First, a short history lesson: ThinkPads have had a long history with factory shipped illuminated keyboards. In fact, the first ThinkPad with an illuminated keyboard was the ThinkPad i-Series 1400, a small-business ThinkPad introduced to the market in August of 1999. This was the birth of the ThinkLight. Most of you will know what the ThinkLight is, but for those of you who don’t: The ThinkLight is a small overhead light, either a white LED (T-Series/X-Series/W-Series) or a amber LED (R-Series/Z-Series, both discontinued, and some select other models). It is activated on older ThinkPads by pressing FN + PgUp. The ThinkLight was a useful feature if you were working in the dark, it also could illuminate a pice of paper if you wanted to read something
With the advent of the so called “Backlit Keyboards“, mostly forced by Apple into the market, the popularity of the ThinkLight continuously declined. In fact, many reviewers didn´t even notice this feature, or if they noticed it, they dismissed it to be not as cool looking as a Backlit keyboard or to be as useful.
So in 2011, Lenovo reacted. The original ThinkPad X1 was introduced, and despite not being a really great success, the keyboard redesign was welcomed by many reviewers and users. Most of this praise was because of the keyboard rigidity and feel, but partially, this was also because the X1 was the first ThinkPad with a Backlit Keyboard.
So, one year later, Lenovo decided to roll out the new keyboard to all ThinkPads. Since the introduction of the Tx30 generation, all ThinkPads of the T-, W-, and X-Series are available with a backlit keyboard. These models all came with the ThinkLight, and the backlit keyboard was available optional. With the current T/W/Xx40 models, the ThinkLight disappeared – probably due to the lack of use and because of thickness restrictions (since the lids of current ThinkPads are much thinner than before). Now, for many higher priced ThinkPads the backlit keyboard is a standard, but still, the question is: Should you get a ThinkPad with a backlit keyboard?
Lets compare the non-backlit keyboard with the backlit version in some points:
- Obviously, the backlit keyboard has keyboard illumination and is superior to the non-backlit one in this regard
- They differ in texture: While the non-backlit keyboard has the same matte plastic textured finish as the former ThinkPad keyboards, the backlit keyboard has a slick, smooth or even a bit slippery finish. This is due to the keys being transparent to light, as the letters are illuminated as well. This results however sometimes in a dirty keyboard with very greasy keys (Chicony keyboard for the T440 generation for example, in contrast, LiteOn doesn´t suffer from this problem)
- The letters on the keys of the non-backlit keyboard are a bit raised, they are printed on the keys, while with the backlit keyboard, the are embedded in the keys (also due to the transpareny to light)
- On some non-backlit keyboards, the FN key funtions are colored grey (though not on all). For the backlit versions, they are all uniformly white
- They differ a bit in feel (different from keyboard manufacturer to keyboard manufacturer)
- The backlit keyboard is of course more expensive
Wheter you want to get a ThinkPad with a backlit or a non-backlit keyboard is your choice, but I definitely would always get one with backlight. Of course, if you have a low budget, the backlit keyboard might not be an option. Good thing is, ThinkPad keyboards are very often CRU’s, to they are easily replaceable without losing warranty – the backlit keyboard is a nice aftermarket upgrade.
And as a personal recommendation, if you have a T440(s/p)/T540p/W540 and want to get a backlit keyboard, make sure you get one from LiteOn (LTN). In my experience, their quality is much better than the often used Chicony (CHY) keyboard.