ThinkPad Tablet: Full Circle

The new ThinkPad tablet pays homage to the mother of all ThinkPads

The wait is over. Lenovo introduced our new Android based ThinkPad tablet this week taking the brand full circle. You can read the press release here. It's hard to believe that the first ThinkPad, introduced back in 1992, was a pen based tablet, but it was. The iconic ThinkPad 700c ushered in the familiar notebook form factor later. I once wrote a blog that goes deeper into the ThinkPad tablet history lesson for those who are curious. Nearly 20 years later, could our new ThinkPad tablet be the weapon of choice for business success? I think so.

Rear view of the tablet shows the familiar ThinkPad logo

Designing a tablet today might seem relatively simple. After all, it's basically a piece of glass with a few ports and buttons. Or is it? Having lived through the experience of designing this one, I can assure you that it is anything but simple. Every detail of the design was debated and evaluated in countless engineering and design studies. Even basic things, such as where the logo was to be located, was more complex on an object that can be used and held in any orientation. Which way is up? Which was is down? There was no way I was going to slap the ThinkPad logo dead center like most do. The ThinkPad brand is always placed asymmetrically in a corner of the product, it's part of the DNA. There are few brands within the technology business that have such recognizable design imprints.

A stubby writing instrument may work for recording golf scores, but not for a tablet

One of the more challenging tasks was to determine how to design and integrate a digitizer pen into an already crowded interior volume. Fighting for space was tough, but we wanted a pen. Personally, I had a long standing desire to be able to draw in a natural manner on my ThinkPad. A full blown study of pen barrel diameter and length became necessary as we balanced, batteries,  digitizer  technology components, ergonomic principles, and pen storage space constraints. We used dowel rods for diameter studies and a series of sharpened pencils to evaluate overall length with users. The final pen is a comfortable 120mm long that just barely fits within the tablet. A typical golf pencil is a scant 90mm. When designing a pen, there is nothing worse than ending up with one that feels bad in the hand.

One of the later study models showing the folio during development

Beyond the tablet itself, we also had to design a few critical options that would complete the overall ThinkPad tablet experience. The most important being a unique folio that would augment the tablet with legendary ThinkPad typing and cursor control . The folio includes a full size keyboard that shares the same typing experience as our newly launched X1. For cursor movement, it was a bigger challenge. We developed an industry first optical TrackPoint pointing device that nestles into the keyboard as you would expect. After all, it is a ThinkPad. Other tablets require you to use your finger for cursor movement and selection when using an accessory keyboard. I hate that idea. Who wants to be continuously moving your hands back and forth between the screen and keyboard? Everyone knows that when you use a ThinkPad, your fingers never stray very far from the home-row-centered TrackPoint nub. Efficiency matters. The same is true for the folio accessory.

A new, but  familiar, red ring neatly frames the sensor assembly for the optical TrackPoint

A traditional strain gauge based TrackPoint wouldn't fit in the demanding folio thinness requirements, and relying only on a touch pad would have significantly increased the overall product footprint. I don't even need to mention the obvious issue of selling a ThinkPad without a TrackPoint. Who would buy it? We needed something new, but also something familiar. Time for some innovation. The technology we landed on is commonly referred to as an optical sensor. We chose this technology because it offered the promise of being able to combine the strength of traditional TrackPoint placement with touch pad familiarity. This type of device is usually found on smart phones for routine menu navigation. Our challenge was to create a unique version of this hardware and tune software that would allow the technology to behave much more like a computer cursor control. Sounds simple enough, but it required months of user testing and software tuning to perfect the concept. Moving a cursor across a  screen size that is many times larger than a smart phone and accurately landing on the desired target is much more difficult than scrolling through a rudimentary phone menu. The end result my team created works great. Many test subjects commented that the production version behaved like a hybrid of a traditional TrackPoint and a touch pad. Exactly what we wanted. The introduction of the new ThinkPad tablet completes the circle returning the ThinkPad brand to it's historic roots. I think it's a welcome addition to the ThinkPad portfolio and introduces new user experience benefits to the world of tablet computing. A pen for sketching, note taking, and mark-up, combined with a folio option that enables world class typing and industry leading cursor movement, it sure sounds like a winner to me. David Hill