Tech update #1: keyboard wear

Last month I mentioned the poignantly predictable cycle of laptop computer aging -- specifically, aging of the ThinkPads I've used for years.

Keyboard lettering goes first, with N the first letter to show wear. Then one by one the other letters vanish. Later on: screen issues. Two or three years in, when the whole system is starting to seem obsolete (new models come with much more RAM, much larger disks, much better graphics, etc) some ThinkPads develop video-board issues, for reasons mentioned after the jump.*

(So why stick with ThinkPads? Because so much else about them seems nice: feel of the keyboard; solidity of the chassis, hinges, and other hardware; very good battery life; no scalding-hot areas unlike some other popular notebooks I've used; very good service; etc. In theory, you could wonder whether the IBM->Lenovo shift will mean some change in quality. In reality, as explained at length in my Shenzhen article here the "Lenovo" ThinkPads are made by the same Taiwan-based subcontractors that produced the "IBM" models.)

For research purposes, I thought it was time to get scientific about the aging process. My latest ThinkPad, a T60, is four months old. This is its keyboard today:


N was first to go but still has a vestigial presence; E is entirely eliminated; A is 99.9% on its way; M, D, and S showing the wear; first tell-tale little breach of O; shiny patch on right side of spacebar showing that I always hit that with my right thumb. But the ~` key is pristine! (Not sure that I have touched it even once.) I'll try another picture in two months, and so on through the system's lifetime. My bet is that Z, Q, ?/, plus other oddball keys will survive, but few or no "normal" letters will be legible at the end.

* ThinkPad design issue: the T series of ThinkPads has an impressively firm-feeling frame. Allegedly its outer shell is stiffened with titanium; thus the T. Because the machine feels so sturdy, sometimes the user is tempted to handle it as something other than the Faberge egg any laptop actually is. When a laptop is open and running, a natural way to pick it up is by grabbing one corner and lifting. If you're right-handed, you'll grab the bottom right corner of the ThinkPad's base. This means putting mechanical stress of several sorts on the area where the video circuitry is located. Enough stress, enough times, can cause problems with the video circuitry, which first shows up as flaky screen display and eventually leads to a failure to boot up. Moral: always carry an open ThinkPad with two hands, and always support it from underneath rather than pinching a corner.