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The "Y.M.F.", Lenovo ThinkPad L420 - 1/3, Bring In the New

Out with the old, and in with the new. In many ways, the ThinkPad L420 replaces my last ThinkPad, and the first ThinkPad I’ve ever owned. Confusing, I know - and the fact that I wanted to write this blog post as a review and a commentary on the “modern” designs of ThinkPads and notebook computers in general really didn’t help clearing this claim up.

Let’s start by talking about my last ThinkPad - The ThinkPad T61… It was truly a great partner in my academic and open source related activities. With its tall and spacious 1400x1050 screen, unquestionable keyboard, and an exceptionally sturdy chassis, it seemed very strangle (even to myself) that I decided to swap it out just after a year. Several things happened that aided me to justify for a replacement…

  • The processor, an Intel Core 2 Duo T9300, while still adequate for school work, SSH, and light Web browsing, is lacking in its multiprocessing performance and newer instruction set support.
    • I obtained a Canon EOS 6D as a gift from my parents for my high school graduation, which I felt guilty for leaving it in the camera bag. Setting the DSLR up to take pictures in RAW (.CR2 in this case) means that I have to process the pictures, and export it in a commonly readable format. I found this process incredibly slow on the T61 for its lack of threads and in fact, single thread performance (on a single export process). Taking more than 2 minutes to export the images alone made it impossible to process and organise a trip’s worth of pictures (500+).
    • LibreOffice is a shitty software package when it comes to optimisation, while writing plain papers it is fast enough on my T61, new windows could take more than 5 seconds to draw.
    • Heavy websites with unnecesary JavaScript party tricks, making scrolling through a news (!) website an annoying affair - take the BBC homepage for example, when would this website stop loading hundreds of elements while drawing all sorts of animations, and trying to play videos automatically. With the only two threads available, browsing heavier Web pages has become much like compiling codes with two threads.
    • With the case of Web browsing above, it is no longer possible to maintain a sub-15W power consumption even with the powersave P-State preset - not to mention the significant performance slow-down. It is become more arduous to use this computer even for a read of news than I really wanted. Sure, I could have used a RSS reader, but some news websites are only willing to provide you with a sentence long summary - forcing you to open up their pages made with complete arrogance in artistic pursuits and ignorance in the need for simplicity.
  • The graphics unit, the computer came with a GMA965 (Graphics Media Accelerator, heh…) which is not even capable of holding 30fps on 720p videos - I have bought a Broadcom CrystalHD to aid with video decoding but after all, some applications are just completely unable to utilise it. So earlier last year, I purchased a motherboard with a new-old-stock NVIDIA Quadro NVS140m GPU in hope of it making 1080p playback possible…
    • I was wrong, very wrong. Sure, I’m now able to playback 1080p videos, though in a fashion quite similar to playing 720p videos on a GMA965 - unstable framerates and occasional lock ups. The NVIDIA proprietary driver for Linux on the other hand, I have to praise for its stability over Nouveau (for obvious reasons), and even its Intel counterpart.
    • Creative work… Yes, I’m dumb for expecting Inkscape and GIMP to work well on a 2007 laptop. While GIMP simply suffers from slow redraws, which I could live with (as someone who used a Pentium MMX laptop until 2007) - Inkscape simply refuses to redraw at times of higher loads, making it necessary to restart the programme regularly.
    • Remember the power consumption issue I mentioned earlier, well, now you have another 10W to worry about - good luck getting more than 3 hours of battery life, during which you will suffer with your processor.

So that’s enough issues to warrant for a surrender and admit your mistake for spending money on a 2007 laptop, right? Well wait until you hear about the Meltdown and Spectre issues, what a fatal blow. According to a benchmark by Phoronix regarding the effect of KPTI (Kernel Page Table Isolation) and Retpoline patches in the Linux Kernel, where Michael Larabel tested the negative performance impact on Clarksfield and Penryn ThinkPads.

Well in short you are taking some more performance discounts, and I could certainly feel that with the patches pushed into AOSC OS’s updates. With LibreOffice now taking over 20 seconds to load up on my Crucial MX300 SSD (granted, on a SATA-II interface, it took less than half that time before), I called it a quit and started hunting for a new ThinkPad.

Price is a factor…

Since I sold my ThinkPad X250 to a friend (afte I got the T61), I have declared it a personal baseline to never buy a new ThinkPad again. Surely I was out of my mind? Except I’m not.

I spent less than 500 U.S. Dollars’ worth of Chinese Yuan on this machine, getting an i3-4010U and 4GB of RAM, while spendng another 200 on a 1TB Crucial MX300. That’s already more than 600 dollars spent, and how about another 50 on a stick of 4GB DDR3L SODIMM to make it roughly usable for some development work, and another 50 on a sweet A.F. backlit keyboard? Cool, but that i3 is really not cutting it (I would venture to say that it is marginally slower in my last X61t in some cases, for its more aggressive powersaving settings; granted, I got much faster graphics and hardware video codecs), cool, another 200 for a i5 motherboard?

And you see how it goes now, that’s close to 1,000 U.S. Dollars down the drain for a still mediocre performing laptop. Not to mention the pathetic designs of newer ThinkPads, with their stupendously made “unibody” bottom cover, with tens of tiny plastic clips that breaks off the first time you take it off; oh yeah, and that huge chrome Lenovo logo (I get it, it’s not an IBM, thanks!)…

Now, how about a sub-200 ThinkPad with significantly superior performance, with which you could take it apart without a plastic pryer, and freely replacable processors, SODIMMs, and mPCIe expansion cards? Hell yeah I would take that over a slim ThinkPad any day of my life.

The hunt…

Now, what do I want to get?

  • Something fast… Something I won’t be concerned entering the stupid and bloated Web 2.0 Land with. Oh yeah, I would like 1080p60 playback please?
  • Classic keycaps. While I don’t hate the new chiclet keyboards, I would still like the tall keycaps as I had with the T61 - and the old full-height Trackpoints are just more comfortable to use.
  • Optical disc drive. I’m not ready to give up my Кино and Red Hot Chilli Peppers albums on CDs, and I still have the habbit of backing up my photographs on DVDs and send them to my home in China. I still remember how much I hated to use the Asus USB CD/DVD-RW drive, for how loud and slow it was.
  • LED indicators. Need I explain?
  • Replaceable parts, namely the CPU, the SODIMMs, and the wireless card. From my experience with the X250, it is very expensive to change or fix anything with stuff soldered on the motherboard.
  • Good cooling. Again, this is one of those things that all human beings want.

Off I went with a browse on the ThinkPad-Wiki, yes, the one in German. Right off the bat, the X and X1 series, and any s-suffixed T series are out of question. I wanted something large enough but not large enough to warrant as a desktop replacement, so anything 14 inch - right, an E, L, or T of the Sandy Bridge era…

  • T420, L420, or the E420?
  • It simply doesn’t sound like a good idea to go with an E series, as it costs the same on eBay as the other two, and that I’m not a big fan of the rounded corners and huge logos.
  • Leaving me with the T420 and the L420, with the latter marginally cheaper. The two are identical as in upgrade potentials, apart from the screen. While the T420 is more refined and premium, having built one for my friend I found this particular model lacking in cooling performance, and the screen border is disporportionally large on the bottom side.
  • The L420 however, lacks a 1600x900 option - leaving me with only 1366x768. But I rarely multitask, in the sense of tiling windows, and it’s just about enough for document writing. It will never be as tall and spacious as the T61 either way.

Bringing it home…

I went with a L420 in the end, with a 80 U.S Dollars price tag on eBay. The laptop was to be sold in a lot of 5, but I convinced the seller to sell me just the one with a fingerprint sensor. Now, onto the exras and replacements…

  • 2 * 4GB Corsair ValueSelect DDR3 @ 1333MT/s - 45 USD
  • 1 * Atheros AR5B22 - 4 USD
  • 1 * Intel Core i7-2860QM (bought and returned a 2640M) - 70 USD
  • 1 * Russian layout keyboard - 40 USD
  • 1 * Replacement palmrest (original came with a cracked palmrest) - 10 USD

Carried over from the T61 are…

  • 1 * 1TB Crucial MX300
  • 1 * ExpressCard to USB 3.0 Adapter

And the total comes to just over 200 USD, with six extra (logical) cores, faster RAM modules, and SATA-III, it is hard to say it’s not a great upgrade from the T61. Now, before I make this part way too long, I’ll start working on Part II of this blogging series, in which I would review this L420 from my own perspective.