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Thinkpad T420

I’ve owned a Thinkpad T61 since February 2010 [1]. In most ways it’s a great system and it still does most things that I require, even though it inspired my post about how modern laptops suck [2].

Problems with my T61

The biggest ongoing problem with my T61 was the heat production, I’m not sure how much of it was due to the CPU producing heat and how much was due to the cooling system not removing it fast enough. But any serious computation for even a relatively small amount of time caused it to get close to thermal shutdown. But as I mostly use my laptop for reading email, a SSH client, and coding (for which the big compiles are done on servers) that didn’t force me to replace it. The next problem was the battery life, it’s expected that laptop batteries degrade over time so it wasn’t a surprise that after 3 years my T61 battery only lasted for about 15 minutes. A final problem is the screen which didn’t seem to be as bright as it used to be, it’s annoying but doesn’t compel me to buy a replacement.

T61 Failure

But in July my T61 stopped working, it appeared to be either the power supply or something internal related to power, it had been running but was suddenly powered down after being left alone so for some reason power wasn’t getting from the wall to the laptop. I initially thought that it was the power supply at fault and investigated the price of a new PSU and a new battery as well. The Lenovo online store [3] charges $71.90 for a new PSU and $113 for a regular capacity battery or $156 for an extended capacity battery (50% more power). So based on the assumption that the PSU was faulty that meant a cost of $185 or $228 (maybe more if postage is included) to get the old Thinkpad going again. I could probably get the parts cheaper from somewhere else, but I’m hesitant to buy batteries from sources that aren’t reliable in case I get one that’s been used.

Buying at Auction

I ended up buying a refurbished Thinkpad T420 (product ID 4236-J73) from Grays Online [4]. It was refurbished and cost me $306.35 including delivery. $306.35 for a new laptop including PSU was a much better deal than buying a new PSU and battery for $185 or more. It turned out that the PSU wasn’t broken (a different PSU also didn’t work with it) but then my Thinkpad T61 just started working again, presumably it has some intermittent fault related to power and needed to be replaced anyway (I use my laptop for work and can’t have it fail randomly).

One significant problem when buying a Thinkpad is that the model numbers aren’t specific to the hardware specs. According to ThinkWiki the T420 model ranges from a 2.1GHz i3 to a 2.8GHz I7 CPU, from 160G to 500G hard drive, and has either a 1366*768 or a 1600*900 display [5]. Auction sites almost always specify the size of a hard drive and usually the exact CPU speed doesn’t matter much for an auction purchase (2.1GHz is fast enough for most things). But the display resolution is a big deal, in this case Grays had multiple Thinkpads on offer with the same description and the same price so bidding on one with high resolution was quite important. Lenovo has a web site for discovering Thinkpad specs, this is the current link for it (it changes periodically) [6]. At that page you can specify the “TYPE” AKA “PRODUCT ID” that is printed on the back of a Thinkpad (and usually included in an auction listing) in the search field that’s currently described as “QUICK PATH” and get all the specifications. Lenovo really do a great job of providing all the details for their products (including ones that were obsolete years ago). But it’s unfortunate that their web site sucks, there should be a single URL for such things that’s easy to find and they shouldn’t use cookies to track which model you are looking at because it makes it really difficult to research two different models.

Comparing T61 and T420

I upgraded my new Thinkpad to 8G of RAM because RAM is really cheap. I bought it with 4G of RAM which didn’t seem to be quite enough as the hard drive is slow for paging (my desktop with 3G of RAM and a SSD performed well for similar tasks). Now it’s running really well, my new Thinkpad is a lot cooler than the old one (not being broken is a good thing).

My T420 has a screen resolution of 1600*900 which was a little disappointing initially when going from 1680*1050 (18% fewer pixels and 2% fewer than the T41p I used previously). But having a smaller screen means that the Thinkpad is a lot smaller and lighter. My T61 didn’t fit in most backpacks and laptop bags and was unreasonably heavy, it’s the type of laptop that looks good on a spec sheet but doesn’t seem so good when you carry it around for a few hours. Not only is the T420 a lot smaller and lighter than the T61 but the power supply that shipped with it is a lot smaller and lighter too. I might have spent $72 a few years ago to buy a lighter PSU if I knew that was an option.

Cost of Ownership

Thinkpads are getting so cheap at auction that I’m tempted to buy myself an X series as well. When a $300 item can last several years (my T41p was from some time before 2006, my T61 was from 2010, and my latest is from 2013) that brings the cost of ownership down to something like $0.25 per day. If I bought myself a Thinkpad X series (ultra light) as well at auction then I would be looking at maybe $0.50 per day for my laptop use which would give me the option of taking a light laptop to a conference and a bigger laptop for spending a day at a client site.

8 comments to Thinkpad T420

  • Philipp Kern

    You may want to download the tabook.pdf

  • Virgo Pärna

    From what I understand, batteries for same model can have different manufacturers (and different lifetimes). I have T60 with Panasonic battery, that is still fine (original battery). But Sanyo ones are quite bad (from what I have heard).

  • I’m using an X61 at work, but I’m much happier with my X40 at home. If you’re “cloud lifestyle” anyway, the difference to use a Pentium-M based system shouldn’t matter, and decent X40s *with* docking station (important) are about 220 € on epray.

  • buttle

    Talking about RAM (or lack thereof), i see that debian wheezy kernels include the zram module (at least for amd64), i’ve been using it for years on several ubuntu releases and it really makes a difference as soon as you are memory starved: no more oom for me since then.
    http://gionn.net/2012/03/11/zram-on-debian-ubuntu-for-memory-overcommitment/

    Another trick i recently discovered is “The Great Suspender” chrome extension: it unloads the tabs not used for 1 hour or more, and it reloads them after a click.

  • I’ve had my T61 since February 2007, and it’s still running great. I’ve had to replace the CPU fan, as it finally died, but that was an easy replacement. The only other thing I’ve replaced is the battery. Anyway, regarding a couple points:

    1) I’ve never noticed the weight personally, and I have a backpack that the laptop fits in nicely, even with the 9-cell battery installed. It is a big laptop though, especially when you compare it to the new Macbook Pros coming from Apple Computer.

    2) I’ve never had the heat issues either. I’ve heard this from a number of people. My wife’s Macbook heats up much worse than my T61. I push it pretty hard in many cases also.

    I’m not looking forward to replacing my T61 though. I can’t stand 16:9 screens, and the current resolutions just _suck_. I may end up biting the bullet and purchasing a Macbook Pro, unless current laptop vendors get their act together. Either that, or I’ll ditch laptops altogether, and just stick with my phone for mobile, and a well powered desktop with 8:5 screens, and high resolutions.

  • skibo

    i loved my t61; it just died one day [start up black screen] and a smart local shop said it needed a new motherboard. i think i even banged it against the wall accidentally so maybe it was physical damage… been working hard to find a used motherboard that’s not locked. security chips in the things are tank, found a lot about cracking them with a few soldered wires, but the chip is VERY tiny

  • etbe

    Virgo: Interesting point. I’ve found all Thinkpad batteries to be about equal, but I bought them all from official sources so presumably they gave me the best quality. IBM and Lenovo seem to have a good record of preserving quality in the Think range.

    mirobilos: Good point, but using i386 is a PITA. Whatever I use I’ll want to compile things on occasion and a AMD64 system with i386 chroot or kvm is a lot easier than trying to develop AMD64 programs with an i386 terminal.

    buttle: I tried zram on one workstation, it crashed so I removed it. Also zram is a major PITA to setup.

    Administrator: I think that my T61 was defective in terms of cooling. If my T61 had no heat problems, didn’t flake out, and had good battery life it would still be a great system.

    skibo: That’s the problem with laptops, they are integrated so tightly that they are difficult to repair. Fortunately replacement is cheap nowadays.

  • Virgo Pärna

    From what I understand, both Panasonic and Sanyo produced batteries were official batteries. Just Panasonic lasted better.