Thinkpad Buyers Guide [codeablereason]

As the title indicates, the answer is used and refurbished Lenovo Thinkpads.  Thinkpads offer some of the best values in modern laptop due to excellent keyboards, solid durability, plus simple repairs and upgrades. By installing a SSD and upgrading to 8 GB of memory, even old machines become modern powerhouses.  Some are even sold pre-upgraded, but if not I highly suggest the Samsung 850 EVO SSD.

Unfortunately there are a bewildering array of configurations, so I’ve put together a short list of suggested models for most people, to help pick!

X230: A Lovable Compact For Mobile and Everyday Use

Specs to look for: IPS screen (mandatory), i5-3320M CPU (or i7-3520M for +20%  performance) – avoid the slower i5-3210M CPU.

Price estimate: $150-250 depending

There are few laptops that one could truly describe as “lovable”, but the X230 is one of them.  Its appeal comes from a compact and satisfying-feeling chassis, top-notch keyboard, high-contrast and fairly bright IPS display, light weight (3-3.7 lbs, or 1.3-1.7 kg), and shockingly high level of performance.  The performance comes from using a more power-hungry 35W mobile CPU rather than the 15W ultra-low power chips now standard in most laptops.  This enables it to compete well with 2016 laptops.  The generous 9-cell battery also permits it to achieve over 8 hours of battery life with web browsing or light use.  All of this is despite being half a decade old!

Other perks include the ability to use the ExpressCard slot for external graphics enclosures and a number of other mods and custom upgrades.

Cons: low-resolution 1366×768 screen – this is far better than you’ll expect due to the good contrast and viewing angles on the IPS version, but does limit the amount of content on-screen somewhat.

T430: A Compromise Between Power and Mobility, Excellent for Students and Developers

Specs to look for: HD+ (1600×900) screen, Nvidia graphics (if you game), i5-3320M processor or i7 — or buy a cheap model with the i5-3210M CPU and upgrade to quad-core

Price: $150-300 depending.  Items without a hard drive can be great deals at ~$120, since you’ll probably be upgrading to a SSD anyway.  Windows users will want to make sure it still has a license though.

Think of this as the big brother of the X230 above.  It adds a couple big perks in exchange for a heavier weight (5.1 lbs/2.3 kg with 9-cell battery) and larger size.  For one, the larger and higher-resolution 1600×900 resolution screen offers more usable pixels for text or content, which is especially a benefit for developers.  The T430 also has a socketed CPU that can be upgraded by users from a dual-core M-series processor to blazing-fast quad-core QM-series processor for twice the speed.  The i7-3720QM processor is an especially good value for under $100 used from eBay.  Finally, the optional Nvidia graphics make it suitable for light gaming and CAD or 3D work – comparable to the Intel integrated graphics in the 2017 dual-core laptops.

Cons: low-contrast screen (TN) with poor viewing angles and color representation – the X230 IPS screen is easier on the eyes, and the T530 Full-HD (1920×1080) screen is also far superior.   Screen may be upgraded with the somewhat better AUO B140RTN02.1 panel, with improved contrast, brightness, and viewing angles. But even with the upgrade, this is still a TN panel and inferior to the later IPS options.

T450s: A Sleek Premium Machine

Specs to look for: FHD (1920×1080) IPS screen, and avoid touch screens unless you’re dying for that feature, because they add ~0.5 lbs/200g and significantly reduce battery life. Strongly prefer the i5-5300U or i7-5600U processor for better performance.

Price: $450-700

This model offers the full modern ultrabook experience and modern ports/connections.  Nearly the same size as the X230 (just an inch wider) and almost the same weight, the T450s packs even more into the package, featuring a full-HD IPS screen with excellent color representation — one of the two display panels is even suitable for semiprofessional photo editing.   It also boasts ~10 hours battery life under light use and hot-swappable rear batteries, which make it extremely friendly to mobile use.  Finally, the addition of Intel 8265 wireless card more than doubles the network speeds with the 802.11ac standard — critical if you use file sharing/network storage or are lucky enough to have a fiber Internet connection.

Cons: cost and lack of an eGPU option, 4 GB soldered memory and only 1 expansion socket for additional RAM, somewhat slower than the other options here due to a low-power processor.

Upgrade limiter: For the T450 & T450s, there is a display panel whitelist — if you use a panel without an FRU (field replaceable unit) number, brightness control is broken in the Windows driver.  This limits you to panels that originally shipped with this laptop.

X230t: All the X230 Goodness Plus Pen-Tablet Perks

Specs to look for:  multitouch (not outdoors screen) – the outdoors model only takes pen input, not fingers.  i7-3520M processor gives +20% performance.

Price: $125-300, depending on condition and upgrades

Extremely versatile, a mobile all-arounder that shares most of the wonderful aspects of the X230 above.  Let’s talk about what’s different!  Compared to the X230 above, it adds a multitouch screen with a pressure-sensitive digitizer and a fold-and-rotate convertible display.  This makes it exceptionally useful, because for reading pages of vertical content you can convert to tablet mode to show almost double the content.  I love mine for reading books, comics, or whitepapers — although the weight means you’ll want to prop it against something.

For diagrams or notes, the on-screen digitizer with pen is extremely useful;  I highly suggest it for students or software engineers to hold notes or technical diagrams.  It handily replaces a notepad or whiteboard. It’s also a frugal way to dip your toe in digital painting/artwork; however, serious artists will find the limited screen resolution and color range restrictive, and will probably fnd the pen less useful than more modern premium models (Thinkpad X1 Yoga, Microsoft Surface Pro, 15″ HP Spectre x360, Thinkpad Yoga 370).

There are a couple small sacrifices vs. the X230:  it’s heavier at 4 pounds vs. 3.3 with a 6-cell battery – and the X230t does not have a 9-cell battery, so you’re limited to about 6 hours of practical use.  The rotating single-hinge design is also more fragile and prone to a bit of wobble.

All this said, you are getting a full and capable laptop plus tablet features for less than the cost of a normal Android tablet.  It’s an unbeatable deal.

Cons: limited battery life, limited screen resolution (1366×768), and if you don’t use convertible features the X230 is superior as a mobile laptop

NEW: T440p: A Lighter And More Modern Powerhouse?

Specs to look for: FHD (1920×1080) IPS screen, Nvidia 730M discrete graphics card, preferably already featuring an i7-4xx0MQ quad-core processor

Price: $400-500 for higher-end configs – prices have been dropping rapidly though, check eBay for the latest!

This is a laptop to buy for upgrade potential as a powerhouse machine usable for photo, video, and graphics work or development.  The Full-HD IPS screen gives it an excellent display (albeit suffering somewhat from backlight bleeding) with full sRGB color coverage for photography/graphics and excellent contrast and viewing angles.  Discrete graphics enables it to do CAD, light gaming, and provides GPU acceleration for Adobe products.  The processor is a socketed and thus upgradable 4th-Generation Intel core processor, which means it offers much higher efficiency than the previous generation and modern instruction sets for dense mathematics.  It can be upgraded to a very speedy quad-core i7-4700MQ, i7-4800MQ or i7-4900MQ (max) that stands up well to some of the fastest 2017 options.  Furthermore, the model will accept an Intel 7260 AC wireless card, enabling fast performance on home networks.  Finally, excellent battery life of up to 10 hours is possible even with quad-core CPUs.  The cons are a completely unusable clickpad (which should be swappable for a superior later-model one) and fairly heavy weight at ~5 pounds.  Also there are some reports that the chassis is not as rigid as other some other full-sized Thinkpads.

Cons: expensive relative to Tx30 models, upgrade to next-generation touchpad is completely mandatory unless you use trackpoint or external mouse only.  Build quality and finish a bit worse than Tx30 models.  MUCH heavier than the T450s — that model with the largest battery is lighter than the lightest normal T440p builds.

T530/W530: The Q-Car of Laptops, an Undercover Powerhouse

Specs to Look For: HD+ screen (1600×900) or the FHD (1920×1080) screen for photography and programming use, discrete Nvidia graphics for gaming/CAD, many CPU options

Price: $200-550, with the highest-end options including quad-core processors and a full-HD screen.

Don’t be deceived by the clunky and old looking exterior — when fully upgraded, a Thinkpad T530 can mount a socketed quad-core CPU faster than this year’s gaming laptops!  Specifically, the 55W i7-3940XM processor, as well as other options including the more widely available and quite potent 45W i7-3720QM that can be had for under $100 and easily swapped in.  The NVS 5400M discrete graphics in the T530 offers some gaming capabilities; not enough to fluidly run modern games, but roughly equivalent to Intel HD 620 integrated graphics from 2017.  The W530 is heavier but features Quadro K2000M graphics that are significantly more powerful. Both can also use an ExpressCard eGPU rig for modern gaming.

Finally, it was sold with the best screen of that generation an: a optional full-HD screen option that is suitable for photo editing due to full sRGB color gamut coverage.  Although it is uses the  TN  technology (rather than the superior IPS), this screen has excellent contrast and fairly wide viewing angles.  The W530 even includes an integrated color calibrator in some models.  Combine this with a 9-cell battery good for 6+ hours of use, and you have a very powerful machine at an extremely reasonable price.

Cons: big and HEAVY – this is a full-sized 15″ notebook, not a modern ultrabook.  My T530 with a 9-cell battery weighed roughly 6 pounds.  The W530 models are even heavier but generally were sold with higher-end components.  Also had a chiclet style keyboard not quite as nice as some of the previous generation.

At the time this post was originally written, Ryzen processors were not out, and Intel had not responded to their threat with the Kaby Lake-R quad-core 15W (ULV) mobile processors.  Most people could not have anticipated how strong the overall offering is.

Fortunately (unless you bought a 2017 laptop), those processors came out, and the 2018 Lenovo implementations are excellent, with strong cooling systems and customization allowing the CPUs to use more power if needed and run at high temperatures.  The result is CPUs in the 2018 laptops can in some cases run literally twice as fast with appropriately multi-core workloads.   The models with less robust cooling or CPU tuning will still manage 50% higher performance, and there’s potential for further improvement by undervolting the processor, replacing thermal paste, and doing other aftermarket tuning.

NVIDIA’s MX150 discrete graphics is also available, and is roughly twice as fast as the (already obsolete at the time) 940MX graphics available on select 2017 models.  Further, this graphics option is more widely available, included on the T480 and T480s, where the equivalent T470 and T470s did not offer discrete graphics in most markets.

Finally, the T480 finally has a screen suitable for working with photos (the WQHD option) featuring full sRGB gamut.

For all of these reasons, even if they’re substantially cheaper the 2017 Thinkpads are not worth buying except in niche cases.  Buy a 2018 Thinkpad and call it a day.

Current Thinkpad Models Likely To Be Excellent Bargains in the Future

Today we’ll look at current Thinkpad models, highlighting specific models offering excellent combinations of features and engineering.   Given that they are either new or nearly-new, they are more expensive and do not offer the same level of value as older models, but in the future they will likely be stellar value buys.

All-Around All-Star: T470

Specs to look for: FHD (1920×1080) IPS screen, i5-7300U CPU as the sweet spot for price/performance (but all CPU options are solid), ignore Nvidia 940MX graphics option because that’s not powerful enough to bother with.

The Thinkpad T470 represents many aspects of engineering (new and old) coming together at once to make an excellent ultrabook.  These features make it a laptop likely to age extremelygracefully:

  • New 7th-Generation Intel Kaby Lake processor, which offers a flat ~15% boost to both performance and battery life and hardware decoding of the VP9 video used for YouTube and Google video chat offerings (battery savings).
  • Performance!  Due to excellent cooling and expanding the thermal design power (TDP) from 15W to 25W, the T470 can sustain its the maximum turbo-boost speeds on the i5-7200U processor indefinitely.  In the long haul it will outperform the 2017 slim models in benchmarks, even when equipped with a nominally more powerful i7 processor.
  • New Thunderbolt 3/USB type C port:  the all-in-one port wonder that will likely be the future standard.  Supports universal USB-C chargers and laptop power banks, plus potentiallyexternal graphics enclosures.
  • New chassis, starting at 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg) which makes this full-sized Thinkpad as light as previous slim models (the T450s is nearly identical).  Slightly heavier with the more common PPS top cover, but still quite light.
  • Deep-travel keyboard, for the best typing experience.  More key travel than most of the other models (T470s, X1, etc).
  • Keeps the PowerBridge battery system from previous generations, allowing rear batteries to be freely swapped without losing power, and trading the light 3-cell for the capacious expanded 6-cell
  • With multiple energy-efficiency boosts, amazing battery life – great for travelers. Tested and achieves 7+ hours of web browsing or 10 hours of HD video playback – with the smallest batteries!  Double that with the largest (72 Wh) rear battery.
  • Completely serviceable – the CPU and/or GPU are the only soldered parts, so it’s easy to upgrade RAM (up to 32 GB), storage, and network/WAN cards.  Likely the display can also be replaced (with more effort).

Cons: Just the display – it is unsuitable for photo editing due to inaccurate color representation and being limited to 61% of the sRGB color gamut.  It’s quite likely that more ambitious users can solve this with an aftermarket screen upgrade.  Otherwise, the earlier T450s offers a full-HD IPS screen with slightly less than full sRGB coverage.   The current T470s or X1 Carbon (5th Gen) offer WQHD screens with full (or nearly full) sRGB coverage.

 

Gorgeous, Light and Adaptable: The X1 Yoga (1st and 2nd gen) Convertibles

Specs to look for: WQHD (2560×1440) OLED screen, maximum memory you will need because the memory is soldered and cannot be upgraded, don’t bother with faster i7 CPUs (cooling issues).

This is a machine for artists, offering a convertible with Wacom stylus support and absolutely gorgeous OLED display.  The display shows a pure blacks affording the maximum contrast and a huge color gamut covering almost the entirety of the AdobeRGB colorspace, plus an ultrafast response time.

Cons: 1st Gen lacks the Thunderbolt 3/USB-C support that was added in the 2017’s 2nd gen version, and neither can achieve the full performance from the faster CPUs due to cooling limitations.  Also has less than amazing battery life at ~5 hours of web browsing (2nd Gen not tested yet).

 

 

A Cheaper Alternative to the X1 Yoga: the Yoga 370

Specs to look for: i5 CPU (no benefit to the i7), and MAKE SURE it has the socketed memory slot and no WWAN card – you only get one or the other

The Yoga 370 promises a Wacom digitizer with active pen, enabling use for diagrams and artwork, and has a FHD display with full sRGB color spectrum.  This makes it suitable for art and photo editing.  The light weight (3 pounds) and small form factor make it highly portable and versatile.  Support for Thunderbolt 3 connections offers external GPU connectivity for graphics-intensive needs.  This is especially useful because the models with socketed memory only have a single slot (like the X270 does).  This prevents use of the faster dual-channel memory configurations to get improved integrated graphics performance.  Also boasts excellent battery life, of 8+ hours with the integrated battery.

Cons: CPU performance somewhat limited by temperature throttling, models with WWAN cards have just 8 GB of soldered memory and can’t have this upgraded

What about the others???

These are of course just a few of the many Thinkpad models offered this year.  While others are perhaps solid machines, they just aren’t as compelling as some of the other offerings.  Let me run through some reasons:

Most 2016 Models (T460, T460s, X260, X1 Carbon 4th Gen, etc):  lack USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports, which is likely to become the standard for connecting devices.  This also limits future expansion capabilities.   The 6th Generation Intel Skylake processors are significantly (~15%) less performant and power efficient than 7th Generation versions, giving shorter battery life.  You may as well get the cheaper previous-gen or superior next-gen models.

L-series and E-series lines (ex L470, E460):  inferior build quality and durability.  Given how cheap and reliable refurbished Thinkpads are, you may as well get a previously-owned T or X-series model for the same price.

X1 Carbon 5th Gen: This is by all accounts an excellent machine, with many of the perks the T470 has, including Thunderbolt 3.  Super-slim, super light, and getting rave reviews. The 2017 model has issues with heat buildup that limit the ability to take full advantage of processor performance (especially with i7 processors), but you wouldn’t expect a laptop this thin to replace a workstation anyway.

So why isn’t it a future value?  Simple!  If you’re paying the premium for this model, you want the latest!  The X1 series improves incrementally with each generation, and because there is limited upgrade potential due to soldered components, you’re best off with the latest.

T470s: Not a bad machine but it is stuck in-between the T470 and the X1 in size and capabilities.  There’s not much to suggest it over one of them (aside from being slightly cheaper than the X1 and having half-upgradeable RAM).

X270: A dud with some engineering flaws, including a tendency to run dangerously hot and use fans heavily.  Stick to the X1 if you want something portable, unless you absolutely need a specific feature.

Other Various Yoga variants:  just don’t hit the right combinations, in my opinion.  They’re *generally* not light and cheap enough to replace a tablet or smartphone for reading, web browsing and web surface.  They often don’t offer a gorgeous high-gamut screen and digitizer for digital art or diagrams/note taking (like the X1 Yoga and Yoga 370).  Finally, for basic use, the X230t is an unbeatable value at <$250.  Exceptions may exist, but none compelling at the moment.

T470p: Not a bad machine, but it fills a very narrow niche of people needing a powerful quad core processor without support for similarly powerful graphics capabilities or futureproof connectivity.  Unlike many models of this generation, it lacks the modern USB-C port, which limits future usefulness.  The result of this is no Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and since the old ExpressCard standard has been dropped, there is no way to connect an external GPU.  Finally, it is heavy enough that you may simply want to bump to the P50/P51 line.  If there’s a model next year with Thunderbolt 3, that will be far more desirable — but it’s not impossible that this line will be dropped entirely.

T570:  Similarly niche.  The biggest selling point of this model is pairing an optional 15.6″ 4K display with a mobile form factor offering portability and solid battery life.  It also has Thunderbolt 3 for future-proofing (or external graphics) and optional 940MX discrete graphics to offer a little more graphics horsepower for all those pixels.  Unfortunately it lacks a quad-core processor to put those capabilities to full use.  If you don’t absolutely need such a capable display when on the go, you’re far better off with a T470 and external 4K display.  If you do need the display and don’t mind sacrificing size/weight, the P50/P51 are more capable options.

P50/P51:  If you need one of these, you know it.  Solid mobile workstations for people who can afford them, with Thunderbolt 3 for expansion options.  Otherwise the T430/T530 offer better values for most everyday people.  Especially when paired with an eGPU rig to offer high-performance graphics capabilities.  I hate to say it, but the Dell XPS 15 is also a solid competitor.

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