IBM ThinkPad 770E review

Retro-chic and Y2K compliant, IBM's ThinkPad 770E is a machine for the ages

The IBM ThinkPad 770E is a storied machine, built to last the ages.
The IBM ThinkPad 770E is a storied machine, built to last the ages.
The IBM ThinkPad 770E is a storied machine, built to last the ages.

Highs

  • Sturdy construction
  • Retro appeal
  • Swappable drive bays
  • Plenty of connections
  • Spacious keyboard

Lows

  • Limited software support

Laptops have become more homogeneous than ever. That means slim design, futuristic materials, and sharp, high-resolution displays are the norm – yet individuality is all but lost. In the face of this increasing reliance on tired design trends, IBM has re-entered the consumer PC market to take things in a different direction, with its ThinkPad 770E.

This 14-inch laptop looks different from most the moment it’s taken out of the box, and while some skeptics might see that as a disadvantage, there’s a method to IBM’s madness. The company hopes bulky design can be excused by a plethora of ports, a unique display aspect ratio, and a number of special features found only on the 770E.

Is this the most revolutionary laptop to cross our desk in years? Let’s find out.

Size matters

While it’s a little heftier than we’re used to seeing on 14-inch laptops, there’s a lot to like about the ThinkPad’s construction. The black plastic is among the sturdiest we’ve reviewed lately, with no noticeable panel gaps or flex points.

The size, which some might describe as “unwieldy” or “lumbering,” actually provides some nice benefits that have mostly been lost on modern laptops. It has a swappable DVD drive, along with a 3.5-inch floppy drive, providing it physical media support that other manufacturers have abandoned in pursuit of lower costs. There’s even a built-in kickstand that props the laptop up at an ergonomic typing angle. No brand cares more about user comfort that IBM.

Speaking of comfort, IBM forgoes the clunky, boring touchpad for something a little more high-class — TrackPoint. The red nub that sits between the B, G, and H keys is a fitting substitute for gesture-based touchpads, and the distinct buttons below the space bar click chunkily, providing great travel and tactile feedback.

Some might wonder why a touchpad wasn’t included, too, but we think IBM made the right choice. Why include an inferior feature? That’s like arguing a smartphone with a physical keyboard also needs a touchscreen.

The size, which some might describe as “unwieldy” or “lumbering,” has its benefits.

The keyboard, meanwhile, is a thing of beauty. Its massive, beveled keys chalk up more travel than your last road trip with each stroke, and typing at over one hundred words per minute is a breeze. We did notice the lack of a Windows key, but adding it would reduce the size of surrounding keys, so the compromise makes some sense.

Wireless connectivity is limited to Bluetooth. Ditching Wi-Fi is another example of IBM deciding to exclude unreliable features. Of course, that doesn’t stop the IBM from packing in wired connections. All told, there’s a single IEEE 1284 port, RS-232C (9-pin serial), PS/2 for external mouse or keyboard, VGA video output, separate 3.5 mm audio-in and out, plus an IBM docking connector and infrared. There’s a flap on the side that looks like it could be for a modem or Ethernet port, but there’s nothing inside. The 770E is truly a machine shrouded in mystery.

Pump you up

The beating heart of our review unit is the new and improved Pentium II processor. It clocks in at a speedy 266MHz, a vast improvement over the Pentium I model found in the classic 770. It’s paired up with 288MB of RAM for a snappy computing experience in everything from Netscape to Chip’s Challenge.

With this, you’re not just buying a computer. You’re buying a piece of history.

Unlike the base model of the 770E, which sports a 5GB hard drive, our review unit is mysteriously packing in almost 20GB of storage. It’s not immediately obvious where this larger drive came from (we’re worried the NSA may have bugged the unit in-route), but we’re thankful for the extra storage, as it means the 770E is running the latest and greatest from Microsoft — Windows XP.

Which, by the way, looks gorgeous on the ThinkPad’s 1,024 x 768 panel, which packs 91 pixels per inch. In a world of skyrocketing resolutions, IBM is able to remind us of a simpler time, when you didn’t have to squint and lean in close to see the pixels on the screen. The panel’s aspect ratio is also a mark of defiance. Today’s 16:9 displays might be great for gaming, but they’re terrible for viewing documents or coding. We appreciate the extra vertical space offered by the 770E.

If you need to work on the go, you’ll be happy to hear the 770E can last up to an hour on a charge when in top form. Our notebook seemed to have a bad battery, so it did not last so long, but the power adapter was fairly small and easy to pack. The laptop also has a handy LCD battery meter that keeps you informed of the battery’s status.

A few software issues

While we do love the 770E, we must remark on a trait that’s sure to be controversial. Given its unique hardware, the 770E has trouble running the same software as every other system on the market.

It’s not a huge problem, because the 770E has everything you need packed into Windows XP. There’s a web browser, a document editor, and even some excellent games like Solitaire and Pinball. The standard software suite will take care of all your needs without forcing you to trek across the Internet looking for third-party software.

Still, you should know what you’re getting into. The 770E is a very specific beast, and it’s certainly not the best choice if you want to run exotic software like Google Chrome.

Back to the future

If you’re looking for something a little different for your next computer, IBM’s ThinkPad 770E is sure to turn heads with its classic, no-frills design, high-end display, and internals. It doesn’t cut any corners, finding the space for extra ports, swappable drives, and little touches, like the kickstand, and the empty modem slot.

The oversized design will also appeal to hipsters. It’s the kind of machine that will make people at a coffee shop wonder if they’ve accidentally time traveled. It’s the perfect laptop for anyone who buys a typewriter ironically, or uses an old flip-phone. One look at the dirt and grime that’s built up over the years, and you’ll know you’re not just buying a computer, you’re buying a piece of history.

The 770E is a machine with a story, that’s already walked a long, hard path. Like traces of a lost civilization, our review unit came with an account named Bill already set up, and we walk in Bill’s footsteps with every keystroke and click. We’ve had enough of new machines with touchscreens and crazy hinges, and that’s why we think your next laptop should be the IBM ThinkPad 770E.

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