Keyboard Illumination: ThinkLight or Backlight?

The ThinkPad X1 keyboard uses LED backlighting for illumination

ThinkPad pioneered keyboard illumination when we introduced the iSeries way back in the year 2000. It seems like it was just yesterday that I was showing the prototype to the ThinkPad general manger in our photo studio. Incidentally, it was about the size of a small coat closet. I wrote a blog once that described in detail the origin of the feature. For some reason, there are a lot of inaccurate stories floating around the internet about this innovation.

The ThinkLight projects light on the keyboard from above. Who’s that guy sleeping?

With the introduction of the ThinkPad X1 also comes our first backlit keyboard. Using LED technology, the nomenclature eerily glows at two different brightness settings that are controlled by the user. Pressing the Fn key and space bar together makes it work. The space bar gives you a really nice dark-friendly target that can be executed with one hand if required. Light also spills out around the key edges to help define target boundaries.

On-screen display icons for the three levels of keyboard backlighting

The backlit illumination effect, however, is very different from our more traditional ThinkLight implementation. The ThinkLight creates an overall illumination that allows you to see the entire key, not just the glowing nomenclature. It’s behaves much more like a miniature lamp that some people use to read books with at night. Backlit keyboards are more similar to the lighting found on your automobiles dashboard. You might say ThinkLight was a bit dim in the early years, but LED’s have certainly gotten brighter lately. Lets not even talk about the ill-fated amber version we had for a brief period of time when I was back at IBM. I thought it would be interesting to poll my Design Matters readers about their keyboard illumination preference. Should we go with backlighting across the board, keep the old school ThinkLight, is there a significant difference, or do you even use keyboard illumination? Thanks for taking the time to share your views and helping to define the future of ThinkPad design. David Hill


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