This article was in my ‘TODO’ list since almost start of this blog several years ago. Usually I try to focus on positive side of things but this article is one way highway quite the opposite way. If you do not want do lose your good attitude then please do not read further. Nothing good awaits you at the end for you unfortunately. The song of King Crimson – Epitaph is appropriate tune here. You have been warned.
When I was younger I though that World only gets better. Things are improved. People live better and longer. Cars broke less frequently and need less maintenance. Computers not only go faster and draw less power but they become more usable and allow people to be more productive because of new features introduced.
Unfortunately it’s not true. Some things are improving but other get forgotten or get worse. Depending on the current geopolitical situation people live better or worse. Cars are more complicated then ever so they broke more and are now also often disturbed by software and firmware updates – not to mention bugs and security issues. It’s harder today to find a car (even used one) that is reliable, cheap in maintenance and also with engine not crippled by for example EURO 7 regulations enforced by EU. Computers are faster … or at least they have more CPU cores and draw some less power but one thing in computing went entirely wrong way.
It’s not about their CPUs or RAM. Screens also got better – they are brighter then ever – and FullHD 1920×1080 resolution finally become the standard. Some manufacturers went even further with 16:10 or even 3:2 screen ratios. Larger touchpads with support for multi touch and gestures are also very often and welcome. There is however one aspect that ALL laptop manufacturers got entirely wrong.
The first laptop I got was Dell Latitude C600.
With its 7-row keyboard and functional INS/DEL HOME/END PGUP/PGDN layout at the top right side probably fixed me for life.
This is the most important fragment I am talking about.
It was so obvious for me that it was there – providing standard cursor position manipulation without taking all the space that a TKL (tenkeyless) keyboard takes. Its 1024×768 screen resolution may seem very ancient today but it was higher then the default consensus at 800×600 one back then.
Besides the great keyboard that Dell laptop also provided other useful feature – modularity. It had two universal bays for things like:
- CD-ROM or CD-RW drive
- floppy drive
You could put two batteries to maximize battery power or put CD-RW drive instead of battery to get other functionality. The two batteries also meant that you could run this laptop as long as you want if you only had enough charged batteries. This was available almost two decades ago. 19 years to be precise. My currently favorite FreeBSD operating system also run well on it with Fluxbox on X11 display server.
In that time many laptop manufacturers provided both more productive 7-row keyboard and modularity … or at least business oriented ones … even with SUN SPARC or IBM POWER CPUs. The IBM RS-6000 POWERbook is shown below.
… and the Tadpole SPARCbook also.
Several years later I went for upgrade and got the Dell Latitude D630 laptop with successful Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 1400×900 screen which provided so much more screen space and flexibility.
Besides the obvious 7-row keyboard its creators got great idea that extended main battery would extend in the front of the laptop instead of the back. That had two implications. First – you got a lot of usable ports at the back. Second – you got additional elegant palm rest on the front. Both Dell D630 batteries shown below.
Besides this ‘frontal’ idea it also had universal UltraBay slot on the side which similarly to the earlier Dell C600 allowed one of the following accessories:
- CD-RW or DVD-RW drive
- additional bay battery
Thanks to that you could extend the battery life of your laptop to about 8 hours … even on FreeBSD with its limited power management back then. You could also get additional batteries to work as long as you like of course. It was introduced in 2007. I even run OpenSolaris on that laptop for some time and all hardware was fully supported. The only problem OpenSolaris had back then is the same one as OpenIndiana has now. Very small amount of packages of additional software. Back then FreeBSD provided most software that was available on Linux but OpenSolaris was in its own limited league. I really liked OpenSolaris WiFi management with dladm(1M) tho.
After some time my attention went into revolutionary Lenovo ThinkPad X300 with custom low power Core 2 Duo L7100 CPU designed by Intel only for this model.
It was as thin and light as Apple MacBook Air while providing same functionality and modularity as other Latitude and ThinkPad laptops. Same as my previous laptop it had ‘main’ and ‘additional’ battery interchangeable with the DVD-RW drive. It had awesome speakers. Never had THAT GOOD speakers in laptop again as they were ThinkPad X300.
After I started my work at new employer I got Dell Latitude E6400 so Lenovo ThinkPad X300 became kinda redundant.
That Dell was NOT as sturdy or reliable as magnesium body Dell D630 but it had the most important feature – the oldschool 7-row keyboard.
Life went by and some time later I needed to take a look at something newer. At my work I got myself in the position of being responsible for selection of a laptop that would be successor for the Dell Latitude E6400 that we had. After checking what is available I frighted for Lenovo ThinkPad W520 back then … and I even succeeded … and failed at the same time.
I got approval for my choice for entire department … but the corporate process to make it happening took so long that Lenovo stopped offering ThinkPad W520 and started shipping its successor ThinkPad W530. I was really sad by that fact – the ThinkPad W530 was the first Lenovo laptop with new ‘island’ type keyboard instead of the classic 7-row keyboard.
The so much appreciated and needed INS/DEL HOME/END PGUP/PGDN block was gone … forever. I thought that maybe the World is ‘right’ and I am ‘wrong’. For the next 3 years I have tried to ‘migrate’ mentally with my ‘muscle memory’ to the new island keyboard layout … unsuccessfully. The only thing that went well was … ThinkPad W530 warranty keyboard replacement because the key with letter ‘E’ failed and fell off.
It was obvious for me that I need to get other laptop – a one with 7-row keyboard layout. Today I would probably just reflash the ThinkPad W530 Embedded Controller with custom firmware written by Hamish Coleman and put there ThinkPad W520 keyboard there but that option was not available back then. I also encourage you to watch the Hamish Coleman speech My Personal Fight Against the Modern Laptop from 2017.
After checking what laptops the World has to offer … I was disappointed. Since 2012 not a single laptop manufacturer offered a laptop with 7-row keyboard. Zero. Nada. Zip. None. I decided to take a look in the past instead. The last Dell Latitude models that got the 7-row keyboard were E6410 for 14″ or 6510 for 15″ screen – were introduced in 2010. Lenovo with its X220/T420/T420s/T520/W520 lineup were from 2011 – survived a year longer. As I got used to 14 inches I opted for ThinkPad T420s (slimmer and lighter ThinkPad T420 version).
With its 1600×900 screen and also my usual two batteries setup (with one being placed in the UltraBay) It was pleasure to use (and carry as it was quite light also).
In the mean time it was needed for me to pick up newer laptop at my employee. Knowing what market has to offer I only wanted the laptop to be light and small and that it should have FullHD 1920×1080 resolution screen … and my demands were met. I got Dell Latitude E7280 laptop … with GLARE touch capable FullHD screen. Great …
As you can see it was running Windows and my ex-company policy was very simple here. Windows or GTFO. For the first several years – when my ex-company was not that big I was able to work more productive with FreeBSD on that ThinkPad W530. Unfortunately that ex-employer grown to the ‘corporation’ level too much and that ruined many things. After having ThinkPad W530 I did not expected much from new Dell but it got my disappointment to a whole new level. Take a look at the top right part of its keyboard.
Besides the fact that INSERT key is ‘shared under the F12 button and I need to use now the FN key to send it each time is another level of PITA … but placing the keyboard shortcut to DISABLE WIFI one key next really got me pissed. I do not have to tell you how many times instead if just pressing INSERT key I disconnected my WiFi card which also meant disconnecting VPN and all the tasks that I had in place … not to mention how much time it takes to first reconnect WiFi and then to reconnect again to the VPN … but the next key to the right is SUSPEND – which I also got several times while only trying to use INSERT. Awesome. Even better. Also – did you notice where is the POWER button? Yes – I also lost part of my work several times because of that. Probably Dell Latitude E7280 was my worst laptop experience.
Some may wonder why I use INSERT so much? I got used to copy-paste with SHIFT-INSERT and CTRL-SHIFT-INSERT shortcuts – this is the guilty one I suppose.
It was the best upgrade ever. After replacing the thermal paste as described in my older Classic ThinkPad Thermal Paste Change article I finally felt like at home again. Its not possible to add additional battery into the UltraBay slot as only DVD-RW or SATA HDD caddy are allowed – but with extended battery I get about 5+ hours of battery time – more then needed.
Fast forward to today … I am running 11 years old ThinkPad W520 laptop and looking at what is available – I do not see any perspectives on what could be my next daily driver. All manufacturers decided to abandon the productive 7-row keyboard in order to sell ‘island’ type keyboard equipped laptops. Some of them even went completely insane as they now add a POWER button on the top right keyboard key. Insanity.
The only thing a reasonable user can do is to disable it in the software to not accidentally lost its work.
For some time I believed that Lenovo would make something more from its Retro ThinkPad initiative that allowed ThinkPad 25th Anniversary Edition to see the light of day … but that also not happened.
This slightly modified ThinkPad T470 had dull dark FullHD screen and only one version available. It was also produced in only 5000 pieces … worldwide. It was in 2017 and fast forward 5 years nothing more has happened as we are in 2022 now. Also because only 5000 of them were created its almost impossible to get a used one.
Some people took the matters in their hands and started to make their own modern and modified ThinkPad variations. The most known ones are ThinkPad T62 and ThinkPad X330 with replaced high resolution screens and sometimes even thin bevels along with new hardware underneath of course.
Even today the ThinkPad W520 is quite fast machine. The FreeBSD kernel compilation takes about 600 seconds. On the fresh brand new System76 laptop with also 4 core Intel i7-1165G7 CPU and same 32 GB RAM it takes 300 seconds. Keeping in mind that there are 11 years between these laptops this does not seem that much to be honest.
About quarter ago I changed my employer and got new business laptop – the brand new ThinkPad T14 GEN 1 one.
It has the same keyboard layout as ThinkPad W530 which is kinda good remembering how fucked up was the Dell Latitude E7280. The biggest issue with these keyboards (T14/W530) is the lack of empty space between ESC and F1 keys. If you switch desktops with ALT-F1 to ALT-F4 keys then you need to ‘waste’ some more time to make sure you are not doing the ALT-ESC shortcut which is for something entirely else. Its also good to be back on X11 as my new employer allows you to choose RHEL instead of Windows.
Back to ‘personal’ laptops – if my ThinkPad W520 would break I would just get another one … and another … or ThinkPad T520 if W520 would not be available. If for some reason I would not be able to use them anymore I would probably get that:
- cheapest laptop with enough cores/RAM and FullHD screen
- wireless “tenkeyless” keyboard in front of that laptop
Maybe I will even put that ‘proper’ keyboard on top of the builtin one to save space.
It will take little more space but at least it will be usable and productive.
Generation Lost in the Bazaar
For long time I assumed that a lot other people also lack that keyboard layout. Seems I was partially wrong. One of my mates realize me that a lot of people grown up even without ever using the INS/DEL HOME/END PGUP/PGDN layout. I will quote him below.
I didn’t know I was raised without those keys!
I mean, they were there but I wasn’t taught how to use them properly.
And now it seems we can’t find them so frequently…
If like me you went to school in Poland you would probably know (or at least recall a little) a poem of Polish poet Józef Ignacy Kraszewski titled called Birds in a Cage. Let me quote it for you here as its not that long.
Birds in a Cage
‘Why do you weep?’ a young canary said to an old canary,
‘You are better off now in a cage than you were in the fields.’
‘You were born in it,’ said the old one, ‘so I forgive you;
I was once free but now I’m in a cage and that is why I am weeping.’
Why do I quote it here? Because its very similar to the situation of new laptops available now. Those who do not know the oldschool modular laptops with 7-row keyboards are kinda born in a cage. They pick their MacBook or latest ThinkPad X1 Carbon machines with island keyboard layouts and believe that these are the best possible choices. Its was not always like that.
I do not see the (laptops) future in bright lights. I like what PINE64 PineBook or Framework Laptop bring to the table but on the keyboard side … its still the island type dark ages.
I am not the only one that feels cheated by the industry. If you are like me here is some more fuel for your nostalgia.