The second life of an old notebook

A while ago a wrote about living in Berlin soon. Due to the job I will only be at home at the weekends for the first months and don’t have access to my PC during the week. Technically my old netbook still works even after about seven years – but with its small display and the slow CPU it is barely more than a compromise solution while traveling. A regular notebook would make much more sense.

The solution is a retired Lenovo ThinkPad X220 from a company stock. My copy is from April 2012 and therefore about four years old. Despite its age it is still usable quite well when you look at the technical data:

CPU: Intel Core i5 2520M (dual core with hyper-threading, 3 MB cache, 2.5-3.2 GHz, up to 16 GB RAM in dual channel mode)
GPU: Intel HD 3000 (integrated into the CPU)
Memory: 1×4 GB PC3-10600 (DDR3), up to 2×8 GB possible
Mass storage: 2,5″ SATA, 320 GB HDD at 7200 rpm
Display: 1366×768 pixels, 12.5″ (16:9), LED background lighting
Network: Ethernet 1 GBit/s, WiFi with 2×2 MIMO up to 300 MBit/s (Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205), UMTS with HSDPA
Connectors: Power, LAN (RJ45), 3×USB 2.0, VGA, DisplayPort, headset connector, slots for SD cards and ExpressCard 54, slot for mini SIM card, docking port
Power supply: 6-cell-battery with 5600 mAh (depending on the usage 4-6 hours runtime)
Miscellaneous: Web cam, stereo speakers, stereo microphone, switchable keyboard illumination

First impressions

Besides light traces of usage and some dust the notebook is still in a very good condition and has a solid construction.  The size is between a netbook and a laptop – not too small but still compact and with about 1.5 kG (with 6-cell-battery) still light enough so you can take it with you comfortably while traveling. Also the noise during operation is very unobtrusive: as long as there is not much load on the CPU the device is nearly silent – which is the normal condition in every-day use.

There is also a docking station, “UltraBase Series 3”, which provides an (exchangeable) CD/DVD recorder by LG (with support for DVD-RAM) and connections for LAN, 4×USB, VGA, DisplayPort and separate connectors for audio output and microphone input. The docking stations “ThinkPad Mini Dock Plus Series 3” and “ThinkPad Port Replicator Series 3” can also be used. A locking mechanism combines the docking station and notebook to a solid unit. Depending on the model you either use a lever at the side (as you can see on the pictures) or a big button to unlock the notebook.

A very comfortable aspect is the keyboard: Even though the device is very compact the keyboard has the same size like a regular PC keyboard and a layout which is well thought through . There is also a switchable keyboard illumination using a smal LED above the display which works as a kind of “mini floodlight” to illuminate the area on front of the display. Beside the trackpad there is also the typical “TrackPoint” which already existed on the first ThinkPads by IBM.

When looking at the display you notice that this is a more simple model: the TN panel has a significant viewing angle dependency and not a very high contrast. Also the resolution of 1366×768 pixels is not that impressive. However it is still good enough for most everyday applications and I don’t intend to do picture processing or similar stuff on it. At least the panel is not reflective and doesn’t disturb you with reflections of the environment.

You can also replace it with an IPS panel – either you go to a workshop which does that for you, which costs about 140 EUR or you purchase a panel as a spare part for about 70 EUR and do the replacment on your own. You can find instructions how to do that in the web.

If you wonder about the “old fashioned” look of the GUI: yes, this is intentional and I like it this way ;-).

SSD and additional memory

You notice clearly that the device is made for professional use: memory and harddisc can be exchanged very easy and depending on your needs you can choose one of three different battery sizes with 4 cells and 1950 mAh up to 9 cells with 9000 mAh. If you need a really long runtime there is even a “slice“ battery which gets attached to the bottom of the device and provides up to 24 hours runtime together with the internal battery. Fortunately the provided 6-cell-battery with 5600 mAh is still in a good shape – 4 to 6 hours are still possible. At the moment (as of April 2016) it is also no problem at all to get matching batteries as spare parts.

To increase the performance I mounted and additional 4 GB module so the memory with 8 GB in total is used in dual channel mode. The harddisc was exchanged by a 250 GB SSD (Samsung EVO 850). Both got detected without any problems.

The SSD provides about 350 MB/s which gives you very short boot times and a high performance in general.

Lenovo ThinkPad X220, benchmark with Samsung 850 EVO

Mobile internet with UMTS

Thanks to the integrated UMTS module you can use mobile internet without the need for WiFi or a separate mobile phone. The prerequiste for this is a mini SIM card with a data plan which gets inserted in the battery compartement and suitable software to use the module.

For several reasons I can not give up Windows 7 yet on the device. This supports UMTS modules in theory and Lenovo also provides a driver for it – but practically it doesn’t work without the software “ThinkVantage Access Connections” by Lenovo.

The UMTS module should generally be usable under Linux as well as the hardware is supported there – however I did not try this.

Extending with ExpressCard

The ExpressCard slots gives you the opportunity to add missing features like USB 3 ports if USB 2 is not enough to use devices like external harddiscs. You can find suitable cards for just 15-20 EUR.

Personal conclusion

When the Lenovo ThinkPad X220 originally came out four years ago it was quite good and it still is good as a used device. With an SSD and extended memory the difference to the “big” PC is barely noticable and the docking station allows the comfortable use of an external display and keyboard/mouse. Depending on the setup you can get this kind of used devices for even less then 250 EUR – and this is definitely something you should consider before buying a simple “cheapo” laptop which is usually also not available for less than 300 or 400 EUR.

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