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 repair store was closed), I could not purchase a new Mac (the Apple Store was closed — which was the right decision by Apple), and while we were in lockdown I decided to not use delivery services at all: so, no Amazon either. But that’s not the worst part.

Say I would not have left the Mac at the shop just three days before the lockdown was announced, I would not even have been able to try to fix it myself as Apple has slowly made it almost impossible to do so.

For some years now, Mac are using much less common screws, that require specific screwdrivers, and they use non-standard components that are expensive and hard to find. Components when they’re not soldered on the motherboard (hence, unfixable & non-upgradable) or hard-glued to the case itself. Even the keyboard is non-replaceable nowadays: since ~2015/16, one need to replace the entire top case, even for a single broken keycap. That’s silly.

Worse. if the mac wad dead for good (it’s CPU or T2 chip fried,say) there is no way to get my data back, since it’s soldered on the board, as is the SSD.

Do backups, moron! ‑ Thx for the advice, I do: my data are safe. That’s not my point.

There is no way to replace (or to salvage) the drive only, in case something terribly wrong happens. And  one has to throwaway the complete motherboard with the drive on it, the ram and whatever else is soldered-on and even if it is in perfect working condition. That makes no sense.

And that’s certainly not how things should work. Even less so from a company that communicate a lot  about its commitment to preserve the environment and reduce its ecological footprint. Even less, if the only reason is to build a thinner looking device.

Make it thicker and more durable/fixable, ffs.

On the thick T420 and X220, to replace the SSD, I had to remove a single screw. To upgrade the RAM, I had to remove two screws to access the dim-slots (standard sticks of DDR3). To replace the keyboard, I had to remove two screws (only one, on the T420). Getting to the CPU itself (removing everything in the laptop, to blow all dust and to replace its old thermal paste with a fresher one) took me maybe 20 minutes, doing it real slow, following the step-by-step instructions in the service manuals (T420, X220), and because it was the first time I did it. It took me ~10 minutes, at max, to put everything back and reboot the PC.

An eviscerated T420, with its naked CPU showing. 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 that it is a problem because of its CPU being to old. On the contrary,  I still have to find myself wishing it had more oumpf! to do what I ask it to do. But it lacks 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. 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 a 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 — though, not in the way you might expect.

I won’t talk about the CPU being better, as I need not that much power to run my apps: I have never replaced a laptop because of a beefier CPU (a cooler one, that I did: I hate noise). 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 it’s 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 made all the Mac ‘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 customers to (try to) fix it, for no good reason. Apple is not the only one to do that, but they’re 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 pc manufacturer in the world, 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, Lenovo slowly started to remove or change everything on their T and X line of ThinkPad (the one very positive change: 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 OS that would make the most out of it, while trying to stay out of my way with countless options and features I don’t need. Knowing I could have the hardware quickly fixed.

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 such machine nowadays. Not one that I could offer: the Mac Pro is out of reach and, maybe, a little bit overkill for a writer.

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, Ubuntu, and Manjaro have come a long way. So did Microsoft Word. Even more so regarding accessibility.

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