The ThinkPad line of laptops has been widely prized not only by businesses but also by those who appreciate a high standard of hardware quality and repairability. But some think the cracks are starting to form in their reputation, as it seems that new ThinkPads are sacrificing quality for aesthetics and cost. As a result a huge modding scene has popped up around models that are a few years old like [Cal] found out when working on this X230.
At first he only made some cosmetic improvements to the laptop like replacing the worn palm rest, but quickly found himself in a rabbit hole with other upgrades like swapping out the keyboard and battery. The new keyboard is a 7-row X220 keyboard, which required modification of the connector and flashing the embedded controller with a hacked image to change the keyboard map without needing to make changes at the OS level. From there, he decided to replace the lackluster screen with a 1920×1080 matte IPS panel using an adapter board from Nitrocaster, and finished off his upgrades with a customized Coreboot BIOS for improved performance and security.
While Coreboot doesn’t remove all of the binary blobs that a bootloader like libreboot does, the latter is not compatible with more modern machines like this X230. Still, you’ll get many benefits from using Coreboot instead of the stock bootloader. For running Linux on a daily driver laptop, we appreciate all of these updates and expect that [Cal] will get plenty of years of use out of his machine. We’ve definitely seen an active modding scene for ThinkPads that were (at the time) seven years old and still going strong, so we’d expect nothing less for this one.
38 thoughts on “Getting The Most From Fading ThinkPads”
Does anyone know of an open BIOS for the X270?
All models newer than the Sandybridge X230 / T430 / T530 can’t run Coreboot due to Intel Boot Guard, which is present since Haswell series CPUs. AMD has a similar feature in place as well.
The original article is 2.5 years old.
To meet journalistic standards, HaD should at least have set it into today’s context (e.g. price, power, parts availability).
I’ll write about my experience for those interested. It’s not the exact same model, but for some context I have a T530 (2012).
I added in an SSD ages ago, it’s still a currently standard form factor so those are cheap and easy to get. It had a fairly low capacity so I also swapped the optical drive for a hard drive caddy and installed the old HDD there. SSD prices what they are these days, I wouldn’t recommend doing that anymore.
I also changed the RAM from 2x4GB to 2x8GB, (L)DDR3 is still pretty widely available and this cost about €40.
I changed out the display to a 1080p one about two years ago. That part was a little more difficult to find and while the part fit well and works, the backlight is a lot more dim than the original. Not sure if that was because it’s a bad part or because I messed something up. That display was about €50.
I swapped out the chiclet style keyboard for the IBM style from previous Thinkpad generations. The mod wasn’t difficult, but getting all the special keys to work requires messing with the BIOS and firmware and I haven’t done that yet. It was about €40 as well.
I tried replacing the battery. It just slots in the back so physically it couldn’t be easier, but genuine replacements are quite expensive and are getting hard to find, and the knockoff I tried didn’t fit properly and the BIOS refused to use it. That last issue could be solved when I fix the keyboard thing.
As for actually using the thing, it’s still pretty decent as long as you don’t need to go anywhere. It requires a chunky 135W power brick and the battery, which lasted 2-3 hours when it was new, now maybe lasts 10-20 minutes. the 3rd gen mobile i7 can handle basic usage like Firefox, VLC, office apps and an IDE without any trouble, but the nVidia GPU (which was already underpowered at the time) can’t do much. Some indie games and esports titles run acceptably. While the laptop predates USB C, the port selection is otherwise excellent: 2 USB3 5Gb, 2 USB2.0 (one of which is still powered when the machine is off), VGA, mini-DP and Gb Ethernet. Bluetooth and Wifi work acceptably, though more modern devices have noticeably higher speeds and more stable connections. CPU benchmark gave the CPU about half the score of an almost current equivalent, the i7-1165G (which has 1/3 the TDP). It runs Windows 10 and various Linux distros just fine, but it’s incompatible with Windows 11.
I’m sitting in front of a T530, which I think may be the last 15″ laptop that lacks a numeric keypad (and I hate numeric keypads — I definitely don’t want to take one with me everywhere I go).
That’s a good list of mods.
I want to add that once you get into BIOS mods, you can also upgrade the wifi card to something much more modern. The list of cards that fit and that have 802.11ac is short, but they’re generally inexpensive.
There’s a plug-on kit available cheaply from Amazon that lets you flash the BIOS ROM using a separate computer, which gets around the security measures that Lenovo implemented to prevent BIOS mods.
Preach. Stupid key cluster I never use but means the keyboard isn’t centered on the screen. I’ve been eyeing the new Framework with the modular keyboard, though. For now, my Steam Deck suffices unless I need Windows for something, so when support for 10 runs out I’ll reassess the whole Thinkpad situation.
The journalistic standards of HaD are “ignoring any journalistic standards, pump as much articles as possible, grow the audience, fish new readers with clickbait titles” as most know already. Why are you surprised ? you must be new here.
For what it’s worth Libreboot currently lists x230 as supported: https://libreboot.org/docs/hardware/#laptops-intel-x86
Modern libreboot allows blobs
I am still using a 10 years old 2 core cpu laptop. Is incredible how much horsepower a pc has nowadays and how little we use them for (besides AAA gaming). I wont buy a non used laptop ever again, because anything from some years back can be found pretty cheap and still fulfill real workload usages.
Is like smartphones, the only real improvement (from a real world usage pov) is camera quality.
Depends on what you do as to how ‘little we use them for’ as there is lots beside gaming that will push the SBC or old core2duo machine rather hard. For instance while CAD will work on such low spec machines just fine for the low detail simpler models it will start to chug as things get complex (even though many CAD packages are rather more single thread so not getting the best of a modern CPU the thread performance on these older machines just isn’t up to the job). And even just for browsing the web it will depend on which websites you visit – the web on the whole is a vast amount more bloated than it used to be in the 90’s and some websites are going to fill your your old systems RAM to breaking point as they slow the whole machine to a crawl (though an ad blocker and script disable helps hugely at controlling that bloat)… I too mostly use a core2duo as my laptop of choice, though I did get a Steamdeck recently that is largely intended to replace that system for my portable needs.
I agree with you alot more on smartphones – the hardware may be much much more potent but the OS limitations mean you really don’t get to use it (and that is assuming the hardware can actually dissipate or absorb the heat it produces for long enough to be a useful performance increase over the old phones).
Yes, I agree, I was grossly generalizing. There will be always some usages that will bring any computational device to its knees, but in most cases those are not something that most people do frequently. I can see your point with the web, but as you hinted, upgrading the ram will help considerably.
Now, I didn’t mention the obvious advantage of modern devices which is better mobility, both weight and battery duration. That is hard to get on older devices.
I thrived on second-hand laptops for twenty years, even going so far as to replace the motherboard in one when it went bad halfway through it’s 12 year life (it was a high-resolution laptop in the days before anyone else went above 1024×768.) Although eventually it’s 4G RAM limit and OpenGL 1 consigned it to the boneyard.
3 years into owning a 2080 gaming laptop which replaced my decrepit desktop and it’s still easily enough to prevent me from getting one of those tasty Framework devices for at least a couple more years.
I also got one of those handheld 6800U’s this year but it’s a very different use case. :D
I’d be saving for that Framework gaming laptop that’s been announced if I didn’t end up with a recent 5850U Thinkpad when the startup I worked for closed shop last year.
I find the amount of RAM is crucial. You want one that was “fully stuffed” at the time.
Absolutely. The RAM makes all the difference. And if it wasn’t fully stuffed, make sure that it will be adequate when you do fully stuff it (for my purposes ‘adequate’ is 16GB or more).
I hear you loud and clear re: never getting a new laptop again. ThinkPads, especially, just keep chugging along happily but depreciate ridiculously fast — faster than whatever Moore’s Law is doing these days to make the new one ‘better’.
My ‘new’ T570 (bought five years ago when it was already one year old) had a bit of a mishap last month — I was looking at the guts to see what sorts of replacement SSD it might take, and managed to snap the SMD SATA connector off the board. Attempts to reflow it just made things worse.
So I started looking at new Lenovos, including the X1 Yoga (cuz my job finds me doing lots of illustrations). I just got kinda discouraged because, while cool and sparkly, none of them were quite right. None of them were *my* ThinkPad. So I looked at the motherboard again, and realised I could snap a 500GB SATA SSD into the slot where a WLAN card is supposed to go. It’s not as fast or as big as the NVMe drives of today, but I’VE GOT MY THINKPAD BACK!
Reminds me of that kids’ book The Best Nest.
If you want a notebook that doesn’t devalue and lasts a long time, get a MacBook. The TCO is much better than PC because you can sell them after 2 years for the majority of the purchase price and Apple support the hardware for way longer than any PC.
Buying a PC, notebook or desktop, is saving money now for something that is worthless in a year.
Yeah, I gave my wife my 2nd hand buffed 15″ late 2013 mac pro and still runs great. The only thing that I have change is the battery.
But old Macs have some issues with the keyboards and screen glue, which will grow bubbles if you are unlucky.
Definitely Veblen goods.
Don’t understand if for Rolex either. Status symbols.
I partially agree. The quality of old mac and notebooks is quite different. My old high end laptop is falling appart and I need to use it as a desktop, but the mac looks and feels still like new.
A modern mac book air with a M2 chip is quite powerfull and compares well price wise with similarly spec laptops. The only exception is some mid range gaming laptops, but their build quality is not as good.
Discount Electronics in Austin Texas buys used commercial Windows and Mac/Apple workstations in bulk when local companies upgrade or go under and have to sell off their used equipment. Most of their stuff is Dell (their company headquarters is right there), but they’ll have other brands roll in on a regular basis. For affordable everyday hardware its a good deal, and their sales are worth keeping an eye out for. I know a couple of guys that buy old hardware in their bulk sales and build cluster computers out of them.
I’m running a Windows Ten i7 laptop from 2016 that really only shows its age if I get too aggressive in blender. Kerbal Space Program however is another matter, I have to break out the old lap desk with built in cooling fans for that one.
It must be said that is not the fact that the keyboard has 7-rows, it’s more about keys mechanism which shines against modern laptop keyboards.
I use a x230 with the keyboard mod. If it was not the battery life, it would be perfect to me.
X220, i7, with the IPS screen. The last good keyboard, and a totally decent form factor.
It was my desktop computer up until a year ago, and I’m a ton happier with a modern machine as my yacht, but the X220 still makes a nice dinghy.
I like your sentiment of keeping an old one around as a ‘dinghy’ — might not still be useful for all your daily tasks, but it’s still got life left in it! Cherish that silicon
X220 with i5 8gb ram and 512gb ssd and slice battery, also upgraded wifi but never got upgraded Bluetooth to work. They only reason I move to another computer was the display. Also moved in a year ago.
I have a W530 that I got from a friend who picked it up in an auction lot. IRIC, it had no battery or power brick so he sold it to me for $100. I bought the battery, power brick, and expanded ram to 32GB. It came with Win 8 but had a built in license to upgrade to Win 10 Pro. I also installed a couple SSDs and picked up a desktop dock via ebay. There are so many parts, readily available for low prices! I think I have about $450 all-in. I used it for the last 5 or 6 years for CAD with Fusion360, editing photos, slicing 3D prints, etc.
It really started bogging down when designing machines with a lot of parts. The Quadro k1000M GPU was just a bit too weak.
I recently replaced it with a refurbed HP ProDesk 600 G3 minitower that came with Win 10 Pro, 16 GB of ram, an i7-6700 CPU (same as the W530), 256GB SSD for the OS, a 3TB Hitachi HDD for user files, and a GTX 1660S graphics card (about 20x the processing power of the Quadro in the W530). $439 from woot! about 2 weeks ago.
The W530 is going to move to my 3D printer to replace the 2007 vintage Acer Aspire01 netbook…
I’ve built a FrankenPad myself, updating the MB in a T40 back in the day.
With Thunderbolt 3+, built in crummy GPUs can be bypassed with an external GPU. While only pretty good for gaming, I think they will be a gamechanger for people like use who keep ThinkPads going long after the Corporate Overlords are done wit them.
I have a couple of T61p and they are going strong with Win10. What a keyboard, what a display, what a red-point etc etc.
Thanks for the info. I’ve got an old W530 that I’d like to update to Win 10 or 11 but it’s unsupported. Does anyone know if replacing the motherboard is an option?
Let’s just get it out of the way.
Sadly it’s not just build quality. Support has also gone out of the window at Lenovo. An example is a serious bug in the Trackpoint firmware several series of laptops of the last 5 years are dealing with. Introduced with a firmware update beginning of 2021. The mouse will randomly stop working. Can only be restored with a reboot.
It took Lenovo 1.5yrs to come up with a new firmware version that only partially fixes the problem on the newest models. The older models are still dealing with this issue since 2021.
Someone figured out the problem and wrote a fix. But that dissapeared again because Lenovo lawyers got involved.
If you want more modern hardware you could also go the 51NB route. People have been enthusiastic about that before, so it could be your cup of tea.
I agree completely. Old Thinkpads are eminently hackable, and high quality. They are the perfect Hackaday user rigs.
Like several others here in the comments, my current “daily-driver” and the machine I’m typing this on is a Thinkpad T530 that I’ve upgraded quite a bit. I purposely bought an off lease model with the i7 CPU and the nVidia GPU but the lower res screen and small HD so it would have the required, harder to upgrade parts and a lower price. I then upgraded the RAM to 16GB, threw in a 480GB SSD I had waiting for such use, and bought a multi-bay HD caddy so I could swap out the DVD burner for a 1TB HDD as a secondary storage drive. I then got hold of a 1920×1080 LCD panel and swapped that in myself.
My only complaint is the BIOS blacklist that Lenovo does to make upgrading the WiFi such a PITA. It’s pointless and inexcusable. They should at least release a final BIOS update when they EoL these that removes the blacklists. Anyway, that’s my last unfinished hack. Modding the BIOS so I can upgrade to an Intel 802.11AC WiFi module.
Meanwhile I don’t really mind that much as I have good wired connections at work and at home which I prefer anyway. But for travelling, it would be nice.
Anyway, the point is that for under $600 I have all the laptop I need for everything _I_ do with it. Not being a gamer or YouTuber, it has more power than I really need for most tasks, it’s got a great keyboard and large, easy to read, hires display, lots of storage, USB-3, and so on. It can even compile kernels or run a VM decently.
Even though Windows 11’s BS arbitrary HW limits keep me from running it, I don’t much care as I use OpenSUSE Linux on it anyway, and it does run Windows 10 fine if I need it.
You should run Coreboot if you’re unhappy with the Lenovo BIOS. It runs flawlessly on my X230, but you do need to physically flash the chip the first time via the SPI interface.
Coincidentally the *30 series are the last able to do this since Haswell and newer has Intel Bootguard preventing boot of non-Lenovo signed BIOSes.
Can you still run grub2 dual boot Windows/ Linux setups with Coreboot?
Even though I almost always boot Linux, I still need the Windows 10 partition for those few oddball, windows only apps I use. Like to drive proprietary flashing software etc.
Sure, coreboot itself is just for hardware initialization. After that it loads whatever payload you choose, be that a traditional style BIOS, modern UEFI firmware, GRUB bootloader, or even Linux kernel directly.
If you want near identical behavior with the Lenovo UEFI firmware, you can select the edk2 UEFI payload and boot anything you usually might, like a bootable USB stick or Windows UEFI partition. Check out https://doc.coreboot.org/payloads.html
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