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Cream of the Crop? The ThinkPad T61p Upgrade

The Lenovo ThinkPad T6 series has always been a favourite of mine since I first saw one in ~2010 when I serviced my friend’s T60. To be fair, I shared a ThinkPad X61t with my father which was honestly awesome for its size (and the XGA resolution was by no means problematic), but the T60… Oh boy, a bright SXGA screen, large keyboard (never a fan of the small backspace key on the X6 series), and ATI Radeon X1300 graphics.

Not to present myself more knowledgable than I really was, I honestly cared for the graphics card than anything else. In my early teens, my brain was filled with Compiz and a good round of Need for Speed - the GMA 965/X3100 simply won’t deliver the latter, nor would it do the former any better.

I tried not to salivate too much when I wiped the T60 clean as I was finishing my work…

That dream came true in the summer of 2016 when I got a 4:3, 14.1-inch T61 from a ThinkPads Forum member. I specifically asked for a model with Intel graphics, in concern that NVIDIA wouldn’t behave with Linux (which I found out it does after the upgrade , which I will get into later).

My T61 came with a beautiful 1400x1050 SXGA+ panel, which was quite a refreshment from my X250 which I got as a replacement just one year earlier - which simply wouldn’t cut it for my school work as a history major, nothing’s wrong, apart from its narrow and short 12.1 inch screen. I got the laptop sans-CPU, RAM, HDD, or battery - which was sorted with ~100 USD, which landed me with…

  • Intel Core 2 Duo T9300 @ 2.5GHz.
  • 8GB DDR2 800MT/s, KomputerBay.
  • 1TB Crucial MX300 (from X250).
  • 9 Cell Battery.

I purchased an UltraBay battery as well, to simulate the awesome Power Bridge system from the X250 - which gave me 6-8hrs of battery life writing documents (and with WLAN/BT turned off).

The T61 is a great laptop as it was configured, with its absolutely ample array of ports and extremely sturdy construction (with its magnesium alloy interior frame). Not to mention the ThinkLight, which I really missed from earlier ThinkPads, remember this…

The ThinkLight has never been a keyboard lighting by design, it works plenty well as a lamp at night…

The art of addition… The true evil of owning a ThinkPad comes with the ability to reconstruct your very own to your likings, and T61 could have been one of the easiest to take apart and upgrade.

My only complaint with my T61 was its inability with video playback at anything higher than 720p, so I tried Broadcom’s CrystalHD, which worked sufficiently well - until the driver was no longer in active development, and a Linux Kernel upgrade could turn into hours with fiddling with its driver source code.

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t have looked into the culture of T61, specifically, the ThinkPad T61 Wiki by TuuS. That’s when I discovered the existence of a 14-inch, 4:3 T61p model, which offers an NVIDIA Quadro FX570M graphics card (equivalent to a 8600M GT) - woah, how could I not have that, not only would I be able to watch videos again, some Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Carbon would spice my days up tremendously!

But it turns out that finding a T61p motherboard is not difficult until you began to look for a 4:3 model. The T61’s 4:3 models are rare as is, as I would imagine the bulk of the machines were purchased as 16:10, 14/15 inch models here in the States, and probably elsewhere. Another issue with these motherboards is that, with a 35W cTDP on the Quadro and some issues with the 8000-series NVIDIA mobile graphics chips, which leads to the chips de-soldering themselves, and corrupted video output. With this circumstance then, the T61p (and all NVIDIA-enabled T61 motherboards in general) seen two batches of motherboards, the latter of which produced since Q3 of 2008. With a strong T61 user community even to this day, sourcing a good T61p motherboard couldn’t be more difficult, especially for a good price.

I guess I finally lucked out, as wujstefan from the ThinkPads Forum decided to sell his T61p motherboards along with some spare parts - now time to jump on it. I ended up grabbing two for some nearly unreasonable amount of money, but hey, when would I find the next one? This kind Polish man offered to send me the motherboards along with two T61 frames just to make sure they arrive in one piece - and the frames could also be kept as spares.

The parts came in yesterday, and so the surgery begins…!

Please to excuse the lower quality pictures, that I took with my phone, time has not been a luxury I could afford lately.

Along with the motherboards I decided to replace my RAM sticks with some more reputable modules. So I’ve purchased two sticks of Elpida RAM, which came with metal heatsinks (!), and runs at a lower voltage (which makes the former feature less appealing, but hey, it looks damn good).


And so it begins. The T61 is extremely easy to take apart with just one part held in with clips, the keyboard bezel - which I got a spare from the same guy just in case. It took me less than 20 minutes until the motherboard was extraced first from its outer black casing, then the magnesium structural frame.

Reversing the process obviously reassembles the computer, but I just had to stop to admire the cooling module of the T61 - it’s heavy sure, but why wouldn’t any manufacture stop painting their copper heatsinks black?


With the machine semi-assembled, time to do a power-on test…


Success, on the most part. The motherboard I got was a Merom-generation motherboard (though from the 2nd batch), and the processor - which I forgot to mention that I upgraded to a X9000, is from the Penryn generation. The newer Penryn-based Core 2’s came with a digital thermal sensor, which the Merom motherboards don’t support. However, the machine would function and boot, despite the “Thermal Sensing Error” and two loud beeps.

So to rectify this issue, one could flash the “Middleton” BIOS, which…

  • Silences the “Thermal Sensing Error”.
  • Unlocks SATA 3Gbps speed on the main HDD bay (why not officially?).
  • Removes whitelist for wireless and GPS modules.

Or even better, one could get an under-voltage BIOS, made by a 51nb forum member “highsun”, and provided here. “highsun” claims that Lenovo runs the NVIDIA GPUs with a higher voltage than necessary, which generates more heat - and drastically decreases battery runtime. He further discovered that the T61 came with PCIe Active State Power Management which was disabled for some reason. “highsun” recommends running NVS140Ms at 0.9V and the FX570M at 0.95V - as opposed to the 1.15-1.25V defaults.

Flashing the BIOS would require that you make a DOS boot disk, and to flash the BIOS with the phlash16.exe executable from Phoenix - using the following command line…


Where BIOS.ROM is the file name of the ROM file you would download from that Forum page. Before the flashing begins, there will be an error stating a checksum error, just press Y to continue.


After the flash (which should take around 2-3 minutes), the programme will prompt to reboot the computer - which it wouldn’t do. The T61 will be powered down instead of rebooting - so don’t worry if nothing displays on the monitor after you confirmed the prompt, just press your power button and it should boot right up. The first boot will also output an error that your CMOS checksum is incorrect, just go into the BIOS setting, and save your settings again.

At this point, time to replace your clear plate from “T61” to “T61p” to celebrate this great success!


Now, time to do a review of the machine in its new form, is it really the cream-of-the-crop ThinkPad I was hoping for? And how are the…



I’m happy to report that it is save to use a Core 2 Duo X9000 @ 2.8GHz and the Quadro FX570M within a 14-inch T61 chassis, as long as the cooler has been upgraded for use with a dedicated graphics card (FRU 42W2820), and a decent thermal interface material has been used. At is stands, with the 0.95V BIOS, the machine idles at…

  • 45-47℃ for the CPU
  • 45-50℃ for the GPU

The CPU, for its +10W cTDP over the cooler’s spec, will heat up significantly under sustained load (say, a Prime95 torture test, which heated it up dangerously close to 90℃). The graphics chip however, behaved nicely, running at ~65℃ with a round of Need for Speed: Carbon running at full effects (no AA) at 1024x768.


So I’d call it a pass. Not to mention that Need for Speed: Carbon runs at over 30fps with the stated graphics settings, which is much better than I anticipated - it’s now sort of a gaming ThinkPad - well, within a certain time scope. I have seen people playing Battlefield 3 on these machines so I suppose it’s not that much of a surprise…

However, one remaining complaint or note would be concerning the power consumption. The graphics chip, processor, and CCFL backlight (which I could not praise enough of) are major sources of power consumption, my T61 now idles at ~15W of power consumption, and jumps to 20-25W when browsing the web (including YouTube playback), and much higher when playing games or using graphics intensive applications. The machine will also require a 90W power adapter, as opposed to the 65W one shipped with most models - otherwise, the battery may not charge when under load, and the power adapter will also heat up significantly in this case. Though with two batteries installed, at least battery runtime is till higher than 4 hours, which I can live with.

But to answer the question in the title, I’d almost say yes. The T61 has been packed with as much hardware as it could within the confines of this relatively compact chassis - and within the official hardware support, the best hardware has been added to it. The result is, then, performance reasonably usable by today’s standard - as long as you steer clear of stupidly JavaScript-packed websites like BBC and CNN - nothing against the liberal media, but damn, strip down your website or at least provide something more basic, okay?

As to the “almost” part, it comes back to the “evil” of owning a ThinkPad, in allowing for upgrades and modifications. The T61 could be modded to use Core 2 processors running on a 1066MT/s FSB, allowing for going beyond the current X9000 maximum, which runs on a 800MT/s FSB, and potentially quite a boost on responsiveness. Not to mention the possibility to use quad-core Core 2’s with some further modifications.

Well, I’d leave it here for now, as the FSB mod requires some soldering work which I couldn’t lie to say I’m capable of, and that it requires multiplier-unlocked (SPD unlocked) RAM modules so that they could run within spec given an FSB uplift, which are exceptionally hard to find. As it stands, I have, if I do say so myself, an exceptional example of a ThinkPad, with an indefinite lifetime, and no fear for future repairs and refurbishment - which is not something that could be said for ThinkPads of today.