Why I went back to using a ThinkPad from 2012

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Why I went back to using a ThinkPad from 2012

This post is inspired by this article from the Low-tech Magazine.
I highly recommend giving that a read as well!

Over my lifetime, I’ve used a bunch of different computers, mainly due to new
ideas and requirements popping into my mind every time I’m content with my
current setup. One of my last changes might be a bit of a headscratcher for some.

ThinkPad T430 in all its glory.
ThinkPad T430 in all its glory.

Background

At my current place of employment, I’ve had the opportunity to try out recently
released laptops from Lenovo and Dell, with the goal of evaluating them for
software development workloads and pick a default option for new hires. My work
laptop at the time was the Lenovo ThinkPad T480 with some decent specs and an
NVIDIA GeForce MX 150 GPU that was weak and throttled itself whenever it hit 70
degrees Celsius in Windows 10, making it absolutely useless.

I tried out a fair number of makes and models: Lenovo ThinkPad P14/T14 (gen 1
and 2) in both Intel 11th gen and AMD Ryzen 4000/5000 series configurations, plus
some Dell Latitudes with Intel 11th gen CPU-s as well. And the result? A lot of
disappointment.

The non-exhaustive list of issues I ran into with these machines on Fedora
Linux 34:

  • The touchpad would sometimes randomly not work on one of the ThinkPads.
  • On AMD models, performance was less than stellar for my workloads and not a
    significant jump over a laptop from 2018.
  • The Intel CPU-s had throttling issues that made them unusable for basic
    things like calls over Google Meet as they would throttle to 400 MHz.
  • On one of the Dell machines, it was very easy to overheat the SSD, which lead
    to the CPU throttling to 400 MHz. Yes, the SSD caused the CPU to throttle.
  • Wi-Fi/Bluetooth would not work on one of the laptops, even when I was using an
    up-to-date Linux distro. Likely related to the type of adapter used (not Intel).

Once that experiment was done, we settled on the least crappy version of the
ThinkPads that had an AMD Ryzen CPU, at least those didn’t sound like jet
engines under load and didn’t have insane throttling issues.

It’s not all that bad, though. I was now committed to using my current ThinkPad
T480 for as long as possible. It, too, had a rough start, but at least all the
issues it came with have been ironed out over time.

Hopping between machines

At this point in time, I had three machines:

  • desktop PC (for work and personal stuff)
  • work laptop (for work stuff only)
  • personal laptop (for personal stuff, of course)

I could not rely on the work laptop for personal use as it has limited storage
options. Call me a freak, but I feel very uneasy running on a single SSD, even
if my data is backed up to my NAS and on external backup drives. With my desktop
PC use case affecting other workloads as well
, I
had to come up with a solution.

Syncing data between machines was not the issue here. Syncthing
is an absolute open-source gem and had no issues with things like
node_modules folders. The main issue was the fact that I didn’t want to carry
two laptops around or buy an extra USB-C dock for use at home.

I took the risk and jumped back to the ThinkPad T430 for both my personal and
work use cases.

ThinkPad T430: the history

My ThinkPad T430 has a rich history. I got it in 2016 to replace my aging
ThinkPad T60. Getting this laptop felt similar to that time a desktop PC that ran
Windows 98 got replaced with a dual-core “beast” in 2006.

In 2006, my webpage load times went from 30 seconds to a second. Getting
Android app build times from 60 seconds to around 10 seconds on the T430 felt
the same.

This ThinkPad T430 has survived all the following:

  • A bicycle crash while it was in a backpack. The latch mechanism broke and
    there are a couple of cracks in the palm rest, but the rest is working fine.
  • A coffee spill, which luckily only discoloured the casing of two USB 3.0 ports.
  • Liquid metal experiments, had some pretty close calls there with my dumb ass
    almost shorting the system out.
  • Use as a budget low-power server machine for a bit.

5 years later, it’s back in my possession again after a short stint at a family
members’ hands.

There’s more to this than simply a rich history, though.

The modifications

Over the years, I’ve been inspired by whatever modifications people over at
/r/thinkpad have come up with. If you
want a short summary, you can check out
the definitive T430 modding guide
to get some inspiration.

To make this machine viable in 2021, you need the CPU, RAM and SSD upgrades at
the very minimum.

Here’s the list of upgrades I’ve done:

  • CPU upgrade to a quad-core Intel i7-3820QM (45W TDP).
  • RAM upgrade to 16 GB DDR3 memory.
  • Storage: 250GB mSATA for OS, 2x 1TB SATA SSD-s for data, made possible with a
    HDD caddy that replaces the optical drive.
  • New third party 9-cell battery. I’ve had mixed experiences with these, but
    the one I have now seems to be good enough.
  • Replaced the heatsink and fan assembly with one that has a Delta fan
    (FRU 04W3270). It’s quieter and doesn’t have the high-pitched whine that the
    Toshiba fan exhibits.
  • At one point, I ran an external GPU off of the ExpressCard34 slot.
  • Installed 1vyrain to get rid of annoying
    limitations, such as the Wi-Fi whitelist.
  • Upgraded the Wi-Fi card to Intel Wireless-AC 7260.
Delta fan (top) vs the annoyingly loud Toshiba fan (bottom).
Delta fan (top) vs the annoyingly loud Toshiba fan (bottom).

There are some things I’d like to eventually tinker with:

  • Replace the display with a compatible 1600×900 panel that has better image
    quality. The current screen is awful.
  • Do something fun with the ExpressCard34 slot. There’s the thinkmods.store
    ExpressCard34 SSD adapter
    ,
    but I haven’t seen that released yet.
eGPU setup that I used to run back in 2017 with surprisingly good results.
eGPU setup that I used to run back in 2017 with surprisingly good results.

With these modifications, it feels like an usable laptop again.

But why?

The reasons why I went back to the T430 are quite simple.

  • Build quality: it has survived a nasty fall, and it will probably survive the
    next ones as well.
  • CPU performance is roughly on par with the T480 under sustained load.
  • No dedicated GPU that takes up valuable space and power.
  • Battery life with the 9-cell battery is on par or even better in real
    world use scenarios, compared to the T480.
  • Ridiculous storage configurations: dual-boot, triple-boot, RAID1 setups,
    16+TB of solid-state storage, it’s all possible on this old laptop!
  • Decent selection of ports, including VGA and gigabit ethernet.
  • Docking stations can be dirt cheap and be bought for less than 10 EUR (used).
  • I have plenty of Lenovo barrel plug chargers, but only one USB-C Lenovo
    charger. I really didn’t want to buy more chargers when I have plenty of
    perfectly working ones.

There are some downsides, though:

  • No HDMI, I’d need a mini-Displayport to HDMI dongle for that to work.
  • No USB-C, which might be an issue if your environment at work is optimized
    for that.
  • It runs hot, but doesn’t have the same level of on-chip thermal protections
    that the T480 has, resulting in this awful piece of software I wrote back in 2018.

That’s nothing compared to the unreliability I’ve experienced with the T480.
I’ve witnessed the keyboard dying once and the motherboard being replaced twice,
once due to charging related issues, and the other time due to random system
crashes and screen glitching.

Verdict

I’ve been using this setup for over a month now, and it has been surprisingly
adequate. Yes, opening Java projects in IntelliJ will make things slow, and to
record my desktop with OBS and acceptable performance, I had to drop my screen
resolution to 720p. I can’t expect everything to work super well on this
machine, but for a computer that’s released almost 10 years ago, it’s still
holding up well.

I’d like to thank Intel here for making this possible. The CPU innovation
stagnation between 2012-2017 has resulted in 4 cores still being an acceptable
low-end CPU in early 2022. Without this, my laptop would likely be obsolete by
now.

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2 thoughts on “Why I went back to using a ThinkPad from 2012

  1. Aditya avatar

    I like to buy just under 5 year old Thinkpads, get from a seller who gives atleast 6 months warranty, put new batteries in and they are usually far better in every way than anything new for the same price. Am currently very happy with my T460S, runs Linux or Win10 great. My previous machines that the kids use for school work and Roblox are x250 and x220, and previous to that I have an X200 and a T61, that all lasted atleast 5 years in my ownership, over 10 years old before they were sold on. I have noticed since my X200 a slow and steady decline in toughness (I presume in exchange for compactness). You do have to pick carefully, some models have terrible trackpads, often the base LCD screens are terrible for brightness and viewing angle, so you need to ensure you get the upgraded ones (eg IPS and/or higher resolution).

  2. Aditya avatar

    I had a visitor over the holidays who needed to work but didn't have a laptop. I had 2x old T420 (released in 2011) so I combined the RAM and did a fresh OS install. My only hassle was finding a DP cable. Other than doubling the RAM, this was still a stock machine from 2011. CPU benchmark scores for this T420 are comparable/better than sub-£400 new x86 laptops available at big box stores which was the other short-term option. Our visitor has had no issues with the T420 for Zoom calls, Chrome and other general stuff. I sold the RAM-less T420 and was informed that it was up and running with fresh RAM at its new home.