Thinkpad Buying Guide Part 1 of 3: Outstanding Thinkpads for Most People

x230t
How can you get a $200-500 laptop that is better than new machines costing 2-3x as much?

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!

See also:

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.

Links: Set-up & tweaks guide, Upgrade/mod options listPlatform Specifications (PSREF), and NotebookCheck review

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.

Links: Platform Specification (PSREF), NotebookCheck review

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.

Links: Platform Specification (PSREF), NotebookCheck review

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

Links: Set-up & tweaks guide, Upgrade/mod options list Platform Specification (PSREF) and Notebookcheck review

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.

Links:  T530 and  W530 platform specifications, and T530 Notebookcheck review

 

Conclusions:

Thank you for reading, and I hope you found this helpful!

Thinkpad Buying Guide Part 3/3: Future Value

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 extremely gracefully:

  • 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 potentially external 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.

Links: Specifications (PSREF) and NotebookCheck review

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).

Links: Specifications (PSREF) and NotebookCheck review

 

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.

Power Management And Tuning A Thinkpad X230t

I’m presenting some power tuning measurements for an X230 tablet, potentially to compare against other systems (and to see if your own power use is minimized):

System Configuration:

  • X230 tablet, i5-3320M CPU, 8 GB RAM, Crucial M4 128 GB SSD
  • Running up-to-date Xubuntu 16.04, with Intel microcode and power tuning by TLP, running on Ext4 filesystem, XFCE Display Compositing OFF (reduce GPU use)
  • Measurements taken using powertop 2.8, pre-calibrated

Power Scenarios:

Reader Mode – mostly idle, Chrome not running, WiFi off (hardware switch), display brightness one notch above minimum (minimum usable indoors), bluetooth off:

  • Battery drain 7.3-7.8W
  • 4.4W – Base system use (mistakenly attributed to the wired ethernet due to a glitch in calibration approach) – motherboard, RAM, etc
  • 2.2W – Display backlight
  • 0 – 400 mW – Touchscreen

Reader with WiFi & Chrome on – mostly idle, Chrome open with a few idle tabs, WiFi on but not being used.  In tablet mode (keyboard/mouse inactive), reading locally stored comics in Comix, bluetooth off

  • Battery drain 8.6-9.1W
  • 4.16W – Base system use
  • 2.4W – Display backlight
  • 852 mW – 963 mW CPU (combined, 1-1.4% use)
    • 627-734 mW – CPU core
    • 225-229 mW – CPU misc
  • 442-448 mW – Wireless, 3-10 packets per second
  • 40-50 mW – GPU combined use (half core, half misc)

Normal range when web browsing:

  • 10-12W, although real battery life is 4-5 hours on 62.7 Wh 6-cell battery

Playing back H264 1080p video in SMPlayer Using VAAPI for Graphics Acceleration:

  • 16.7W, 6-7% CPU use, but mostly active GPU

Conclusions:

You’re not going to get much under 7W of power draw, or 8.8 hours of use (at least not under Linux).  A more realistic estimate under normal use is about 12-14W of power draw, giving 4-5 hours of battery.  Most of the difference from base use will be CPU & GPU use, even in a mostly-idle state, with the network card making a lesser contribution.

By way of comparison, I get a minimum of about 8.75W with a very similarly configured Thinkpad T530 with an i5-3210M CPU, the HD+ 1600 x 900 screen, and screen brightness around 40-50%.  That’s about as dim as it will be usable.

It is very difficult to make the a system power efficient with the 35W TDP CPUs, at least not by modern standards.  It’s not uncommon to see modern 14/15″ laptops idling at under 10W, even with larger full-HD screens and sometimes quad-core CPUs.

Upgrades And Mods on Thinkpad X230/t

Today I’m going to follow up my software/setup guide for the X230/t with guidance on the upgrade options for the Thinkpad X230 and X230 tablet (X230t).

In the community of Thinkpad fans, it’s common to do after-market upgrades and mods, often using components from earlier or later model lines.  For example, people will swap in more comfortable touchpads or keyboards, or use a better quality screen.  If you are inclined to do this, here’s a breakdown of what you can and cannot do on this model.

Batteries: 

  • The X230 has a 9 cell battery that can give more than 8 hours of web browsing or light use.
  • The X230 tablet is not compatible with this battery and uses a different and incompatible  6-cell battery (64 Wh).  This is the largest normal battery it can mount, and it has a handle shape that can be used to pick up the laptop.  It is also notched back in one corner — this is intended to let you convert to table mode and nestle it in the crook of your left arm
  • There are some unofficial batteries on Amazon that claim to be X220t/X230t compatible 9-cells but they do not appear to deliver on expected capacity.
  • For the maximum capacity, you can use the 6-cell  slice battery (Thinkpad 19+), which clamps over the bottom of an X220, X220t, X230, or X230t and attaches to the docking port.  It will add about 1.6 pounds of weight and quite a bit of thickness, but basically doubles battery life on the tablets.

CPU: soldered, and not upgradeable without replacing the motherboard.

  • The most common models for the X230/X230t are the i5-3210M (weaker), i5-3320M (standard), and i7-3520M.  All are dual-core CPUs with 35W TDP.
  • The faster i7-3520M is about 20% faster than the slowest i5, the i5-3210M.  By modern standards the i7 is still quite fast, competitive with a Skylake i7-6500U and barely slower than the Kaby Lake i5-7200U featured in many of this year’s midrange laptops (although quite a bit less power efficient).
  • There exist a few other rare CPU options on systems customized for businesses, but the i7-3520M appears to be the fastest.

Memory: socketed, 2 slots for a DDR3/LPDDR3 SODIMM, officially can mount up to 16 GB (2×8 GB SODIMMs) at 1600 MHz speeds (PC3-12800)

  • Although the platform specification does not advertise it, I have heard that the X230/X230t can run up to 2133 MHz DDR3L and still get full speed (the CPU and motherboard support it).  The performance benefit should be very small in most cases though.
  • These will also work fine with DDR3L aka LPDDR3 memory at 1.35V versus normal DDR3 at 1.5V
  • There is a known issue when using 16 GB of RAM in combination with an ExpressCard external GPU rig that causes 100% CPU use, so be aware.

Wireless Card (mini-PCI): the main option is the Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205, and it’s probably the best option.   A BIOS whitelist prevents upgrading to any card with 802.11ac support.

  • Apparently the whitelist can be bypassed with a custom BIOS, but this requires desoldering the BIOS chip and reprogramming, and not all capabilities are guaranteed to work.
  • With a solid router and appropriate driver configuration, I have measured download and upload speeds on a Intel 6205 of ~200 MBit using 5 GHz 802.11n with an X230t (next to the router).
  • The Intel Ultimate-N 6300 works with the X230 and is supposed to be superior to the 6205 due to a 3×3 antenna vs. 2×2.  However I have it on a T530 laptop and it appears to underperform the 6205, even using the iwlwifi parameter tweaks from my previous post.  Also, if you have a webcam then there will not be a 3rd antenna available, so the 6300 will become basically a 6205.

Wired Networking: it delivers full gigabit speeds (I’ve measured 800-900 MBit in the real world).  If you need 10 GBit then you probably shouldn’t be using a laptop, neh?

BIOS: I’ve heard that you can flash a custom BIOS by desoldering the chip and reprogramming it, but not tried it.  This is supposed to work for the X230 but reports are mixed for the X230t.

  • The X220 had a much simpler process for flashing the BIOS, so if you’re looking to do heavy customization that requires working around the whitelist, that’s probably the superior base platform.

Storage:

  • The main drive bay will accept a 2.5″ SATA 3 SSD.  This is the fastest and best option for most people, since you can get the full SSD speeds (generally ~500-550 MB/s max).
  • The mSATA slot under the keyboard will also accept a smaller mSATA SSD, but only has a SATA 2 connection.  This limits peak disk throughput to ~200-275 MB/s in practice, but does not impact the far-more-crucial random I/O performance.  Still, I’d suggest a 2.5″ drive unless you are using an existing mSATA drive or need the additional storage from an internal HDD.
  • The Samsung 850 EVO 250 GB SATA/mSATA models offers a good combination of price/performance/capacity for most people.
  • Be aware that migrating a bootable Windows install from the 2.5″ bay to a mSATA SSD can prove extremely difficult or impossible.

ExpressCard (/34 and /54 support, PCIe 3.0 x 1) :

  • The most interesting use of this port is to connect an external GPU (eGPU), although performance is somewhat limited by the single PCIe 3 lane.  Link: Reddit Thread about one setup.
  • I have read (although not tested) that NVIDIA cards perform better in an eGPU setup on this model due to the use of PCI link compression to make better use of interface bandwidth
  • As with most eGPU configurations, the best performance comes from connecting the GPU to an external monitor, so you are not using interface bandwidth to return the display data to the laptop’s internal monitor
  • There are also small ExpressCard adapters to add additional ports that may not be present — but unless you need something special and can’t use a normal adapter dongle, that’s probably pointless.  For the X220 it was useful as a way to add USB 3.0 though.

Graphics: you’re on HD Graphics 4000, unless you go the eGPU route (see immediately above).  This is adequate for some older and less demanding games on low settings (including Skyrim), but be aware that it does heat up the laptop rather rapidly.

Display (12.5″, 40-pin LVDS connector – confirm this)

  • The best issued display is an IPS 1366×768 – you really want the IPS display because the TN model is rather awful.
  • There exists a mod from the Chinese 51nb forum to internally convert the DisplayPort to an eDP connector (link goes to Reddit post with that mod), allowing the X220 and X230 to mount the 1920×1080 (FHD) IPS monitors from later X-series laptops.
  • Nitrocaster is also selling modkits  to members of the Thinkpad Forums for a FHD mod using that board.  At time of writing he is investigating a modded version for the X220t and X230t with digitizer
  • Note that there is a moderate battery penalty (1-2 hours or so, call it 20%?) for the higher resolution display and the additional graphics/processing to display it.

Keyboard: with a patched BIOS, it is possible to use the X220 keyboard, which some people prefer.  ThinkWiki has instructions.

Trackpad & Trackpoint: how would you improve on a classic?

It is worth consulting the X230t Platform Specification and X230 Platform Specification for details on the hardware and capabilities.

How To Set Up A Thinkpad X230 Tablet For Best Results

Today I’ll tell you how to set up a Thinkpad X230 tablet for best use, and save you a lot of time investigating tweaks.  This and the non-convertible X230 are some of the best laptops under $500 despite being several years old. With the right deal, you can find them on eBay used for $100-300 in good condition.

I set mine up for dual-boot, using an older mSATA SSD I had on hand (Crucial m4, 128 GB).  This small SSD goes in the mini-PCI slot where the WWAN card would go, next to the wireless card.

Hardware Upgrades:

Memory: you want to upgrade to at least 8 GB.

Usually systems will come with 4 GB, and you just get another stick for ~$30.  It needs DDR3 or LPDDR3 (aka DDR3L) up to 1600 MHz.

  • I have both 1.5V (DDR3) and 1.35V (DDR3L) chips in place at the same time and it works.
  • Reportedly the X230 series may be able to use higher-speed RAM even though the official specification doesn’t list it (rather than simply downclocking it as normal).
  • If you’re considering an external GPU rig for gaming, be aware that there is a known issue when combining 16 GB of memory with an eGPU, so stick to 8 GB.

Storage: you want an SSD

This makes a night and day difference in performance and usability.

  • The main drive bay will accept a 2.5″ SATA 3 SSD.  This is the fastest and best option for most people, since you can get the full SSD speeds.
  • The mSATA slot under the keyboard will also accept a smaller mSATA SSD, but only has a SATA 2 connection.  This limits peak disk throughput to ~200-275 MB/s in practice, but does not impact the far-more-crucial random I/O performance.  Still, I’d suggest a 2.5″ drive unless you are using an existing mSATA drive or need the additional storage from an internal HDD.
  • I would suggest the Samsung 850 EVO 250 GB SATA/mSATA models as a good combination of price/performance/capacity for most people.

Optional hardware service: re-pasting the CPU  

Many X230/t laptops come with old thermal compound on their CPU that is in poor condition (as mine was).  While they are still perfectly usable, it is often helpful to replace the thermal compound  to reduce CPU temperatures under load and quiet down fan use.   I did a CPU re-paste using Noctua NT-H1 thermal compound.

  • Before this, the fans tended to spin up to maximum (loud) speed regularly in response to brief bursts of activity, mainly in Windows.  This is also solvable by using the “thinkfan” (Linux) and tpfancontrol (Windows) utilities to reduce fan use and run warmer or use low-speed fans more.
  • This reduced temperatures under load a lot, from 90C under sustained Prime95 load to about 80C, and from 83C when gaming to ~63C.
  • I find that fans spin up some still but run at a much lower speed and are usually not audible.
  • The laptop still idles quite warm, generally 47-50C, and re-pasting did not change this.  The price you pay for putting a 35W TDP chip in a 12.5″ laptop, it seems.

Easy Fix: Jiggling Screen or Clicking When Opening/Closing The Display

If your X230t screen feels loose and jiggly or makes alarming clicking/popping noises when opened/closed, there is a very easy fix!  You just need to tighten two screws under the display bezel and perhaps lightly oil the hinges.

  1. First get another device and open up the X230t hardware maintenance manual
  2. You will need to remove the battery, the display hinge cap (section 1050 in the manual) and the button bezel (section 2010 in the hardware manual)
  3. In the hinge, you will see two screws on both sides of the hinge in the middle.  They need to be tightened with a jeweler’s screwdriver, and the little pivot wiped clean with the end of a rolled up paper towel or Q-tip.
  4. You may opt to apply a very small dot of light oil on the hinge here and on the horizontal rotation for smoother operation.  Be sure not to put too much, and wipe off any excess.
  5. Before replacing the bezel and hinge cap, verify it opens, closes, and rotates smoothly without noise.
  6. Enjoy the silky-smooth and firm motion of your display – just like new!

Windows 10 Setup:

  • Windows is installed first, because it is easier to get the Linux bootloader to work with Windows than the other way around.  This was my secondary OS, for gaming and use of the Adobe Suite (rather than Wine).
  • When installing by bootable USB drive, you may need to boot from the USB 2.0 port to install.  This is due to an issue with Windows 10, older BIOS versions, and the USB 3.0 drivers.  It is supposedly possible to fix by BIOS update.  Oddly enough, you can still boot into recovery mode from the USB 3 ports, it just will not function or install correctly, for the most part.
  • It is nearly impossible to successfully migrate a preinstalled Windows image from the hard drive to an mSATA drive.
    • I went through all the automated boot repair options, sysprep, and the recovery-mode BCD fix options, plus manual BCD editing without luck.
    • This is probably due to the change in controller, or the fact that the mSATA port was not intended to be used for primary storage (just small caching SSDs or WWAN cards)
  • All the hardware more or less works out-of-box, including touch screen.  For optimal results, find and install all the Windows 10 drivers via the Lenovo site or their driver/update utility.  If you have issues with multitouch or pen pressure not working correctly, uninstall the touch/pen drivers, and install the http://us.wacom.com/en/feeldriver/ (thanks /r/thinkpad).
  • The handwriting recognition and on-screen keyboard are truly excellent.  The latter is almost as good as Android or iOS despite different technologies.

Linux Setup (Xubuntu 16.04 LTS):

  • Basic install of Xubuntu 16.04, done second to handle bootloader setup.  XFCE works well with touchscreen use here.
  • All the hardware more or less works out of box, except for the special tablet-mode buttons on the screen bezel.  This includes touch & multi-touch support in the UI, but the default settings are imperfect.
  • Install “tlp” to automatically tune the power settings.  This can make a huge difference in battery life.  On a new 6-cell battery, you can get up to 6 hours of light use  (WiFi on) and low screen brightness vs. 4ish if not well configured out-of-box.
    • To prolong battery life, you may wish to install “thinkpad-acpi” and customize the threshold at which the battery starts and stops charging, so it doesn’t wear out as fast.  I used 75% and 90% as my start/stop thresholds.
    • You may wish to install ‘powertop’ and do ‘powertop –calibrate’ to monitor power drain from processes, to improve battery life.
  • For easy screen rotation, install the thinkpad-scripts package, and in XFCE under the Keyboard settings, map the screen rotation tablet button to “thinkpad-rotate left”
    • The screen will automatically rotate when you move the screen into the tablet configuration
    • To fix the direction of automatic rotation, create ~/.config/thinkpad-scripts/config.ini as below (which will fix the autorotation direction and change the onscreen keyboard.
[rotate]
default_rotation = left
vkeyboard.program = onboard
  • Fix poor default 802.11n wireless performance with the Intel 6205 wireless card
    • echo options iwlwifi 11n_disable=8 bt_coex_active=N | sudo tee -a /etc/modprobe.d/iwlwifi.conf
    • This enables multiple streams to be used (both of the 2×2 antennas in the card), and disables concurrent Bluetooth (which should be disabled anyway unless needed)
    • This improves performance from 35 Mbps/50ish Mbps down/up speeds to ~200/200 when near a good router.  When further away, the difference is less noticeable but still significant.  This gives performance similar to the Windows driver.
  • On-screen keyboard:  install the “onboard” package to get a nice on-screen keyboard for use in touch mode.  You may want to try “cellwriter” for handwriting recognition – I was not impressed but some people like that.
  • Tweak xinput settings to make the screen more sensitive to scroll & pinch-zoom gestures:
    • Set up the following to run upon user login:
      • xinput set-prop “Wacom ISDv4 E6 Finger touch” “Wacom Touch Gesture Parameters” 15, 50, 150
    • Xinput has a preset number of pixels you must move fingers in order to trigger zoom/scroll respectively, and a tap time in milliseconds.  This modifies the defaults to something more usable, but still imperfect.
    • If someone else has a better xinput configuration, I’m all ears (leave a comment!), especially if it mimics the fairly strong behavior settings in Windows.
    • The ArchWiki also has some good general advice for customizing Wacom interfaces
  • The “thinkfan” package can be used to customize fan use for quieter operation, although the system without it works quite well out of box.

Do the following to enable fan control:

echo “options thinkpad_acpi fan_control = 1” |  sudo tee /etc/modprobe.d/thinkfan.conf

Will need to do:

sudo sensors-detect

You’ll need to customize /etc/thinkfan.conf (sorry, no settings yet!)

  • Get hardware decoding of video (H264 especially), with the VAAPI driver:
    • sudo apt-get install i965-va-driver vainfo vaapi
    • Playback of H264 1080p video in SMPlayer went from 25-30% CPU use to 5-7% with this

Applications To Take Advantage of Pen & Tablet Mode:

Multiplatform:

  • Inkscape – for vector graphics, such as diagrams and sketching
    • The calligraphy pen/brush tool can be used in pressure-sensitive mode, to change width (brush and dip pen mode within the tool)
    • You’ll have to enable pressure sensitivity under the Edit > Input Options settings to take advantage
  • Krita – really nice digital painting with an excellent interface. Basically made to use a pressure-sensitive tablet, and it takes full advantage of pressure sensitive features in multiple ways.

Linux:

  •  Xournal – excellent whiteboarding/diagramming/note-taking, and vector-based.
    • You’ll want to customize it to use the pen and pressure features under options:
      • Menu: Options > Pen and Touch > Check “Eraser tip”, “Pressure Sensitivity”, “Pen disables Touch”, and optionally “Touchscreen as Hand Tool”
      • Then under the “Options” menu click “Save Preferences” to make this persistent
      • Under “Tools” > “Eraser” you may want to set it to “delete strokes” (similar to the Windows Sketchpad) and then select “Set as Default”
    • (details TBD), disable touch when pen is in use, enable use of the eraser, and set the eraser to erase strokes.  This gives much better usability, I feel.
    • Vector-based, but unfortunately limited to PDF export and its internal format, so not optimal for sketching or graphic design.

Windows:

  • Windows Ink Sketchpad – really handy for whiteboarding, diagrams, or quick notes.  Note: this is raster-based, so your image will not scale to higher-resolution displays effectively.  However in practice this is not a big deal.
  • Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, of course.

Tips and Tweaks:

  • Set up your user interfaces to auto-hide top and bottom menu/notification bars.  This will preserve more of the limited screen area for use.  For Gnome, the “Maximus Two” extension has been recommended to help with minimizing title bar size.
  • In tablet mode with low brightness, the X230t makes an excellent comic or eBook reader.  Due to the screen size and resolution you will only be able to fit a single page on-screen at a time, but it’s very handy to use before bed.
  • When web browsing, you may wish to scale sites to 80-90% to fit more on-screen. Antialiasing will ensure the text is still quite readable, and this increases usability.  For Chrome, you can just do  ctrl + “-” key.
  • Most of the advice here also applies to the vanilla X230 (except for tablet and pen sections), and to a lesser extent to the X220 and X220 tablet.

How To Build ZimDump To Process ZIM Files

There is a wonderful set of dumps of Project Gutenberg & Wiki* content available here, across many languages.  These make wonderful corpuses for Natural Language Processing (NLP), but they come in the custom ZIM format.  ZIM is intended for graphical viewing of Wiki content, and contains XZ compressed content + indices and metadata.  To get this into a more natural format for NLP work, we’re going to need to do some digging:

ZIM has a tool, zimdump, intended to dump content.  Unfortunately it has to be built from source, and doesn’t have binaries.

Today I’m going to show you how to do this in a Docker container (to avoid polluting the operating system with one-use build tooling):

First we navigate to the folder containing the ZIM file of interest, and start a temporary docker container that mounts it as a volume (to write output):

docker run -it –rm -v $(pwd):/workdir -w /workdir ubuntu:14.04 bash

Next we install dependencies & libraries in the container (this will take a few minutes):

apt-get update && apt-get install -y g++ git autoconf make automake libtool liblzma-dev

Next we grab the source code containing openzim:

git clone https://gerrit.wikimedia.org/r/p/openzim.git

And we navigate to the folder:

cd openzim/zimlib

Now we do some setup for the build:

./autogen.sh && ./configure

And we build the darned thing:

make -j4

Now we can use and run zimdump, but first let’s go back to the top-level folder:

cd ../../

Now, I want to do a dump from the German (code: de) Project Gutenberg collection, so we do this:

./openzim/zimlib/src/tools/zimdump -D gutenberg_de_dump  gutenberg_de_all_10_2014.zim

Unfortunately this will have issues (due to invalid filenames), but now you can extract individual articles if desired

Making Linux Pipelines 2x as Efficiently By Combining Transformations

One of the most common and powerful Linux patterns is piping together a series of commands in bash to transform data.   Today I’ll show you one way to make these pipelines run much faster:

 

Combine sed commands (but not too much!):

Often we’ll need to do multiple search-and-replace operations via sed to clean up data in different ways, but did you know it makes a difference how you do this?  For example, let’s see how long it takes to use a quick-and-dirty way to remove entity-encoding from a large (3.8 GB) XML file:

[user@host: ~/Documents/wordcount]$ time cat data/huwiki-latest-pages-meta-current.xml | sed ‘s/&gt;/>/g’ | sed ‘s/&lt;/</g’ | sed ‘s/&quot;/”/g’ | sed ‘s/&amp;/&/g’ | sed “s/&apos;/’/g” | wc -m

3564069990

real 1m57.601s
user 5m1.484s
sys 0m24.032s

Not bad for such a big file, especially given that just reading & counting characters takes 1m 3s alone (giving 3673719498 characters).  Twice as long to transform the data isn’t bad.

One odd thing: we use more CPU time (‘user’ time) than the actual elapsed time.  This is because each command in a pipe runs as a separate process, and they can run in parallel here.  Since this is a dual-core computer with hyperthreading, we can schedule up to 4 processes in parallel, and are using roughly 2.5 virtual cores.

But wait, sed can take multiple transformation commands, separated by semicolons (OR) via -e arguments.  Is it faster to give multiple commands at once, or to pipe them together?

[user@host:~/Documents/wordcount]$ time cat data/huwiki-latest-pages-meta-current.xml | sed “s/&gt;/>/g; s/&lt;/</g; s/&quot;/\”/g; s/&amp;/&/g; s/&apos;/’/g” | wc -m

3564069990

real 1m37.599s
user 2m42.236s
sys 0m12.584s

Wow, it uses NEARLY HALF as much total CPU time for the same operation!   Even though the sed command only uses a single CPU now, it still 25% faster overall (‘real’ time).  This is because each transformation is very simple, so most of the time is spent reading & writing data to buffers, and it is far more efficient to do multiple search-and-replace operations at once.  Also, pipes aren’t completely free.

Since processes run concurrently, that extra CPU power can be used by another processing step, as long as it can run on partial input.  This becomes even more obvious if we remove the expensive character count, because CPU time goes from 3m 31.208s to 1m 23.008s (!).

The only catch: if you have a complex sed command, it is better to run it as a separate process, because the pipeline cannot run any faster than the slowest command, and the other steps can run on different CPUs.

There you have it: combine simple sed commands into one operation, and you can make your bash pipelines twice as efficient (or more!).