Retro Laptops and Knackered Motherboards

(Sorry for the lack of recent updates - I’ve been quite busy with university and have had surprisingly little spare time to program as a hobby.)

Currently my main computer is out of action due to an issue with the motherboard (which is proving quite hard to pin down). As I’m doing Computer Science and having a working computer is quite integral to actually doing well, and my old 10-year-old Toshiba Tecra is showing increasing signs of age, I decided that enough is enough, and that I wanted a laptop that could at least load Facebook without swapping like crazy or reaching a CPU temperature near the boiling point of water.

My main computer in several pieces.

After a few hours on /r/SuggestALaptop, I got the impression that most people find Lenovo ThinkPads from several generations ago the ideal balance between price and performance. I don’t want something that can run Crysis 3 at 1080p, but I want something that is portable, has a battery life spanning at least two lectures, and is capable of running all the development tools I need without choking - the X220 from 2011 ticks most of those boxes, with a reasonably powerful Sandy Bridge i5 (hyper-threaded dual core) and mostly upgradeable components.

So, I bit the bullet and ordered a used business ThinkPad for £140 from Amazon (from the retailer known as EflexComputers). The computer arrived in generally acceptable condition, albeit with some ports on the machine slightly damaged (VGA screws missing and one USB port non-functional), which I’m currently resolving with the retailer, who are co-operating so far - I’ll update this page once I’ve finished resolving these problems.

The ThinkPad as it arrived.

I was initially tempted to shell out another £100 or so more for the next model up - the X230 features a much better integrated graphics processor and a nicer-looking, more modern keyboard, but after typing for hours on the keyboard on the X220, I can say that I’m quite happy with it. The keys feel responsive, and as it’s full size, I don’t need to make any awkward keyboard combinations to use the function keys. For whatever reason, modern laptop manufacturers have decided that the default behaviour of the function key row should be the special key behaviours (such as backlight control) rather than the intended F# key, which I think is a regressive design choice - I don’t have the Rachmaninoff hands required to pull off a Ctrl-Alt-Fn-F4 key combination without significant discomfort.

The retro-style ThinkPad keyboard, with the blue Enter key.

The first thing most people recommend when buying used laptops is to immediately replace the standard hard drive and Windows with an SSD and Linux. As a comfortable user of Arch Linux I immediately removed Windows 7 and replaced it with something far more lightweight and power-conservative - ThinkPads support good power management options, especially when the tlp package is installed on Arch. I followed the instructions on this page and slightly tweaked the battery (dis)charge thresholds in /etc/default/tlp for optimal battery life and to preserve the maximum charge of the battery as I use it. I suspect the addition of an 128 GB SSD (the Samsung 850 EVO) also helped with the battery life - a lack of moving parts would, I imagine, somewhat decrease power consumption.

The old 320 GB hard drive, alongside the new Samsung 850 EVO solid-state drive.

The SSD is vertically shorter than the HDD - noticeably so, as when the laptop is moved around, you can hear the SSD moving around somewhat. I fixed this by wedging a few folded layers of paper card on top of the SSD to remove the space, meaning the SATA port won’t be damaged from the motion when I carry it around.

Finally, after installing Arch and Cinnamon, and getting everything set up how I like it, this laptop has received a new lease of life - the changes I’ve made seemed to have doubled the effective battery life which is remarkable in my opinion. The processor is surprisingly powerful for an old Sandy Bridge and the 4 available threads mean that I can do a few things at once without it giving up and choking. It’s finally usable as a portable device and hopefully will serve me well at the various hackathons I visit!

The ThinkPad running Arch Linux.

Update: The issue with the USB and VGA ports has now been fixed - quick correspondence with Eflex and they provided a refund of £20, which is surprisingly generous. Regardless, I’ve since sold the X220 on and picked up an X230 off eBay for an absolute steal, meaning I can use my USB 3 hard drive without dying of boredom from the interminable USB 2 transfer times.