Lenovo Japan held a conference announcing their 2020 ThinkPad products on May 26th, 2020. Other than their famous laptop PCs, there was another product drawing attention. The compact wireless keyboard, the “ThinkPad TrackPoint Keyboard II,” which we previewed at CES in January.
The product was released on May 26th, and costs 14,500 yen (excluding tax).
Lenovo Japan lent me the Japanese keyboard layout version of this device prior to release for this review.
Improved in all aspects and worth the seven year wait!
The “ThinkPad TrackPoint Keyboard II” is the successor to the 2013 “ThinkPad Bluetooth Wireless TrackPoint Keyboard,” released seven years earlier (these are the official product names in Japan).
Article from when the keyboard was announced (Japanese):
I’ll mention this again later, but it was unfortunate that the TrackPoint (the red nub you use like an analog joystick in place of a mouse) on the previous version of this keyboard was “slower” than on the ThinkPad models available at the time it released.
However, concerns about the TrackPoint quickly fade away when using the keyboard, which is thoroughly improved in several ways. The fundamentals of the keyboard, such as the sturdiness of its frame and the feel of keystrokes are great, and this is accompanied by improved connectivity and ease of use.
Although you can’t tell from just looking at it, the overhaul of this keyboard’s internals was made possible by the seven year wait.
Great feeling keystrokes. Just like high-end ThinkPads
Let’s start with the conclusion. This keyboard captures the feel of high-end ThinkPad laptops. Without a doubt, it justifies the last seven years of waiting, and is a definite step up from the previous model.
I should explain what I mean by “the feel” of ThinkPad laptops. I’m referring to how similar the feel of the keyboard’s keystrokes are to the ThinkPad it’s based upon.
Frankly, the previous two models of the ThinkPad USB TrackPoint Keyboard (the 55Y9003 and SK-8855) really did not do this that well.
Of course, how the keystrokes feel are key to assessing a keyboard, and this varies from person to person (the assessments from here on are my own, of course).
However, when looking at how well the older versions of this keyboard imitate “the feel” of a ThinkPad keyboard, I’m not alone in how I feel. I’ve often heard others say things like “although the TrackPoint is useful, something about the keys feels different.”
Heavy users will also want to know about the maximum TrackPoint sensitivity (or speed) as well as the keystrokes. Just like the recent high-end ThinkPads, it has a high enough sensitivity to be used with 4K monitors.
As such, people with high-end ThinkPads from about three to four years ago who felt that the keystrokes on the previous version of this keyboard felt slightly different should definitely try out this new keyboard.
The reason I’ve been saying “high-end” so much is that there’s actually a surprising difference in the feel of the keystrokes between the cheaper and more expensive ThinkPads. When I’ve said high-end models, I’ve been thinking of feel of the keystrokes on the ThinkPad T480/490s.
Of course, people’s feelings about the keys on the latest ThinkPad models differ. Compared to older models, it takes less pressure to press a key. However, compared to competitors’ recent offerings, this is definitely one of the best and most complete low-profile keyboards.
Easy to pair (and re-pair) with Bluetooth
Although the Bluetooth connection doesn’t support multi-pairing, you can pair to a different computer without the previous pairing connection being deleted. This new feature makes pairing to a device a lot easier.
Lets look at the details of the wireless connections. The USB receiver for the onboard wireless is compact and stows away in the keyboard, so it’s really quick to switch to from Bluetooth. It’s really useful if you have to switch between different computers or devices often. If not, you can just leave it plugged into the keyboard next to the charging port.
Personally, I really like the redesign of the power switch . The previous version of the keyboard also had a sliding power switch, but you had to do a “long hold” for about two seconds to turn it on. This was to prevent it turning on accidentally while travelling with it.
The new keyboard also has a sliding switch, but you move it back and forth, meaning you can turn it on or off swiftly. Also the latency until you can type after you turn it on is short, so you can get writing right away.
Historically, ThinkPad brand keyboards were very popular as the TrackPoint removed the need for a mouse. This meant engineers could use it easily when performing tasks with machines that didn’t have a keyboard. However, I feel like this new keyboard is useful in even more situations.
20 points I like about this keyboard
There are just too many things I want to say about this keyboard to people who use the previous version or other Bluetooth keyboards. As such, I’ve made a list of 20 things I noticed during my trial period whenever I thought “this is a plus.”
I think that fans of the ThinkPad, or people who have tried out all sorts of Bluetooth keyboards (there’s a lot of choice), will agree with me on several of these.
I feel like the components are the same quality as the T480 (or T490s). The surface of the keys feels the same, and is slightly rough. As a result, it might feel a bit unfamiliar to users of the X1 Carbon, which has smooth keys.
The action of the keys feels similar to the T480s. Many people feel like the action on the T480s is a bit lighter than on a ThinkPad from about three years earlier. Of course, there are differences in opinion and differences between each individual device which shouldn’t be overlooked. However, a lot of users of older ThinkPads can’t get used to the light feel.
The frame of the keyboard is substantially sturdier. Heavy users used to say the biggest weakness of the keyboard was the “creaking noise when you twist or bend it.” This is almost entirely fixed now. In fact, it’s so much better it feels like they’re talking about a different product. This is largely because the area that the keys lie on, and the border around them, use the same style of frame as the X1 Carbon.
The scissor switches in the keyboard have been improved. The issue where you press the side of a key and the opposite side “floats” occurs far less than on the previous version. As the new keyboard has a far sturdier frame, heavy users who thought that the previous version “felt somehow cheap” should be happy.
The Fn Lock and CapsLock keys use the same white LEDs as the current ThinkPad models. However, there are no LEDs on the speaker and microphone mute keys.
Like the keyboard layout on the current ThinkPad, the gap between the Page Up/Page Down keys and the arrow keys has been increased. This leads to a lot less missed inputs. This is a big plus for me, as I often use the Page keys.
It supports six-key input to type braille, where the F, D, S, J, K and L keys can be input simultaneously (although the previous version actually supported this too). However, it doesn’t support N-key rollover.
For users who are concerned that the TrackPoint sensitivity is too low for high resolution displays, that’s been fixed. The default sensitivity setting is similar to recent ThinkPads (and responds to the strength at which you push the nub. For a mouse, we refer to this sensitivity as “dpi.”) Additionally, a utility for Windows has been released, which enables you to increase or decrease sensitivity.
Although the mouse buttons are low profile, they have a satisfying clicking feel. This is because they don’t use the same quiet button design as the X1 Carbon from three years ago.
The center mouse button uses the familiar design where it clicks at the top of the button. Some users voiced concerns that the keyboard would use a center mouse button where it clicks in the middle like some ThinkPad models did. This isn’t the case.
In addition to basic function LEDs, there’s a light on top of the USB port that shows if the keyboard is charging (like the previous version). This makes it easy to confirm if the keyboard’s charging.
The power button now uses a sliding power switch, meaning to you can turn the keyboard on right away without needing to do a “long hold.” Furthermore, there’s almost no waiting time. It turns on and wakes up from sleep mode very quickly.
There’s a simple switch to change between Windows and Android modes inlaid into the top side of the keyboard. The main difference between these modes is that the keys from F9 to F12 change to Android navigation functions (such as Back, Home, or Overview).
The keyboard uses USB-C charging. The included cable is a USB-A to USB-C cable. For people who want to use all USB-C devices (such as myself), this is a big plus.
The onboard wireless USB receiver is compact, and can be conveniently stowed in the keyboard. The fact that the dongle is USB-A has positives and negatives. Also, although there’s no locking mechanism, it feels like there’s enough tension that the receiver can’t easily fall out.
The Bluetooth connection does not support multi-pairing, but can pairs with a computer twice. This means you can reconnect easily after using another device as the existing pairing connection isn’t deleted. This makes connecting a lot less frustrating (at last!).
Pairing uses a physical switch, which is used to switch between Bluetooth and the onboard wireless connection. As such, there’s no need to remember a keyboard combination (perfect for people who use multiple Bluetooth keyboards!). Although you can still use a key combination (Fn+Delete).
As Lenovo announced in the preview, the keyboard can be used with the Windows 10 Swift Pair feature. Once recognized by the OS, a notification displays with a key code you can enter to pair immediately.
The Lenovo logo is printed in the top-left corner and uses the same low visibility coating that’s been used since the X1 in 2018, so it really pops.
Unfortunately, the stand you use to change the angle of keyboard, which were considered a drawback of the previous version, remain mostly the same. I would’ve liked them to make the feet a bit more durable. Although they do seem to be made of better material, I have concerns about them.
A faithful recreation comparable to the keyboard on a ThinkPad
I’ve raised a lot of points so far, and if you look over them again you’ll see they’re mostly positive (although some are things I like personally). Amongst them, there are a lot of things that users of the previous version will be overjoyed to hear have been improved.
When Lenovo unveiled this keyboard at CES, they said that the focus of this keyboard was to “recreate the typing experience of the iconic ThinkPad keyboard.” In their words, this refers to “using the same key caps, key travel distance, typing action, and resistance as the ThinkPad.”
Truthfully, I was cynical at the time as the previous versions of the keyboard had been quite shallow and light.
However, I was willing to go into this review with an open mind and see if they had kept their word.
Lenovo emphasized that the TrackPoint Keyboard II feels like a ThinkPad keyboard, and it really does feel like one.
Of course, some would like for the keyboard to be to be slightly larger like the previous model, and less like a low-profile keyboard. Others will be disappointed that the keyboard doesn’t use the seven row layout of the “ThinkPad 25” (although the feel of authentic ThinkPad keystrokes likely remains appealing to those people).
However, like the work of the retro arcade game developers M2 and Gotch Technologies, this is a faithful recreation of the original. I think that you can buy a keyboard that has the keystroke feel of a ThinkPad is cause for celebration. After all, we have waited seven years for it!