Why Lenovo Still Uses That Weird Red Nub

The TrackPoint still has its supporters

Key Takeaways

  • IBM brought TrackPoint to ThinkPad in October 1992 with the ThinkPad 700 and 700C.
  • TrackPoint can make a laptop keyboard more comfortable by reducing hand movement.
  • Lenovo altered TrackPoint in 2014’s X1 Carbon and removed it from the ThinkPad 11e, but changed course after fans rebelled.
Lenovo X1 Carbon resting on a wood table

Matthew S. Smith / Lifewire

Open a ThinkPad and you’ll find something unique: a tiny, bright red joystick, not unlike a clown’s nose, that stands in contrast to the matte black surrounding it. 

This miniature pointing stick, officially called the TrackPoint (and unofficially known as the nub or nipple) is a holdover from an era when laptops were briefcase-sized devices and touchpads were unheard of. 

Hannah Blair, a judge on the 2020 VR Awards and front-end developer at Hopin, set off a tweetstorm with a photo of TrackPoint and a challenge: "did anyone ever actually use this thing?" The answer, of course, is "yes." But why?

TrackPoint’s Ergonomic Roots 

TrackPoint is rooted in research by Ted Selker, a computer scientist working for IBM. He came across data in 1984 showing users need more than a second to move their hand from a keyboard to a mouse. Why not eliminate this wasted movement by adding cursor input to the keyboard?

Turning this observation into a usable device took years. Selker worked alongside Joe Rutledge to refine the concept through user testing, shipping 100 prototypes to IBM labs across the world.

1993's Lenovo ThinkPad 220

Matthew S. Smith / Lifewire

These became the TrackPoint when Richard Sapper, the designer behind IBM’s first ThinkPads, used it on 1992's ThinkPad 700. Sapper can be credited for the TrackPoint’s iconic red finish (officially called IBM Magenta), which he used to draw attention to the unfamiliar device. 

TrackPoint’s popularity was never guaranteed. Sapper’s original ThinkPad concept didn’t have a mouse input, and some early models, like the ThinkPad 220, had a trackball. Critics favored the TrackPoint, however, and it became standard on all ThinkPad laptops in 1995.

Is TrackPoint Actually Better?

I first encountered TrackPoint on a ThinkPad T40 I purchased for college in 2003. I fell in love with it for a specific reason: I could reach it easily while writing a paper or browsing research sources. 

This, of course, was TrackPoint’s intended purpose. Selker and Rutledge’s experiments focused on using the cursor while typing. 

"The comparison showed it took 30 to 45 seconds to get as good as a pad," Selker said in a three-hour interview with the Computer History Museum in 2017. "And then three minutes later, you could actually do text editing as fast as a mouse. 45 minutes later, you could actually do it faster than a mouse. So that was a really big deal." IBM reiterated this advantage in a 1990 video detailing the advantage of IBM’s "in-keyboard analog pointing device."

However, recent studies find the touchpad superior. A 2007 paper comparing the usability of touchpads and trackpoints for middle-aged adults found the touchpad about 20% quicker in point-and-click and drag-and-drop tasks. 

Having tested new ThinkPads like the X1 Nano and X1 Titanium Yoga, I think fans and detractors are talking past each other. TrackPoint wasn’t built for fast point-and-click tasks. It was invented to eliminate the strain of switching between keyboard and mouse. TrackPoint makes sense for writers, editors, or coders who spend hours working with text.

Will Lenovo Ever Remove the Nub?

Lenovo, which purchased ThinkPad in 2005, has proven to be a smart steward of the brand, but its tenure hasn’t been without controversy. The 2014 ThinkPad X1 Carbon had fans crying foul.

Designed in a collaboration between David Hill, Tom Takhashi, and original ThinkPad designer Richard Sapper, the X1 Carbon made a small change: it took away the physical left and right mouse buttons at the top of ThinkPad touchpads. The X1 Carbon still had buttons in that location, but like other touchpads, integrated them into the touchpad surface. Lenovo also introduced a new model, the ThinkPad 11e, without the TrackPoint.

Users hated it. Louis Rossman, a YouTuber and computer repair shop owner best known for unrelenting criticism of Apple, rallied the ThinkPad community. The X1 Carbon’s second generation brought back the physically separate left and right buttons for good. The ThinkPad 11e is now discontinued. 

Lenovo learned to embrace the touchpad, touchscreen, and TrackPoint without allowing one to detract from the others.

"We have many, many customers who make it very clear to us that they use and value the functionality of TrackPoint in addition to touchpads, mice, touchscreens, and other input methods," Kevin Beck, senior story technologists at Lenovo, said in an email. 

Today, you’ll find TrackPoint on PCs of every type, from large workstations laptops to 2-in-1s with detachable keyboards, like the ThinkPad X12 Detachable. Superfans can even use TrackPoint with a desktop

The TrackPoint is destined to confuse ThinkPad newcomers for years to come—and the nub’s biggest fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

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