Thinkpad Buying Guide Part 1 of 2: 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

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.

Links: Platform Specification (PSREF), NotebookCheck Review,  NotebookReview forums post with a detailed display test and calibration for the IPS screen

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!

16 thoughts on “Thinkpad Buying Guide Part 1 of 2: Outstanding Thinkpads for Most People

  1. You should mention that in the T450s, the soldered 4 GB RAM is in addition to an empty slot you can add more RAM to.

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  2. No love for the T440p? Granted, a crappy touchpad, but it really was the last ThinkPad. Holding true to the clamshell design and upgradability. The last ThinkPad with a socketed CPU that can be swapped for a MQ quad core that is still faster than today’s soldered quad core HQ series CPUs.

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    1. Actually, a lot of love for it — please see today’s update — I’ve added in a section from a planned-but-unpublished post on more niche models for people that included the T440p. But the prices have dropped a LOT over the last 5 or 6 months, so now I think it’s a solid pick for many people (and in maybe better than the T530 option in general now).

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  3. Hi,

    First and foremost, thank you for your time writing this article. It helps a Thinkpad “noob” like myself to feel that at least can sort through the models.

    If I may, I would like to ask something:
    I have an okayish desktop that I can upgrade as I need (well, sort of… but you get the idea) so I’m on the market for a laptop. Refurbished, cheap, light… I have a Clevo that’s breaking my back! I do a bit of general stuff… some graphics (including 3D and video editing) and some frontend (with some forays into backend) development. And I’m a Linux user.
    The laptop would be more for the programming bit and some small graphics tweaks/carrying around and showing to clients.

    And… I want a Thinkpad! I don’t mind tinker with it. What model would you advise (up to 300 dollars/euros)?

    Thank you for your time!

    Cheers,
    Joaquim

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    1. I had a whole long reply to this that got eaten by browser issues, but the gist is: you need a screen with high color gamut to work with visual things and to show work to your clients with full impact plus high mobility. A T440s/T450s with the *original* (not refurbished) FHD screens would be the mobile options (it’s a plus if you can get a model with the discrete GT730M graphics). They’re light, well-made — though you’ll be looking at a higher end configuration with SSD and the faster i5-x300U or i7 processor if you want solid performance.

      The other option is the T440p with stock FHD screen — I’ve updated the post with content for that from a planned post that didn’t get released. That’s much heavier at ~2 kg, but offers a socketed CPU that you can upgrade to quad-core for video work plus the same solid screen quality.

      If you go for the T440s/T440p the downside is that you’ll need to swap the awful clickpad for the trackpad from a T450/T450s model — but those are only $20, so not too bad. All of these models can also be purchased with lower-end screens and upgraded yourself (though it’s trickier) but I don’t suggest it because the compatible display panels with high color gamut are becoming increasingly rare and there’s a lot of subpar “compatible” fakes around right now.

      Now the bad news: these are all higher-end configurations you’re looking at here, due to the need for better screens for graphics/client-facing work and better performance. While you can get base models very cheaply, here you’re looking at more like 400-650 dollars or Euro used and in good condition, maybe even a touch more. Something like this eBay listing is fairly normal. The laptops for ~$300 and under are generally from the previous generation or two and most have pretty bad screens. Even at this price, it is still much cheaper than new systems that are anywhere near this capable though, and they last a very long time.

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      1. Hi!

        Many many thanks for this extensive answer (and for the longer one that alas suffered browser issues… I have them all the time – especially Firefox – and know how irritating that is!).

        Your answer (as all your articles) helped me think about the “right” Txxx for me but also confused me a little. I kind of had to go back to the basics and start my thought process!

        Let me explain: I have and want to rely more on my Desktop PC.
        In my new work I’m using my own material and this is what I have -> https://www.notebookcheck.net/Clevo-P150HM.69023.0.html
        As you can see by the specs, the graphics card (CPU boss site) is better than the GT730M, I have 16GB RAM, an i7 and o on…
        So I was really interested in the T440p by its upgradability but… the base machine/upgraded is similar to what I have. Even in weight, that I want to cut down! It is still a performative machine but less each day… and since I cannot use eGPU in the T44op (extra stuff to carry around anyway) I really think I need to go back to the original idea… something portable, something that I can use to show some work, do some “minor” tweaks, do some coding/graphics (light) and the rest is Desktop world!

        So based on this (small) rant, I think I’ll be on the lookout for the best configuration possible for a T440s. It’s a shame the size of the X230, I was really interested in that one 😉

        What do you think of my conclusion?
        I’ve seen one with an i5 on OLX for 350€ but yes, I really need to upgrade my budget!

        Thanks again for your time.
        All the best!

        Joaquim

        PS – I had a lot of issues trying to post a reply…

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        1. Sorry you had so many issues posting a reply! (Yes, wordpress is a bit finnicky). I think you’re probably on the right track with the T440s — I’d encourage maybe upgrading your plans to a T450s if you need extra battery life, because that has the rather nice Powerbridge system (and I think the T450s is generally a very nice system at a fairly similar price). But either way I think it’s a solid pick. I also wish I could recommend the X230 for you — it’s a great system in many ways, but there’s just not a display option suitable for showing off work to clients.

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  4. Thank you for this article! I’m finding some answers, but would like to know your thoughts. I’m looking for two Thinkpads – one for music performance, one for general use.

    Performance laptop: 8GB+ of RAM or expandable to that, and decent processor (i5 or better). I will use it for a music program that’s working – if poorly – on my current laptop that has 1.5GB usable RAM and a 1GHz processor running AVLinux, so a low cost (~$100 or so) upgrade is what I’m needing. I do *not* need graphic capabilities. The program outputs to the command line. I’d also be happy with a fairly small screen. From this list, the X230 sounds decent.

    General use laptop: will run Windows 10 or earlier, 4GB+ of RAM, good battery life, capable of handling online video streaming, lots of internet tabs, plus Photoshop, without much trouble. The bigger the screen the better I think – it’d be our main entertainment computer. T430 sounds adequate here.

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  5. As a ThinkPad devotee for more than a decade, I salute your efforts here and find little if anything in your conclusions to disagree with. I’m curious though…where did part two go? It seems you’ve jumped from Part 1 to Part 3, or am I just not looking in the right place?

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    1. Yeah, there was a part 2 that was niche-use models but the most-pertinent of them (The T440p) was merged into section 1. Unfortunately updating the links will invalidate bookmarks and links I’ve put out there already.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, and I’ll think about putting together an update for 2020. Laptop pricing right now is a bit all over the place though due to high demand from work-for-home and remote school during the pandemic.

      The TL;DR is that these older models are all still good value options, and then there are some of the newer laptops offering great values now on the used market. The best slightly-upmarket used options now are probably the T480 (more upgrade potential) and T480S (lighter). You just need to make sure that they are under warranty or from a trusted seller, because there’s a Thunderbolt controller issue that can result in laptops that do not charge (if it wasn’t fixed by a firmware update soon enough).

      There are some good deals out there on the Thinkpad generations between the T450S and the T480, such as the T460, T470, and T470s — but in my opinion you’re better off to spend slightly more and jump up to the T480/T480s lines. The quad-core CPUs, better display options, much faster discrete graphics, and other generational improvements more than justify spending slightly more on the newer systems.

      A quick pricing check says that a used high-spec T450s is running around $300-$400 on eBay, vs. $600-700 for a mid-range used/Lenovo-refurbished T480s (a little less for a T480).

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        1. Which models specifically? The P series covers a lot of territory (many generations and model lines with each year). Generally they’re heavier models with higher-performance processors and come with discrete graphics that are Nvidia Quadro based (workstation graphics — more reliable for CAD and professional use, but slightly slower for gaming) rather than normal Nvidia Geforce (gaming and multimedia oriented graphics line). Unless you do CAD, the difference between the GPU lines is not super important, but you get slightly less performance from the workstation graphics.

          There was the kind of comical case where the T580 was basically the same as the P52s except with Quadro vs. Geforce graphics.

          In general I think the T series is the sweet spot for performance & capabilities vs. portability, especially now that the 15W ULV processors support quad-core. Unless you’re doing video encoding that’s probably enough performance for most users.

          Consider the X1 Extreme Gen 1 (2018 model, NOT NOT NOT the 2019 Gen 2 model, which is actually worse) if you’re leaning towards a P-series. The P1 is also quite similar as well.

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        2. Oh: gaming is the other reason someone might consider the P series. If that’s your thing… well, the original X1 Extreme is somewhat gaming-capable with an Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti. But Thinkpads are really not designed as gaming machines. You’re probably much better off building a cheap gaming desktop or a Thunderbolt 3 eGPU rig. The latest Nvidia and AMD graphics cards can DEMOLISH anything a Thinkpad graphics card will manage.

          A TB3 eGPU with a new Nvidia 3000-series or older 16xx super-series, or AMD RX 5700/5600 XT will smoke the gaming performance of a P-series or X1 Extreme — graphics performance has skyrocketed in the latest cards vs. the older models.

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