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.