycles on the screens/hinges. They are strapped into a precision device that not only opens and closes them repeatedly, it also tests for the hinge strength at the beginning, end and points in between. Also, the laptops are grabbed by a robotic arm and stress-tested to imitate someone picking them up and carrying them by the screen. This is something we added years back when we discovered that, ahem, not everyone handles their precision-engineered ThinkPad in a recommended manner.

Keyboard test

To say the least. You once told me the keyboard test was “compelling in its boringness.” How so?

It is compelling in a mesmerizing way. There is a precision-controlled force feedback test arm that descends upon each and every key on the keyboard. It measures the force required to press each key and the force it exerts coming back up on its return stroke. This takes something like 2 minutes. PER KEY. Boring to watch but it gives us a graph of the signature feel of the ThinkPad keyboard for every key. And that’s very important to us and our users.

Wireless test

Environmental test

What other tests are there?

  • Acoustic noise test – testing ThinkPads for emitted acoustic noise
  • Drop test – repeatedly dropping them to test the durability of the design
  • Dust test – testing for reliability in dusty and sandy enviroments
  • Electromagnetic noise test – testing for emitted electromagnetic noise
  • Environmental test – testing for heat and cold exposure
  • Screen stress test – testing for durability of the upper screen assembly
  • Vibration test – testing for multiple types of vibration
  • Wireless test – testing for multiple types of wireless performance

Vibration test

Dust test

Sounds like that “Chamber of Horrors” has many chambers. You’ve said that we abuse test based on what has happened to laptops in the past but also based on an assumption of what might happen to them in the future. What does that mean?

That’s what I meant above about training our engineers to think about what people do to ThinkPads as well as what they do with them. Twenty-four years of field data have taught us that people always come up with unique ways to damage ThinkPads and part of the job of our testing engineers is to analyze that data and constantly improve our testing to understand and anticipate the ways real world usage changes over time.

Last question: in what ways do people like us treat business laptops—bought and, ya know, paid for by our employer—differently than laptops we bought with our own hard-earned cash?

I think you could argue we’re less careful with a work-provided laptop. You wouldn’t believe the things we’ve seen (unless you are the manager of a rental car lot)!  People drop them down stairs, leave them up against the engine blocks of running construction equipment, leave them in bags on top of cars and run over them, leave them (hidden) in their oven while on vacation and forget them there when they come home and start to bake cookies.

Someday we’ll finally write that tell-all book about ThinkPad drops and disasters, right? Thanks for taking the time to chat with us.


Gavin O'Hara is Lenovo's Global Social Media Publisher.