IBM rethinks its ThinkPad line

IBM Corp. has hit the road with the newest members of its ThinkPad series of notebooks, which were designed to enhance and simplify the mobile computing experience.

IBM has merged its ThinkPad 770 and ThinkPad 390 to make one family called the A20 series.

“We’ve identified with our customers that there’s a lot of commonality in terms of what those types of customers are looking for from a feature/function basis,” said Greg Munster, director of marketing operations, IBM Mobile Systems.

Another new series, the T20, will be a direct replacement of the ThinkPad 600. IBM researchers went to the public to find out what the ideal 600 would include, and most liked the model exactly as is. The T20 replacement of the 600 is the same, only thinner and lighter in weight, with a 14.1-inch display.

“I always liked the 600 but this is just another step better,” said Ken Dulaney, vice-president of mobile computing at GartnerGroup Inc. in San Jose, Calif.

Dulaney stressed the importance of the weight of the T20, which is 4.6 lbs.

“Weight is the main characteristic. [You] may or may not have a bay for a peripheral, but it is ergonomically correct; you can work on it all day,” Dulaney said.

According to Dulaney, anything below the T20’s weight would typically compromise on screen and keyboard size, making it difficult to work on for a full day.

“Most people are buying into this particular category because, from the user standpoint, weight is their number one concern today.”

Tim Bajarin said he can live with smaller screens, and he would go smaller and thinner.

“This is not an ultra light,” said Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. “True road warriors are migrating to smaller and even thinner. I’d still like that thing to become lighter in weight.”

IBM is also introducing two different docking solutions; ThinkPad port replicator and ThinkPad Dock, which work with both series. These docking solutions, according to IBM, provide an easier-to-manage experience.

The port replicator offers users cable management for quick access to the notebook and other desktop resources such as printer, external monitor, USB devices and a WorkPad PC companion cradle. The dock offers all of the same features plus expansion capability with the modular Ultrabay 2000, a half-sized PCI card slot, two PC Card Slots and two USB ports. It also features an integrated power supply.

“I like that the docking connector is at the bottom of the machine rather than the back,” said Dulaney. “I prefer (this) because it leaves the back of the machine open, allowing you to use some of the ports on the back.”

Munster said the same devices work on either system.

“You take one module, and it can be shared across various platforms,” he said.

The machines have built-in Ethernet and modem. IBM provides pass-through for those signals through the port replicator.

“Now you don’t have to, as an IT shop, worry about losing all those little cables that go in the cards. They broadcast the signals for the modem and Ethernet down through the bus connector and into the port replicator,” Dulaney said. “That mean the port replicator can be a lot simpler, saving you complexity.”

According to Munster, the most important new innovation is the feature called the ThinkPad button.

The ThinkPad button gives users one-button access to ThinkPad Assistant and Access ThinkPad. ThinkPad Assistant offers a search engine and on-line users guide, with animated demos of operating procedures. Access ThinkPad links to the information the user needs to set up and learn about their notebook.

“I think the ThinkPad button is a brilliant move because it permits you to bundle a whole bunch of support strategies under a single button,” Dulaney said.

The notebooks come preloaded with several different operating systems – Microsoft Windows 98, 2000, 95, NT4 and IBM’s own OS/2. And for the first time, IBM is also offering ThinkPad’s with a Linux OS – Caldera Inc.’s OpenLinux eDesktop 2.4.

“They don’t think about the machine as just a box, but as a device that you can’t live without. It’s the product to beat right now in that weight class,” Dulaney said.

But Bajarin is still waiting for the perfect laptop. “No one has created what I call my perfect machine. I believe a perfect laptop for guys like us, what I call road warriors, has to come in under three pounds,” Bajarin said.

Nobody will bring him the perfect machine, Bajarin said, as ultimately he wants everything.

“I want a machine that is going to be able to function in any circumstance I need,” Bajarin said.

Pricing for the A20m (mainstream) starts at $2,899, and the A20p (performance) is priced at $6,000. Pricing for the T series starts at $4,059.