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Gauging the ThinkPad: Before (IBM) and after (Lenovo)

Has Lenovo lost whatever mojo the ThinkPad had? That simple question raised a lot of discussion at TechRepublic and it's worth pondering.

Has Lenovo lost whatever mojo the ThinkPad had? That simple question raised a lot of discussion at TechRepublic and it's worth pondering. The problem: Gauging Lenovo's performance depends on a lot of anecdotes with few concrete  answers.

As background, John Sheesley asked a simple question: Has Lenovo ruined the ThinkPad? John outlined the history--IBM unloaded its PC unit to Lenovo in 2005--and noted that the latest ThinkPads just don't seem to have the fit and finish as before. The questions about Lenovo have popped up before, but are quite current today since I smoked (literally) three T42s--older ThinkPads--on Thursday. The guts of the laptop started smoking so I have a loaner that will be upgraded to another Lenovo in the next few weeks.

Review: Lenovo ThinkPad X301

The talkbacks were lively and John called shenanigans after a bunch of responses spoke glowingly about Lenovo. He thought he was surrounded by a bunch of Lenovo plants.

Lenovo spokesman Ray Gorman replied:

I believe ThinkPads are just as good as ever and voted accordingly. Although I suspect there are other Lenovo employees who have voted in this forum, I would wager that you have also attracted voters who are employees of our competitors. While in either case, it’s fairly predictable how each would vote, the interesting fact is that there are really only two notebook PC brands that have their own fan forums and passionate enthusiasts. I’m pretty confident declaring that ThinkPad is one of those two.

In many respects, Lenovo isn't different from any other PC maker--perception is reality. For instance, a lot of folks have had trouble with Dell's customer service in the last five years. I haven't had any problems. Obviously, if I get hit with a survey Dell will fare better than someone who was burned.

But the question about ThinkPad quality in the Lenovo era isn't easy to answer. The data is inconclusive and what you really have is a bunch of folks opining about the ThinkPad when it was part of the IBM empire against the latest from Lenovo.

To settle this score I went to the place that has the most objective historical data I could find: Consumerreports.org, a service I highly recommend. A Consumerreports.org subscription at $26 a year--$19 if you get the magazine--pays for itself many times over.

I perused the Consumer Reports ratings on laptops in articles published in 2004 and 2008. In 2004, the then-IBM ThinkPad did seem to rate higher in the niches covered by Consumer Reports. In a August 2008 story, Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 scored second to last out of eight laptops in the 13.3-inch model category. Lenovo had second place and fourth place finishes out of five 14.1-inch models evaluated. Among 17 15.4-inch laptops rated, Lenovo had a sixth place finisher (ThinkPad T61), 11th place (ThinkPad R61) and last (IdeaPad).

Bottom line: Your feelings about Lenovo are a crapshoot. Lenovo's X300 was the second most pricey 13.3-inch laptop behind the MacBook Air, but Consumer Reports dinged it in many areas. But corporate workhorses like the T61 did pretty well in the rankings.

Here's a look at the 2003 repair history for laptops from Consumer Reports, which published the ratings in September 2004.

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And then there's the repair history for laptops tracked via a Consumer Reports survey from 2003 to 2007. Consumer Reports published it in August 2008.

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One notable point: These repair figures are all within a 3 percent margin of error. Is it possible that's because every PC vendor is outsourcing manufacturing to the same contractor? Nevertheless, Lenovo seems to be carrying the ThinkPad torch at least as well as IBM did.

Thoughts?