- Solid like a tank, magnesium skeleton keeps things rigid. Has liquid drain holes for when you spill liquids on the keyboard.
- Keyboard and layout is legendary to type on, before Lenovo went chiclet-style and losing travel/feel.
- Still performs very well, even by today’s standards, thanks to undiluted i5 CPU, before the ULV models.
- RAM user-upgradeable to 16GB, SSD easily changeable, as are two mini PCI-E expansion slots and card slot (see below for AC Wifi upgrade).
- Lenovo provides PDF full service manual/diagrams. Even the AC power input, LCD, keyboard, hinges, trackpad, etc. Longetivity.
- TFT LCD can be replaced with IPS LCD from better model, about $60-80 to buy one online.
- Swappable batteries, that is all. Buy replacements (either 6/9-cells or slice batteries) online.
- Touchpad is complete rubbish, use the trackpoint instead.
- It’s not very heavy, but it is thick.
In the last installment, I pondered over a laptop to replace the Macbook Air. Not that it strictly needed a replacement, but I feel much more comfortable running a pure Linux laptop, especially post-Snowden. All three options, the X1 Carbon, the T440s and the X240 all started at around the $1,200 mark. Once various upgrades like 8GB RAM and larger SSDs were added, prices increased to the $1,600 mark, more for Full HD screens. Around Macbook Air territory, but with slight improvements.
But after digging further, I noticed a disturbing trend. These Thinkpad machines, which had long been bastions of user upgradeability, were being designed with limited or soldered RAM slots, or less and less I/O ports. Decisions made in the pursuit of a slightly thinner form factor, or a reduction in production costs, or planned obsolescence. None of the models I had considered were exempt, the X240 for example, only had one RAM slot, rendering it limited to 8GB of RAM, at least for the foreseeable future. One RAM slot? Really?
The glorious old-style X220 keyboard, big keys with full length travel, large ESC and Delete keys, plenty of physical buttons. Will wake your neighbours on occasion.
Around two years ago, Lenovo also began the transition from the scissor-type full-fat keys which have traditionally adorned Thinkpads, to Macbook-style chiclet keys. I never found the Air keys to be lacking, and the Macbook Pro keys have slightly more travel, but when compared to the old-style Thinkpad keys, they are mere toys. I say this with no exaggeration, the Thinkpad non-chiclet clacky keyboard is absolutely legendary. I found I could churn out more keystrokes than before, and with far more enjoyment and less fatigue, compared to the Macbook keyboard. If you’re a desktop user, imagine a comparison between a mechanical keyboard with Cherry switches and a keyboard with the best rubber/plastic dome switches. It’s not even close..
New-style Lenovo chicklet keyboard. Short key travel, no spaces in F keys, small ESC/DEL keys, but still better than most. The X1 keyboard has an e-ink F-Row, for when you need 36 different functions. If you use those, you’ve failed.
I use keyboard shortcuts for nearly everything imaginable, only resorting to using the mouse if things get dire, and I spend an inordinate amount of time in a terminal, vim or in Sublime Text, hence my single-minded obsession on the keyboard. The Thinkpad keyboard, circa non-chiclet, has thoughtful design decisions: a very large ESC and Delete key, grouped F-keys for tactile use, dedicated navigation keys (like Home/End/Pgup/Pgdn), and a glorious clacky soundtrack that multiplies satisfaction. There are people who have tried to retrofit this style of keyboard onto the newer Thinkpads to replace the chiclet keys, such is it’s prowess.
So with this in mind, I set out to find the last of the clacky-keyed Thinkpads before they were gone. Preferably something compact. The X220 was that machine. Though being released in early 2011, positively ancient by computing years, it was specced with a full-power i5-2520M 3.2ghz Sandy-Bridge processor, not the undervolted U-series as seen in today’s laptops. Pound for pound, it was every part as capable as the newer Ivy-Bridged i7-3667U in the 2012 Macbook Air. Two easily user-serviceable RAM slots and a 10 hour battery life were the icing on the cake. A slightly smaller screen, but noticeably smaller footprint and weight was an even trade.
DDR3 RAM is easily installable via the service hatch. Note the keyboard fluid drain holes, and the speaker outlets.
To round it off, it had no less than 3 USB ports (1 more than the Air), one of which charged devices even while the machine was off. In-built Gigabit and full-size HDMI ports meant no dongles required, something which reached ridiculous proportions with the Air (I ended up having 5 or 6 dongles for different purposes). There was even a user-facing LED torch, for goodness sake. You could spill drinks (video) onto the keyboard and it was designed to drain out nicely out of two holes at the bottom. They call it Mil-spec (video), where the machines are certified to run in extreme temperatures, get splashed and spilled on, shaken, dropped, all in humid and dusty environments, 9 tests in all, without any adverse effects. It’s not bullet stopping, but it’s not iPhone-fragile either.
The best part for me, was that the entire device was designed to be modular. The keyboard (FRU 45N2211) is removable with just two Philips screws, in less than 1 minute. The other components, nearly as quick. Lenovo provides a full service manual complete with diagrams and instructions on ‘complete’ disassembly of the machine down to the bare shell, with full part numbers and specs. Call them dinosaurs, I call them heroes, good luck finding anything to assist user servicing on a Macbook. True to it’s legacy, the machine feels as sturdy and solid as any laptop that I’ve handled, the chassis is exceptionally rigid, there is no minimal keyboard flex.
Palm rest / Trackpad easily removed, you can see the Expresscard cage, CMOS battery (CR2024) and Wifi/Bluetooth modules. There’s also enough space to stash some spare change and tomorrow’s lunch.
All for a couple of hundred bucks second-hand, with plentiful supply. An off-the-shelf SSD upgrade and 8GB stick of RAM are no-brainers (expandable to 16GB later). In the event it needs other spares later, there are a multitude of batteries of varying capacities, allowing up to 20 hours of use (X44++ 9 Cell = 10 hours, 0A36280 Slice Battery = +10 hours). For the extravagant – docking stations, replacement keyboards / trackpads and panels are available, all based around a thriving third-party community. It’s like the Miata of laptops. For example if later on, Wireless AC becomes required, it’s just a matter of swapping out the wifi card under the keyboard, in less than 5 minutes. More space? An Expresscard SSD slots in as well.
There are, however, two key weaknesses with this machine. The first is, the trackpad is utter rubbish. It’s nearly 1/4 the size of the Air trackpad, which would be fine if it wasn’t horrendously inaccurate. To add insult to injury, the integrated buttons are far too easily clicked, no matter what OS you run. It’s so bad that I normally disable the entire trackpad and rely on the trackpoint, which I’ve grown to prefer, as it doesn’t require the fingers to move away from the keyboard.
You could swap the keyboard in the dark, it’s that easy. If you look carefully you can see liquid drain holes.
The other, is that this machine was specced from factory with two display options. A low-rent TFT display (FRU 93P56xx), which is what you’ll find in most second-hand or fleet machines, and a higher-spec IPS display, which tends to add at least $200 to the price. I briefly contemplated just leaving the TFT screen in there, but it’s pretty bad. Like flashback from the 90s bad. For $100 you can buy a factory replacement IPS panel from eBay, Amazon or AliExpress (FRU 04W3462, 04W3919, LP125WH2) and install it in under 15 minutes. Problem solved. Enjoy your new glorious viewing angles and gamut.
It should be mentioned that the X220 is nowhere near as sleek or stylish as a Macbook Air, it’s purely utilitarian for it’s function. When you bring a Thinkpad out, it means business, which may offend your colorful sensibilities. Luckily, I’ve never chosen a laptop because of perceived stylishness. On the bright side, there’s no need to bother with a protective case.
Four screws hold the LCD panel on, and two for the chassis reinforcement. You can see the HDD caddy (with rubber mounts).
So what of the experience? For a total of around $600 (including the 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM upgrades), or less than half the price of a comparably specced current laptop (barring the FHD displays), and in some opinions, a superior keyboard, you have a fully functioning, very capable machine. Installing Ubuntu 13.10 was straightforward, the X220 supports both UEFI and legacy BIOS booting, but I had no issues with a PXE netboot. No proprietary drivers were required, everything works out of the box, which was a pleasant surprise.
Some tips – for fingerprint reader use (which can be tied into system login), install the fprint library. And no Thinkpad owner would go wrong with installing tlp, which is Thinkpad-optimized to cleverly extend battery life by 20-30% through judicious CPU governor, radio and USB/PCI tweaks. Also, not Thinkpad specific, but if you’re lazy, use the bluetooth on your phone to automatically unlock your machine when you’re close, and vice-versa.
The motherboard is out. You know this laptop has had a tough life when there’s mould on the heatsink (condensation). Or somebody getting too happy with the spill test.
It’s a joy to use, I found no issues with the window manager detecting my multiple monitor setup, all the function keys and in-built devices work fine, sleep/resume and hibernate are working. Powertop indicator a steady 8-12w of normal use, offering around a solid 8 hours of battery life with the 9-cell battery. A happy camper indeed.
But there was a lesson to be learnt – everything initially seemed well, but after running the machine for a few days, I noticed an increasing amount of instability and crashing for no apparent reason. I isolated it down to a CPU or RAM problem, as it also began to crash while booting from USB sticks. I also noticed that the fan speed would be erratic, often remaining silent until suddenly erupting into maximum speed. These were common signs that there was a heat-related issue.
Thermal paste was in shocking condition. But easy to clean and reapply, crashing is fixed.
Fortunately, it was a quick and painless affair to remove the motherboard from the machine. As it turns out, and a common issue amongst fleet or refurbished units, was a heatsink that had been unseated and reseated multiple times, over many years, without re-applying fresh thermal paste. Undergoing many heat cycles, the factory thermal paste (which is generally of lower quality anyway) ends up hardening and flaking away, leading to a horrendous contact surface where heat cannot effectively transfer to the heatpipes to be cooled. Even under throttling, instability occurs. But it’s easily fixed.
So what’s the moral of the story? You don’t always need to buy the latest and greatest to have an enjoyable and productive computing experience. There is satisfaction and learning to be gained from achieving more with less, and from re-purposing hardware. Instead of contributing to toxic landfill, let’s make our hardware last longer. Long live the clacky keys.
UPDATE May-2015: (SEE BELOW, NEW BIOS) If you want to upgrade the Mini-PCIE Wireless card from the Realtek/Intel cards to something else (like an AC card), be aware that Lenovo have implemented a whitelist limitation on what cards you can use. To get around this, there is a modified 1.39 BIOS (latest version) which removes this whitelist limitation, so any card can be used. Source here. Use at your own risk. Direct Link: Modified BIOS.
UPDATE Nov-2015: Still going strong, nearly four years after the laptop was manufactured. Still running Ubuntu 14.04 LTS without issue. However, ‘acpi -i’ indicates battery wear is creeping up now, around 20% wear level on the original battery (it was 9% when I got the laptop). Luckily, I have a spare battery, and replacements are a dime a dozen online.
The Lenovo X220. Three words: Feisty! Fixable! Keyboard!