By Jeff Gould
I’ve been a ThinkPad user for 15 years, ever since I switched from Mac OS to Windows for my primary work machine. The reason for the switch: back then the Mac version of Netscape’s browser chronically lagged IE for Windows in functionality and speed. Although never thrilled with ThinkPad’s performance relative to its price, I loved the keyboard and the trackpoint (that funny red button in the middle of the keyboard that serves as the mouse). The all-black plastic body wasn’t the most stylish on the market, but it was acceptable.
But lately I’ve begun to have second thoughts. I’m even coming to believe that Lenovo secretly wants to kill the ThinkPad. Why? Because Lenovo has abandoned any pretense of trying to keep up with Apple as a manufacturer of premium professional laptops.
Lenovo’s brand new top-of-the-line ThinkPad X1 Carbon ultrabook is a particularly egregious example of what I mean. I almost bought one of those babies today. But at the last minute I pulled back.
I’ve been reading about and hankering for the X1 Carbon ever since it was first announced in May. I’ve been using an 11 inch MacBook Air running Windows 7 as my travel machine for about a year now, because I don’t like to lug around the big ThinkPad T510 that serves as my main desktop machine. (And yeah, while I adore Apple’s hardware, the ball of confusion that is OS X drives me crazy.) But I’ve found that the 11 inch screen is a little small for serious road warrior work. And I don’t like the Apple trackpad as much as that little red button on the ThinkPads. So when I saw that Lenovo was launching a ThinkPad ultrabook with a 14 inch screen, I was excited.
Anyway, I went to the Lenovo shopping site today and checked it out. I configured my X1 Carbon dream machine. With an Intel Core i7 processor and a 256 GB solid state disk, it came to $1,859 excluding shipping and sales tax. I was about to click on the buy button. My finger hovered over the key. But then it hit me. This machine had only 4 GB of RAM. Just one dinky little DIMM, and no upgrade possible. Yikes. Just the week before I had priced a 13 inch MacBook Air on the Apple web site: same Intel i7 processor, same 256 GB SSD, and a full 8 GB of RAM. Admittedly it didn’t have the trackpoint. But it did have that sleek all-aluminum body instead of black carbon fiber. And the Air was only $1,699, almost $200 cheaper than the X1 Carbon. Ouch!
Now I would be perfectly happy to pay $200 more to get the machine that I want. But RAM that maxes out at 4 GB in a top-of-the-line Windows laptop is just not acceptable these days. If you’re running 64 bit Windows, and if like me you’re someone who likes to keep dozens and dozens of browser tabs open at the same time, the extra RAM does make a difference. So what’s up Lenovo? Tired of competing with Apple? Or are you just not paying attention any more to what the competition is doing?
The X1 Carbon’s anemic RAM spec isn’t an isolated example. The Lenovo machine also falls behind the MacBook Air in the SSD department. If you shell out an extra $500 to Apple, you can get 500 GB for your Air. OK, while 8 GB RAM is pretty routine these days, maybe a 500 GB SSD is still a luxury item. But ThinkPad is supposed to be Lenovo’s premium brand.
If you compare the rest of the ThinkPad and Apple lineups, it gets worse. Lenovo’s best business laptop, the ThinkPad T530, does offer 16 GB of RAM. But its SSD maxes out at a pathetic 180 GB. Not even as much as the X1 Carbon. Only 180 GB? When Apple’s latest MacBook Pro Retina offers the option of a gigantic 768 GB SSD? Seriously? Have Lenovo’s designers gone Rip Van Winkle?
I still love Lenovo’s ThinkPads. But I won’t be buying another one until they wake up and smell the coffee. It’s easy to imagine how all this came to pass. Some Dilbert-style pointy-haired manager in Lenovo’s design department decided that it would be safe to cut a few corners. But no, I’m sorry. That’s not the way the tech device market works. Not anymore. Not since Steve Jobs. Apple has taught consumers to demand the best that manufacturers have to offer. If Lenovo wants to be a premium brand that charges premium prices, it needs to go head to head with the market leader. And that would be Jobs’ Apple. If Lenovo doesn’t want to play in the big leagues any more, too bad for it – and too bad for us.