Thinkpads

April 20, 2021 — paranoiac

Part 1: He fell for the thinkpad meme

Before getting my first thinkpad, I was using a 2010 Macbook. It actually worked decently with a minimal debian configuration, but eventually something broke inside of it and the thermals became unbearable, meaning 80c idle, with full fan throttle. So when looking for a new laptop, I had some criteria. I wanted something that was powerful and had great value. Of course, being an anon on so many technology boards I was familiar with thinkpad shilling. But looking into it I found that thinkpads were just what I was looking for. Here's why.

Thinkpads are business laptops, meaning Lenovo (and previously IBM) were pumping these things out in the millions for use in business settings. Thinkpads are to laptops what the Dell Optiplex series of computers is to desktops: cheap and plentiful. Some other things that define the thinkpads are that they are very easy to repair and upgrade, with the removable RAM and HDD/SSD panels being only held by a single screw on some models. Even components of the laptop such as the screen are relatively easy to replace compared to other laptops. I can't think of a single thing that you cannot repair in a model of thinkpad before the T480. I am not an expert on thinkpads, though I do know that after the T480 model of thinkpad that the subsequent thinkpad models started to become more like other modern laptops, which is a bad thing.

But what is wrong with modern laptops? For starters, they're expensive. Modern Macbooks and Surface Pro's are over $1000 USD. A good model of thinkpad like one in the x200 series can easily be found for less than $200, and an upgrade to the RAM and the addition of an SSD (which I highly recommend) are not expensive either. I believe I only spent around $50 getting my 512 GB SSD and 8 GB of ram for the thinkpad I'm using now.

Another major issue with modern laptops is the lack of modularity and repairability. If your macbook breaks, repairs are going to be expensive. This is because if a component is broken like the RAM, the RAM is soldered onto the motherboard, so the entire board is going to be replaced, which will cost hundereds of dollars. If my RAM crapped out on me, all I'd need to do is replace the RAM, which again is behind a dedicated panel held by a single screw, and do an easy swap. And if your battery stops holding a charge? Thinkpads have a detachable external battery, so you can just order a new one and swap it out without even opening up your machine (also, while you're waiting for your battery, you can run the thinkpad without a battery as long as it's plugged in, a feature many modern laptops lack.) I can't stress enough how greatly this increases the longevity of your machine. You could even get an "Archimedes' Ship" scenario if you had a thinkpad long enough. Something else about thinkpads is that some parts are even compatible with other models of the same series of thinkpad. For example, The x230 has a chiclet keyboard, which some dislike, while the less powerful x220 has a classic keyboard. Well if you please, you can buy an x220 keyboard and install it into an x230 with no issues. Additionally, there is a proprietary port on specific models of thinkpads that allows for a component called an ExpressCard, which allows for the addition of extra features, which can be anything from an m.2 adapter to something like a credit/debit card reader or an eGPU. Another modular feature of thinkpads is the ability to add a dock or base onto your machine, such as the slice battery which significantly increases battery life, or the UltraBase which adds a ton of ports as well as either a optical disk drive or a hard disk drive. Speaking of hard disk drives, on certain models of thinkpads there is a component called the UltraBay which can also either be an optical disk drive or a hard disk drive, which is not an add-on like the UltraBase but actually a slot in the side of the machine like the ExpressCard. It's also worth mentioning that inside many models of thinkpads there is another internal mSATA slot which can be used for further storage, and some later models also have an m.2 slot. While not a feautre unheard of in other laptops, the ability to dock your computer can be at least a great convenience and at most a game-changer to one's daily workflow. With an UltraDock, you can either just use it as an easy way of charging your thinkpad at your desk, or you could take advantage of the video output and use your laptop as your desktop PC.

So what do thinkpads do right? I'd like to restate that newer models of thinkpads, which is commonly understood as those released after the T480, lose many of the advantages that make the older thinkpads great. With that in mind, let's start with ports. The newest Macbooks for example are coming out with extremely limited port options. Most thinkpad models have an impressive amount of ports, as well as optical disk drives and SD card readers. With the UltraBay port options vastly increase, at the cost of the machine's size and weight. Another great part of thinkpads are the ruggedness of the machines. While not branded as such, these things can take a beating, and look no further than listing after listing of beat up thinkpads online that are still fully functional machines.

There are other smaller design choices and features of thinkpads that are great. While not a particular feature or design choice, thinkpads in my experience run pretty cool, and this effect can be greatly increased by reapplying new thermal paste. The keyboard feels very good, both the classic and chiclet keyboard. Some features include different levels of brightness for the backlight, dedicated buttons for volume and speaker/mic mute, a dedicated power button, a dedicated button to turn off the display, and on larger models a dedicated number pad. Battery life is also great on thinkpads. With a 9-cell battery in combination with a power saving program such as TLP, battery life can exceed several hours. With a battery slice add-on, battery life increases further. It's also an option to refresh your current battery by buying 18650 battery cells and rebuilding your battery, which is not as hard as it might sound. Something that I didn't expect myself enjoying so much is the ThinkLight. The ThinkLight is a light located up next to the webcam, which shines down on the keyboard area when turned on. You'll be surprised how often this comes in handy. Another feature on some models of thinkpads is the ability to turn off the wireless connectivity capability of your machine with a physical switch. The trackpad is also good, it's textured and has dedicated left, right, and middle click buttons, but this is overshadowed by the one design feature that defines thinkpads: the TrackPoint. The TrackPoint might be familiar to you even if you've never owned a thinkpad; it's the little red nub in the middle of the keyboard that works to move the mouse. While some see it as a nuisance, as I did when I first used it, it becomes a fantastic tool once you unlock its potential. Something worth considering when comparing the trackpad and the TrackPoint is that with the TrackPoint you don't have to return your finger to the center or opposite side to contiue moving down, so with the TrackPoint you can scroll down a long page quickly. The other main use for the TrackPoint is not having to move your finger off of the keyboard. If you use keyboard-driven programs like vim and qutebrowser like I do, you might be familiar with the philosophy trying to keep your fingers moving away from the home row as little as possible. For those who aren't aware, the home row is the one most likely beginning with "asdf" (and if you have a non-standard keyboard layout, you most likely are not only already familiar with what the home row is, but probably already understand the benefits of centering your hand activity around the home row.)

Part 2: He fell for the "He fell for the thinkpad meme" meme

What do thinkpads do wrong? I can only think of a few things. The main issue with thinkpads is that they're not plentiful and cheap outside of North America generally. This means they're harder to come by for those in Europe and Oceania, and even harder to come by at a good price. Moving on to the thinkpad's design, there is one thing that I have no good rebuttal to, which is that thinkpad screens are really bad compared to those in a modern laptop. This is because they use a TN panel instead of an IPS. You can upgrade this and it's not hard nor risky, but this might turn some people who don't want to put the work in off of thinkpads immediately. Moving on from that, the speakers aren't very good. I don't care about this because I don't think someone should expect good sound from a device that's primary use is not audio, but this might be concerning to consoomers. That being said I've never heard laptop speakers I would consider good. The screen can also be a little flimsy, and the base less so, but this is the trade-off of using lightweight plastic for the exterior. I think it is worth noting that the bezel is a little thick, though I don't mind. The other things that I've had problems with are only in my personal experiences. With that said, the fan in my x230 is strangely loud. I don't know if this is a problem with all x230's as it's the only one I own, but I haven't seen the issue with other thinkpads. Another personal issue is that when doing slow scrolling with the TrackPoint, the scrolling will eventually stop due to the TrackPoints feature of zeroing itself to prevent the TrackPoint from drifting on its own (which ironically can cause the TrackPoint to temporarily drift when the "zeroed" TrackPoint actually returns to its neutral position, until it resets itself again.)

Throughout this post I've been comparing thinkpads to modern laptops, with the Macbooks in mind mainly. This is due to the argument online, specifcally on message boards that thinkpads are for people who couldn't afford a more expensive machine so instead have to buy a used craptop. Along with this it's assumed that thinkpad users don't get any work done because they spend all their time repairing and fixing their computer. Firstly, repairing and fixing your computer is work. Saying that labor that your not being paid for is not work doesn't make any sense, by that logic students don't have any work to do. Second, the idea that you pay more than what something like a Macbook costs not in money but in the time you spend fixing it isn't true. Even if it was true, if we extend the time horizon and consider that this hypothetical macbook would break in a few years and require repairs worth hundereds of dollars, while fixes to a would cost a fraction of that, you start saving money and time. Even if the macbook never broke, it would slow down on the hardware and software level due to planned obsolescence, while my machine stays running fast for years to come. If you really wanted to, you could pick a model of thinkpad and have it be the last laptop you ever own, while the Macbook user has to spend over $1000 every few years on a new machine, not only requiring much more money but lots of time to move data off of a slow dying drive onto a new one. Oh, and have fun paying Apple $200 for 128gb more space while I buy a 512GB SSD for $35. All these things apply to people who would be buying a windows laptop (non-thinkpad) as well, albeit being bled for money like a stuck pig less so.

Something that the microsoft laptop user will say is that the thinkpad is simply not as powerful of a laptop as theirs. They might even argue that the thinkpad is unfit for gaming. I'll concede that generally thinkpads are unfit for modern gaming, except if you were gaming on something like an upgraded T480 with an eGPU. But the real issue here is just expecting gaming from a laptop in general. I'm not going to get into the argument against gaming on laptops, but in short laptops with their bad thermals, small size, very small monitor positioned so you have to crane your back, and lack of dedicated keyboard and mouse make the gaming performance and gaming experience on a laptop abysmal. If you really want a portable gaming experience, you can either get an expensive gaming laptop with all of the downsides listed before as well as the downsides of the laptop not being a thinkpad, or you could make a small form factor gaming desktop and take it as well as any necessary peripherals to wherever you need to go at the cost of portability but with the benfit of better gaming performance and a better gaming experience. A similar argument is that thinkpads are unfit for video editing or rendering, but I've had no issue with video buffering on any thinkpad newer than the Ivy Bridge series, and regarding video rendering, the only downside to video rendering on a thinkpad is the time it takes to render. However, the argument against gaming on a laptop is similar to the argument against video rendering, in that laptops should not be expected to do heavy workloads, they are terribly inefficient at it and are outclassed by desktops in every way other than portability. Music editing is not a heavy workload and most machines are capable of this including thinkpads, just make sure to use headphones.

Thinkpads are versatile and extensible, able to fit the needs of so many. They're modular and repairable, so you can build the machine you want. And they're all that and more for cheap. If you're willing to put the time building a laptop that so many find the time for building a desktop, you'll be very happy with choosing to fall for the thinkpad meme.

That's all for now. Happy 4/20.