February 7, 2006 A few weeks ago as CES 2006 was drawing to a close, Gizmag's Dave Weinstein and Rob Walker were invited to a closed door meeting with some of Lenovo's top designers. From time to time we get a chance to peek into the future and get a glimpse at the gear we may possibly be using a year (or five) from now, and the preview we received from Lenovo was one of the most promising demonstrations we've seen in a very long time. A large part of Apple's recent string of successes can be attributed to their outstanding industrial design. It's becoming much harder to differentiate product on a strict technology basis (note the CES trend of over-integration). We think we're witnessing a resurgence in the importance of good design. As a result of Lenovo's purchase of IBM's PC division (and that group's continued focus on ID), we think we'll soon see Lenovo established as a premier consumer brand. Unfortunately, since some of the device prototypes demonstrated were top secret, we were told that we could write about them, but couldn't take pictures. Accordingly, though we can show you some pictures, we'll do our best to describe what we've seen and you'll have to fill in the blanks with your imagination.
Reinventing the Desktop
First up was David Hill, Lenovo's Research Triangle Park design leader. It looks like Lenovo's been busy trying to figure out how to build a better office PC and they've got two concept devices that looked polished enough that they could be produced today if the company decided to bring them to market.
The first was a utilitarian take on the standard "tower" PC. Basically, without relying on any Star Trek like future technology breakthroughs, Lenovo's designers managed to rearrange the traditional physical layout of the PC to be more reliable and easier to service. The internal motherboard of the device has been turned 90 degrees so all the connectors are exposed on the TOP of the device instead of out the back. A relatively new industry innovatation in hard disks, SATA (serial ATA) has connectors that can be "hot swapped" while a computer is running. Lenovo took advantage of this and designed an assessable storage cage directly into the top of this PC as well as handles on the hard drives themselves to make it easy to service the drives without having to take apart the whole PC. Finish off the "base unit" with one big sturdy handle and you've got a desktop PC that any techno-gearhead would be proud of. To clean up the desktop, Lenovo envisions a flexible monitor arm holding up flat panel monitor and a keyboard assembly that would also include a laptop style CD or DVD drive and and an integrated pointing device.
Their second desktop PC was a compact pedestal design that was meant to sit entirely on your desktop. The device itself acts as the monitor stand for an LCD display, and has been designed in such a way as to hide all the wires that would traditionally come out the back of a desktop device. When you've got your PC butted up against a wall it wouldn't matter, but if you've set up your desk so your PC is facing outward this device looks as good from the back as it does from the front. Again, the cleaver designers at Lenovo, used the same SATA based hard drive standard in this PC, and the same disks that plug into this device can be used in the larger "tower" PC concept we were shown. Similarly, the cool keyboard with integrated Trackpoint and DVD drive were utilized as well.
We loved all of it. During our discussions David expressed some concerns about the utilitarian the design language of the tower's base unit But like AM General's Hummer, we're pretty confident that they got it right and that when Lenovo starts making these bad boys, that IT managers will be buying them by the pallet load. We hope the company decides to offer these devices as products soon.
The Ultimate Thinkpad
The next set of devices were presented by Tomoyuki Takahashi, who was one of the lead designers on the original Thinkpad team. For over a decade the ThinkPad has been the notebook PC to beat, and Lenovo is determined to continue this trend. We recently covered their announcement of their upcoming T and X series dual core notebooks (see article 4988), but we were extremely pleased when we got a look at their "ultimate Thinkpad" design. They took the design language of the original Thinkpad to its logical conclusion: a completely smooth, black, impregnable-looking slab.
When closed, absolutely no external connectors remain exposed. We half expected to hear the theme song for Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" when the Lenovo folks started showing it off. We also got a sneak peek at a new design for an upgraded "butterfly" keyboard. If you remember back a few years ago there was a precursor to the current X series Thinkpad that had a keyboard that expanded out when you flipped open the display. The idea was that you'd get a full sized keyboard even though the notebook you where using folded up to a smaller size. Unfortunately the original butterfly wasn't rigid enough, and users complained about the keyboard flexing too much when you typed on it. This updated design has no such problem.
We were also shown a physical mock up of a very cool PDA sized device (which Dave managed to break, sorry Lenovo), and sort of tweener model that was a bit too big for a PDA but too small to be an actual notebook. This tweener device was a bit reminiscent of the poquet PC (remember that thing) with a keyboard resembling a notebooks but a screen like a PDAs. These devices seemed a bit father out than some of the other we were shown, but we were pleased with the direction they're heading with these designs.
Home PC's not just for your home office anymore
The final device presentation was delivered by Lenovo's design leader in Beijing, Yao Yingjia. Here's where the presentation took as dramatic turn from the office to livingroom. Yao assaulted us with a barrage of consumer devices that ranged from a futuristic PC's that looked more like a toaster than a PC, to wall mounted PC's and monitors that attached to their mounting brackets magnetically and could be moved and recofigured at will. Clearly on the consumer side the company has decided to be a bit more experimental, and were willing to open up their designs a bit more.
We were also shown several conceptual mobile phones and a some recent award winning products (namely their Yoga notebook and Sundial PC).
We were intrigued by what we saw, the company is clearly embracing the upcoming tidal wave of demand for media centric PCs, and we like the fact that they're experimenting with alternate deisgns for entertainment devices. While more computer makers are still fooling around with livingroom PCs that look like VCRs, Lenovo is forging ahead with devices that can be wall mounted under your flat panel TV. Very cool.
Summing it up
A couple of days before this meeting we got a demonstation of Lenovo's newest ThinkPad X60 and T60 notebook PCs and were extremely impressed. So we went into this meeting with some pretty high expectations. It's safe to say, we were blown away. When Lenovo acquired IBM's PC division last year it wasn't clear what was going to happen to the venerable ThinkPad line, clearly or fears were for naught.
Not only has Lenovo continued to deliver impressive new notebook PCs with their new Z60, T60 and X60 devices, but their concept PCs are nothing short of world class. We were invited to meet their design team because the company wants to send the message that they take design seriously. Mission accomplished. Keep your eye on Lenovo, they already make the best notebook PCs on the planet, and they want to make the best PCs in just about every other segment as well. We'll certainly be watching, and for the record, we think they just may be able to pull it off.