Ugh, this one burns. I can’t remember the last time I sent this kind of money to mainland China. It was bad enough when I bought two Haro reissue bikes, but at least they are made in Taiwan, The Land That Chabuduo Mostly Forgot. This is Straight Outta China, bro.
My personal ThinkPad journey is actually a pretty good synecdoche for how laptop pricing, production, and design has “evolved”. Way back in 1999, I bought one of the infamous ThinkPad 701 “butterfly laptops” and set out to make it run Debian GNU/Linux. The 701 had debuted several years before as the most powerful, most expensive miniature laptop on the planet. Engineered and built in the United States, the 701C retailed for nearly $10,000. (I bought mine used, for a fraction of that.)
I honestly think you could use a 701C as a chock for a Boeing 747… it was tiny but it was built to aerospace standards. And for what I did with it — mostly remote xterm sessions to more powerful and capable systems — it was faultless. But I wanted more power and more graphics and I wanted to be able to run XEmacs at a reasonable speed, so in 2000 I spent the $2799 to get a ThinkPad 600X.
The 600X was the Ferrari 355 of laptops; gorgeous, sleek, and more than powerful enough. It was designed head-to-toe by IBM in the USA and assembled in Mexico. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as satisfied with a computer as I was with that 600X. Everything worked under Linux and the graphics were just stunning. I used it for nearly five years.
Around that time, I started traveling more and writing more instead of coding, so I went through a series of relatively cheap but powerful 17″ Dell laptops. They were all utter junk, and they underperformed their listed specs to almost hilarious levels. The last one was a Core i7 with 8GB of memory that would struggle render the (admittedly garbage) TTAC website and run my GMail at the same time. God help me when it was time to do the Weekly Roundups because it would freeze solid for 10-15 seconds at a time if it had to run multiple Firefox windows.
So now I have a pair of Lenovos. I have a “Yoga” laptop/tablet thing for travel. It has a Celeron and a SSD so it’s okay enough for short work in LibreOffice. And now I have this massive IdeaPad Y900. It’s a “top end gaming laptop” with both an SSD and a traditional hard drive. A mechanical keyboard. A massive, blinding-bright display. It appears to have very few practical limits in terms of the things it can do at the same time. I work much faster on it. Between the mechanical keyboard and the lack of waiting for things to happen, I’ve dropped my time to produce written work by something a third. It will pay for itself in just a few months.
With that said, I absolutely despise the fact that IBM sold off the ThinkPad business to Lenovo. When I was younger, IBM was the bee’s knees, tha shiznit. Fifteen years ago, I got a $5,000 check from IBM for some consulting work. I had it blown up and framed. Working with IBM meant that you were one of the best. They didn’t do anything by half measures. And they built stunning technological masterpieces from the ThinkPads to their xServers to the mighty copper-core z-mainframes.
What does IBM do now? Well, as far as I can tell they still have some impressive R&D. By and large. however, they sell “services”. Which means that they hire a bunch of know-nothings at the lowest rate possible, many of them H1-Bs fresh from six-month technical degrees at mystery-meat educational facilities of dubious standing, and they incompetently deliver on vaguely-scoped products for prices that are calculated to bleed the client just short of bankruptcy.
Twice in the past twelve years I’ve been personally “replaced” by IBM Global Services. In the first case, I’d written a point-of-sale system from scratch for a mid-sized retailer. We used Tcl/Tk on the front end and PostgreSQL on the back end. Soup to nuts I think I charged them well under $100,000. However it was unglamorous and boring-looking so the company owners fell for a sales pitch from IBM. Five years later, they were out of business and they still owed IBM money. The new system never worked despite costing several multiples of what I’d charged them for something that did work.
The next time was when Honda decided to go with IBM in 2012 for all of their tech and system management. Those of us who were there at the time could see what a disaster it was going to be. IBM’s bright idea was to outsource 95% of the support to their Indian facilities, with just a couple of local H1-Bs to interface with the plant managers. About six months after I left Honda, they called me and asked me to come back to help fix the problems that IBM had caused, but by then I was working a much better and more interesting gig.
It’s pathetic, seeing the company that invented the Selectric and the Model M and the best mainframe computer in history turn into a services reseller. Think of Jaco Pastorius begging for spare change outside of Birdland, then make it fifty times worse. And then look at me typing this up on the descendant of IBM’s intellectual property, abandoned by a bunch of moronic market-watchers who didn’t understand that greatness only comes from creation, not sales or marketing.
I hope that some day the United States will regain the kind of skills and support networks required to engineer something like this monstrous IdeaPad from scratch. When that happens, I’ll be first in line with my money. Until then, I’ll be writing about USA-made products on a Chinese laptop. Again. But I’ll say this for the people at Lenovo: they have a sense of humor. The IdeaPad Y900 has an actual “turbo button” that temporarily overclocks the i7 and video card for maximum game performance. Just like the old 286-based, American-made IBM clones. What do you call a “clone” when the people who made the original have given up, anyway?