This is my new-old laptop

Since the beginning of the lockdown, my brand-new-but-broken Mac has been stuck at the repair shop and I’ve been using an old hand-me-down T420 ThinkPad as my main computer.

I had to replace its slow hard disk with a faster SSD, I had lying around, and the laptop needed a good cleaning but it was in perfect working condition and, despite its age (2011), it runs incredibly well. Be it under Linux Ubuntu or Manjaro but also, mind you, under Windows 10 Pro. I don’t know what magic the devs at Microsoft have recently done to Windows, but it feels great to use it on this 2011 laptop (it even feels snappier than Ubuntu).

So, I used this ThinkPad for the whole lockdown and what I expected to be a temporary workaround turned out to be such a satisfying experience that, now that the lockdown is over here in Paris, I haven’t yet checked with the store to see if I could come to grab my Mac. I have not missed it once.

What I have done since the end of the lockdown, though, is to purchase the ThinkPad X220, the T420 little and lighter brother.

It was released the same year as the T420 was; it uses the same CPU (2nd Gen Core i5 2520M), the same ram (up to 16 DDR3, 8Gb officially) and, more important to me, the exact same keyboard as the T420, but in a smaller package. And it runs as great under Windows, or Linux.

Me liking the ThinkPad does not come as a total surprise. I owned an X220 back then, in 2011, when it was brand new. And the X200, prior to that. So, I knew I liked them, but I had forgotten how much.

The keyboard is a joy to use. Great travel, great feeling (no wobbly keys), all keys feeling the same and sounding the same, with great feedback—not mushy, while not too noisy—and it’s offering the right keys where you need them. I can write for hours without my wrists or my fingers getting sore—looking at you, Apple.

And then there are the hinges, too.

Uh? The hinges? Yeah, seriously, the things that let you open and place the screen at whatever angle, without it wobbling. Plus, those hinges are designed in such a way that all ThinkPad can be opened flat (in fact, at more than 180°). For someone like me, often working in awkward positions (because of my back), it’s a blessing and something I’ve always cursed with most other brands, including Apple and Microsoft.

Then, and that’s the thing that seduced me the most during the lockdown: I was able to fix/service the ThinkPad all by myself, easily and using only common tools and off-the-shelves components.

This Philips screwdriver is all I needed to open the laptop and to remove every single piece in it. The bottom case, the screen, the bezel, the top case, the battery, the palm rest, the WiFi & Bluetooth cards, the storage, the ram, the keyboard, the speakers, the trackpad, the power plug, the webcam, all antennas and cables, and so on, up to the CPU itself that, on the T420 at least, is not soldered on the motherboard and, like on a desktop PC, can be upgraded.

So, you can open this thing like it was made out of Lego? Who cares?

Up until the lockdown, I couldn’t care less. A broken laptop? Right, drop it by Apple’s and if they can’t fix it quickly enough, borrow or purchase another machine. I need a laptop in order to earn a living, I’m fine with the fact that its costs money.

But that was not even possible here.

I could not get the Mac repaired (the third-party repair store where Apple sent me was closed), I could not purchase a new Mac (the Apple Store was closed, which was the right decision by Apple, and while in lockdown I decided not to use delivery service at all). And even if I had not left the Mac at the shop just three days before the lockdown was announced, I would not have been able to try to fix it myself, since Apple has made it almost impossible to do so.

Fore some years now, Mac are using non-standard or, let’s say, much less common screws, and they use non-standard components that are expensive and hard to find, if at all. Components that, on newer models, when they’re not soldered on the motherboard (hence, unfixable & non-upgradable), are hard-glued to the case itself. Even the keyboard is no more user-replaceable, since ~2015/16 one need to replace the entire top case, even for a single missing keycap. That’s silly.

Worse. Let’s imagine I was able to try to fix the Mac, at home, just to realize that it was dead for good? OK fine, too bad but then, I could not even get my drive out, to get my data back or to use it inside another machine and resume work, like I had been doing for years with my other Mac. Why? Because the SSD is also soldered on the motherboard.

Do backups, moron!” Thx for the advice, I do and my data are safe. That’s not my point: there is no way to replace (or to salvage) the drive only, in case somthing goes terribly bad one have to throwaway the complete motherboard with the drive on it, and the ram and whatever else is soldered on. Even if they still work. That makes no sense and it’s even more stupid than that, if the only reason is to build a thinner looking device.

On the thick T420 and X220, to replace the SSD, one only need to remove a single screw and slide its cady out; to upgrade the RAM, one need to remove two screws and put one or two standard sticks of DDR3; to replace the keyboard, one need to remove 1, or 2 screws. Getting to the CPU, to blow all dust and to replace its old thermal paste with a fresher one—a good idea with such old devices, to help the CPU keep cool, be it a PC or a Mac— took me maybe 20 minutes, doing it real slow while following the step-by-step instructions in the readily available service manuals (T420, X220), and because it was the first time I did it. It took me ~10 minutes to put everything back and reboot the PC.

An eviscerated T420, with its naked CPU showing. Just turn the screw on the right of the CPU, gently lift the CPU and put a new (and better) one in place. Done.

User replaceable batteries. Why would anyone want that?

So, you fell in love with this old piece of junk that doesn’t even run macOS and now you’ll live HEA (Happily Ever After)? Great for you!

Nope. It’s not the perfect love. Those ThinkPad have many drawbacks.

The worst is their screen. They use a 16:9 panel, a ratio I never liked. For writing, I much prefer 4:3 or 16:10. And then, they use TN panel and not even a good one. The best TN panels are not that shitty, but they’re not great either. Somehow, Lenovo managed to pick the worsts ever made, or close to. They have almost no viewing angles, and the colors are so washed out it’s, just… it’s ugly. I wouldn’t do photo editing on those. And I don’t. For that, I use an external IPS display, and since both machines can run Affinity apps very well, it’s great.

Also, if the T420 as an OK resolution for a 14” (1440×900, like the 13” MacBook Air used to have), the 12” X220 is a laughable 1366×768. For writing that’s not much of an issue and I’m not obsessed with Retina/HiDPI displays either, but they could have put a FHD (1080) panel instead.

FYI, a much better optional (1366×768) IPS screen was available when ordering the X220 new, back then, but good luck to find one nowadays (I’m still looking). Also, one can find workarounds to install a FHD (1080) IPS panel on the X220, which would make this laptop amazing. Alas, it requires some light soldering, something that is out of my reach considering my very bad eyesight. But the fact that people have made such hacks possible tells a lot about what users are willing to do just to keep using them, even almost ten years later.

Then, it’s old. Not because its CPU is too old to do anything. On the contrary, it performs surprisingly well, and I still have to find myself wishing it had more oumpf! to do what I ask it to do—I don’t do video editing or gaming. No, the laptop being old can be a problem if you need any modern ports. Obviously, there is no USB-C/Thunderbolt, but there are no USB3 either (save on the X220 Core i7), no HDMI, not even DVI. It comes with plenty of ports, though: 4 USB 2 (3 on the X220), an Express Card slot (which gives access to optional USB3, btw), VGA, DisplayPort, a SD Card reader, eSata port, audio jack and a dock connector.

And there are the speakers. Well, let’s not talk about them. It wouldn’t have any, it wouldn’t make the slightest difference: they’re worse than bad. Since I always use headphones, I don’t care.

Finally, it’s thick like a brick. And it doesn’t look cool like any Mac. The thing is that I don’t give a half a fuck about the thickness of my computer—sorry, even as a 30+ years Apple user, I never have. I like my laptop being nice, of course, but that’s a bonus nothing more.

The good news is that, since it’s thick and very well built, it’s sturdy like a brick. I’ve dropped mine multiple times already without making any dent.

So, this thick brick is not better than a Mac?

That’s not the point. It’s not even fair to try to compare them, no more than to compare a 2020 Mac with a 2011 model.

I won’t talk about the CPU being better, as I need not that much power to run my apps and have never replaced a laptop because of a beefier CPU. But the Mac’s screen is amazing (despite it being shiny), and it’s silent (fan noise is easy to fix with ThinkPad, though), it’s thin and light. And there is macOS, and so many great apps. And then, of course, everyone around you knows how cool you are, since you’re using a Mac.

But…there is one thing that make all its ‘betterness’ useless to me while I was stuck in lockdown: I could not make it work.

I’ve no issue with hardware failing. It happens all the time. What I do have an issue with, is a brand making it hard for its customer to (try to) fix it for no good reason. Apple is not the only one to do that, but it’s leading the way.

At least, that’s what the lockdown forced to reconsider: what do I expect from my tools? One of the things that now matters very much, is that I want to be able to fix my devices. At least, to have a chance.

Ok, but why bother with such an old model? Why not purchase one of the newer ThinkPad?

Like almost every other company in the world, without ever admitting it, Lenovo is more than willing to try to copy Apple, even in its most stupid decisions—hi, the joyful world of dongles & hi too, to the un-serviceable soldered-on components in the name of always more thinness.

A few years back, in fact the year they replaced the T420 and X220 by the T430 and X230, Lenovo slowly started to remove or change everything (one very good thing: they now use much better screens).

  • They have a new chicklet keyboard. Sure, it’s backlit, and it still is better than most of what is available everywhere else. But you don’t get the same feedback anymore, the feeling can change from a key to the other, and it’s not the same layout either.
  • They’re slightly less serviceable than older models, and some models even use soldered components.

Oh, and there is one last reason to focus on the older devices: they’re cheap. Not counting the T420 I got for free—beat that 😉—the X220, I paid 170€, in near mint condition, with a 256Gb Samsung SSD, 8Gb ram and two Ultrabase (the clever dock thingy Lenovo used back then) and two chargers whose thick wires won’t ever break, mind you.

Oh, yeah smartass? What when your ThinkPad breaks, like your Mac did?

If you have read this post, you know the answer: I’ll try to fix it myself. That’s the main reason I started using it. And if can’t fix it, because reasons, I’ll replace it very easily. There are a lot of old X and T series available for cheap.

To tell you the entire truth. I already collected a couple units, for parts, just in case shit happens again and I can’t go out.

The thing is that for those two ‘for parts’ units that are fully working, I paid less than the price of the cheapest iPad there is. And they both come with the same i5, 8Gb ram and SSD.

Am I silly? Probably. But that doesn’t change that this old machine helped me get my work done when I needed it the most, when my newer and better machine was MIA. Despite its many flaws,this ThinkPad is a machine I know I can rely on.

Trust, that’s what made me use Apple for all those years. Knowing I could rely on the apps being focused, the hardware being more than good-enough, with an optimized OS that makes the most out of it while not trying its best to waste my time with countless options and features I don’t need—Paint 3D? Candy Crush? Really, Microsoft?—and knowing I could have the hardware quickly fixed, when needed.

The lockdown changed the deal: now, I know I also need a machine I can trust myself to be able to fix. Apple is selling no machine like that. Not a single one.

Isn’t The Mac Pro serviceable? Sorry guys, I meant to say “a machine that is in a writer’s budget.”

What about all those great Mac apps and macOS itself?

That could be the topic for a whole other post. Let’s just say that Windows 10—as Ubuntu and Manjaro, the two Linux I know a little bit of—has come a long way. So did Microsoft Word. Even more so regarding accessibility.

Don’t I miss any Mac app? Sure, many. To name only one: Ulysses. I’d love to get it running under Windows (or Linux). For me, this is the best app there is. It is the only app, so far, that understands what Markdown should be for a fiction writter. Alas, a Windows/Linux version won’t happen anytime soon. The developers make it quite clear to me. I have no choice but to respect their decision and, therefore, use another app.

There is a Windows PC compatible quasi-clone of Ulysses, not to call it a ripoff. It’s not on par with Ulysses, but they’re working on it. Maybe, one day’ll purchase it. It’s called Inspire.

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