Making A Thinkpad Great Again

The Thinkpad X220 is almost a perfect laptop. The X220 is small, light, was the last small Thinkpad to use 35W CPUs, has great Linux support, incredible battery life, and can be found used very inexpensively. For the Thinkpad Mafia, the X220 is a badge of honor, but it does have one glaring drawback: the LCDs in these laptops are capped at 1366×768 resolution.

A few wizards in Japan and China have taken up the X220 and developed an adapter to give this tiny laptop the display it deserves. Mentions of a FHD mod – the Lenovo-speak for a Thinkpad display upgrade – can be found on Taobao, but the anglosphere doesn’t get these cool toys. [Vectro] decided his X220 wasn’t up to snuff and decided to build his own Thinkpad mod to give his trusty companion a bigger and brighter display. He succeeded, and did it in a way that’s much better than any previous attempt.

Stock, the X220 uses an LVDS bus for internal video, and there aren’t enough lanes on this bus for a 1080 display. The usual way of modifying the X220 for a display with higher resolution is tapping into the eDP present on the Thinkpad dock connector. [Vectro]’s solution differs slightly from the usual way of doing things – instead of using an I2C EEPROM to report the resolution, DPI, and model of display, he’s using a microcontroller. This gives him the ability to control the power state and brightness level of the display. It’s a great solution, and is designed to be a relatively easy drop-in mod.

The new display works, and Thinkpadding at 1080 is awesome, but there’s still work to be done. The dock connector is incompatible with this mod, and hopefully scaling this up for small-scale production. Producing a few X220 FHD kits is going to be a problem, as each wire in the eDP cable is individually soldered to the connector. It doesn’t scale well, but there is certainly a demand to make the greatest Thinkpad even better.

41 thoughts on “Making A Thinkpad Great Again

  1. The old think pads are great and all but I don’t get the obsession with using them a daily machine. I have a modern T450s and this thing’s great. 10 hours of battery life and reasonably fast. I know some folks hate the new keyboards but I have no problem with it, it’s still one of if not the best laptop keyboard I’ve used and I get a 1080p screen with no issues!

    Still props to Taobao. That is a seriously impressive soldering job and he now has an awesome talking point to carry around! Do you have any other mods planned?

    1. I had T450s and it was a hunk of junk. My biggest issues were constant problems with the TrackPoint (and what is a Thinkpad with a bad TrackPoint) and all of the wireless devices were problematic—especially the Bluetooth.
      Maybe I’ll dust off my old x220 and upgrade the monitor.

  2. 35W sandybridge processor, so the integrated graphics isn’t particularly fancy and for that 35W you’re not actually getting much, it’ll get beaten by the 15W haswell lines and up.

    Agreed though the keyboards are nice, just a shame they’re attached to such old technology… and that Lenovo were very late to the whole IPS display concept. Just because your customers are business users doesn’t mean they won’t mind missing like 50% of the standard colour space.

    1. Nah, it’s pretty midrange performance still… I picked up a refurb sandy bridge 3 years ago, and I still don’t see a pressing reason to replace it. In Walmart/BestBuy/Staples etc I can’t equal it for less than about $600, and that’s by knowing my shit, you could spend $800 and get something slower. Also still equivalent to the MacBooks they want $1100 for.

    2. My i7-2670qm gets around 100 points in Cinebench R15, and 499cb’s multicore, and my i7-4700hq gets around 140 single core and 650 multi-core, the iGPU is indeed weak, but the cpu not so much..

  3. I liked my thinkpads, especially the integrated thinklight, not sure an integrated LED is patent worthy though but Big Blue has big IP lawyers. But most failed at the hinges, never had that problem with Asus which I converted to after getting an eee-pc of all things, around the IBM -> Lenovo buy. I have a ROG Asus now with back-lit keys, not as great as a white LED IMHO, as I use decals for another alphabet but for english is actually pretty great. It took some config-fu to get the SD card and Fn+Fkey screen brightness working, and optimus to get the Nvidia 3d activated in Linux. This is a seriously cool hack if you really need a Thinkpad.

  4. Impressive mod. I just upgraded mine to IPS yesterday and although it’s “only” 1366×768 it’s £65 well spent. (There were cheaper sellers but I didn’t trust them). Gorgeous display. To be honest after what I’ve heard of the scaling in Windows I’m happy to stick with normal DPI levels for now.

    There’s nothing wrong with these as a daily driver – I’ve been using a MacBook Air 11 2011 model which is the same age and it’s still going strong but was struggling with the soldered 4GB of RAM and with Chrome for Mac sucking badly. Back to PC I go, and I think a PC should be a PC – not a PC that pretends to be a Mac, otherwise you’re getting the worst of both worlds. Hence a Thinkpad, and this model for the classic keyboard layout. The X220 has a slightly better processor and of course I’ve upgraded it to 8GB and an SSD and it flies now – I don’t see any need to use anything newer. Maybe if that “Thinkpad Retro” comes out next year in this format I’ll consider a new one then.

    1. This is a win IMO. Basically it’s glue, an enabler of the hack, it fixes “brain deadedness” in the original system.

      It’s a difference between, some dumb thing done with an arduino, and some cool thing done, arduino was involved.

  5. Ah it is sad How Far Lenovo has fallen… Today even a Premium Lenovo laptop is crippled: with nonexistent or bad Linux compatible drivers, Draconian UEFI to prevent you from installing anything but Micro$oft Windows Spyware, Zero support (remember when IBM would bend over backwards to help/help them fix a problem – gone). Shiny GLARE inducing displays instead of Matte displays that actually WORK in the the well-lit workplace.

    And then there are the “Low-End” Lenovo laptops: Win10 (SpyWare!) only, and NO downloadable drivers except for 64-bit Win10 (if you’re lucky), then ONLY 2MB soldered on-board SDRAM! (Yeah, Win10 64-bit with only 2GB SDRAM – and NO way to user upgrade).

    An then again, there’s all the Bloatware and insecure Lenovo Spyware inclusions at the system level!

    R.I.P. Thinkpad – Because of You Lenovo!

    1. Yeaaaaah, that’s not really true. Thinkpads are still held in high regard for Linux compatibility. Any of the ‘lenovo spyware’ happenings of the last few years have not affected the Thinkpad T,X,or W (and I guess P) lines, and the BIOS vulnerability reported a few months ago was not limited strictly to Lenovo laptops. Asus got hit with that, too, I think. All the ‘thinkpad has gone downhill’ is a bunch of FUD.

      I’ve heard rumors that IBM still has Lenovo under their thumb somewhat. At the very least, Lenovo depends on their business customers buying T and X thinkpads, and their actions have shown they’re not willing to poison that well.

      TLDR – T’s and X’s are fine.

      1. Not true. I have the new Lenovo machines to prove it. Drivers are a nightmare to get (Linux un-friendly Broadcom is prolific). And this goes beyond the entry level machines. I challenge you with one example: Try a Lenovo S20-30 laptop. Since this POS laptop is crippled with only 2MB soldered on-board SDRAM (no option for user upgrade), and ONLY 64-bit Windows drivers, and (ubiquitously now these days) Windows 10 64-bit ONLY. You’re screwed. So install Ubuntu – nope, it’s a NIGHTMARE. The drivers don’t work. WiFi is broken (unless you dig and dig for days on the ‘Net and find a crappy driver that at-least unreliably wakes-up the wireless chipset). An FORGET about going beyond even getting WiFi to work for basic IP connectivity! You have to abandon stuff like Bluetooth entirely. And then there’s power management – BROKEN, really a nightmare to work around. And I didn’t even mention FIGHTING with the UEFI BIOS to get to the point where the machine would even be considered alive. And this story continues to a lesser and even larger degree with the current high-end Lenovo models!! If you want to challenge my post, provide evidence. I could go on and on here (which is not appropriate IMO) about how bad Lenovo Linux compatibility is these days! And FORGET about support from Lenovo. The days of the “Grail” IBM Thinkpad machines with cross OS drivers, full service manuals etc., is LONG GONE now that Lenovo is in charge.

      1. Yeah, the real problem is Lenovo SHOVES 64-bit Win10 (only) down your throat with ONLY 64-bit Windows drivers available. So the machine as purchased is USELESS with Win10 unless you are a 12-year-old Twitter/Facebook addict (only). So now your choice is to TRY to install a 32-bit Linux image on the machine (e.g., Ubuntu or Mint). And that’s where you start fighting with the UEFI and lack of drivers for peripherals. Lenovo SUCKS. Stay away!!

      1. Not current production Thinkpads. I provision Linux/xBSD machines as part of my job. And they are NOT behaving well due to driver issues. To be fair, it may have something to do with Canonical starting to mess with the Kernel API (very BAD IDEA). Regardless, you PAY AND PAY for a corporate level Thinkpad and try to take it to Linux these days – good luck!

      1. You’re lucky. I tried an Ideapad 100 “throw away” ultra-cheap laptop with current 32-bit Mint (must be 32-bit, 2GB SDRAM isn’t enough for 64-bit, and you CAN’T upgrade). What a mess. Huge problems with the wireless drivers and trackpad. The machine is basically going into the bin. I’ve seen same reports for the Ideapad 300 series. Caveat, I’m currently in Indonesia, so the machines we get here may be different from what you can but.

  6. One question I have: what is the fascination with 1366×768? A lot of laptop manufacturers standardise on this resolution, even business-centric ones.

    The laptop I have is a Panasonic CF-53, and it too, uses this resolution. This is no gaming or media consumption machine, it’s an industrial laptop. One of the few Ivy-bridge Core i5 machines that still features PCMCIA and RS-232C.

    Yet it with some software packages, it can be like peering through a letter box. JIRA being one example.

    Just what is the advantage of trading off so much vertical height for a little bit of horizontal space?

    1. Just be glad you don’t have a CF-31, you can buy a laptop today with an i7 processor and a 1024×768 display. The 27-31 line hasn’t changed physical size to maintain docking compatibility (for more than 20 years).

  7. I picked up three HP 13.25 ” screen ProBook laptops today.. (No HD) pop in a hd, linux boots very fast..
    I’ll probably get a few more tomorrow, as the going price seems to be $35.00

    1. As stated, I picked up 10 more HP 13.30″ Laptops. I should be able to turn a few $$ on the refurbished
      ones. Converted from “Thin Client” with a 4 gig SSD and 2 gig ram, to a full featured laptop with 8 gig ram, and 240 gig SSD. Talked them down to $25 each on a ten pack sale. Only dual core, but rocket fast with the SSD.

  8. From the post title, I was hoping he had done something with fixing the keyboard on a newer model – instead of bringing a new screen to the old keyboard.

    I’ve hacked the embedded controller to stick a x220 keyboard into the next model up (See https://github.com/hamishcoleman/thinkpad-ec) but I’m still hoping that someone will start hacking on the same for a much newer model (got a dead doner laptop? I’d start trying if I could..)

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