Apple Sucks Now, Here’s A ThinkPad Buyer’s Guide

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

The Lenovo x220t. Image: Lenovo
The Lenovo x220t. Image: Lenovo

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.

Lenovo X260. Image: Lenovo
Lenovo X260. Image: Lenovo

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.

244 thoughts on “Apple Sucks Now, Here’s A ThinkPad Buyer’s Guide

  1. My $0.02:
    I’m a pretty typical-ish fan of this site (embedded developer, professionally) and I’ve used windows forev’s and have no interest in changing. My current lappy (HP Envy running Win7) cost me maybe $800 tops and I like it so much I actually bought two (one as a spare). I run four monitors (two landscape, two portrait) which I love (i.e. 3 external monitor connectors). It crashes maybe once every three months (and I’m a developer so I do all sorts of evil to it; the crashes have only ever been from plugging in crazy USB devices that are in development). HOWEVER I just run windows as a base OS – I host multiple VMs (mostly linux but I have an OSX VM) and practically never write anything that’s “for” windows – usually it’s either embedded RTOS or (very commonly) it’s for an embedded linux board where it’s running code off an NFS or SMB share sourced from my laptop. I write pretty much everything in Python and/or C as the situation befits.
    The main thing is that all the (many dozens) of vendor-supplied embedded tools I use, run on Windows.
    I can’t see any reason to buy a macbook just to boot Windows on there (for 2x the price?!). I love Linux dearly but I use it as a target not as a host OS. Have always been a bit mystified why anyone would buy an Apple laptop at 2x – 3x the price of the same hw elsewhere.

    1. Why many people I know in IT field bought a macbook. Because OS X usually just works. We usually spent our days fixing Windows installs and when we come home we don’t really like to spent our time working with Windows again. It’s either bad Windows 10 update got released or hardware manufacturer releases bad driver and now my GPU is not working. It has always been like this and some of us are just tired of the shit Microsoft puts out in their OS.

      Any how I admit the latest Macbook Pros are expensive and useless machines now. Oh well I guess it is too much to ask for a laptop that just works that I can buy from a store and is not half a decade old like x220 is.

  2. Edit video daily on a Gigabyte i7 laptop w/16GB of RAM. It’s poorly built, mechanically speaking, and a more powerful desktop would have been cheaper, but to say you can’t edit video on a laptop is… really silly. I’ve put together over 100 videos on the beast and counting.

  3. Good to see some love for the thinkpads here – Typing this on my T420. I’ve been a thinkpad user since 1995, with the 500. They’ve gotten me addicted to the trackpoint. Mousing while keeping your fingers on the home row is just more efficient for me.

  4. Sorry, I won’t trust a single Lenovo product for at least another 10 years. They have intentionally, royally screwed their security multiple times. I’ll stick with my Asus laptops

  5. I bought 5 of the educational Thinkpads… x130e 1.8Ghz Amd they aren’t speedy but they are extremely sturdy and pretty easy to work on. They run up to 8Gb ram (compatible with 8Gb sticks but will see only half of 16Gb total) The keyboard is excellent and I like the Trackpoint (which I had become accustomed to while using a Fujitsu P1120 for awhile on which I ran gentoo+e16 or dwm if I was feeling the burn of firefox’s memory/cpu bloat too much… the little crusoe CPU was pretty wimpy but it sure was a neat form factor)

  6. I can’t believe no one has mentioned (not even the article) that those ports are not Thunderbolt 3 ports but they are just regular USB C ports with Thunderbolt 3 support. Apple just calls the only Thunderbolt 3 because well… With Apple I don’t even think there is any sense behind that decision anymore.

  7. x260 is not for developer. they are for business people all day battery. sadly they discontinued touch screen since x250.

    P50 is ideal with lot of room to add 2nd SSD and 64GB RAM? imagine how many VM/Dockers you can run. I have 7TB total SSD on mine. With P70, you just sit at home all day…

  8. Bleh… coreboot sounds cool, its the first I’ve heard of it and thinkpads are tough laptops still. Unfortunately all the models listed have sub 1920×1080 screens. Yea… no thanks with this under 1000 lines of height stuff. Great job telling me I can buy a desktop for media editing… Its not like I’d ever want to travel and process things on the road or anything. Why do you think people were using macbooks for this in the first place?

  9. This article feels more like a poorly advised advertisement than anything else. I’ve used both Macs and PCs, and to be honest, I’d take the thinkpad any day of the week.

    The macbooks are great for software and firmware development, but next to useless otherwise. Regardless, El Capitan ran so slow on my 2009 model, I just installed fedora. No delete key was also a pain the in ass.

    Currently I use a thinkpad, (I sold my desktop & MacBook). Matte screen, decent proc, lightweight and shockproof. Windows for Altium, SolidWorks and visual studio. Virtual Linux for GCC related development.

    1. I would have to have a few more zeros on the end of my net worth before I wouldn’t sell a macbook if someone gave me one for christmas or something. Seriously, I’d be all “Thanks very much it’s awesome.” and then sell it and buy a grunty desktop replacement AND an ultraportable with the proceeds that would probably each exceed CPU specs of the macbook.

  10. This article attracted more True Scotsmen than a pallet of canned haggis.

    The funniest ideas are:
    True Scotsmen only use platform X

    Hackaday is only for Scotsmen? Says who?

    And:
    True Scotsmen who do Serious Work only will use computers also approved for the Department of Defense, even if their employer is not the Department of Defense and has other, very different security needs and concerns.

    And hackaday has no room for little guys with looser standards than the military, there is only room here for Very Serious True Scotsmen Working On Very Serious Projects Too Important For Consumer Parts.

    See, I’d have thought any actual new part was high class and maybe just too “legit” for hackaday, since this place is more about do-it-yourself-from-paperclips-and-discrete-logic than about big money stuffy engineering. But these new parts are just not Cool Enough for these old Scotsmen. You have to have the right length kilt, and it has to be the right color, and if you’re here because you like art, I guess “die” is what the comments literally tell you.

    Personally, if I was the local True Scotsmen Police, I would throw out everybody who wishes death on another.

    1. They did the same thing with the 2nd Gen Thinkpad X1. The normal keys came back in the next two releases. Apple will either learn by low sales, or they might be on to something. My prediction is low sales and the return of normal keys.

  11. My last work laptop purchase was a Panasonic CF-53, and while the CPU isn’t the fastest, nor the screen resolution the highest, there aren’t too many Core i5s on the market that feature PCMCIA and RS-232.

    And yes, I use both of those… an old PCMCIA 100Mbps Ethernet/ 56kbps modem card in the slot for those times when I need a second network card (and it does both BNC and UTP), and last time I used the serial port, it was developing a M-Bus protocol driver.

      1. You can get some peripherals in ExpressCard, but yeah, PCMCIA harks from a time when laptops didn’t come with network interfaces and only featured floppy drives for removable media. When RS-232 and lap-link weren’t fast enough, you were therefore reaching for a PCMCIA network card to slap in for 10/100Mbps Ethernet goodness.

        Or for an Internet connection, it was a PCMCIA modem card.

        Late 90s laptops had CD-ROM drives in most cases, relegating parallel port and PCMCIA CD-ROM drives to the cupboard.

        Turn of the century laptops started shipping with on-board Ethernet and modems. Then Wi-Fi came out, and so we were using the card slots for that.

        A few years later, laptops had that too, there wasn’t much that most people needed to add to a laptop, so they started to disappear.

        My laptop is rare in that it features PCMCIA, and under Linux (Gentoo AMD64), the old Xircom network cards work fine. Under Windows 7 (64-bit), it sits there like a retard because there aren’t any drivers available.

  12. I want a butterfly keypad, like the Thinkpad 701.

    I also want an Ethernet port built in, not an adapter hanging off the side. You can put it at the back if you like. The important thing is: this creates a “minimum thickness” specification. Instead of getting thinner every year, it means laptops need to be more powerful and/or have a bigger battery.

    But I’ll start with that keyboard, thank you.

  13. I used to love Thinkpads. Nowadays, I’d rather have something else, maybe a Dell XPS 13

    At work we had Lenovo Thinkpads issued to our employees for a while. Our older employees had T420s, I got a T430. The newer employees got T540s. Comparing these laptops you can clearly see the decline in quality.

    The T420 for example had the perfect keyboard layout, with the home/end/pageup/down/insert/delete keys arranged in the correct manner. They removed that for some reason in the T430, and replaced it with chiclet keys, which feel worse in quality. The T430 also had less status indicator lights, and other things that were clearly cost cutting sheningans. The T540 replaced the touchpad with a terrible giant touchpad that literally doesn’t work (it constantly has issues, for multiple laptops).

    My friend has a T400, and you can see how much better this laptop is compared to the newer ones. Much more indicator lights, better keyboard, 16:10 monitor, among other features.

    Additionally, generally speaking, Thinkpads feel very outdated. The laptops are freaking heavy, for no good reason. You’d expect the specs to be great for such a heavy laptop but they’re not. The batteries wear out very quickly compared to other laptops. And for the longest time, Thinkpads came with a maximum of 1600×900. They haven’t had a 1080p option for the T series for the longest time (they do now though, but it came very late).

    So my next laptop is probably going to be a Dell.

  14. I am really fond of the HP Z Book mobile workstations, currently. I also really liked the Dell Precision laptops before the redesign.

    I am currently rocking an ass-kicking Dell Precision M4600. I maxed it out in all categories but the GPU (i7 2960XM 2.7/3.7GHz quad, 32GB DDR3, 500GB 850 EVO, 1TB 7200 HGST). The stock 1080p display with an icc profile applied is just fine. I was even pleasantly surprised to find that the Quadro 1000M can drive a UHD screen just fine (DisplayPort only, though). It even has a three-button clit mouse! And, unlike most ThinkPads, it even has a third button on the trackpad!

    These Apple laptops piss me off; no one should have to carry around that many dongles.

    Also Steve Jobs was adamant about not resorting to member berries. They looked back at all of the other laptops this keynote lol.

  15. What the hell is wrong with the modern technically inclined soul?

    MacBook Pros are and will be the best laptops around. Except for dropping MagSafe (which is utterly stupid) the new line looks fantastic and will prove to be such.
    The moment Apple does not meet the ridiculously high expectations, everyone craps their pants.
    I had a 2012 Retina MacBook Pro 15″ and am now using a 2014 replacement. It WORKS, wonderfully. It has a beautiful screen that I can see from any angle. I trust it and I will continue to trust it. I want the new version, funding allowing of course. I run Parallels for Windows 10 (Which I despise – it is truly horrible, everything is scattered – but need for a few slow-on-the-transistion apps) and Ubuntu.
    My Mac can do anything I’ve seen comparable Win laptops do, and it does it better.
    I have a thousand things open at once and run multiple screens, with rarely any hiccups even when running Solidworks in a virtual machine. And no, I bought the base model.

    Yes, they could have added better hardware and not increased the price as much (Ever heard of inflation though? Come visit South Africa and see how prices RISE yearly) , but other than that, you are not buying a laptop, you are buying a portal to MacOS and the lovely expanse within. Wonderful mechanical construction and a brilliant keyboard/trackpad. My first MacBook from 2008 is still running, after a couple of 1.5m (1 yard) drops onto the pavement, it’s built like a rock. A spilt soda did not even kill it.
    The single standard port is actually a good thing. No more differing cables for each device. I am a photographer and I prefer an external reader for my CF cards. If you are truly series about your videography, SD is not sufficient in any case.

    I live in South Africa, where new tech is slow to filter in and the internet sucks, but even here I am running almost completely wireless. Bluetooth headphones and wireless backup/networking.

    Staying with the old tech gave rise to the monster that is Windows XP – 14 years after it’s release it’s STILL clung to feverishly. It’s a nightmare.
    Apple simply said; “Bugger you all, get with the picture.” Innovation will rise from it’s decision, and it’s about time.

    The people I see complaining on the Verge and almost everywhere else are quick to note they are willing to jump ship and buy something else and if that is the case I venture that they buy laptops as fashion accessories, not truly because they enjoy working with proper hardware that just works and software that is layered that it works no matter your technical needs/prowess.
    If you can switch that easily, you never truly embraced whatever platform you pretended to love.

    My ecosystem works, beautifully.
    I pity the souls that struggle with their android/windows combos. Don’t get me wrong, the Galaxy/Huawei phones are stunning devices, and they deserve their spotlight. But without one company unifying the experience, it will always be a mess.
    Have you ever tried installing a printer in windows 10? Did you know there are THREE places you can do it from, some which work for certain features and not others. Some where you can change certain settings. It installs an app for the printer – but that app is “nowhere”.
    Recently I saw the newest upgrade of Windows 10 simply “remove” some lovely apps it did not like and made them unsearchable from my best friend Cortana… for no reason. It’s still there, but you now need to manually go fetch the shortcut from program files (of which there are two… X86 and Program files, fine for me, but try explaining that to anyone technically slow)

    My R0,02 cents @ R13,60/$.

  16. Lots of opinions here, wow. Just spec’d a new MBP on Apple..com and was surprised. The exact MBP (minus new gimmicks) is $3636.00 vs $3183.00 paid for the same box (15″ MBPR, 2.9GHZ, 16GB, 2GB video ram). And for what ? I used to feel good because of the consistent functionality and quality points (build, durability, etc). On my IMac I have to run Virtual Box hosting Linux for my website(s) because Mac Server (avoid) created major reengineering requirements with every release. I’m sure as hell not buying anything machine based on Windows, and don’t like the idea of linux GUIs. But Apple forcing new decisions here. Did I read something above stating you could change memory or hard drives in these new Macs ?

    ~Dahere

  17. Just this afternoon snagged me a T400 for about the price of a date to the movies. I’m blaming y’all if I’ve wasted my money :-D

    What first, hammer in some fenceposts or install all the OSes?

  18. I have The T460s and is by far the best laptop I have ever owned. It is super snappy , sub 3 lbs, NO BLOAT, boots in 11 seconds and another second to log in with fingerprint. The hardware is very durable and high quality. I can play some games on it. I have a desktop for games that require more specs and power. There i nothing that I do at work that this computer cannot handle with ease. I see a lot of people bashing because of a mistake Lenovo made by allowing 3rd party crapware on the lower end machines. Of course all the lower end machines have all that crap ware, because that’s the only way they can turn a small profit by putting out an affordable machine to people who cant afford to pay 1000 bucks or more for a laptop. Since Lenovo has corrected their mistake and I commend them for that. People these days dont buy a product because its the best for the money. They will buy just for a logo. A company that removes a compnent like a headphone jack, and its cult like followers praise them for it. Apple could tell its cult followers they are idiots and they will applaud. They will release a home product like Amazon Alexa, charge 3 times the price for a 3rd of the capabilities and people will buy for the logo.. I guarantee .

  19. I’ve made 500+ recycled ThinkPads into pure pleasure machines. T42 Radeon 9600 & T42P 15″ IPS FlexViews are probably the best quality. T43 ATI and T43P get slightly quirky. It’s nice to get dual-core on T60 and T60P’s but they’re down in build quality and the ATI’s fail more (ATI’s get the IPS, though.) T61’s are real crap. Most Lenovo’s are. For customers who want to hook one up to their HDMI TV, I thought X131E i3’s were good – a little heavy but built for school kid abuse. I get i5 T410 and T420 Intel’s if they are clean but they are inferior in build quality.

    At Defcon, there are Apple users and lots of X220 ThinkPads. Maybe a few X230’s – all with X220 keyboards. A vendor sells my laptops there. My Windows 7 setup is as close to hacker-quality as you can get and my Kodi and XBMC setups have evolved over the years. This year I had 10 i5 6GB T410’s and 40 T43 X300 SXGA+ IPS with 160GB on each (40+120 on T43) and dual-boot Cinnamon Mint Sonya. All pristine. Linux runs better on the T410 but the T43’s sold out first.

    We have a huge laptop recycler near me but mixed and too much to handle. Then got a call from another recycler they referred. Got 147 IPS T43’s. I’ll admit one movie addon that pumps > 1080P is not installed on the T43’s. Yeah, I don’t care. Wow, this screen is incredible.

    Expensive laptops, Windows 10, updates, antivirus, cable bills – NOT FOR ME.

  20. Does the lenovo T430 support run macos sierra on vmware workstation pro 12.5.7??

    I can’t boot it,and it always write:

    A fault has occurred causing a virtual CPU to enter the shutdown state. If this fault had occurred outside of a virtual machine, it would have caused the physical machine to restart. The shutdown state can be reached by incorrectly configuring the virtual machine, a bug in the guest operating system, or a problem in VMware Workstation.

    Click OK to restart the virtual machine or Cancel to power off the virtual machine.

    Does anyone has the solution??

    thanks!!

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