Happy 20th Birthday, IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad
The laptop, yes - but NOT the brand
The ThinkPad is 20 today. Sort of. Launched by IBM and now made by Lenovo, the familiar black-clad, red-nippled laptop family quickly established itself as an icon, in many ways re-establishing Big Blue's reputation as a PC maker after years in the shadow of the clone manufacturers.
The first three clamshell-styled ThinkPads, the 300, 700 and the 700C, were formally launched on 5 October 1992. They got their first truly public outing at the Comdex Fall computer show on 16-20 November 1992.
20 years old: the IBM ThinkPad 700C
The 700 was based on a 25MHz Intel 486SLC processor backed by 4MB of memory and offered with a choice of 80MB or 120MB hard drive. Its screen was a 9.5in, 640 x 480 monochrome job, physically smaller than the 10.4in, 640 x 480 active-matrix colour screen fitted to the premium-priced 700C. The higher-end model had the same processor as the 700, but a removable 120MB hard drive came as standard. Buyers could choose either 4MB, 8MB or 16MB of memory.
Both machines contained nickel metal hydride batteries good for almost four hours’ use, IBM claimed at the launch. The 700C weighed in at 3.5kg (7.6lb), while the 700 was 3kg (6.5lb). The price was no less hefty: $4,350. That sum meant a lot more then than it does now. In terms of 2012 spending power, that price is equivalent to more than $7000 now. The 80MB 700 cost $2750, the 120MB version $2950 at the time.
Those specs don’t show any great innovation, but the ThinkPad did introduce - or at least popularise - the TrackPoint controller, a tiny joystick built into the keyboard between the G and H keys, in place of a touchpad or, in those days, a touchball.
The 700 and 700C could each be connected to a specific version of the 3550 Expansion Unit, a docking unit IBM introduced on the same day. The 3550 allowed users to connect SCSI devices, and added VGA, keyboard and mouse ports, along with serial and parallel connectors.
Advertising the ThinkPad 300
The ThinkPad 300 was actually made by Zenith Data Systems. It was powered by a 25MHz 386SL processor and fitted with a monochrome 640 x 480 display. Again, it shipped with 4MB of memory and a choice of 80MB or 120MB hard drive. And it too had an Ethernet port.
If the 700 series' selling point was performance, the 300's was battery life. The laptop was said to be capable of running for up to ten hours - impressive even by today's standards. The suggested retail price for the 80MB ThinkPad 300 was $2375, while the model with the 120MB drive cost $2575.
The ThinkPads 300, 700 and 700C defined the core design of the laptop line, defining the way their successor would look right up to the present day. That arguably makes them the first true ThinkPads as we understand the brand name today. But they weren't the first IBM machines to carry the ThinkPad moniker.
That honour goes to the IBM 2521 ThinkPad - known at the time as the ThinkPad - a pen-operated portable that Big Blue actually announced on 17 April 1992, but which didn't ship until the following July. It was based on a 20MHz 386SX processor and equipped with 4MB or 8MB of memory; a 10in, 640 x 480 monochrome display; and a built-in 2.4Kb/s modem. Serial and parallel ports, and connectors for an external floppy drive and a keyboard, were part of the spec too.
Amazingly, in an era long before the current debate over the future of hard drive technology and the emergence of Flash-based alternatives, the 2521 incorporated a 20MB solid state drive. The 2521 ran PenPoint, an tablet-oriented operating system from Go Corporation.
Come 5 October and the launch of the three clamshells, IBM renamed the 2521 the ThinkPad 700T to bring its naming into line with the three new laptop models. It also tweaked the design slightly to make it more robust.
The following year, on 4 May, IBM rolled out the ThinkPad 720 and 720C, upping the original 700-series models' 25MHz processor with a 50MHz version.
On 16 June 1993, Big Blue announced the ThinkPad 500, described at the time as its first sub-notebook. Retailing for $1999 and measuring 253 x 188 x 40mm, it was based on a 50MHz 486SLC2 processor and offered with a choice of 85MB or 170MB hard drive - for an extra $500. The AC adaptor was built in to allow the 500 to be connected directly to the mains, saving users from having to lug around a power brick too.
The 350 and 350C built on the original 300, upping the CPU to a 25MHz 486SL from the earlier machine's 386-class chip and increasing the choice of storage capacities to 125MB and 250MB. The two 350s cost $1999 and $2499, while the two 350Cs were priced at 2599 and 2999.
1993 and the years to come would see further tweaks to these models, alongside some curious variations: the ThinkPad 220 compact sub-notebook in 1993, followed by the 800 series of PowerPC-based laptops in 1995. That year also saw the introduction of the ThinkPad PC110, handheld PC only made available to Japanese buyers.
The PC110 was based around a 4.7in 640 x 480 passive matrix colour display and featured a 33MHz 486-class processor, 20MB of memory and an internal 4MB Flash card for permanent storage. It also had a 2.4Kbps modem. It even had side-mounted LCD strip to display battery status information and the like.
The 220 was also intended for Asian buyers. Measuring 22.6 x 16.6 x 3.2cm, it packed in a 16MHz 386SL processor, 2MB of memory, an 80MB hard drive, a PCMCIA slot and a 7.7in 640 x 480 display. It was powered by six AA batteries. ®
The Thinkpads were the only machines we had on site that prompted guerrilla action. When they were withdrawn after we went wall-to-wall Dell it took months to winkle them all out from their hidey holes. No-one who used one wanted to use anything else.
The Thinkpad Legacy..
And what great machines they were, especially in the pioneering days of portable systems when we depended on PC Cards (PCMCIA) for modem and network connectivity, the ThinkPads supported PCMCIA very well indeed.
Also the ThinkPads had those "pencil eraser" type pointing devices which were also affectionately named the "clit mouse"
IBM were also very innovative with the design too, I recall the 701C "Butterfly" with its pop out keyboard, it was quite genius at the time in the late 1990's
When I worked as a tech in the Intel datacentre, the ThinkPad was the standard issue portable and I recall the 300 model we were furnished with had a removable HDD caddy, so swapping between Windows / LINUX OS disks was a simple, tool free task and not a feature offered by Compaq, HP or others at the time
The IBM branded ThinkPad was also seen on the ISS too! That's an Ace card in the deck!
Although the iconic ThinkPad moniker lives on, I don't believe it hold the same weight under the Lenovo brand as it did when it was was Big Blue branded.
Excellent article ElReg!
I remember specifying the hardware standards for a large UK financial company in the early 2000s. We were a Thinkpad house, every six months or so, the other laptop manufacturers would come in and try to sell us their stuff. We'd only need to ask one question: "Can we drop it off the desk". The answer was always "no", followed by us saying "oh, IBM let us drop their laptops off the desk, then they stand on them.". There was sometimes a protestation along the lines of "but they're more expensive." which was easily batted away by pointing out that we'd have to replace more of the competition's products.
I've always had a soft spot for the Thinkpad. Also, it's black, the coolest of colours, so cool that it's not technically a colour...
Re: The Thinkpad Legacy..
"Although the iconic ThinkPad moniker lives on, I don't believe it hold the same weight under the Lenovo brand as it did when it was was Big Blue branded."
Don't worry about it, If you buy the 'Thinkpad' branded Lenovo laptops, that is 'thinkpad' not 'ideapad' or 'thinkpad edge' they are still very, very good. I have an X230 and my girlfriend has a T420s and they are both as solid as my X60 ever was. Their documentation and after-warranty support is also still great (you can still buy an entire thinkpad in spare parts if you want)
Lenovo really is doing a bang-up job.