It appears that a major obstacle to getting laptop makers to provide better keyboards is getting them to understand what properties matter to users.
I’m just one small person, but I am trying to raise awareness of key rollover and why it matters to laptop users.
A while ago, I had a chat with Lenovo Support. I had noticed that they had added an additional keyboard option to the P-series ThinkPads, and was hoping (though not holding my breath) that it might mean the new keyboard SKU would be for a model with acceptable rollover. Spoiler: The new keyboard option is for backlit or non-backlit keyboard, but they appear to have the same, poor, unacceptable key rollover characteristics as when I purchased my P50 last March.
But at first when I discussed with Lenovo Sales Support, they didn’t even understand what rollover is. I guess that’s not terribly uncommon; it’s a geek thing. But when your customers are geeks, it’s important to be able to speak about things they are concerned with, understand those concerns, and care about them.
Sales Rep: Hello, thanks for contacting Lenovo. My name is Quentin E.. I am reviewing your information now.
Me: Hi Quentin
Sales Rep: Hello, my name is Quentin with Lenovo Sales REP ID# #2900723431, at the end of this chat there will be a short survey that will pop up, Survey ranges from 1-9 and 9 being the highest, if you don’t mind taking a second to let my managers know how I am doing.
Sales Rep: I will be more than happy to assist with your purchase today
Me: I have a question about the ThinkPad P50. Last spring, I bought a P50, and at the time there was only one option for the keyboard. I see now that you are offering the choice of a backlit keyboard.
Me: I am very satisfied with my purchase overall, but with the keyboard I was very disappointed that it does not support N-key rollover.
Me: I am wondering what the key rollover property of the current keyboard offerings is?
Sales Rep: Are you looking to purchase an new keyboard today?
Me: potentially, if it offers improved key rollover to my current keyboard.
Me: are you familiar with what key rollover is?
Sales Rep: No I am not familiar
Me: that article will explain; it is the ability of the keyboard to register multiple simultaneous key strokes
Sales Rep: Are you interested in wireless keyboard ?
Me: I am a video game developer, and I have found that for my work in programming and testing video games that I make, the built-in keyboard does not reliably catch key strokes when more than 2 keys are pressed down at the same time. I’m forced to use an external USB keyboard if I am testing games. But I would like to replace the built-in keyboard with a keyboard that can hadnle multiple keystrokes, if that were a possibility.
Me: i’m not interested in a wireless keyboard, to answer your question.
Me: Like I said, I’m currently using an external keyboard, since the built-in keyboard doesn’t support N-key rollover…
Me: I’m just trying to find out whether there are any replacement keyboards available for the P50 that support higher key rollover. i’d prefer N-key, but 5 or 6 key rollover would be a major improvement.
Sales Rep: This is the only keyboard option for the P50
Sales Rep: other than the wireless keyboard
Me: I am seeing that there is an option for a backlit keyboard on the P50 — I don’t recall that being available when I ordered mine. If you could tell me what the key rollover property is for your offerings, it would be very helpful.
Sales Rep: can you provide the part number
Me: I’m looking, but i don’t see the part number. In the “configure to order” options for the P50, I see two options now: “Keybaord with Number Pad – English” and “Backlit Keyboard with Number Pad – English”
Me: and under help me decide it says this:
Me: Lenovo has refreshed the keyset on all ThinkPad laptops, outfitting them with the ThinkPad Precision Keyboard.
Me: This new keyset allows a more comfortable, fluid and accurate typing experience with it’s slate of individually rounded, spacious, and low-set keys. The ThinkPad Precision Keyboard simultaneously delivers a modern look and feel to your ThinkPad.
Sales Rep: That is only an option when config
Me: So I am wondering if this means that they have improved the key rollover property of these refreshed keyboards
Me: Surely the keyboard is an FRU that can be ordered? I would be interested to do so if you could tell me the key rollover.
Sales Rep: You can contact the parts department for additional information keyboard
Sales Rep: 855-253-6686 op 4
Me: would you be able to pass feedback along to the system engineers who design the ThinkPad line, to let them know that this is an important characteristic?
Me: I would be willing to pay as much as $100 extra for a keyboard that supports N-key rollover, it is essential for my work.
Sales Rep: You can give the information to the parts department also
Me: this matters a great deal to me. As a satisfied user of the T-61 model, I felt it had the best built-in keyboard of any laptop I’ve ever used.
Me: I even wrote a detailed article on why it is the best.
Me: It is one of the most popular articles on my blog.
Me: I will mention this to the parts dept as well.
Me: does the parts dept have a web chat feature or or email? or just phone number to reach them?
Please wait while we transfer your chat to the next available agent.
Service Agent is your new agent for the chat session.
Customer Service Rep: Hello, thanks for contacting Lenovo. My name is Mikella T.. I am reviewing your information now.
Me: i was chatting with Quentin a moment ago, and then I guess he transferred me to you. Are you in parts?
Customer Service Rep: Hello Chris
Me: are you able to see my questions?
Customer Service Rep: Are you trying to reach the parts department
Me: Not really. I am just trying to get an answer to a question about the characteristics of the built-in keyboard for the ThinkPad P50.
Me: in the “customization” options for this model, it says “Lenovo has refreshed the keyset on all ThinkPad laptops, outfitting them with the ThinkPad Precision Keyboard.
Me: This new keyset allows a more comfortable, fluid and accurate typing experience with it’s slate of individually rounded, spacious, and low-set keys. The ThinkPad Precision Keyboard simultaneously delivers a modern look and feel to your ThinkPad.”
Me: I purchased a P50 last year, and at the time there was no option; I’m now seeing an optional backlit keyboard, and the description above suggests that the keyboards you’re shipping now may be different from what were shipped a year ago.
Me: so I am interested to learn the “key rollover” property of the currently offered keyboards
Me: my P50 does not register keystrokes if I have more than 2 keys pressed simultaneously (it may or may not register a third keystroke at that point). This makes it a poor keyboard for playing games. I am a game developer, so spend a lot of time testing games that I am making.
Customer Service Rep: Ok , so we are not the appropriate department for that
Me: so if the keyboards now offered have improved rollover, i would be interested to purchase and replace the one that i have.
Customer Service Rep: Perhaps the number provided by sales can assist you with that inquiry
Customer Service Rep: As this is customer support
Me: Quentin did give me the number for parts, but only a phone number. it is better for me if i could use chat or email to reach them. is that possible?
Customer Service Rep: Sorry that is the only contact information that we have
Me: ok what was the number again?
Customer Service Rep: 855-253-6686 op 4
Me: ok thank you.
I give them credit for trying. Normally their sales support people are very helpful and can provide detailed information, but it doesn’t seem like anyone at Lenovo have bothered to document their keyboards rollover characteristic, as though they don’t care or aren’t even aware that rollover is a thing.
I did call the number the Customer Service Rep gave me, but it didn’t get me anywhere. Their technical people still could not answer the question.
I suppose I could try ordering one of the new “ThinkPad Precision” keyboards (with a name that has Precision in it, you’d really hope that it would mean that the keyboard is capable of detecting precisely which keys are down at any given time, no matter which or how many.)
Perhaps I will stop by a local computer store and test out their ThinkPads to see if their keyboards are registering new keystrokes.
Seems like a pretty long shot….
Even so, I hope my fellow keyboard geeks can raise their voices and make themselves heard. If Lenovo gets enough feedback from users, I think it could make a difference in their future offerings.
Back in March, I took ownership of a new Lenovo ThinkPad P50 laptop to replace my venerable and beloved T61p. I’ve had it almost 6 months now, so it’s been a good amount of time to become acquainted.
Originally purchased in 2007, my first T61p served me very well until last January (2015), when the video card failed. I looked at the current ThinkPad lineup, and after rejecting the then-current T and W series Thinkpad models due to their keyboard and trackpads, I promptly went out and bought another T61p from a seller on eBay for around $250, and transferred my SSD to it. Over the years that I owned it, the T61p proved its value, with solid construction, great ergonomics, nice, roomy 1680×1050 screen resolution, and ease of service. Originally delivered with Windows Vista, I installed to WinXP Professional, and later upgraded to Windows 7 when it became available. I replaced a keyboard, upgraded the RAM from 4GB to 8GB, and replaced the HDD once, and then upgraded to an SSD a few years ago, when they got cheap enough. The second T61p had a faster CPU (2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo) and the beefier 256 MB Quadro GPU (up from 128 MB on my first) but was otherwise the same as my original 2.0 GHz workhorse.
The extra CPU speed definitely helped me get through the last year, and other than occasionally running out of memory due to RAM-hungry browsers and running with no swap file, the T61p still feels perfectly viable today as an everyday primary workstation. I’ve only had a few occasions in recent months where, possibly due to Windows 7 cruft, the machine has felt slow — occasionally I’ll get a svchost.exe process that uses up 100% CPU and bogs the system way down, but when that’s not happening, the machine has plenty of horsepower for web browsing, software development, graphic design work, and occasional gaming.
In looking for a replacement machine, my main concerns were not performance, but ergonomics.
I wanted a screen with at least the 1680×1050 resolution that I had come to realize was essential. I like to split the screen down the middle and have two windows open side by side, and 1680-wide gives me enough pixels to do that comfortably, while 1050 of height gives me enough lines of code on the screen that I can spend more time reading or typing, and less time scrolling through my project files.
I also had grown very attached to the T61p keyboard, with its near-perfect layout, and full-size scissor-switch keys, and the touchpad with physical buttons. Later generation ThinkPad machines had done away with physical buttons, changed from scissor switch keys to chiclet keys, and worst of all made senseless and wholly unnecessary changes to the keyboard layout, which I found completely unacceptable.
Even so, after almost 8 years on the same hardware, I did want the replacement laptop to feel like a true upgrade, and to have hardware that could feasibly hold up for as many years as I’d gotten from the mighty T61p.
In late 2015, I strongly considered purchasing a W540-series ThinkPad. I held off after seeing a W540 in person, when I saw that the touchpad itself was a clickable button, and there were no separate mouse buttons. Such a trackpad would be completely useless for precision clicking, and thus would require me to plug a mouse in to do any kind of precise work, which in turn would force me to sit at tables where I could use a mouse, and limit where I could easily do useful work comfortably. This would not do.
But then Lenovo released a minor refresh, the W541S, which brought back the physical buttons, and looked like the best thing I’d seen from Lenovo in years. But this model was a bit lacking — where the full-size W540 could take 32 GB of RAM, the W541S was limited to just 16 GB — which, while adequate, didn’t feel as future proof as I would have liked.
The S in W541S stands for slim, so I inquired with Lenovo customer service and was told a full-size W451 was coming soon, which would have the all-important physical touchpad buttons as well as capacity for 32 GB of RAM. I waited weeks and months, and asked again and was told that I had been misinformed, and that no such model was planned. I kept getting different stories from different reps, and got quite frustrated with not having solid, accurate information.
I briefly looked at the Dell XPS 15, which had fantastic specs — 4K IPS display, up to 32 GB of RAM, but again here I didn’t care for the buttonless touchpad.
Finally, in the second half of 2015 I started hearing about the new P-series ThinkPads, and became very interested in the P70. This system is a monster: up to 64 GB of RAM, 4K IPS display, the latest Intel Core i7 CPU, trackpad with physical buttons, and what looked to be an acceptable keyboard layout, though still not the return to perfection that I’d hoped for. I wasn’t crazy about lugging a 17″ laptop, but then a short time later I learned that they were also planning to offer a 15″ model, the P50. Comparing the specs between the two, it looked as though there really weren’t any compromises between the two, so at that point I was sold.
I waited and waited for the P50 to be released, but it kept being delayed. Eventually, in December they became available. As my second T61p was still going strong, I elected to hold off for a bit and wait to see what the initial reviews said. Then, last week, I received email informing me that Lenovo was having one of their EPP sales, which meant steep discounts. I clicked the link and specced out my dream machine: 3.7 GHz Xeon CPU, 4K IPS screen, 4 GB video card, a jaw-dropping 64 GB of RAM, and 512 GB SSD on a PCIe-NVMe bus, and after almost $1000 in discounts, it came to around $2200, which was well under budget for what I had originally put aside for the more expensive P70.
While that sounds like a lot of money for a laptop, I considered that I’d spent around $1900 for my T61p in 2007, and after using it for almost 8 years, that amortizes away to barely anything — less than $1/day. Considering how much I use the machine (regularly 8+ hours/day), and how productive it has made me, that’s an insanely good value. So when you think about it that way, it’s worth spending a lot of money to get something very good, as opposed to spend less and accept compromises, or have something lower end that won’t last as long whether due to durability or performance.
P50 NVQ3 4G E3-1505M v5 vPro
720p HD 2D Camera Mic
AC Adapter and Power Cord
170W 2pin US
Intel Xeon E3-1505M v5 MB
15.6 4K IPS Non-Touch
*(I didn’t want a fingerprint reader, but there wasn’t an option to remove it.)
NVIDIA Quadro M2000M 4GB
Hard drive 1
512GB SSD PCIe-NVMe
HDD Config 2
HDD Config 3
HDD Total capacity
KYB NumPad ENG
64GB(16×4) DDR4 2133 SoDIMM (non-ECC)
3+3BCP FPR CS
W10P DG W7P64-ENG
Win10 Pro64 DG Win7 Pro64
*(Windows 7 Professional x64)
W10P64 COUPON WW
Sub Series Variation
P50 Quadro Workstation
Hardware dTPM Enabled
P50 4K NT 2D MC CS WLWW
1 Year Depot or Carry-in
WiFi wireless LAN adapters
Intel 8260AC+BT 2×2 vPro
Price as purchased (incl tax and shipping): $2,271.02
I elected not to go with ECC RAM, which would have added about $450 to the cost, and the P50 doesn’t have a bay for an optical drive, so no DVD option unless I want to plug in an external. I haven’t burned, or even read, a DVD in years, though, so I think optical media is pretty close to obsolete.
Curiously, Lenovo do not offer a Blu-Ray drive option for their laptops that do offer an optical drive bay. The ultra-bay adapter for hot swappable hard drives is a nice option to have, but considering the P50 has an internal bay for a 2.5″ SATA device, and 2 PCIe NVMe slots, it wasn’t worth it to me to go to a P70, for almost $2000 more, just to get a DVD-RW/Ultrabay (although to be fair, that $2000 would have also brought with it 8 GB video card).
Lenovo also just came out with a few more models in the P-series: the P40 Yoga, and P50S. I didn’t consider either of these as I was already eager to buy the P50 that I had selected, but after looking at their specs I have no regrets about picking the P50. The Yoga offers a more flexible screen hinge that allows for using the laptop in different configurations, but with less top-end specs, and the P50S is just a slimmer P50 with slightly less capability, and so I wasn’t really interested in either.
64 GB of RAM! This is 8x the RAM of my old T61p (and 16x the advertised max RAM of the T61p). Knock on wood, but I may never run out of RAM ever again with this machine. 64GB ought to be enough for anybody;-)
PCIe NVMe performance. The SSD is very, very fast. I’ve been using SSD for a few years now. The T61p originally came with a 7200rpm hard drive, but I upgraded to SSD after they became available at a price point I was willing to pay. I did notice some performance improvement, but the SATA3 SSD was bottlenecked by the SATA2 interface in the T61p, so I didn’t get the full benefit of the upgrade. By contrast, with the ThinkPad P50, read/write speeds on the PCIe NVMe SSD are amazing. After running Windows Update for the first time on the P50 and installing almost 90 updates, after rebooting the “configuring” that Windows 7 does after upgrades are installed, which normally takes several minutes, were completed in about 20-30 seconds. Waking out of hibernation is nearly instantaneous.
4K IPS is a thing of beauty. The screen is exceptionally clean and sharp, with vibrant color even for an LCD screen. The LED backlight is very even, compared to the florescent tube backlight of older screens. IPS is definitely a much better display technology compared to TFT. I’ve had IPS displays on my desktop, but since I use my laptop much more, I haven’t really been able to appreciate it until now.
Speakers are much improved over T61p. One of the complaints I remember from reading reviews of the T61p was that its speakers weren’t very loud even at max volume. I didn’t find this to be a major complaint, and most of the time audio levels were adequate, but I did frequently find it difficult to hear the audio track in multimedia being played on the machine. It just depended on how loud the source was. With the P50, the speakers are much more capable. I don’t need to turn the volume level to 100% just to be able to barely hear audio anymore.
Trust. The most important con to buying Lenovo these days is trusting them not to pre-install malware and rootkits. Lenovo have been found to do this three times in the last year, which for many is unacceptable. Fortunately, I did not find anything pre-installed on my P50 that I needed to remove. It seems that Lenovo responded to being found out and did the right thing in removing the offending software. It should never have been there to begin with, but at least they had removed it from their newly shipping products by the time I ordered mine.
Superfish, the SSL-circumventing private http destroyer, was not found on my machine.
I did need to disable “Lenovo Customer Feedback Program 64” using TaskSchedulerView.
Lenovo have released BIOS updates that omit the OneKey Optimizer malware that they once preloaded on ThinkPads. I wasn’t able to find information as to whether this was ever included in the BIOS for the P50 model; it’s possible it never was, as this model is more recent than the date Lenovo removed it from machines that had it.
Other Software I didn’t want
McAfee LiveSafe. I didn’t order this, but I had a subscription to it out of the box. I haven’t ever liked McAffee antivirus, since the late 1990’s I’ve been recommending against it.
Microsoft Office. Microsoft are really hard-selling their SaaS Office 365 suite. It was something added to my build list by default, and I had to remove it. I got a reminder at check out asking me if I was sure I really didn’t want it. I debated it for a few minutes, but ultimately I don’t use Office very much anymore, and really prefer Google Docs for most everything, for many reasons. Still, my P50 came with something pre-installed — not sure if it’s Office 365 or 2016. Either way, it’s not getting used, and will be removed. I might install a viewer app so I can handle .doc files that people might send me, or I might install an old license of Office 2007 that is still perfectly fine, but I’m not sure I’ll even need to do that.
Windows 10 nagware: This isn’t Lenovo’s fault by any means, but Microsoft is also really hard-selling Windows 10. They want the world to upgrade from Windows 7. I don’t ever plan to. Microsoft’s treatment of user’s private data is completely disrespectful, and unacceptable. And I’m not interested in re-learning how to use and manage the new version. I haven’t ever touched Win8, even. And they keep trying to push Windows Updates on Win7 users which keep trying to push an upgrade to Windows 10. At this point, the only thing that’s keeping me tied to Windows is GameMaker: Studio, and if it weren’t for that I’d be happily running on some Linux distro, most likely Ubuntu. I’m hoping that sometime during the lifetime of this hardware, I’ll be able to make the switch and dump Microsoft for good.
4K resolution problems – TL;DR solution: 2048 x 1152
It turns out that displaying 4K resolution on a 15.4″ display results in very, very, very tiny fonts. Windows 7 does not handle this well at all. I almost returned the machine for an exchange to a 1920×1080 screen, but after playing with settings for a few days, there are a few workarounds, which I find acceptable, but none of which are perfect:
Set font dpi to 200% or better. The control panel only shows options for 100%, 125%, and 150% at first, but you can set a “custom” dpi using a link at the right. The slider control for this tops out at 200%, but you can override this by typing in the value. I found that 250-300% was about where 12pt text started to get readable to me, but it’s still pretty small, and 10pt and lower is still ridiculously tiny. Unfortunately, this amount of magnification starts to break the containers that Windows puts text into, resulting in an ugly, disjointed Explorer GUI, and probably most applications as well.
Use Windows Classic theme and size the text manually. I created a custom theme for this, so you don’t have to. Download Win7_4K and apply it. I basically doubled the size of all the font settings in the theme. Unfortunately, not everything in Windows uses the Theme settings, particularly older software or software developed by amateurs. But even Windows itself doesn’t make all of its font sizes customizable through this interface, even in Explorer windows there will still be some fonts that are ridiculously small. What terrible design. Microsoft should be embarrassed.
Set display resolution to 2048 x 1152. OK, so native display resolution just doesn’t work well in this size display, at least the way Windows renders its GUI. The only other option is to set display resolution to a lower size. Both 2048×1152 and 1920×1080 look great, and other than not having the full resolution at your disposal, there’s not much of a downside.
The P50 uses chiclet key switches, not the scissor switches used in the T61 keyboard, but that’s acceptable.
I miss the “previous page” and “next page” keys from the T61p keyboard, which weree located at the left and right of the Up Arrow key on the T61p keyboard. On the P50, these have been replaced by Page Up and Page Down, which I definitely use a lot more frequently. As well, an accidental page up/down is less disruptive than an accidental previous/next page keystroke, and so I’ve come to like this change. One problem that I did have with the T61p in retrospect was accidentally hitting the “previous page” key when editing text in a web form, resulting in the browser going back to the previous page, losing everything I’d typed, when I’d simply wanted to move the cursor up a line. This happened fairly frequently, and was a serious annoyance.
I do miss that Page Up and Page Down are no longer in a tight cluster with Home/End. I also find that the cursor navigation keys are a bit harder to find by touch than they were on the T61p, where there they are at corners and edges, which made finding them very easy, even in the dark. On the P50, they’re to the right of the Right Ctrl key, but to the left of the 10key pad. I can find them most easily by going directly below the right Shift key.
A notable omission from the P50’s keyboard is a key for the Context Menu. Normally this is thought of as the “right-click” menu, but there’s a dedicated key on most keyboards for this as well, which is known as the Appskey. A workaround, to re-map the right-alt key to Appskey exists, using a free application called AutoHotKey. However, a downside of this is that Alt+PrintScreen is a very commonly used keystroke in my work, and if I re-map the right-alt key (which is right next to the print screen key on the P50) I sacrifice being able to do quick, easy print screen to copy buffer for the current window. But I also use the Appskey very frequently in my work as well. So I can instead re-map right-Ctrl to the Appskey, and do without a right-Ctrl key. None of these arrangements is truly ideal; they’re all compromises. My advice is to try it and see which arrangement you prefer.
The 10-key pad on the right side shifts the main keyboard left of center of the screen, which makes it a bit less comfortable to use, and the navigational keys aren’t as easy to find without taking my eyes off the screen to look for them. If I turn off numlock, though, it turns the 10-keys into Home, End, and arrow keys, which I like. I leave numlock off most of the time, unless I’m actually keying in a lot of numbers, and then I find it handy.
However, a huge negative with this keyboard is its rollover. If N-key rollover isn’t possible for technical reasons, I feel that at this price point a minimum of 6KRO should be expected. I can’t play games that use the keyboard for controls, because after just 2 buttons held down, a third key press is not reliably detected and reported to the OS. As a gamer and game developer, this matters, and is a huge, huge disappointment. If I gave laptop reviews a star rating, I’d penalize the P50 an entire star just for this issue. Maybe two stars. The built-in keyboard is that important to me.
The mousepad is off-center from the screen, but centered under the spacebar. It’s large enough that my palms will accidentally bump it occasionally, and this can be annoying, but it’s not a severe problem. I think I would like a slightly smaller mousepad, all the same.
The return of the physical buttons (three of them!) above and below the mousepad is what I like the most. It’s great to have physical buttons back in this generation of Thinkpad. The lack of them was why I refused to buy a W540 last year, when I first considered replacing the T61p.
If the machine didn’t have a 10key pad, and the layout was more like the T61p keyboard overall, and it had NKRO, I’d be completely in love. As it is, the keyboard is mostly decent, other than that it completely sucks for gaming.
Looking in the UEFI BIOS, there’s a couple of nice configurable settings. Foremost, Lenovo have enabled the user to decide to switch the Fn and left Ctrl key. This was a popular 3rd party hack for the T61p BIOS, but I never bothered with it because I didn’t want to risk running an unofficial BIOS. Now that it’s an officially supported option, I’m happy to have Ctrl in the standard location where it belongs, even if the keycaps aren’t identically shaped so I can’t switch them physically.
Also, there’s a BIOS setting to change the top row of keys from being special functions or F-keys. By default, if you press the top row keys, they’ll do things like adjust volume or dim the screen. If you’re used to using the F-keys for shortcuts, Alt+F4 closes windows, and F5 is browser refresh — I use that all the time. For me, it’s essential to switch this in BIOS. I could also do it by hitting Fn+Esc, which sets the Function lock on, but then the Fn lock LED is lit all the time, and I’d rather not have it lit all the time, just to save what little bit of battery drain it might use if for no other reason.
I didn’t find a default Numlock state setting in the BIOS, but I’d like the numlock to be disabled, so I can use the 10-key pad for its alternative function of navigating by cursor. Keeping the 10-key pad in this mode makes the keyboard layout slightly less annoying, since Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down, and another set of Arrow keys are all available through the 10-key keys. It’s just a single keystroke to toggle the numlock, but it’d be nice if it was always off after a reboot. Fortunately I don’t need to deal with this much, as I don’t reboot very often.
In August, I had to send my P50 back to Lenovo for warranty service, after a column of pixels got stuck on.
At 5 months, a column of pixels got stuck “on”. Lenovo fixed the issue under warranty, and the machine was out of my hands for a little over 48 hours. Very impressed.
Overall the experience was great, but contacting the right folks at Lenovo and getting a clear connection was not as easy as it should have been. After a few attempts I finally got a hold of the right department, they asked me some rudimentary troubleshooting questions, and once they understood the problem I was describing, they issued me a support ticket number and explained the process for the warranty repair.
The next day, a return shipping box was at my door. I removed my SSD, not wanting to risk my data being lost or falling into the wrong hands. Lenovo considers the SSD to be a “Customer Replaceable Unit” so there was no problem for me to do this, and it did not void my warranty. With the SSD removed, I packaged the laptop up and shipped it on a Wednesday, and it was returned to me Friday morning. This made me very happy.
Considering they had told me to expect it to be gone 7 days, I was very happy with the turnaround time. I don’t know what the problem was with the screen, but I suspect that it may have just been that the video cable needed to be reseated. They did not replace the screen (the tape I had put over the webcam was still there when I got it back), but the problem is gone.
This is a very high end midsize laptop with a ton of value and great features. Performance is outstanding, and the warranty support is even better. It’s pricey compared to lower end machines, but if you need a high end laptop, this is a very good one.
If it lasts me as long as my T61p did, it will have been well worth it. My T61p lasted me an incredible 8 years, and while I don’t think anyone expects that from a laptop (most are replaced in 2-4 years, typically) if I get 7 years out of the P50, that works out to less than a dollar per day. When you think about it that way, suddenly spending over $2.2k on a laptop seems very reasonable.
My only complaint with it is the keyboard. The keyboard is very good compared to most current laptops, but unfortunately it has terrible key rollover characteristics that make it a dud as a gaming machine. The keyboard layout may not be everything I wanted, but considering what we saw Lenovo putting on ThinkPads between the T6x generation and now, it’s nearly a return to their old form, and close enough to what I wanted that I can live with it, although I absolutely want Lenovo to deliver an NKRO keyboard with their next hardware revision.
Some users might feel that the lack of an optical drive/ultrabay is a disadvantage, and to them I would point them toward the ThinkPad P70.
The Dell XPS 13 and XPS 15 are also worth looking at in this performance class. But I think the P50 likely edges them out in most respects, but especially on the mousepad and keyboard. If you would prefer to avoid Lenovo for now due to the trust issues mentioned above, or other reasons, they might be more for you.
I haven’t tried out Linux on this machine yet, so I have no remarks as to it’s compatibility and stability with a Linux distro running on it.
Today I’ll talk about the features that I’d love to see on a new ThinkPad that harkens back to the best days of the product line.
15.4″ (but by all means, produce a full line of different sized ThinkPads with different screen sizes: 11″, 13″, 15″, 17″…)
16:10 aspect ratio — this is a MUST
10-bit IPS panel with at least up to 3K resolution
glare-free matte surface, not glossy.
not a touch screen (but I’m ok if it’s a configuration option at purchase)
Rugged, metal frame — aluminum, magnesium, or titanium
Rubberized black paint finish
Easy to work on. Repairing/replacing or upgrading the keyboard, RAM, and hard drive should be as easy as they were on the T61p.
RAM slots sufficient to support at least 32GB of RAM
Support ultrabay hard drive carrier
Door/sliding cover for webcam for paranoid folks
Sliding latch to securely hold lid closed
Weight and thickness not primary concern, should not constrain design or compromise durability or features.
Removable battery with sufficient capacity to run laptop for at least 12 hours of heavy, active use, on a charge — 18 hours would be even better. Yeah, a big bulky heavy battery. What good is the ultimate laptop if you can’t use it because it’s out of juice?
Modern everything. HDMI-out or Display Port out instead of VGA. USB 3.0 slots (at least four of those).
Gigabit ethernet (of course).
Optional for SD card reader slot
Full size slots, nothing proprietary or minimized for space
Laptop ergonomics are always a compromise. If you put in long hours on a laptop, you know how important comfort and usability are to productivity. So getting the best possible ergonomics given the constraints imposed by the design requirements is extremely important.
It seems many hardware design engineers have forgotten this. The quest for thinner, lighter, cheaper seems to have overshadowed comfort and usability, durability and ruggedness. With each passing hardware generation, we see the same refrain: “The new keyboard is not so bad, once you get used to it.” If we have to get used to a “not-so-bad” keyboard with every generation, doesn’t that suggest that they’re getting worse over time?
And yet, the keyboard is the one component of a laptop that you have the least configuration options for. There are no choices, no upgrades; the keyboard is the keyboard, and you get whatever the manufacturer designed. That means it’s all the more critical that manufacturers give their customers the best possible keyboard.
What if manufacturers gave us keyboards that didn’t take “getting used to”, but felt fantastically comfortable from the moment you used them?
Without a doubt, the best keyboard I have ever seen or used on a laptop has been the keyboard of my Lenovo ThinkPad T61p. It’s no secret, and everyone who’s used one knows how good they are and how far short any other laptop keyboard compares. This keyboard is so good that I’ve continued to use my T61p originally purchased in 2007. After my original T61p died this January, I shopped around looking at the new ThinkPads… and after looking at what was available, I went to eBay and bought myself another T61p.
I won’t be able to do that forever. Already, I feel a need for a machine that can support more than 8GB of RAM, and the new Core i7 CPUs are so much faster than my by-no-means inadequate 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo. And the battery life we see with the current generation of “ultrabooks” in 2015 is impressive.
Will we ever see a return to the keyboards of yore? It wish that it was not in doubt. But I have hope. It appears that Lenovo has finally responded to customer feedback, when this spring they brough back the old style trackpads with physical buttons that had disappeared with the 540 generation. And today, it appears that they are actively soliciting fans of the old ThinkPad brand to ask them what features made the old ThinkPad so legendary. And they updated the X1 Carbon with a more standard keyboard layout in response to complaints and criticism over a senseless radical departure from the norm. Perhaps we’ll glimpse perfection again someday.
To be sure, we will not see a return to greatness if we fail to recognize the things that made the best keyboard of all time so great.
Close to perfection
Behold, The T61p keyboard in all its glory.
Let’s take a look at what makes this keyboard so great.
Full-size keys, spaced the correct distance apart. This makes typing for long periods of time less tiresome, especially for people with larger hands.
Scissor Switch technology allows for longer travel for a laptop keyboard, which is more comfortable than “chiclet” keys. It’s not a full height keyboard like you’d find on a desktop class machine, but it’s very close, giving it a good feel and making it more comfortable again for long typing sessions.
The layout of the non-standard keys is ideal.
It’s important to appreciate how critical the placement of these keys is. Let’s look at them in detail.
A full row of Function Keys, F1-F12. In many newer layouts, this row is eliminated and the F-keys are combined with other keys. This makes compound keystrokes impossible if the F-key needs to be pressed at the same time as the key it is combined with. That’s probably pretty rare, but it is still nice to have this row of keys to themselves. I think keyboard designers eliminated this row in order to make room for larger trackpads. I don’t like large trackpads for a few reasons, which we’ll get into in the Trackpad section.
The arrow key cluster. Most importantly, the arrow keys are all full-sized, and arranged in an inverted “T” formation. Many keyboards save a key by squishing the up and down arrow keys into the space of a single key, putting all four arrow keys in a line, but this space savings comes at a cost of making up and down half sized, and makes controlling games that use the arrow keys way harder.
The other important thing about this cluster is the presence of the “Previous page” and “Next Page” buttons to either side of the up arrow. These are often replaced with “Pg Up and Pg Dn” buttons. I like “previous” and “next” here because it makes navigating web pages with this cluster very fast. I don’t have to move my fingers at all and I can scroll and hit the Back button or Forward button in a web browser. It’s very convenient, and I really miss it whenever I have to use a keyboard that doesn’t have this layout.The Insert|Delete|Home|End|PgUp|PgDn cluster. I really like these where they are, too. Being at the top right corner of the keyboard makes them simple to find by feel, without having to take my eyes off the screen. The Home/End and PgUp /PgDn pairs go very naturally together for navigating text documents with the keyboard. These navigational shortcuts are a great alternative to scrolling with the mouse wheel, and for moving the cursor when text editing. Insert and Delete change the cursor mode, Home and End can take you to the beginning or end of a line of text, while Ctrl+Home or Ctrl+End will take you to the beginning or end of the entire document. Pg Up and Pg Dn are better for scrolling than the mouse is, moving an entire window height up or down at a single keystroke. Clustering them in this arrangement makes for very intuitive and quick document navigation using the cursor, and enables me to be much more productive when working in text files or reading than if I have to move my hand to the trackpad or mouse.
Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break. These don’t get used a whole lot by most people. I use Print Screen all the time, to make screen captures, but the other two hardly at all. Putting them up here out of the way works. Having Print Screen at the left edge of this 3-key row makes it easy to find by touch, without having to take my eyes off the screen to look for it.
While we’re looking at this group, note the power button (the circular button at left.) While not part of the keyboard, proper, I will remark that I find the power button difficult to find by touch. If I’m fumbling around in the dark, it’s easier to find the ThinkVantage key, which feels more like I’d expect the power button to feel like. So, one thing I could recommend is change the power button, locating it closer to a corner of the keyboard, and give it a shape and feel more befitting a power button.
Keycaps shape and feel
All the keys are just shaped right. These keycaps are close to what old classic IBM Selectric typewriters and Model M keyboards felt like, and those were some of the best keyboards ever manufactured.
The Enter key isn’t L-shaped, which leaves room for the \| key directly above. The \| key doesn’t really have a reason to be larger, but it keeps symmetry with the Tab key on the left side, and helps a touch typist feel this edge of the keyboard. Esc isn’t double-sized, as it is on some later model Lenovo keyboards — I think making it the size of the Ctrl key, slightly larger than the standard key, would make it easier to find by touch. Ctrl is slightly wider than standard, but I like that, although it would be better if Ctrl were in the position occupied by Fn, where it belongs. Backspace is another good key to be larger than standard, as it is used frequently by most, and this makes it easier to find in the top right corner.
Sufficient Key Rollover: a must have
Keyboard Rollover is is the ability of a computer keyboard to correctly handle several simultaneous keystrokes. N-Key Rollover (NKRO) is the ideal — it means that the keyboard can handle any number of simultaneously key presses. At a minimum, a good keyboard should have 6KRO.
I’ve mostly used high-end keyboards that have high #KRO or NKRO, and have only recently encountered a keyboard with low KRO. Unfortunately this happens to be my new ThinkPad P50, which is a great laptop in most respects, but it has a paltry 2KRO. If I’m holding down more than two keys simultaneously, a third key press often is not detected (depending on which keys are down). This makes the keyboard hopelessly unsuited to gaming, and as a game developer, this is really not acceptable.
You can test the key rollover of a keyboard by holding down both shift keys simultaneously and then trying to type the alphabet. If any letters don’t type, your keyboard has low rollover. This should never, ever happen on a high end machine. Or any machine, really.
Fn/Ctrl positions should be swapped
On most keyboards, the Fn key is nested between the Ctrl and Windows keys. On the T61p layout, this is reversed. There’s no reason for it, and it’s one of the most common complaints about the T61 layout. In fact, there are even third party firmware hacks to remap the keys into their preferred positions: Ctrl outside, Fn to the right. In the ideal keyboard layout, Ctrl should go first.
10-Key or not 10-Key?
Many widescreen laptops have 10-key numeric keypads these days, much like 104-key extended keyboards on desktop keyboards. This forces the main keyboard off-center with respect to the screen, which means that the users arms and hands will have to skew left of center the majority of the time when typing, which feels awkward. Unless you do a large amount of numeric data entry, a 10-key is not necessary or recommended for a laptop keyboard. Thankfully, at least the trackpad is still centered under the space bar, keeping it directly between the hands on most laptops with extended keyboards that incorporate a 10-key pad. But typing on the QWERTY keyboard, with the hands offset relative to the screen is less comfortable. The extra keys of the 10-key pad also add to the complexity and cost of the keyboard.
Most users don’t need a 10-key pad, and can live without. Unless you’re doing heavy numerical data entry, they don’t add of value. You could always buy a USB 10-key pad as a peripheral and use that if you needed one. Before laptops started sporting 10-key pads on the right of the main keyboard, they used to use the Fn key to use the right half of the keyboard as a sort of slanted 10-key option. I’ve never bothered switching into this mode, and don’t miss a 10-key pad. So, my preference would be for a regular QWERTY keyboard, without a 10-key pad, and the QWERTY keyboard and touchpad centered in the laptop chassis.
Still, some people will want 10-key pads and others will not — and the number who do not is not inconsequential. But the number of people who can’t live without a 10-key pad is much smaller than the number of people who don’t need it. I would prefer not to have a 10-key pad in my ideal laptop. This would be a good item to make a configuration option at time of purchase. Modular, interchangeable keyboard FRUs that have or omit the 10-key pad would be a great solution.
Are backlit keyboards necessary?
Again, some people like them, and some don’t. Illuminated keys can be helpful when typing in low light conditions, but they drain battery and add cost to manufacturing, although probably not significantly, since most laptop keyboards seem to use them these days. Most of them have an option to turn the backlight off and adjust the brightness level, and this seems to be the best choice. It enables everyone to be happy. On laptops which have this feature, I just turn the backlight off, and touch type as always.
Which type of switches is the best?
This is subjective and people can have their own opinions. These days, there are three main types of keyboard: chiclet, dome, and buckling spring. The T61p keyboard had scissor switches, a type of dome switch. These work and feel great — almost as great as buckling spring switches.
I find “chiclet” keys to be fine, I can use a chiclet keyboard without issue, and type fast and with confidence with them, but I still prefer the feel of the scissor switch keys on my T61p. Some people prefer the lower travel of the chiclet key, and manufacturers favor them today because they enable thinner designs. But I really prefer the feel of the full travel key caps, and the scissor switches in the T61p keyboard give a closer approximation of the way full travel keyboards feel.
The biggest disadvantage of the scissor-switch keyboard is that it adds to the overall thickness of the machine, but I strongly believe that thinness is a highly overrated feature. With ultra-thin laptops approaching 0.5 inches, there’s not much room left to go thinner. And there’s plenty of leeway for making a laptop a little thicker to allow for a better keyboard. The T61p is 1.4 inches thick, and I’ve never once felt that it was an issue. I would much rather have a thicker, heavier laptop that is more rugged and will hold up to years of heavy use, and has more room for expansion or battery, than a ultra thin and light laptop.
Really, though, on the switch type, I could go either way. Chiclet keys feel nice enough to be acceptable, but for longer typing sessions I truly like the additional travel and resistance of scissor switches. This is an area where making it a configurable option would be nice. A modular, interchangeable FRU keyboard offering the user their choice of chiclet or scissor switch keys would make everyone happy.
While we’re at it, let’s look at the pointing devices. First, we have the TrackPoint stick, the red nub. People who use them really love them, and they don’t get in the way of people who don’t. They’re a vital part of the ThinkPad brand and image, and should never be done away with.
Next, we have the touchpad. The touchpad is surrounded top and bottom with physical mouse buttons. these are well designed and robust. Positioning them top and bottom is important because it makes them reachable to both the thumb and fingers, regardless of where the hand is positioned on the keyboard or touchpad, which makes using the buttons quicker. We also see a middle mouse button, which is useful for Linux users.
As for the touchpad itself, it is only 2.25 x 1.5 inches — which is ideal. Newer generation notebook PCs have trended toward larger touchpads, which allows for greater precision with reduced sensitivity, but I really prefer this smaller size. It is not so large that it becomes an easy target for accidental bumps by the palm of the hand. I never accidentally brushed the touchpad on my T61p with the heel or palm of my hand when typing, which means I never accidentally click the mouse cursor away from where I’m typing. I do have this problem on many newer model laptop keyboards, and it is a constant, huge annoyance.
The touchpad is not multi-touch capable, and that would be a good improvement to add to this design. It does have scroll regions at the right and bottom edge, which are configurable.
The UltraNav touchpad driver is excellent, with lots of configuration options to get it to work just how the user prefers.
It’d be great if keyboards were more interchangeable in laptops, across different models and manufacturers. It would take a great effort of the industry to standardize the top half of all laptop chassis to have the same shape and size space for a keyboard. But there’s no reason it couldn’t happen, if manufacturers decided to standardize, or if a manufacturer decided standardize within their own product lines. The computer industry has standardized on other things, so why not a standard to allow laptop keyboards to be more interchangeable between different models and makers? This could spur innovation in improving keyboards, since users would not longer be stuck with whatever the designers engineered for a particular model — users would be free to upgrade and choose the style and layout that they prefer.
I doubt that it will happen on an industry-wide level, that we’ll be able to buy generic commodity keyboards from any maker and put it into any laptop, there’s just too much inertia for it. But it could happen if the industry decided it wanted to. Even if it didn’t want to, manufactures could standardize more within their own model lines, and offer a greater variety of keycap types and layouts to satisfy the preferences of different customers. I expect the main reasons they don’t do so have to do with cost, and to some extent integration and aesthetics issues. But these are not insurmountable issues.
For me, a better keyboard is still well worth paying some premium for. A keyboard that doesn’t feel cramped, has a familiar layout for ALL keys, and a satisfying feel, for me, would be something I’d easily pay another $50-100 for, if it were an option to purchase an upgraded keyboard that was just the way I like it.