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Techaisle Blog

Insightful research, flexible data, and deep analysis by a global SMB IT Market Research and Industry Analyst organization dedicated to tracking the Future of SMBs and Channels.

Lenovo ThinkBook Plus for SMBs makes a superlative statement

I first saw and fiddled with Thinkbook Plus in November 2019. The notebook gripped my attention because of its “Think” pedigree, focus on the SMB segment and unexpected E-Ink screen on the lid. It was an intriguing pre-production prototype. Fast forward six months to June 2020. Since the last one week I have been using a fully-configured (512 GB SSD, Intel Comet Lake i5-10210U processor, 16GB memory, 13.3-inch FHD 1920 x 1080 internal screen, 10.8-inch E-Ink monochrome display on the chassis cover, finger print scanner on power button) production model. It is whimsical yet practical notebook that exudes quiet confidence of imaginative applied design. When I powered-on the notebook my synapses fired on all cylinders, E-Ink came to life which I quickly personalized. I was thrilled to see the Techaisle wallpaper and icons to browse folders, clone desktop, view emails, calendar and weather.

IT markets tend to be complex and fast-moving – but even by IT industry standards, the endpoint device market is extremely complex, and subject to significant and abrupt changes. The ‘Swiss Army Knife’ appeal of the notebook – which doubled as both a mobility device and as a content creation platform – waned, for a while and then rebounded. Tablets, not notebooks, were seen as the key productivity tool. The proliferation of operating systems and underlying architectures created opportunity for a wide range of suppliers – and confusion for a large number of IT managers who needed to integrate, support and secure these devices. The acceptance of multiple screens, coupled with the availability of new platform technologies, created a market where “endpoint devices” spanned a wide range of categories: desktops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones, thin clients, All-in-Ones, 2-in-1s and other device types. These form factors are differentiated by more than size and input technology; they move through different channels at different price points; they appeal to different kinds of buyers who use different means to learn about and source them. Buyer openness to new screen types emboldened suppliers to redefine categories, or to create entirely new device classes. ThinkBook Plus is one such example which delivers new experiences for the “worklife” SMB employee. The DNA of ThinkBook is described as “Worklife device for the modern workforce” fashioning a balance of work and life PC for small businesses.

thinkbook plus image article

ThinkBook Plus spans the needs of both small businesses which expect affordability in an appealing design and midsized firms which are demanding distinctive devices that enhance security, provide superior support but at a reasonable price.

At 17.9mm, with front edge at 12mm, ThinkBook Plus is thin and slim enough to not feel bulky despite the presence of E-Ink and weighs 3.1 lbs. It is thicker and heavier than ThinkPad X1 Carbon but then the ThinkPad is a higher premium product. ThinkPad X1 Carbon is 14.95mm thick and weighs 2.4 lbs. In comparison, Dell XPS 13 weighs 2.7 lbs. and is 12.7mm thick whereas a 13-inch MacBook Pro weighs 3 lbs. and is 15.2 mm thick. But, a ThinkBook, with most of the business specifications, is more affordable than other brands. ThinkBook is clearly positioned between Lenovo or its competitors’ consumer devices and Lenovo ThinkPad X1/X/T/L/E devices.

Lenovo has not cut any corners on battery life nor compromised on performance to incorporate an E-Ink display. The keyboard is solid and the trackpad is smooth and responsive. The signature red TrackPoint of ThinkPad is missing but a new distinctive stamped logo on the top lid implies a modern, unfussy statement. Blurring the line between business and consumer notebooks, it has its fingerprint reader in the power button and dTPM 2.0 for additional security.

While the E-Ink panel is matte glass, ThinkBook Plus is made from Iron Grey anodized aluminum.  The rounded barrel 180-degree hinges allow the notebook to lay completely flat. Unlike many modern consumer laptops, ThinkBook Plus has several ports - one USB 3.1 Type-C, two USB 3.0 Type-A Gen ports and one HDMI 1.4b port. I would have liked to see two USB-C ports – one each on either side. Battery life is rated at 10 hours and I was able to get up to 8 hours with continuous pounding on the keyboard and using Lenovo Active Pen (stylus) for E-Ink. The pen is shipped with ThinkBook. Since there is no place to holster the pen, I wish Lenovo also shipped a pen holder along with the notebook. However, the Pen magnetically attaches to either side of the notebook screen.

Straddling the line between consumer and business, work and life, ThinkBook boasts Dolby Vision for lifelike images, Harman Kardon audio for superior sound and skype hot keys for communication and collaboration. Borderless slim bezels provide great screen real estate for users like me to work on couple of documents side-by-side. The display, set at 300 nits, could have been brighter for my liking. Unfortunately, I could not connect my ThinkVision M14 as a second display due to only one USB-C port on ThinkBook Plus.

Work from home does not give too many opportunities to try and experiment with mobility-on-the-go features. Hence, during the day I worked on the ThinkBook connected to an external display through ThinkPad USB-C Dock. In the evening, I took it for spin in various rooms in my house including the backyard. I used E-Ink to jot down new ideas, musings on future technology trends as well as create and manage task lists including grocery shopping to-do-list in OneNote. The fact that ThinkBook Plus integrates with Microsoft OneNote is awesome. All my notes on the exterior E-Ink display syncs with OneNote. I became confident in my rapid note taking abilities once I got used to the amount of pressure to use on the stylus. I sometimes use the E-ink during my conference calls. The E-Ink display can be used even when the notebook is in sleep mode. Unlike the Kindle Paperwhite, the E-Ink screen is not frontlit. I hope that a future iteration of E-Ink display will also have this feature to allow for work in darker environments. Regardless, one of the best functional features is the ability to clone the desktop on E-Ink display (without opening the notebook lid). With the touch of an icon I could launch browser, open PowerPoint files, annotate, read Word documents, scroll through file folders and many other tasks. This is currently available as a trial version (which I have been using) and users can look forward to this functionality in future software updates.

There is arguably more opportunity to define net-new PC offerings today (foldables is a much-anticipated trend) than there has been for decades. There is an additional requirement on PC OEMs to segment accurately, to be in tune with the needs and preferences of target segments, and to move quickly to address new demand drivers – but there is also new opportunity to translate this acumen and agility into substantial marketing-driven success. As PCs become more capable, SMB buyers – especially the business decision makers (BDMs) who wield increasing power in IT decisions – are moving past the device itself, to a need for solutions that capitalize on the capabilities of the new units.  To date, PC OEMs have focused on building and selling screens, not the solutions that connect the screens. OEMs who understand how to connect their products to business-relevant solutions have an opportunity to differentiate those products, attracting new SMB customers and channel partners. And this is what Lenovo has set out to achieve.

In recent years, emphasis across many different PC functions have changed. Communications and information access increased in importance, and eventually became the dominant use mode for personal technology. As a result, both user requirements for devices and the market for these devices became more fragmented. Many users opt for a multi-screen approach to personal technology: they use smartphones to communicate and to consume content, PCs to collaborate and to create content, and tablets for all of these activities in varying degrees. Lenovo ThinkBook is not an attempt to replace either the smartphone or the tablet. On the contrary, BYOD (once a euphoric trend which Techaisle had rightly predicted would vanish quickly against all pundits’ prognosis) has been replaced by CYOD. Lenovo is on a path to ensure that SMB employees have access to the productivity tools that suit them best. By giving a choice to SMB IT buyers, Lenovo is simply narrowing the usage continuum: desktop PCs primarily for creation, smartphones primarily for consumption, tablets as both consumption and light content creation, notebooks for creating content and as a mobile consumption port.

ThinkBook is not an ordinary notebook. Presence of E-Ink is debatable. It is built for the SMB customer. In its first iteration it splendidly succeeds in making a superlative statement and reimagining a new modern way to multitask on notebooks.   

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ThinkPad X1 Carbon – a modern laptop that embraces tradition and defies description

I first used a ThinkPad in 1994 when I was with IDC in Hong Kong and had immediately taken a liking to the distinct red TrackPoint, color and feel of the laptop. I even had a docking station. It served me extremely well during my numerous overseas trips. In 1995, I switched to ThinkPad 701 with the butterfly keyboard. And when I accidentally placed my luggage on the laptop the shattered screen devasted me. I continued to use a ThinkPad till the time I joined Gartner which gave me a non-ThinkPad laptop. In my subsequent jobs I usually requested and received a ThinkPad from my workplaces.

Slightly more than a decade ago when I founded Techaisle I bought a Sony Vaio. It was a big mistake. Within a few months I switched to a ThinkPad Carbon. Why this obsession with ThinkPad? Quality, reliability, elegance.

Since early October I have been using Lenovo’s latest 7th Gen ThinkPad X1 Carbon. The minute I unboxed and picked-up the ThinkPad I realized I was holding a classic yet modern design. Everything from the sharply defined etched grey-red X1 logo on the chassis cover to the rubbery plastic carbon fiber weave with a textured pattern defies description. It is incredibly light, at 2.4 pounds and combined with a thin design at 0.58 inches (14.95mm) with no visible taper gives my shoulder-back combo a much-needed respite. I have found myself frequently using the leather ThinkPad X1 Ultra Sleeve (which delivers a premium feel to the X1 Carbon experience) without the need to carry a backpack when I am within a conference venue. The keyboard travel, although reduced to 1.5mm (from 1.7mm in previous models), to accommodate redefined thinness still provides familiar comfort and feedback for which ThinkPads are known for. The switched placement of Ctrl and Fn keys, as compared to most other keyboards and laptops, does throw me off.

The model that I am using is fully-configured with 16 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD, Intel core i7-8665U CPU 1.90GHz and UHD Graphics 620 with 3840 X 2160 display HDR400 with 500 nits brightness. Lenovo promises 18 hours of battery life for a lower resolution screen but the 4K screen that I am using obviously drains battery fast. Fortunately, Lenovo’s RapidCharge technology charges the X1 Carbon up to 80% within an hour. Lenovo’s “eye care” mode reduces blue light on the screen. Lenovo also has a PrivacyGuard but is not available for 4K screens. The screen does hinge 180 degrees to sit flat on a desk but I have never really found the need to use the capability.

A key evaluation criterion for me is a laptop’s ability to contribute and enhance productivity. The screen resolution enhances the experience for sifting through huge spreadsheets of analytical information, scrolling through rows of survey data, creating data-rich PowerPoint slides, reviewing infographics and working on Power BI dashboards. When I connect the ThinkPad to an external display (Dell UltraSharp 27 Monitor - U2719D) through Lenovo Thunderbolt™ 3 Dock, the productivity and experience are amplified.

thinkpad x1 carbon

ThinkVision M14 (sold separately) is a mobile display for on-the-go productivity. I usually bring it along with me. It easily connects through USB-C, provides a tremendous utility when working on my data spreadsheets and PowerPoints on the road. The ThinkVision M14 is only 0.4mm think and weighs next to nothing and easily slides into already crammed backpack space. And yes, I have also used ThinkVision M14 with a Dell XPS 13 and Dell Latitude 7390 2in1. Even my son has used it for his work and games and brought it with him during his travels.

I may be one of the few who still use the TrackPoint. Right above the touchpad are three mouse buttons to be used in conjunction with the TrackPoint which allow me to fully rest my fingers on the laptop itself without having to repeatedly lift my palms. Although I must say I miss the touchscreen in my ThinkPad X1 Carbon configuration (4K does not have touchscreen).

Lenovo Vantage, an app that keeps the device up and running and allows for custom settings, has grown in stature and capabilities substantially in the last one year. I have enabled WiFi security, Intelligent cooling with Quiet mode, battery charge threshold to prolong battery life and always-on USB to charge even when the computer is in sleep mode or off. To turn on WiFi security I had to enable location tracking, there seems to be no way around it. So far, it has worked well despite some occasional false notifications. The ThinkPad Carbon X1 is quiet and I rarely hear the fans spinning. I am the type of person when my iPhone battery drops to 70 percent, I look for an outlet to charge. Hence, enabling always-on USB has helped me keep my devices (iPhone, AirPods Pro, Bose headphones, Ultraportable Bluetooth speaker, backup power adapters and others) connected and charged. There are more than enough ports - 2 x USB-C, 2 x USB-A and 1 x HDMI - for my obsessive-compulsive need to keep all devices charged and connected.

Needless to say, collaboration is a key aspect of any work, especially in my job profile where most collaboration is video-enabled. Microsoft Teams, WebEx, Zoom, Hangouts and Go-to-meeting are most used. When I am not using headphones or portable Bluetooth speakers for conference calls, the 4 x 360-degree far-field microphones are useful. Nobody has complained to me so far about audio quality. The webcam has had no issues and the included camera shutter is a much-needed bonus as long as I remember to slide open or close.

I must confess that I have not setup Windows Hello - neither fingerprint nor facial recognition.

It is a mistake to compare ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 7 with a MacBook. Instead, it should be compared and contrasted with Dell Latitude 7400. But comparison is not the objective of my review. Both are well-positioned and have their defined target market segments. It is however important to note that PC is where work gets done. It is still the centerpiece of business productivity and buying a new laptop is likely to have a more significant impact on productivity than any other technology. Modern PCs deliver more than an incremental improvement in performance and features. ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a modern business laptop that embraces tradition and after so many years still defies description.

 

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Dell XPS 13 – Straight from the heart

Since the last 3 years I have been listening to Jeff Clarke, Dell’s vice-chairman of Operations and president of Client Solutions, and his team talk about innovation within Dell and how XPS-13, Dell’s flagship, initially consumer-focused and now business-ready notebook, is one of the most innovative laptops in the market. I must confess that after every meeting I walked away with a bit of cynicism. Every single time I had questions but no answers. Did a borderless InfinityEdge display define innovation? Did premium materials explain innovation? Did high-performance describe innovation? What about the issues that small businesses really cared about – improve productivity, provide security, easy manageability, exceptional support and low price? These would certainly count towards innovation. But then many of these improvements are usually driven by underlying software and not the hardware.

I have been a ThinkPad user for most of my working life – from my IDC days in Hong Kong to present time at Techaisle. Except for the time period when I was at Gartner. I am not a case of old-habits-die-hard but I have had a genuine admiration for the IBM & now Lenovo ThinkPad series. It never needed any support, except for that one occasion when I foolishly crushed it that cracked the screen. There was also a period as an analyst when I maintained three different brands. HP notebooks to bring to meetings with HP, IBM/Lenovo for their respective meetings, and Dell for meetings with Dell. However, I realized that a ThinkPad brand was one of the most non-controversial notebook to bring to meetings & presentations without evoking any sarcastic banter.


Full disclosure - one day, two months ago, Dell sent me an XPS 13, fully-loaded with the Intel 7th gen Core i7 processor, 512GB PCIe Solid State Drive, QHD InfinityEdge Touch Screen, and 3 years of Premium Support services. Within a few days of using it I realized the meaning of innovation. Innovation in design. Innovation in support. Innovation in marketing.

Let us begin backwards. Innovation in marketing. XPS 13 has become synonymous with notebook much like MacBook or ThinkPad. I do not even know what brands of HP have the same level of desirability and emotional connect. Some may say HP Spectre, but I do not think so. And ThinkPads are not even targeted at consumer segment, they are not usually available in technology retail stores, so they miss out on the small business market. If price is not the only purchase criteria then XPS 13 is the brand to own. Dell’s marketing has also been bolstered by the numerous awards XPS 13 has been winning which feeds back into its marketing motions. XPS 13 also tends to be first to market with new technologies and gets more frequent refreshes than Dell’s business laptop products. And it also helps how the model is displayed in a retail store – makes it look real cool. So far, I have not experienced any complaints from PC OEMs when fishing out the XPS 13 from my bag for presentations.

I also experienced innovation in support. Not willing to take help from my IT to configure my new notebook to my exacting specifications I decided to call Dell’s premium support. A quick connect with technician, Brandon A, made me realize that my support request was very unique and was not included within the knowledgebase. I was ready to give up but the technician stayed on the call, spent the next two hours and successfully replicated XPS 13 configuration with that of ThinkPad. I also learned that Premium support includes a proactive support feature, SupportAssist, where Dell support experts actually contact the user if they detect an issue.

This type of support is ideal for SMBs. Latest Techaisle survey shows that smaller businesses use friends, internal non-IT personnel or channel partner for support, almost always reactive. Larger small businesses use internal IT but data shows that they would rather be focused on strategic IT issues than supporting PCs. 57% mention that managing newer PCs is significantly easier which allows unmanaged IT businesses to run their business without disruption and businesses with IT staff are able to efficiently reallocate the staff’s time to other initiatives. Interestingly, 56% also agree that new PCs reduce overall maintenance costs. And if SMBs opt for Dell's ProSupport and even ProDeploy they may gain even better advantages.

Design is an important element of a mobile device. But like every other SMB executive, the design should contribute to improved productivity and better mobility experience. I am one of those 39% of SMB employees who spend 20+% time away from primary workplace. Being an analyst and a data hound I constantly work on spreadsheets, data visualizations, analytics and presentations, typically seated in tight places – the airplanes, United Club lounges and occasionally in the back seat of ride-sharing vehicles. The placement of cursor in the precise location on the screen is very important to me. The XPS 13’s precision touchpad with integrated glass is much appreciated. It is responsive, not overly sensitive to slight movements and gets my work done without having to erase and retrace. In contrast, I have had to disable the touchpad on ThinkPad and only use the red trackpoint. By the way, has anyone tried using the trackpoint while munching on snacks in airplanes or with the laptop on the lap? The trackpoint assumes a track movement of its own.

The Dell InfinityEdge display also gives me a bright and clearly visible real estate to view and play around with massive amounts of data or create crammed-with-data PowerPoint slides. The chiclet keyboard with “just–enough” shallow depth also helps, although the too-narrow arrow keys are annoying. I really do not use the touch screen a lot but the few times I did use I found the display hinge to be stable enough to avoid exasperating shaking.

I consider myself to be a very organized person, but recently I did the unfathomable: I flew to the east coast for a 2-hour client presentation but forgot to bring my XPS 13 power adapter. By the time I returned the following evening from my coast-to-coast flight there was still enough battery power left in my notebook to reply to emails before plugging it back into the adapter for charging. By the way, one must buy the add-on Power Companion which extends the notebook’s battery life and also charges other mobile devices simultaneously. Living dangerously is not my calling so I made a note to get a spare charger. But if I ever make that grievous error again, then at least I can take comfort in the battery life of XPS 13 and the Power Companion.

XPS 13 is somewhat heavier than the ThinkPad I have been using, I can easily make out the difference as soon as I pick up the notebook in one hand. The Power Companion and the necessary Adapter to connect USB-C port to HDMI or USB 3.0 makes it a little bulky, occupies space and adds to the “carry weight”. But they are not inconvenient.

Collaboration is essential to me and video collaboration is integral when traveling. The placement of the webcam on XPS 13 throws me off but I understand that in the newly announced XPS 13 2 in 1 version the webcam has been put back in its rightful place, at the center.

All of the above experiences point to a device that improves productivity, especially mobility-enabled productivity. Techaisle’s survey also shows that 62% of small businesses experience better mobility with newer PCs thus empowering their workforce. Nearly identical percent say that newer applications run better, and more applications can be run simultaneously contributing to less frustration and improved productivity.

When purchasing a laptop, competitive benchmark comparisons are important but they are certainly not the deciding criteria. Millennials have a different selection criteria; I listen to them as well. After all, 51% of US SMB employees are millennials. Even within my household, when my son and daughter, both millennials, wanted to replace their respective notebooks, they were clear in not getting an HP brand. “No HP decision” was driven by – previous painful product experiences, prolonged and unpredictable support, not-so captivating design of recent products and unflattering word-of-mouth from my son’s fellow college friends.

I took my son and daughter, on different days, to the Microsoft Store and bought each one of them a Dell XPS 13. It was an easy decision for them. Last time I checked, they were very happy. I hope that my initial euphoria stays intact and there will not be any reason to retract and redact my new connect with XPS 13. As of now, I will retract my cynicism.

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