I’ve been a fan, customer and apologist for the ThinkPad brand, and Lenovo, for more than 20 years. I recommended them to family, friends, viewers and readers. But except in some business situations I just can’t anymore.
In the early days I was even on their “Industry Advisory Council”, back when IBM launched ThinkPad. This group of 20 analysts and journalists got early access to product concepts, in return for honest feedback. I spent time on similar councils with Dell and other computer manufacturers, but ThinkPad did it better than most. Over the years I got to know a variety of brilliant engineers – from Japan and the US – along with many talented marketing and business executives. In the nineties, ThinkPad was the gold standard for corporate portability – with Toshiba and Dell close behind.
Ten years ago IBM sold the ThinkPad business to Chinese company Lenovo. For a while, nothing seemed to change. Lenovo launched a consumer focused brand extension called “IdeaPad” in 2008, and those early products continued the quality reputation that IBM built with ThinkPad.
But there were clouds on the horizon. As the national “China” brand became tainted with espionage and hacking scandals, many US organizations started backing away from ThinkPad. The US State department barred ThinkPads from being used for classified work in 2006, and reports surfaced two years ago that spy agencies in the US, UK and Australia banned Lenovo’s systems as well. Lenovo responded that it was a 100% independent company, and not beholden to Chinese government pressure, but those protestations rang hollow for many observers.
In addition, Lenovo seems to have strayed from the high-quality bar IBM set back in the nineties. I’ve had two terrible experiences over the last few years. The first was when I recommended that my sister-in-law purchase one of their systems. Unfortunately problems started surfacing a few short weeks after the system arrived. It would frequently reboot, and sometimes wouldn’t even start up at all – with just a blue-screen of death to keep her company. Lenovo’s technical support was terrible. According to Sharon, “I have talked to about 10 technicians and they all say different things, transfer me, tell me someone will call me back, etc.”. No luck, she ended up going to Staples where they helped her revive the system – but in the end it was a terrible experience all around, and she’s vowed never to buy another Lenovo.
About the same time I bought a Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 gaming laptop for my son. It worked fine for about a year and a half, but during a software update, the hard drive started to shudder, and the update failed. I used the built-in system recovery, but that, too, failed about half-way through. It appeared as if Lenovo’s update corrupted the hard drive, and I needed recovery disks to get it working again. Alas, the disk corruption meant I couldn’t burn a copy of the recovery disks off of the Y480’s hard drive. After a similarly frustrating experience with Lenovo technical support, my only option was to buy a new set of those disks from the company. I would have gladly paid $25 or $30 to either download or have them mailed to me. But no, the company wanted almost $100 to ship me recovery media – probably about half of what the notebook was worth. I demurred, and instead opted for a clean Windows 7 installation.
And now the latest revelation – that Lenovo has been bundling some pernicious and nasty spyware on many of their IdeaPads. The Superfish malware burrows down deep into a computer, and compromises secure internet browsing, potentially exposing sensitive information to hackers and others on the internet. This is not the act of a rational, customer-focused organization.
So what’s happening at Lenovo? And should you continue to buy their products? At CES in January I happened to catch up with a Lenovo employee who inadvertently shed some light on the subject. It turns out that engineering and production for the ThinkPad line is still handled out of Japan, while the IdeaPads are designed and built in China. And that mirrors my recent experience with the brand. I still use and recommend ThinkPad products. That group seems very aligned with customer feedback – for example, they recently reverted to an older button configuration on many of their trackpads, because the new design was roundly criticized by long-time customers.
But when it comes to IdeaPads, I’d recommend caution. The latest spyware flap is just another example of how the IdeaPad group puts profit ahead of user experience, security and safety.
It takes years and years to build trust, but it’s oh so easy to lose it – just ask Brian Williams. When Lenovo purchased ThinkPad from IBM, they bought a great and trusted brand. Lately, though, they’ve pissed that trust away. It’s time for Lenovo to start putting IdeaPad customers first. Until then, I cannot in good faith recommend the brand.