Lenovo is trying to make ThinkPads cool to the kids. The company has launched the ThinkPad Z-series, a thin and light ThinkPad line with funky colors, eco-friendly packaging, and a distinctly modern look.
“If you’re currently buying, especially in the business market, a consumer-look-and-feel design, this is the product you should look at,” Tom Butler, executive director of the ThinkPad portfolio, told The Verge. “We’re going to bring in all the elements of a robust business-class device, but it’s going to be in more of this consumer, progressive, modern design.”
There’s a 13-inch model (the Z13) and a 16-inch model (the Z16). Both include some of the most recognizable ThinkPad features: namely, the light-up logo and the tiny red TrackPoint. But elsewhere, it’s a brand new look. The Z13 comes in arctic gray, black, and a blackish “recycled vegan leather.” The packaging is made from recyclable and compostable bamboo and sugar cane, and the adapter is “90 percent post-consumer content.” The screen is 16:10 — the bezels are so tiny you can barely see them.
These models also lack some of the more idiosyncratic ThinkPad features. The discrete clickers found on many ThinkPad touchpads are gone. The Control and Function keys, famously reversed on most ThinkPads, are in their customary places on Z-Series keyboards. Brian Leonard, Lenovo’s VP of design, says this is to help ease new users’ transitions from other consumer models — and, to be fair, I complain in every ThinkPad review I write about how much of a pain it is to adjust to the ThinkPad layout. The long-beloved half-sized arrow keys have met the same fate on the Z-Series — full sizes here in order to keep the bottom of the keyboard one smooth line. “What we wanted to do was really go back to the initial concept around ThinkPad, which was really about this perfect black rectilinear box,” says Leonard.
The other thing you might notice is the camera enclosure. It’s a statement — it’s very visible at the top of the lid, and anyone walking past while you’re using a Z-series will notice it. The specs of the camera and microphone (1080p f2.0 and dual-array mics, respectively) are engraved on the outside. Butler says this bold look was intended to be a “celebration of the camera,” an infrared 1080p shooter that looked fairly usable during my brief hands-on. The design choice, though, was “definitely a big debate” among Lenovo’s team, Leonard recalled.
Perhaps most excitingly, the line is AMD-exclusive — both models use AMD’s latest Ryzen Pro processors, while the Z16 can also include an AMD discrete GPU and the Z13 can house a Lenovo-exclusive Ryzen Pro chip. Such an arrangement isn’t unheard of for high-end ThinkPads. While a number of Lenovo’s consumer models include both AMD and Intel options, much of the X1 series is Intel-exclusive and co-engineered with Intel. Butler says Lenovo similarly worked closely with AMD on the Z-series chassis. “If you try to put something else in there, you’re gonna sub-optimize,” he says.
Designing the Z-Series has been more than a two-year process. Lenovo drew from over 1,000 interviews with “different age groups,” Butler says, and also took cues from the performance of some of the funkier, mind-blowingly thin and light ThinkPads it tried last year, including the X1 Titanium Yoga and the X1 Nano.
One early prototype had no delineation between the touchpad and the palm rests, creating a single, smooth slab beneath the keyboard (a look that I suspect other ultraportables may try this year as haptic touchpads grow more common). Lenovo abandoned this because it anticipated (probably correctly) that people might be confused about where to click.
The company also tried a webcam that was hidden completely beneath the screen (it was not visible at all on the prototype I saw). COVID-19, which made webcam performance a bigger priority for much of Lenovo’s target audience, did away with this plan. Early units also included a convertible model (also ultimately scrapped — clamshells are a much larger market) and a numpad (Lenovo’s research found that its target audience wants the touchpad centered under the spacebar, which a numpad makes difficult).
So the Z-Series, ultimately, is not as kooky and new-age as the designers may originally have dreamed. Leonard did, though, caveat that the scrapped features may still be on the table for future models. And overall, the sort of laptop Lenovo has its eye on is clear: a smooth, sleek block of aluminum, with as few odds and ends sticking out as possible.
Is that a good thing? That seems to be what we can look forward to finding out over the next two years as more companies go after such a thin, seamless ideal.
The Z-Series certainly lives up to Lenovo’s marketing: In person, it is every bit as thin, as light, as sleek, and as all-screen as Lenovo claims. But there are also tradeoffs. There’s a bit less key travel than you’ll find on some more established ThinkPad lines, and keyboard quality is something ThinkPad owners are very, very attached to. The touchpad is also haptic, and the click feels fairly shallow. I’m sure this is something you’d get used to as an owner — and haptic touchpads have the benefit of being more customizable — but I still didn’t particularly enjoy clicking with it. RAM is also soldered, and port selection is limited: the Z13 only has two USB-C slots.
There are certainly many shoppers for whom these limitations won’t be a problem, and Lenovo has clearly done its research on what its target customers prefer. Still, Apple has managed to figure out how to make devices close to as thin as these without obliterating the connectivity or compromising the touchpad (and Samsung has a great business laptop that’s both thinner and lighter). That doesn’t mean the Z-Series doesn’t have other advantages over these — there’s nothing quite like a ThinkPad, as the line’s continued dominance over the business market reflects, and an exclusive partnership with chipmaking-superpower AMD is undoubtedly one of the most exciting announcements to emerge from this year’s CES.
But big sacrifices in the name of thinness have also led to disaster in the past (I’m currently typing this on a 2019 MacBook Pro and hating my life). I’m looking forward to trying these models out and am tentatively in favor of the rectilinear future they point to in the PC space. At the same time, I really, really hope Lenovo isn’t falling victim to the “thin at all costs” mindset that brought us the butterfly keyboard.