In a vacuum sealed shiny aluminum chamber cooled to -20 degrees, screens of about 20 laptops are lit up at the Yamato Labs facility in Yokohama, an industrial town adjacent to Tokyo. Ice has started to form on the edges of the laptops.
A Metal Chamber cooled to -20 degrees. The Thinkpads being chilled in the sub zero chamber to test their workability at climes akin to the Mount Everest.
An expedition to Mount Everest wants to take Lenovo's newly launched X1 Carbon Notebooks to the Summit, to collect and monitor environment data. The ThinkPads are undergoing chilling tests to make them work in extreme environments like on the top of the eight thousander peaks, in polar regions of Siberia, or by customers in upper regions of Norway orIceland.
"The vacuum chamber also has the capacity to heat itself upto 60 degrees, to test workability of Laptops in Sub Saharan Africa or inside the bottom of ships," informs Masaki Suzuly, head of one of the tests at the Yamato Labs facility, which overlooks the Yokohama harbour front.
The International Space Station, located 402 kilometers above Earth has been using the Thinkpads since its launch in 1998. Of course, the shelf life of a ThinkPad at the ISS space environment research laboratory is about 7-8 years, compared to the 1100 days (just 3 years) lifecycle of a notebook used in a corporate cubicle.
"IBM's lawyers especially put a clause - 'No Onsite Service' for the Thinkpads sold to NASA!," muses Kevin Beck Senior Worldwide Competitive analyst at Lenovo.
A smaller chamber to test singular Thinkpads in extreme weather conditions such as for scientific expeditions to the Mount Everest
The ThinkPads, according to the Lenovo staff at Yokohama Labs, are designed to work normally in temperature ranges of 50-60 degrees. The heat tests make the ThinkPads ruggedized to 8 MIL specs (a standard for military specifications) for computers. The high grade of ruggedness makes them usable in war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan or a Thar Desert.
As I move to the second floor of the Yamato Labs building in downtown Yokohama, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, I see a machine smashing the latest X1 Carbon ThinkPad (which costs Rs 85,000 a piece in India) from a height of 8 feet, banging it on a metal slab repeatedly .
The automated Torture Drop Tester grabs the X1 Carbon ThinkPad from its sides, rises to a height, and then bangs it again repeatedly, before certifying it usable.
Adjacent to the 'torture drop tester', another robot grabs a ThinkPad diagonally and drops it on a wooden table diagonally. The Corner Drop Test assesses the strength of ThinkPad's magnesium cage. The technician hands over the wounded notebook. Surprisingly, it has only developed an abrasion at the corner. But when the power button is pressed, it boots up normally.
A temperature controlled chamber lined with pressure, stress and casing testing machines for the Thinkpad. The one on extreme right presses the Thinkpads with extreme pressure to test the tensile strength of it's chassis in the Robustness and Durability Testing Labs.
Often on an office floor, we tend to handle our notebooks recklessly, dropping our laptop bags, often with a jolt on the floor. To test its capacity to handle shock, the ThinkPad is held by another robot on its two sides, laid flat on a metal floor, and given jolted heavily from left to right and vice versa, by a robotic machine. The test is continued for several hours to assess the strength of notebook's chassis.
As if it was enough, the X1 Carbon was subjected to another torture.
In another test, the X1 Carbon is kept on a table and a small round metal weight is kept underneath. Over the ThinkPad, about 20 kgs of weights which include two dumbles and an iron disc, are kept to test the strength of its LCD panel and glass.
Acoustic Test: A mike listens to noise being produced by the hard drive of a Thinkpad in a sound proof chamber. The chamber walls are lined with wooden blocks to test the noise. The test is to make Thinkpads noise free, and usable in sound recording studios.
Users often pull open a laptop from either left or right. To further assess the strength of its LCD panel, a machine holds open the X1 Carbon and pushes the tip of the notebook on the left and right for many hours to test its panel strength. Another test, assesses the hinges of the ThinkPad, by opening and closing it at regular intervals.
Another test in the same facility is to make the laptops usable in zero noise environments - such as in sound studios and libraries. A lab at the Yamato facility is sound proofed by wooden blocks. The ThinkPad is booted up in an empty room. A highly sensitive mike is placed in the noise proof room. The test is to assess if a ThinkPad's hard disk or motherboard pass the zero noise emission standards, so that can be used by world renowned sound studios. The hard drive remarkably makes very less noise.
A chamber lined with Thermocoled walls tests vulnerability of Thinkpads to electromagnetic waves. The chamber also tests the response of Thinkpads to receive Wi-Fi networks from any side. The table (in the middle) keeps on rotating to test the 360 degree effect of electromagnetic waves on a Thinkpad.
On the same floor, Masaki Handa, a lab technician at Yamato Labs is giving a charge of about 9000 volts to a X1 Carbon's body by an electric gun. Moments later the notebook is found be without any static charge.
If you are a regular use of a laptop, at some point of time you might have experienced a mild shock from the static charge, especially in older notebooks which have metal bodies. The test is to prevent deposition of static charges.
The ThinkPad sells about 65 million units a year. "With these repeated tests we have been able to bring down the rate of return for ThinkPads for repair or service within one year of sale. Repair after two year of sale has been brought down to almost nil," adds Kevin Beck Lenovo's Senior Worldwide Competitive analyst and program manager for Lenovo's customer care centers.
Despite its sale to Lenovo by IBM in 2005, ThinkPad remains one of the largest selling business notebooks. It is also the oldest Laptop brand , since it was given birth in 1992 at the Yamato Labs by IBM fellow engineer Arimasa Naitoh and his team.
A ThinkPad museum in the same facility houses the first notebook made by Naitoh and his team in 1992. A few models of those used at Space Station are on display. It also showcases the world's first 7 inch ThinkPad which could double up as a phone, custom made for a few corporates by IBM.
Naitoh moved on to Lenovo after sale of IBM's PC division to become vice-president of development for Lenovo's notebook division. But ThinkPad continued to weave its black magic in the computer world. In a candid chat with ET at Yamato Labs, Naitoh says: "I can't imagine what my life would have been if the ThinkPad hadn't been born."
(The writer was at Yamato Labs, Yokohama, Japan at the invitation of Lenovo)