If you bought a ThinkPad from Lenovo (or IBM back in the days) in the past, it was pretty certain that you got one of the best keyboards on the market. Obviously there have been changes over the years, like the switch from 7 to 6 rows, or the switch to chiclet-style keyboards. But they were still better compared to other rivals and the expensive ThinkPad X1-series in particular had excellent input devices. This seems to be a thing of the past though…
Let’s have a look at the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (14 inch), which offers a very sturdy and lightweight chassis in combination with numerous ports for years now. But with every new generation, you get the impression that things are not getting improved, but you have to make more compromises instead. The 7th generation, for example, introduced a good speaker system and low power displays, but the keyboard quality suffered due to the reduced key travel from 1.8 to 1.5 mm, which is immediately noticeable. The new X1 Carbon Gen 9 now switches back to 16:10 screens and the key travel stayed at 1.5 mm, but the height of the keys itself was reduced and some keys are narrower, which is also immediately noticeable. But why did Lenovo change the keyboard again? We can only speculate, maybe the space was required for the bigger battery and the new cooling solution without using a thicker chassis. Maybe Lenovo just wanted to reduce the quality gap to the new X1 Nano and X1 Titanium Yoga, which use 1.35 mm key travel.
Lenovo still advertises the keyboards with “proven ThinkPad quality” and yes, the keyboards are not bad by any means. Based on our own experiences, we can also say that you get used to the new inputs pretty quickly. It also depends what you have used before; if you come from an inexpensive consumer laptop, you will probably be very happy with the keyboard of the ThinkPad X1 Nano, for example. We at Notebookcheck, however, review a lot of laptops, and if you compare the new keyboards with other current ThinkPads, you just notice the big difference and you start asking why less expensive models (like the T or L series) are equipped with superior keyboards? The ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 3 is currently the last exception within the X1 lineup, because it is still equipped with an excellent 1.8 mm keyboard. We have information that the upcoming 4th generation of the X1 Extreme will also be equipped with 1.5 mm key travel.
You must not be naive though; there is obviously a trend towards thinner devices and there will probably never be a modern laptop with an IBM keyboard from 20 years ago. We still think these limitations on the X1 Carbon and the soon the X1 Extreme are completely unnecessary, because Lenovo has suitable devices with the X1 Nano and the X1 Titanium Yoga if you want the lightest or the thinnest device.
The thickness of the new X1 Carbon Gen 9 is pretty much identical to the predecessor, but the typing experience is still worse. The X1 Carbon still offers plenty of ports (and this will hopefully stay this way for the next couple of years) and Lenovo uses standard ULV CPUs, so the engineers look at other components to save space. But let’s be honest, would anyone have a problem if the new model was half a millimeter thicker, but be equipped with a better keyboard and all the other advantages (bigger battery, new cooling solution, 16:10 displays)? We don’t think so. Quite the contrary, most users (and many of them are experienced ThinkPad users) would probably be very happy. Input devices are still the most important interface in addition to displays and you use them every day. We are not talking about lifestyle products, but devices for productive work.
What do we want to see? Well, that’s pretty simple. It is understandable that products like the X1 Nano exist, where you have to make compromises. They are great from a marketing perspective and the lightest ThinkPad sounds pretty good, for example. But we think Lenovo should recognize that the development of the X1 Carbon and X1 Extreme is headed in the wrong direction and some customers will probably switch to another brand. If the keyboard is not great anymore, it is just one fewer reason to get an expensive ThinkPad.
You could say that Lenovo still offers models like the ThinkPad T14s or the T14. Yes, the keyboards are better (at least right now), but you do not get 16:10 aspect ratio screens or good sound systems, for example.
It would be so easy to release a slightly thicker X1 Carbon, which is once again equipped with the 1.8 mm keyboard from the X1 Carbon G6 including the corresponding TrackPoint buttons with the slight hump (instead of the flat TrackPoint buttons). Then add an SD-card reader and make sure that all X1 Carbon models are WWAN-ready out of the box (like it was a couple of years ago). Combined with new 16:10 displays, the good port selection, the long battery runtime, and good speaker system, you would have a much better overall package, and we think many customers would happily buy such a device.
Even as a very optimistic person we think it very unlikely that this will happen though. Sometimes you just have the feeling that manufacturers do not listen to their customers, but this is not just the case for Lenovo. By the way: This article was written by a long-term ThinkPad user (T61, X230, T440, X1 Carbon G7) and was typed on the keyboard of the X1 Carbon G7.