Thinkpad X1 Carbon

I just bought a Thinkpad X1 Carbon to replace my Thinkpad X301 [1]. It cost me $289 with free shipping from an eBay merchant which is a great deal, a new battery for the Thinkpad X301 would have cost about $100.

It seems that laptops aren’t depreciating in value as much as they used to. Grays Online used to reliably have refurbished Thinkpads with manufacturer’s warranty selling for about $300. Now they only have IdeaPads (a cheaper low-end line from Lenovo) at good prices, admittedly $100 to $200 for an IdeaPad is a very nice deal if you want a cheap laptop and don’t need something too powerful. But if you want something for doing software development on the go then you are looking at well in excess of $400. So I ended up buying a second-hand system from an eBay merchant.

CPU

I was quite excited to read the specs that it has an i7 CPU, but now I have it I discovered that the i7-3667U CPU scores 3990 according to passmark (cpubenchmark.net) [2]. While that is much better than the U9400 in the Thinkpad X301 that scored 968, it’s only slightly better than the i5-2520M in my Thinkpad T420 that scored 3582 [3]. I bought the Thinkpad T420 in August 2013 [4], I had hoped that Moore’s Law would result in me getting a system at least twice as fast as my last one. But buying second-hand meant I got a slower CPU. Also the small form factor of the X series limits the heat dissipation and therefore limits the CPU performance.

Keyboard

Thinkpads have traditionally had the best keyboards, but they are losing that advantage. This system has a keyboard that feels like an Apple laptop keyboard not like a traditional Thinkpad. It still has the Trackpoint which is a major feature if you like it (I do). The biggest downside is that they rearranged the keys. The PgUp/PgDn keys are now by the arrow keys, this could end up being useful if you like the SHIFT-PgUp/SHIFT-PgDn combinations used in the Linux VC and some Xterms like Konsole. But I like to keep my keys by the home keys and I can’t do that unless I use the little finger of my right hand for PgUp/PgDn. They also moved the Home, End, and Delete keys which is really annoying. It’s not just that the positions are different to previous Thinkpads (including X series like the X301), they are different to desktop keyboards. So every time I move between my Thinkpad and a desktop system I need to change key usage.

Did Lenovo not consider that touch typists might use their products?

The keyboard moved the PrtSc key, and lacks ScrLk and Pause keys, but I hardly ever use the PrtSc key, and never use the other 2. The lack of those keys would only be of interest to people who have mapped them to useful functions and people who actually use PrtSc. It’s impractical to have a key as annoying to accidentally press as PrtSc between the Ctrl and Alt keys.

One significant benefit of the keyboard in this Thinkpad is that it has a backlight instead of having a light on the top of the screen that shines on the keyboard. It might work better than the light above the keyboard and looks much cooler! As an aside I discovered that my Thinkpad X301 has a light above the keyboard, but the key combination to activate it sometimes needs to be pressed several times.

Display

X1 Carbon 1600*900
T420 1600*900
T61 1680*1050
X301 1440*900

Above are the screen resolutions for all my Thinkpads of the last 8 years. The X301 is an anomaly as I got it from a rubbish pile and it was significantly older than Thinkpads usually are when I get them. It’s a bit disappointing that laptop screen resolution isn’t increasing much over the years. I know some people have laptops with resolutions as high as 2560*1600 (as high as a high end phone) it seems that most laptops are below phone resolution.

Kogan is currently selling the Agora 8+ phone new for $239, including postage that would still be cheaper than the $289 I paid for this Thinkpad. There’s no reason why new phones should have lower prices and higher screen resolutions than second-hand laptops. The Thinkpad is designed to be a high-end brand, other brands like IdeaPad are for low end devices. Really 1600*900 is a low-end resolution by today’s standards, 1920*1080 should be the minimum for high-end systems. Now I could have bought one of the X series models with a higher screen resolution, but most of them have the lower resolution and hunting for a second hand system with the rare high resolution screen would mean missing the best prices.

I wonder if there’s an Android app to make a phone run as a second monitor for a Linux laptop, that way you could use a high resolution phone screen to display data from a laptop.

This display is unreasonably bright by default. So bright it hurt my eyes. The xbacklight program doesn’t support my display but the command “xrandr –output LVDS-1 –brightness 0.4” sets the brightness to 40%. The Fn key combination to set brightness doesn’t work. Below a brightness of about 70% the screen looks grainy.

General

This Thinkpad has a 180G SSD that supports contiguous reads at 500MB/s. It has 8G of RAM which is the minimum for a usable desktop system nowadays and while not really fast the CPU is fast enough. Generally this is a nice system.

It doesn’t have an Ethernet port which is really annoying. Now I have to pack a USB Ethernet device whenever I go anywhere. It also has mini-DisplayPort as the only video connector, as that is almost never available at a conference venue (VGA and HDMI are the common ones) I’ll have to pack an adaptor when I give a lecture. It also only has 2 USB ports, the X301 has 3. I know that not having HDMI, VGA, and Ethernet ports allows designing a thinner laptop. But I would be happier with a slightly thicker laptop that has more connectivity options. The Thinkpad X301 has about the same mass and is only slightly thicker and has all those ports. I blame Apple for starting this trend of laptops lacking IO options.

This might be the last laptop I own that doesn’t have USB-C. Currently not having USB-C is not a big deal, but devices other than phones supporting it will probably be released soon and fast phone charging from a laptop would be a good feature to have.

This laptop has no removable battery. I don’t know if it will be practical to replace the battery if the old one wears out. But given that replacing the battery may be more than the laptop is worth this isn’t a serious issue. One significant issue is that there’s no option to buy a second battery if I need to have it run without mains power for a significant amount of time. When I was travelling between Australia and Europe often I used to pack a second battery so I could spend twice as much time coding on the plane. I know it’s an engineering trade-off, but they did it with the X301 and could have done it again with this model.

Conclusion

This isn’t a great laptop. The X1 Carbon is described as a flagship for the Thinkpad brand and the display is letting down the image of the brand. The CPU is a little disappointing, but it’s a trade-off that I can deal with.

The keyboard is really annoying and will continue to annoy me for as long as I own it. The X301 managed to fit a better keyboard layout into the same space, there’s no reason that they couldn’t have done the same with the X1 Carbon.

But it’s great value for money and works well.

Thinkpad X301

Another Broken Thinkpad

A few months ago I wrote a post about “Observing Reliability” [1] regarding my Thinkpad T420. I noted that the T420 had been running for almost 4 years which was a good run, and therefore the failed DVD drive didn’t convince me that Thinkpads have quality problems.

Since that time the plastic on the lid by the left hinge broke, every time I open or close the lid it breaks a bit more. That prevents use of that Thinkpad by anyone who wants to use it as a serious laptop as it can’t be expected to last long if opened and closed several times a day. It probably wouldn’t be difficult to fix the lid but for an old laptop it doesn’t seem worth the effort and/or money. So my plan now is to give the Thinkpad to someone who wants a compact desktop system with a built-in UPS, a friend in Vietnam can probably find a worthy recipient.

My Thinkpad History

I bought the Thinkpad T420 in October 2013 [2], it lasted about 4 years and 2 months. It cost $306.

I bought my Thinkpad T61 in February 2010 [3], it lasted about 3 years and 8 months. It cost $796 [4].

Prior to the T61 I had a T41p that I received well before 2006 (maybe 2003) [5]. So the T41p lasted close to 7 years, as it was originally bought for me by a multinational corporation I’m sure it cost a lot of money. By the time I bought the T61 it had display problems, cooling problems, and compatibility issues with recent Linux distributions.

Before the T41p I had 3 Thinkpads in 5 years, all of which had the type of price that only made sense in the dot-com boom.

In terms of absolute lifetime the Thinkpad T420 did ok. In terms of cost per year it did very well, only $6 per month. The T61 was $18 per month, and while the T41p lasted a long time it probably cost over $2000 giving it a cost of over $20 per month. $20 per month is still good value, I definitely get a lot more than $20 per month benefit from having a laptop. While it’s nice that my most recent laptop could be said to have saved me $12 per month over the previous one, it doesn’t make much difference to my financial situation.

Thinkpad X301

My latest Thinkpad is an X301 that I found on an e-waste pile, it had a broken DVD drive which is presumably the reason why someone decided to throw it out. It has the same power connector as my previous 2 Thinkpads which was convenient as I didn’t find a PSU with it. I saw a review of the T301 dated 2008 which probably means it was new in 2009, but it has no obvious signs of wear so probably hasn’t been used much.

My X301 has a 1440*900 screen which isn’t as good as the T420 resolution of 1600*900. But a lower resolution is an expected trade-off for a smaller laptop. The T310 comes with a 64G SSD which is a significant limitation.

I previously wrote about a “cloud lifestyle” [6]. I hadn’t implemented all the ideas from that post due to distractions and a lack of time. But now that I’ll have a primary PC with only 64G of storage I have more incentive to do that. The 100G disk in the T61 was a minor limitation at the time I got it but since then everything got bigger and 64G is going to be a big problem and the fact that it’s an unusual 1.8″ form factor means that I can’t cheaply upgrade it or use the SSD that I’ve used in the Thinkpad T420.

My current Desktop PC is an i7-2600 system which builds the SE Linux policy packages for Debian (the thing I compile most frequently) in about 2 minutes with about 5 minutes of CPU time used. the same compilation on the X301 takes just over 6.5 minutes with almost 9 minutes of CPU time used. The i5 CPU in the Thinkpad T420 was somewhere between those times. While I can wait 6.5 minutes for a compile to test something it is an annoyance. So I’ll probably use one of the i7 or i5 class servers I run to do builds.

On the T420 I had chroot environments running with systemd-nspawn for the last few releases of Debian in both AMD64 and i386 variants. Now I have to use a server somewhere for that.

I stored many TV shows, TED talks, and movies on the T420. Probably part of the problem with the hinge was due to adjusting the screen while watching TV in bed. Now I have a phone with 64G of storage and a tablet with 32G so I will use those for playing videos.

I’ve started to increase my use of Git recently. There’s many programs I maintain that I really should have had version control for years ago. Now the desire to develop them on multiple systems gives me an incentive to do this.

Comparing to a Phone

My latest phone is a Huawei Mate 9 (I’ll blog about that shortly) which has a 1920*1080 screen and 64G of storage. So it has a higher resolution screen than my latest Thinkpad as well as equal storage. My phone has 4G of RAM while the Thinkpad only has 2G (I plan to add RAM soon).

I don’t know of a good way of comparing CPU power of phones and laptops (please comment if you have suggestions about this). The issues of GPU integration etc will make this complex. But I’m sure that the octa-core CPU in my phone doesn’t look too bad when compared to the dual-core CPU in my Thinkpad.

Conclusion

The X301 isn’t a laptop I would choose to buy today. Since using it I’ve appreciated how small and light it is, so I would definitely consider a recent X series. But being free the value for money is NaN which makes it more attractive. Maybe I won’t try to get 4+ years of use out of it, in 2 years time I might buy something newer and better in a similar form factor.

I can just occasionally poll an auction site and bid if there’s anything particularly tempting. If I was going to buy a new laptop now before the old one becomes totally unusable I would be rushed and wouldn’t get the best deal (particularly given that it’s almost Christmas).

Who knows, I might even find something newer and better on an e-waste pile. It’s amazing the type of stuff that gets thrown out nowadays.

Related posts:

  1. Observing Reliability Last year I wrote about how great my latest Thinkpad...
  2. I Just Bought a new Thinkpad and the Lenovo Web Site Sucks I’ve just bought a Thinkpad T61 at auction for $AU796....
  3. Thinkpad T420 I’ve owned a Thinkpad T61 since February 2010 [1]. In...
  4. Is a Thinkpad Still Like a Rolls-Royce For a long time the Thinkpad has been widely regarded...
  5. Thinkpad T61 I’ve now had my new Thinkpad T61 [1] for almost...