Friday, October 13, 2017

Buying an Old Thinkpad

I've recently been bitten by the theoretical Thinkpad bug. That is, I can see the attraction of these machines but I have no practical experience with them, especially not with the weird red dot on their keyboards. I also hate my current Lenovo laptop with a passion, so spending a lot of money without knowing if I'll like the machine seemed ill-advised indeed.

The good news is that the entire Thinkpad line seems to thrive on a myth of "eternal stability" meaning they simply don't change much (on the outside anyway) from year to year. So I figured I should just buy an older model for less money and see how it handles. If I end up liking it, I'll eventually shell out the dough for a new one.

I am obviously not the first person with that idea. Here's a reddit page that explains why older Thinkpads are a great way to go and there's even a buyer's guide specifically targetting older machines. So this post is less about pitching the idea of older Thinkpads and more about my own deliberations on which old model to get.

I decided to play the role of a "serious" user so the only Thinkpads I even considered were the T series and the X series. The strange sliver of my personality that made me an Apple fanboy back in the 1998-2004 time frame is immensely attracted to the X series. Thin, light, compact, sexy, wow! However, the newly discovered grown-up in me tends to prioritize things differently. I need a machine that I can work on comfortably for hours at a time which means I need a big display, good hand rests, a spacious keyboard, etc. If I really fall in love with Thinkpads during this experiment, no doubt I'll eventually own an X series product as well. But for now I'll stick to the T series.

Within the modern T series we have the bigger T5xx models (15.6" display, numeric pad) as well as the smaller T4xx models (14" display, no numeric pad). This is sort of a toss-up for me: A larger display is nice, but a numeric pad is completely useless. In terms of weight we're looking at 4.5 to 6 pounds for T5xx machines versus 3 to 5 pounds for T4xx machines (across the 2008-2017 time frame that is).

Just looking at the numbers above I couldn't really make up my mind until I remembered that my current Lenovo laptop is in the T5xx class when it comes to size and weight. And I have to admit that something a little lighter would be a lot nicer to carry around. So the entire T4xx line qualifies, but only the relatively recent T550, T560, or T570 models are light enough in the T5xx line. The crappy current laptop also helped me determine my "historical" cut-off point: I have a 2012 laptop now and I don't want to go earlier than that in terms of technology.

So now I am left with the T430-T470 as well as the T550-T570 in terms of my various criteria. But wait, the whole point was to buy an older, cheaper Thinkpad! That narrows the field further to just three realistic categories:

  • 2012: T430, T430s, T430u
  • 2013: T431s, T440, T440s, T440p
  • 2015: T450, T450s, T550

So I started looking into all these models and the first thing I noticed was that the T431s and all the T440 models have a very different trackpad setup from the rest (and indeed from all Thinkpads before and since). That takes all of these machines out of the race as well, after all I want to have a "true Thinkpad experience" and not some strange aberration that only existed for a brief instant.

For the remaining models, I decided to read all the in-depth reviews I could find. But after doing that for a while, I realized that there's really only one review site worth reading, so here are the links to all those reviews, followed by my own comments:

  • T430: The i7 tends to run hot at 55C. Granted, only under load, but I don't like the idea of a runaway computation setting my couch on fire. So it's out.
  • T430s: The i5/620M tends to run warm at 43C, the i7/4000 tends to run warm at 46C, neither of which is terrible. Despite being smaller and lighter than the T430 this thing still has an optical drive bay, something I like. Depending on condition and features, these ran between $170 (crappy) and $400 (like new).
  • T430u: The i5 tends to run warm at 45C. It's the only older model with HDMI, a big plus in retrospect. However, it's also the one model with only a fixed battery and that's a big minus. But worst of all the screen is terrible, so it's out.
  • T450: The i5 tends to run warm at 47C and I'd be okay with that. What I wasn't okay with is that these started at $520 which I deemed too expensive.
  • T450s: The i7/5500 is a dream and runs cool at 36C even under load! The i5/940M on the other hand runs hot at 52C which is too much for me. Alas it didn't matter, also too expensive at $600+.
  • T550: The i7 tends to run cool at 39C. Sadly most of these were also very expensive ($750+), the only affordable one I could find (at $379) had a locked BIOS.

I am obviously a little obsessed with temperatures. Everybody has their thing and I've had plenty of "laptop too hot for my lap" experiences that I don't care to repeat.

You can probably guess that I finally settled on the T430s for my experiment. The one I ordered was a little more expensive than I had hoped for ($265 instead of $250) but that's close enough. What convinced me in the end was that the seller actually wrote a long reply, covering all the details that were important to me.

Once it gets in, I'll try to do another post (maybe with pictures) about the machine and then it's on to actually testing it by replacing my current laptop for a week or three of lectures. Oh, and I need to order an HDMI adapter because we mostly have HDMI at Johns Hopkins these days.


  1. I am currently using an x61,with windows 7. It works like a charm, and I use it frequently. It did get a little hot at first, as it had been sitting in a cupboard for 5 years, but I gave it a service, bought a new keyboard, and it works fine! If you are looking to spend a few hours on a ThinkPad, I would recommend an x61.

    1. The x61 seems like a cool machine, but it would have been a little too old-school for me to use day-to-day. I sort of need the USB3 thing and a higher resolution display. I did get the T430s but sadly I have not had time to make a follow-up post yet. One of these days. It's a stellar little machine, especially for its age.

  2. hey man, i know its been a while since you posted this, you might wanna check X220 or if you like to have little bit bigger screen, you can check also the T420 Nvidia.

    they are the last thinkpad's with classic keyboard, a true legends, and a real thinkpad.

    currently im using X220 as my mobile laptop, and W520 as my multimedia workstation, both served me well for last 3 years, and getting better after i maxed the ram and put SSD in it.

    now my X220 has 16GB RAM, 500GB SSD, 9 Cell battery that can hold about 10 hours in a single charge, 3G WWAN with GPS for navigation, and amazing IPS panel. put it in a ultrabase dock for extended display if im in my office.

    same thing happen with my W520,i7 quad,FHD screen, 32GB of RAM, also 500GB SSD with 1TB SSHD in the caddy, just bought the original 9 cell battery new, and yepp, both will served me well for next couple of years for sure.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the recommendation! I ended up with the T430s because I wanted a keyboard that's similar to what I would get on a new Thinkpad nowadays. For me the whole purpose was to see if I'd like a new Thinkpad after all, and I can now say with some certainty that I will. I also upgraded my T430s to 16 GB and like you I am very happy with the result. Eventually I'll get a new battery as well, but so far I've been happy enough with the juice left in the original one.