Refurbishing a used Thinkpad

How to get a high-quality Windows development machine on the cheap.

Refurbishing a used Thinkpad

I recently needed to do development on a Windows laptop because Mac did not support 32 bit applications, and the compiler that I am using needs to run as a 32 bit application (I'm looking at you KEIL). I didn't  I set my budget to $200, and started to look around, but all I could find in that range for new laptops were Chromebooks or woefully underpowered Intel Atom laptops.

But I was first cued into some labor day discounts on HP's website, and from there, my search and grand budget led me to EBay where I came across a familiar name:

Re-enactment: This is actually quite a good deal for a 3rd Gen Carbon

I always liked the idea of owning the X1 Carbon - it has all the build characteristics of a Macbook Air, but with a Thinkpad keyboard and a Windows OS. However,  the prices for X1 Carbons are always stratospheric as they are targeted at the luxury business end of the market, so I never got to own one.

Ignore the sales price

Even with heavy discounts, it is still out of my price range.

Thus I began the dive into comparing various different X1 carbons: Bobble.Tech is actually quite a good reference for used X1 Carbons, and DankPads provided a good reference for the features and prices of newer laptops.

By and by I came into possession of a X1 Carbon. While sellers often say that the battery life is not guaranteed and the system doesn't come with an OS, the laptop I received had quite a good battery life ~ 80% of it's original capacity, and the OS licence was tied to the laptop, so all I had to do was to install Windows 10 and it was automatically activated - sweet.

Upgrading the SSD

It was clear to me that when I started to install the Windows operating system and all my other applications that the 128GB stick of memory that my laptop shipped with would not be enough. By the time I was done, I was left with 60 GB of memory left.

I checked the current specs of the laptop I owned in Lenovo's Warranty Lookup and determined that the current drive was a SATA m.2 2280 drive. I learned that 2280 refers to the size of the m.2 drive (22 x 80), and there are other sizes too: 2242, and 2260 being the most common ones.

Since my Thinkpad was capable of reading NVMe drives, I decided to go with an NVMe m.2 drive. What I wanted to do was to to clone my drive to the new drive, insert it into the computer, and then I would have a working laptop with significantly more SSD space. To do that, I had to buy a NVMe/SATA enclosure, and based on my research, you might want to find one that sports the RealTek chip which doesn't have any thermal issues that might cripple the precious SSD that you put in there. In my experience, the case that I bought never got hot.

The m.2 port is keyed so that you don't make the mistake of putting the wrong drive into the wrong interface, but practically I didn't find this useful because even though some interfaces are keyed for B+M keys (which means that they should accept SATA and NVMe), they still tell you not to put NVMe devices in.

The final hiccup to the cloning process (I used Acronis True Image for Crucial) was that the PC complained about an inoperable boot drive when I swapped in my cloned boot drive. The steps I went through to fix it are:

  1. Change the original drive from a MBR to a GPT partitioned drive so that it will work for an NVMe drive using the mbr2gpt tool in Windows.
  2. Re-clone original drive to new drive
  3. Enter boot bios settings and select the Windows Boot Manager entry without the "(cloned)" postfix.

The back of the X1 Carbon is held by Philips head screws, which makes it really easy to open up.

Poor Trackpoint performance

A major bugbear for me was the poor trackpoint performance on the used Thinkpad, despite turning the sensitivity up to maximum, it felt more sluggish than I was used to, and I had to really shove the trackpoint around to move the pointer. I noticed that the trackpoint that it came with was softer than I remember it to be, and I read from my searches is that the trackpoint's performance can degrade over time because of the softening of the plastic. The fix is simple: buy a new nub.

A useful link to check if certain parts fit your model is:  Lenovo's Accessory Smart Find which was where I learned that there are three different versions of the trackpoint. I found one that fit my device, and it worked perfectly - I had to reduce the sensitivity back to the default setting.

Enhanced function keys (Hotkeys) not working

Enhanced function keys

I use the enhanced function keys more than I use the function keys. However, when I installed Windows, only the sound and the brightness functions worked.

In order to get it to work, I had to install the Hotkey Features Integration from Lenovo. Side note: Sharpkeys nor AutoHotKey can't detect these enhanced function keys until this update is installed.

Hotkey Features Integration (Version 9) for Windows 10 (64-bit) - ThinkPad - Lenovo Support NL

Bluetooth

The Bluetooth wasn't working out of the box when I installed Windows 10 and running the troubleshooter would only give me the unhelpful result that "This device does not have Bluetooth."

Fortunately, Lenovo provides an archive of drivers under their PC support page, and installing the driver under the Bluetooth category got it to work immediately.

QoL Upgrades

  1. Swap the Fn key and the Ctrl key in the BIOS
  2. Use SharpKeys to swap Ctrl and Alt so it works a bit more like a Mac's Cmd+C
  3. Use AutoHotKey to swap Ctrl and Alt for only Ctrl+Tab

Final Comments

I'm incredibly pleased with this Thinkpad. Apart from some scruffs, it is very well built and in a great functional shape. For the overall price I paid (< 1/3 of a Macbook Air), I got a device with enough processing power, memory, and space to do 95% of what I need to do.

I highly recommend looking at used laptops if you need a secondary device on a budget. They are often better what you can get new, and with a few tweaks they are more than capable of performing most development tasks.


Fascinating Stuff

  1. History of the Trackpoint