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!
- Thinkpad Buying Guide Part 3 – Current-Generation Thinkpads Likely To Hold Their Value
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.
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
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.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you found this helpful!