The story of how Lenovo’s ThinkPads are redefining what PCs can do, with the help of Intel

The story of how Lenovo’s ThinkPads are redefining what PCs can do, with the help of Intel

Late last year, Lenovo introduced the ThinkPad X1 Nano, its latest entry into the premium X1 family. It seemed like a thinner and lighter version of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. That felt odd too, since the Carbon was already supposed to be the thin and light member of the family.

Then at CES, the company went even further. The ThinkPad X1 Titanium arrived, alongside the ThinkPad X12 Detachable when there hadn’t been a detachable since 2018’s ThinkPad X1 Tablet. The Titanium seemed like a ThinkPad X1 Yoga that was made out of titanium and had a 3:2 display. No big deal, right?

I was dead wrong. The ThinkPad X1 Nano and the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga ended up becoming two of my favorite PCs on the market. They’re not just modified versions of the Carbon and the Yoga. These are brand-new, solving real pain points, and unlocking new capabilities that we’ve never seen on computers before.

ThinkPad X1 Nano and X1 Titanium on wooden bench

ThinkPad X1 Nano on top, Titanium Yoga on the bottom

We’d never seen it before because it wasn’t possible. The CPUs in these laptops are from the Tiger Lake UP4 family, the successor to the Y-series. If you’re familiar with Y-series laptops, then you’ll know they weren’t very good. That changed.

After reviewing the ThinkPad X1 Nano, the ThinkPad X1 Titanium, and the ThinkPad X1 Detachable, I was left with one question: why isn’t everyone talking about this? In my opinion, this is one of the greatest innovations in the PC space that we’ve seen in a decade.

That’s when I decided I wanted to talk to Lenovo and Intel about this. When I spoke to Lenovo, I got to sit down with Thomas Butler, David Middleton, and Adam Howes.

Lenovo interview with Thomas Butler, David Middleton, and Adam Howes about the ThinkPad X1 Nano and X1 Titanium Yoga

Rich: I wanted to ask you guys about the X1 Titanium, the X1 Nano, and the X12 Detachable because these all feel like they’re in the same family. And I feel like at some point there might have been some decision where you want to make really cool, thin and light stuff; you did a clamshell, a convertible, and a tablet. Can you tell me the story of when you guys thought to start doing this?

Thomas Butler: I’ll jump in a little bit. We own, basically from conception to end of life, the products. You’re talking to the three of us; David and Adam are the guys. I’m always the front man that blocks you from having access to the real team. We’re going to do that today and give you the down-low access. It’s not unlike what you just described. Basically, the three of us were sitting around over some beers and then decided one day, let’s make a thin, light, and sexy detachable. I’ll give you a little bit of the background and let David fill in with the real story.

Hand holding Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano

ThinkPad X1 Nano

Rich: But also, when you talk about ultra-portable, I always felt like the Carbon was supposed to be that, where it weighs, recently, 2.49 pounds. Then, you went and took it a step further, and went under two pounds with the ThinkPad X1 Nano. I’m also going to be talking to Intel later this week, because the chipsets in there are what made this possible, since it wasn’t possible before. I wanted to get both sides of that story though. I want to talk to you guys about the design of the PC and the story behind that, and then I’ll talk to them about the chips.

Thomas: If you just take a step back and look at a little bit of history to lead you up to where we are with these platforms, and if you think about what ThinkPad stands for, we’re constantly looking at how we evolve and innovate. We’ve had various sizes, screen sizes, and different mobility around for decades now. Some of it is, how do we take some of the customers’ needs, the new user experiences, and the drive towards a more mobile platform, and then innovate pretty significantly on these use cases?

I’ll use the X1 Carbon because you brought that one up, and it’s actually a great example. We’re going to be coming in on a decade of this platform and it even started before that with the X300, which ultimately became the X1 Carbon. With that platform, we wanted it to be the expression of ultra-mobile, but then have all of the function and ports around it, having the full-size USB-A’s, the full-size HDMI, etc. It limits it to a degree. By the way, I love it. 2.4 pounds with what I call ‘all the kitchen sink around it’.

Every year, if I’m working on 10 generations of this platform, we’re twisting the dials. We’re getting a little bit thinner, a little bit lighter, a little bit more battery life, a little bit more performance. Every year, it’s an incremental build upon the original concept, which is the full kitchen sink, and then off you go. Then, if you step back and look at this market, and candidly it was pre-COVID, although as we go through this, we’ll talk about how COVID hasn’t hurt this whatsoever, but we looked at how do we further express that mobile statement, and we were lining up with a couple of things.

First there was the coming together with 5G and the platforms, which would be higher bandwidth, always connected devices. Then as you mentioned, and I’ll give credit to Intel, they’ve been humming along on 14-nanometer platforms for multiple generations. They were lining up to this 11th-gen 10-nanometer platform and we were able to get to much smaller motherboards, in much smaller packages that would then allow us to stretch that.

Close up of ThinkPad X1 logo with carbon fiber weave

ThinkPad X1 Nano

With the ThinkPad X1 Nano, how do we take that Carbon and really express it in an ultra-mobile platform? Those were the two pieces and then the third piece that lined up was the return of the 16:10 display. If you think about that display size and ratio, we, quite a few years ago, very begrudgingly moved across to 16:9. We had been on 4:3 for almost over a decade, then when we went to widescreen, we went to 16:10 because we felt like that was the right screen size, the right height, and the right productivity platform.

And then consumer TVs popped up and everybody wanted widescreen. The general market said, I want widescreen, so there’s this massive pull in the industry to go to widescreen displays, which is great for content consumption. Then, the panel manufacturers ultimately, because of the scale and the manufacturing they had to do on the TVs, begrudgingly moved down to 16:9 for laptops. So, we were one of the last holdouts to move over and so as it’s reopened back up to get to a 16:10 panel, and when I say reopened, with volume because I’m shipping millions of ThinkPads, so I’ve got to make sure I got the scale right.

Rich: And we’re seeing a lot of it across the industry. Why do you think that that’s suddenly making the shift? Think Microsoft has something to do with it because they’ve been pushing 3:2 for a while now?

Thomas: The 16:10 aspect ratio is ultimately what we believe is the right expression for a laptop, and I think part of it is just the market in general driving and demanding user choice. That’s versus saying ‘here’s what you’re going to get, here’s your next one’. That helped to triangulate across the three areas to go to that ultimate expression of 16:10 13-inch, which is basically the height of a 14-inch 16:9. I get the great usable screen in the expression of an ultra-mobile platform. I wanted to give you a backstory of the history to understand. David, Adam, and I are constantly talking with customers, reviewing customer reviews, forums, and have a feedback mechanism where we’re driving to see what can we do better, and what can we work on next.

How do we improve generationally, but also how do we address new use cases? ThinkPad X1 Nano was one of those; Titanium is another one that we’ll talk about in a moment, about how to go after a market and come in with something that we believe really does check the boxes when you’re looking for the use cases that we design for.

Another thing that I was wondering about is why things are so different between the ThinkPad X1 Nano and the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga. These two laptops are clearly from the same family, one clamshell and one convertible. But still, Lenovo used titanium in one and carbon fiber in the other, a haptic touchpad in one and not the other, and so on.

Rich: Now, speaking of designing for different markets and use cases, there are some decisions that were made differently for the two products you mentioned. There’s a 16:10 display on the ThinkPad X1 Nano, a 3:2 screen on the Titanium Yoga, and a 3:2 display on the X12 Detachable. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

David Middleton: Hi, I’m David. My team and I are responsible for planning the portfolio and the front end, working on the product line. So, I’m thinking one to three years out.

When you look at these, as Tom mentioned, we really want the X1 line to go beyond 16:9 and go back to 16:10. As we looked at particularly X1 Titanium and X12 Detachable, those products are trying to solve for those folks that really like the tablet use case of products, and those narrower and taller screens work a lot better when you’re flipping them between portrait and landscape mode. That 3:2 aspect ratio really fit that use case best for those products. Some users of detachables aren’t using that experience; they say they don’t detach the product. They like the thinness and they like the 3:2 aspect ratio. A lot of them just weren’t detaching the keyboard. So for that product, we made it super-thin, with a more tablet-oriented aspect ratio screen for those users that use it mostly with a keyboard attached to it, and then you flip it around, and you got the tablet use case whether you’re in portrait or in landscape mode.

ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga in convertible mode

ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga

Rich: That Titanium is so comfortable to use as a tablet, almost more so than a Surface Pro or something. I don’t know why it just feels so natural to hold. It’s a good product.

Thomas: Holding a piece of paper, there’s a reason for that 13.5-inch 3:2, because if you think about a tablet use case, it’s basically an 8.5×11 or an A4 piece of paper. You just pull the pen off and you’ve optimized for the tablet use case. We love the fact that you fold it back on itself – our 360-degree form factors aren’t really designed for long-term use in tablet form factor. They do fold back into a tablet, but they’re not designed for it; so when we built this, we designed it with that tablet use case in mind in the first place.

There’s an interesting bit here about how the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium is positioned. It’s actually meant to be a replacement for the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, a product that hasn’t been refreshed since 2018. I think it was clear that we weren’t getting a new X1 Tablet, and that Lenovo wasn’t planning to refresh it, but the plan ended up being to design the Titanium Yoga as a tablet first. Now, it’s super-comfortable to use as a tablet, but at the same time, it doesn’t have a flimsy attachable keyboard. It’s meant to be the ultimate hybrid machine.

And then, with the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga being the successor to the X1 Tablet, it turned out there were some businesses that did still want the true tablet form factor. That’s why the ThinkPad X12 Detachable was born, and also why it’s not in the X1 lineup as a new ThinkPad X1 Tablet.

Adam Howes: I have to jump in. I’m swooping in over the top of David here. David said he’s one to three years out. I’m one year to end of lifecycle. We position it as if my team makes David’s team’s dreams come true. They conceptualize and work with the teams, and then they say, “Alright. Here’s what we’re making.” The executive team says to go do it, and then my team goes and tries to make sure that what comes out the other end is exactly what they said.

On this one, what’s really interesting is that we felt pretty strongly that the detachable form factor was not really the right form factor for the commercial market. Ultimately, ThinkPad is a commercial product. Microsoft spent so much money on marketing Surface; detachable, the keyboard, it can be a tablet, it can be a laptop, it can be a PC, it can be both. We had an X1 Detachable, or an X1 Tablet as we called it at the time. We left it out there for a long time, but we were not going to replace it.

The X1 Titanium was going to be the follow-on product because it is such a perfect tablet. It can do both. It can be a tablet; it can be a laptop. You can’t remove the keyboard, but it’s so optimized in its thinness and its weight that you don’t have to. Tom and I spent a lot of time talking to customers and they said, we still have to have this detachable type of form factor. There are use cases – whether it’s retail, point of sale, banking, or even just some end users – really like it and said that we have to make another one. You can’t just move to this X1 Titanium. Also, one would argue that titanium is not the most inexpensive material. It was going to cause a little bit of a price shock if we shift all of our business to that type of product, so we added the product back to our portfolio.

Rear view of ThinkPad X12 Detachable with kickstand open

ThinkPad X12 Detachable

Rich: I wanted to ask that also. Why make an X12 Detachable instead of an X1 Detachable, because the last X1 Tablet had a 13-inch screen, but this one is 12.3 inches; it has one Thunderbolt port and a USB-C 3.2 rather than both Thunderbolt 4. So, why make an X12 instead of an X1?

David: One thing we wanted to do is focus on those users, on those that want to leave the keyboard behind whether permanently or part-time, and really optimize the form factor. We really wanted to shrink it back down, so instead of downgrading the X1 Tablet, the X1 Tablet really rolls into the X1 Titanium. This X12 tablet is the re-coming out of the detachable in the ThinkPad space. We brought it out as the X12 Detachable, and then if you’re using the 13-inch X1 Tablet, we push toward the X1 Titanium with the bigger screen, and that cool titanium. For those that are die-hard detachable users, we optimize more around that use case with that product.

Thomas: That’s a good point. With the Detachable and its 12.3-inch size, we wanted to optimize for the smallest tablet that would afford you a full-size keyboard, because we believe that the keyboard is important. When you step back and look at the detachable market, one of the frustrations is, I want a tablet but I’m always going to carry a keyboard with me because at some point I’m going to want to put them together to have a productive form factor. That’s what we went off and solved with the X1 Titanium. We optimized for wanting the keyboard. When we were testing, talking to customers, and talking to different focus groups and markets, they said, “Yeah, we hear you, we love the Titanium, but some of us just want a tablet and we are going to detach it. You know, we’ll leave it in the car or leave it on the desk and just carry the tablet for most of our day. We do want the full-size keyboard, so we’re with you there, but it has that stiff platform and the ThinkPad experience you would expect.” So that’s why we, as David said, reintroduced the Detachable back into our portfolio. It’s quite an interesting time because to your point, we’re circling around these different form factors, th