My Adventures with ThinkPads
This article is a transcript of a video that you can watch by clicking the thumbnail below. Hence, certain statements may not make sense in this text form, and watching the video instead is recommended.
So it all began with mistakes. And, as much as I like to pretend to know about machines, I still make mistakes with purchases. These could sometimes be small, but otherwise bigger and far more expensive. Thankfully, I made a few in just the right sequence and that led me to learn a lot, most of which I would have never learned otherwise. I can’t stress enough how thankful (or rather grateful) I am for the way it all turned out for me.
How many is “too many”?
Yes, I used more ThinkPads than an average person would use in a lifetime, which was twenty at the time of this recording, and I loved it. I purchased only one of them as a brand-new machine to switch out from my Apple MacBook Pro and get back into Linux. The rest were purchased through online auctions on eBay, my favorite eCommerce platform.
What kind of machines were they?
So, what machines are we talking about?
Not all of them were unique in terms of models, but they mostly offered a variation in hardware configuration and cosmetic condition. I tried to cover as many different series as I could, while specifically making sure to touch the unique ones. Now, I know the term “unique” could mean so many different things, especially if you’re talking to a die-hard ThinkPad enthusiast, and as I still don’t consider myself to be one, I only stayed with the ones that were interesting enough for me as well as useful in my workflow at least to a certain extent.
There were a few though, that I intentionally picked for my personal use to at least temporarily add to my fleet, while the others were picked just out of curiosity. There were also a few that I wanted to rescue by fixing them and finding a new home for them to get them back in action.
Series-wise, many of them were T series, some were Yogas, some X series, a couple of X1 Carbons, and a P series. I guess now I have a fairly good idea of how all those series are different and what kind of audience they cater to. There were a few series that I didn’t cover, like the L series or the E series. But regardless, I figured out what worked for me, which was indeed the intention, at least at the start.
How much did I lose, or did I make money?
All this wasn’t particularly to make money.
There is a small portion of online sellers that buy broken machines for cheap, fix them, and flip them for profit. I did think of doing it at some point, but I realized it wasn’t for me.
I barely earned profits on these machines, and I mostly sold them at a cost equal to the total amount I spent buying them and then later fixing them. I did lose a little money here and there though which I convinced myself to think of as a fee for those adventures.
Why did I do this?
“Why would you need to do that?”, you’d ask. There’s a short story behind it. Not talking about my first ThinkPad at work which was a T480, the first machine that I purchased with my own money was an X1 Extreme Gen 3 I ordered from the Lenovo website in October 2020. The plan was to specifically replace my Apple MacBook Pro, and if you’ve ever used an Apple computer and know the build quality of those, you know what I went through. Arguably, there’s hardly anything on the market even today that is built the way those machines are and with that tight integration between the hardware and the software. The X1 Extreme was pretty much as close as I could get to that quality while still having something more maintainable and running Linux on it. But now that I had something this nice, it was a little too expensive to be carried along while traveling. After a little over a year in December 2021, I started looking for a cheap machine for international travel, so that I didn't spoil my most expensive machine while passing through airport security just to prove that it wouldn’t explode on the plane.
The adventures at a high level
I got my hands on a wide variety of machines.
My initial few (including the X260 that started it all) helped me find machines that were way cheaper and could be used in relatively harsher conditions without the fear of losing a fortune. The X260 itself was great but it had a 768p TN panel which wasn’t just a step down in terms of screen resolution as compared to the other machines I was using at that time, but it also had terrible viewing angles. Instead of upgrading it (which is as simple as prying open the screen bezel and working with a set of four screws), I decided to sell it and find something more suited to my needs. I also acquired a T61p early on, which was just beautiful but was much heavier than what I would have preferred to travel with.
I found a few machines for very cheap, fixed them, and sold them to buy more. And I got addicted before I realized it. My X1 Extreme was miles better in materials and design as compared to my T480 at work, but none of the machines I purchased were as polished as my X1 Extreme, so that got me curious. Now I was buying ThinkPads out of curiosity to experience how different series and form factors felt like to use.
Now I was purposely looking for ones that were incomplete in at least some way so that I could feel good once I got to fix them. I even used to order the spare parts right as I won an auction, and at times the parts used to arrive at my door even before the machine itself.
And then I came across the X1 Carbon, which was very close to my X1 Extreme, but far lighter and portable. It was a Gen 4 from 2016, which was the same platform as the other three X1 Yogas I picked up, and I realized that I found the machine that it all started for. I hopped through Gen 5 and Gen 7 for losing a little more weight, and gaining USB-C charging instead of Lenovo's proprietary charging port, and now I had the perfect machine.
Needless to say, my adventures didn't stop as I kept experimenting with other machines, one of the most noteworthy was of course the X220, and it's as I like to call it, the Miata (or MX-5) of computers, depending on where you live. Every ThinkPad enthusiast has at least one, and now I know why.
I got to learn so much from these adventures that if I spent a few hours talking about it, I’d still be just scratching the surface. Only talking about some high-level details that I remember at this point, the following are a few:
- Not all ThinkPads are the same:
- Different series cater to different people and different use
- Models from the same series shift in design and features across years and hardware generations
- Unique and popular models are spread across different series with peculiar features but they are relatively harder to find than the rest, especially in reasonably good condition
- Everyone's ThinkPad is different, so what works for me might not work for you. One might even need more than one, depending on their workflow and budget.
- Paying the full price for a machine is almost never worth it, with prices on sale events being a close second. Subjectively, the best value for your money can be achieved while buying these as old or refurbished.
- On one hand, while newer machines get better and feel more usable than older machines, the converse can also be found to be true such that with gradual improvements and with attempts to make the machines smaller, thinner, and lighter, they lose hardware features often proving to be less utilitarian than their older versions.
- Batteries can be damaged by both: overcharging them, and also by over-discharging them, which is something I learned the hard way by spoiling two batteries on my power-hungry ThinkPad.
- Not all hardware is best with Linux, two of which I found to be Nvidia GPUs and 4K screens. These are two of the many mistakes I was referring to earlier in this video, and I’m glad I made both. I mean, hadn’t it been Nvidia, I would’ve never learned about Linux as much as I did in the last few years, because I had to get it to work!
- The same hardware can perform differently on different models. For example, a GPU can perform way better when the chassis is bigger such that it provides better cooling, and it may perform worse if undervolted.
- Model numbers represented by larger numbers aren’t always better than those with smaller numbers. So my Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti MaxQ wasn’t better than an older Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060. Yes, that as well is something that took me a while to learn.
- An expensive machine isn’t necessarily better than a cheaper one. “Better” is of course a subjective term here, but several add-on options and features can unnecessarily bump up the price of a machine while adding relatively less or sometimes even no value at all.
- All ThinkPads look the same, or at least most of them do, and neither does one need to own all different kinds nor can one afford to have them, all at once at least.
I’m settling down, maybe?
It was a long ride!
So after all this practical learning, I "downgraded" my X1 Extreme Gen 3, to a relatively less-flashy workstation laptop, the T15g Gen 2. This thing isn’t as nice or expensive but checks all the boxes for me. For the nice stuff that I’m missing here, it can all be covered with a cheaper machine from the X1 family, like an X1 Carbon or an X1 Yoga. Let the expensive machine be used by someone who needs it, while I use only what I actually need instead of what I once thought I’d need. I hope I made the right decision because this was a big one for me.
So with the T15g, there are major differences that one would identify right as they would get near this machine:
- The contrast ratio of the 4K HDR OLED screen is gone. Did I mention there’s no touchscreen anymore?
- The trackpad is “trash”, yes, I can say this, but thankfully I gradually got used to the TrackPoint while using ThinkPads where it wasn’t great anyway.
- The chassis feels rough, nowhere as close to that on the X1 Extreme, but for a machine that I don’t plan to pick up in my hands often, does it really need to be all that nice?
What you can learn from this?
There are several things you can learn from this too:
- To start with, I suggest not trying to cover multiple use cases from a single machine. One machine could be great at more than one thing, but not necessarily for all of your use cases.
- Maybe instead of spending on a brand new machine get two used machines by splitting your use into a portable machine for light use and another powerful beast for heavy-weight projects that you don’t carry along. Wait, I shouldn’t have said this, so let me take that back. Always buy new, but use your machines gently and when they’re a couple of years old, sell them to people like me and replace them with something even newer. Just make sure to not break something that isn’t as obvious to fix so that it doesn’t cost me too much time or money or both. I’m kidding, do what you like.
Maybe the reasons I mentioned for buying and selling so many computers were mere excuses to get to experience some of the most magnificent machines at a negligible loss. Maybe it was the nerd's itch, or maybe I was finding out what works for me and for my workflow. The good part is that no one got hurt, and it was a win-win, especially for the people who bought those machines back from me, as they received a refurbished machine that was carefully restored, and that too at an affordable price.
And yes, I know that at the end of the day, these are just tools that are to be used to get some actual work done, so there isn’t a reason to get carried away by a tool. But, as they say, “to each his own”.
That's all that I have for this video, and if you found it helpful, you know what to do. Just be a little kind in the comments, and maybe you can subscribe too. Thanks for watching it till the end, may the maker watch over you, see you in the next video!