For the last decade, Macs have been running a UNIX-ish operating system on x86 processors. They’ve been fantastic developer’s machines, and the MacBook Pro is the de facto standard laptop issued to all developers, all hackathon attendees, and arguably, anyone who does real work with a computer.
This week, Apple unveiled the latest MacBook Pro and provided more evidence Steve Jobs actually knew what he was doing. Fifteen hundred bones will get you a MacBook Pro with a last-gen processor, an Escape key, a headphone jack, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports (with one port required for charging). The next model up costs $1800, ditches the Escape key for a dedicated emoji bar, and includes four Thunderbolt 3 ports.
In the past, I have defended people who choose MacBooks as their laptop of choice. A MacBook is a business-class laptop, and of course carries a higher price tag. However, Apple’s latest hardware release was underwhelming and overpriced. If you’re looking for a new laptop, you would do well to consider other brands. To that end, here’s a buyer’s guide to ThinkPads, currently the second most popular laptop I’ve seen with the dev/hacker/code cracker crowd.
The ThinkPad and Lenovo Weirdness
The ThinkPad was created in 1992 by IBM. In the first few years of development, three product lines came to the forefront. The 300 series ThinkPad was the bottom rung, the 500 series was middle of the road, and the 700 series was the best you could get. This is the same sort of thinking that went into marketing the BMW 3, 5, and 7-series. This is same marketing that went into naming the PowerBook 100, 140, and 170.
Here are the names Apple still uses for their laptops (and yes, these are the actual model names):
- 13-inch MacBook Pro with 2.0GHz Processor and 256GB Storage
- 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and Touch ID, 2.9 GHz Processor and 256GB Storage
- 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and Touch ID, 2.9GHz Processor and 512GB Storage
The ThinkPad naming convention makes marketing easier, product differentiation simpler, and by comparison shows us Apple without Jobs the first time was better than Apple without Jobs the second time.
In the world of ThinkPads, this tradition continues. In 2005, IBM sold their PC division to Lenovo, who now maintains the space-grade reputation of the ThinkPad brand. However, not all ThinkPads are created equal. The T, X, and P series are the only ThinkPads you should care about. While many Lenovo laptops have been the target of several security concerns and 0-days such as ThinkPwn, laptops not bearing T, X, or P-series label are disproportionately affected. Not only are the lower-grade ThinkPads (E and L-series) shipped with more crapware, the construction of the three premier lines of ThinkPads is much more robust.
With that said, here’s a buyer’s guide for the most common use cases we’ve seen.
I need a burner laptop for post-apocalypticia, or one Stallman can use
You have two choices: the T400 or X200. These are old laptops, yes, but thanks to Intel’s Management Engine this is the newest ThinkPad you can use. If you’re going this far back, install Libreboot, and disregard everything said on the Libreboot mailing list for the last few months.
If you only need a burner laptop and don’t need GPL coursing through every vein in your body, you’re getting an X220. With the X220, you’ll have a slightly more modern ThinkPad, but still one that can handle basic tasks, development, and pretty much everything that isn’t video, gaming, or photo editing. This is the Mad Max laptop, available for about $200 through eBay or the like. Install an SSD, and you have a perfectly capable daily driver. The X220 can be used with coreboot, and the X230 (the one with the downgraded keyboard), is now an active area of research for the leading ThinkPad expert on the planet.
I need to replace my 2013 MacBook Pro
Here’s the breakdown of the ThinkPad product lines. The X-series is the ultraportable line of ThinkPads. The T-series is the middle of the road – slightly larger than the X-series, but a little more capable. The P-series (formerly W-series) the portable workstation class of ThinkPads.
Taking the series as the first letter of the model name, next we can consider the screen size. The X260 has a 12″ screen. The T460 has a 14″ screen. The P50 has a 15″ screen, and the P70 has a 17″ screen. Obviously, the first number of the model name designates the screen size.
With that breakdown out of the way, here’s a decent buyer’s guide: If you want an ultraportable, buy an X260. If you want discrete graphics, get a T460s. If you do not have back problems yet and want a portable workstation, get a P50. Need a laptop with a Xeon and ECC memory? That exists. Within the X, T, and P lines of ThinkPads, there’s something for everybody. Don’t max out OEM RAM — just buy another stick. The same theory goes with SSDs and hard drives.
I need to edit video or do other work that is CPU and memory intensive
A laptop is not for you. Here’s PCPartPicker. Build your own desktop. It’s like Lego, but for adults.
This is a weird one for us
With the exception of 3D printers, Hackaday is surprisingly reticent to give suggestions on consumer electronics. That said, our experience in planning so many meetups, attending so many hackathons, and chilling out at so many conferences gives us a unique insight into laptop buying trends. Overall, the Hackaday community is split 60:30 between MacBooks and ThinkPads, with the remainder being taken up by rooted Chromebooks or some truly terrible Black Friday specials.
Although an endless wave of posts of the latest and shiniest product are highly popular and profitable from an editorial standpoint, this post is an outlier. We’re not going to become the next Uber Consumer Blog wasting your time with product announcements.
However, Apple’s latest MacBook announcement missed the mark and you won’t find many people saying otherwise. ThinkPads have excellent Linux support, and *nix better than Cygwin is coming to Windows. A portable computer is mandatory these days, and we humbly offer our experience in the hacker’s second choice of laptop.