I like ThinkPads

When I switched back to Linux, I bought a Dell XPS 13. It’s a very slick little machine, but hasn’t held up quite as well as I’d hoped. This is partly my fault, because it’s taken a couple spills, but several issues are due to the design of the system. It runs hot, the fans are noisy, the rubber feet came unglued, and after two years the battery only holds 55% of a charge. It still works, but the issues add up -- I don’t think I’ll be getting another one.

ThinkPads are the other line of laptops that are known for running Linux well, so I figured I’d see what was available there. I ended up ordering an X1 Carbon (6th gen) while it was on sale at the end of the year, but found that it wasn’t to my liking. The size and build quality are terrific, but it had a some deal-breaker issues. The soft touch finish feels nice, but collects skin oil so easily that it looks grubby all the time. The memory card reader only accepts microSD cards, is hidden behind a panel, and you have to close the lid to access it. It’s pretty much unusable, and they really shouldn’t have even bothered including it. The high-DPI display is a weird resolution that’s much too small at 1x scaling and much too large at 2x; and scaling to 1.5x is a big hassle in Linux. The speakers are also were terrible. I just don’t think a laptop with a $2,000 list price should have these kinds of issues. I’ve never returned a laptop in my life, but I returned this one.

Lenovo gets some credit for the painless return process. I got 100% of my money back without having to speak to anyone.

The ThinkPad 25 was another model I’d considered, a modern laptop with the classic ThinkPad style "7-row" keyboard. I was interested when it was first announced, but never bought one. They’ve been discontinued, but I found one on eBay for a decent price. It’s very nice. It might be too nice, because I’m afraid I’ll wear it out or drop it... Then what? Being a limited edition, parts are hard to come by. That nice classic style keyboard, for example: replacements were $300... when they were available... which they aren’t anymore. So if that breaks, I’m out of luck. Or if the keys wear smooth and I want to make it look new again, I just can’t.

But it is very nice.

Having heard that older ThinkPads are inexpensive and still run great, I went looking for one and ended up with an X230 from a local seller for $180. It’s the highest spec Core i7-3520M CPU, with 8gb RAM and a SSD -- and a matte screen, which I’d nearly forgotten how much I missed. Even though it’s nearly six years old, it still works great and is plenty powerful.

Cosmetically, it was pretty beat up. Compared to the ThinkPad 25, it’s actually liberating. I don’t have to worry about putting the first scratch on it, since it’s already got several.

The X230 is a great laptop, and I really like this machine; I’ve been using it daily. It’s a sweet spot in the ThinkPad lineup, with classic style and good performance. The X230 runs faster and cooler than its predecessor, and adds USB 3.0. The x240 which replaced it is inferior in several ways: It uses slower Ultrabook CPUs and removes the physical buttons from the TrackPoint.

ThinkPads are amazingly repairable. The amount of documentation and support for ThinkPads is incredible. Every model has a detailed service manual that shows how to replace every major component. You can look up every part used in a particular model, or put in a specific laptop’s serial number to see exactly what was in it when built. Lenovo still sells parts for older laptops, and what it doesn’t stock is usually available from third parties. Most parts are extremely cheap, ranging around $10-$30. Most repair jobs only take a few minutes. I swapped up the LCD panel for a nice IPS one in less than five minutes. A replacement for the cracked LCD bezel cost $13 shipped to my door.

Because all that documentation is available, ThinkPads are extremely hackable notebooks. Many models can use the open-source coreboot firmware, which is a free software BIOS replacement. It lets you neuter the Intel Management Engine, removes hardware restrictions, and boots faster than the stock BIOS. With a hardware modification, you can replace the original LCD panel in an X220 or X230 with a 1080p one. You can even install a classic "7-row" keyboard on models after they switched to the Mac-style "island" keys.

All this is to say: I really like ThinkPads. They’re cheap, powerful, repairable, and hackable -- all things I really appreciate these days.