New computers suck

Published 2021-04-10 22:07 UTC on Yaroslav's weblog

Recently my T480 started having some motherboard problems that prevented the keyboard from working correctly. I needed to repair it, but I couldn't afford to wait while it is being repaired since I need it for my work and studies, and being a motherboard problem, it wasn't even a fact that it could be repaired, without having to replace the entire motherboard. So, I decided to buy a cheap used computer and use that for the time being.

In our day and age there is this general believe that progress, whatever that means, is the one thing that we should strive for, and by consequence every new thing is better than the older thing it is meant to replace. While there is certainly improvements in some areas, new things are, very often, not an overall improvement over the old things that they were meant to replace. Especially if we are talking about durability and repairability, but those are far from the only aspects where new hardware has regressed.

This article is basically my review of two computers, both ThinkPad, the old but venerable X200 and its more modern cousin the T480, followed by a comparison of the two and my conclusions on whether new hardware is really worth it.

If you're not really interested in reading a detailed review of each computer, you can skip ahead to the comparison. You can also skip directly to the review of the T480 or the review of the X200.

Backstory

I got my T480 at my previous job in 2019. It is quite the machine with an 8th gen Core i7 with 8 threads and a 512 NVMe SSD. However, it seems that Lenovo, as many other computer (and not only) manufacturers seem to be going down in quality.

First, it died on me about a year ago. It just wouldn't turn on. Fortunately, it still had its warranty, so I turned it in for a warranty repair. After about two weeks in the Lenovo repair shop I got my machine back with a replacement motherboard, and also a new frame and shell for the display, since the original one had started to fall off a little on the bottom sides. I'll talk about those minor quality problems a little later.

Then, almost four weeks ago, I started to have problems with my keyboard. At first they were intermittent, but as time went on they got more persistent, to the point that it was no longer possible to have any work done without becoming frustrated. The problem was that some keys on the keyboard refused to work. I bought a replacement keyboard and replaced it immediately. To my unpleasant surprise, I had the exact same problems with the new keyboard as with the old one, meaning that it was actually a problem with the motherboard. Another indication that the problem is with the motherboard, is that if I slightly push or bend the body of the laptop, the keys start working.

At this point I was pretty disappointed with the quality of this laptop. Not only did it have some minor quality problems, but it had also had two major problems that fully or partially impeded the correct functioning of the machine. That, and as I mentioned in the introduction, I didn't have the time for a repair, so I ended up buying a cheap old laptop.

The machine I ended up buying was a venerable ThinkPad X200. I had heard a lot of good things about old ThinkPads, and after almost three weeks of use, I can certify that they are indeed pretty damn good laptops. I'll first talk a little about the T480, then I'll review the X200, and finally I'll summarize their pros and cons.

T480

This is a pretty modern machine, having been released in 2018. I have actually enjoyed using it, since overall it is actually quite a good machine, much better and comfortable to use than most laptops of its era.

It was acquired new in 2019 and cost around $1600 USD without the dock included.

Computing performance

  • Core i7-8650U 4 cores @ 1.90 with 2 threads per core
  • 16GB DDR4 RAM
  • 512GB NVMe PCI SSD
  • 14" 2560x1440 IPS matte display
  • Intel UHD Graphics 620
  • Nvidia MX150 2GB
  • 24Wh internal battery + 24Wh external battery
  • Weight 1620g

Obviously the specs are one of the best qualities of this laptop. I don't "game" on my laptop, and Novidya has pretty crapy drivers on Linux that aren't compatible with Sway (my WM of preference), so I ended up just not installing any drivers for the Nvidia card. The only downside to that, at least for me, is that I cannot get audio out through the HDMI port.

So in terms of raw computing power it is a pretty capable machine. I am able to playback up to 4K@30fps videos without any hiccups. Any higher FPS and it might begin to drop frames, especially if the bitrate is high.

I never really use up all of the memory, unless I am doing some highly intensive taks like compiling, since I use good and non-bloated software on my computer. There's some exceptions of course, like my browser, since there are no non-bloated browsers due to the bloated nature of the web in general.

The processor is also quite capable, being able to compile the Linux kernel in around 5-10 minutes. Even on battery it is quite fast.

The biggest bottleneck usually is the storage device, but with the SSD on this machine I was able to boot to the GUI in under 9 seconds with an encrypted root. That is not counting the BIOS/UEFI loading time.

Display

The display on my configuration is quite good. It is certainly not the best out there, especially if compared to Macbook displays, but it does provide quite vivid and colorful images at a great resolution. It is quite bright, around 300-350 nits, and covers around 98% sRGB.

With the fractional scaling capabilities of Sway, everything Wayland native rendered with pretty good detail and clarity, especially fonts.

With all of that said, it is not a display that I would put in a productivity laptop. The reason, it has the atrocious 16:9 aspect ratio. Why oh why is this aspect ratio still the dominant one on computers. The only place for this aspect ratio is TVs, it has no place on computers, especially ones that are meant for productivity. Even Apple gets it, why can Macbooks have 16:10 displays, but ThinkPads, "business" laptops, don't? Seriously, Lenovo.

Power consumption and thermals

More than raw computing power, for me, the more important improvement when it comes to computing is power efficiency. I can say that this laptop is quite power efficient. Using powertop1, at about 50% display brightness (quite bright indoors), and with mild usage such as web browsing, music listening, and editing text, it uses around 4-8 Watts which yields about 6-8 hours of usage, quite enough for my needs.

One really good thing about this laptop, is that, if I ever needed more battery power, I could buy another external battery with more capacity, and replace it on the go without shutting down the laptop, because of the internal battery.

Thermals are also pretty decent. With the same average mild usage, the cooler fan stays off, and the temperature hovers around 40-50ºC depending on the room temperature. The palm rest doesn't get hot, and only the bottom gets warm enough to notice, but without any discomfort. Even when the fan starts to work, it is really quite, and only gets noticeably audible on high workloads, but still quieter than other laptops such as Dells and Macbooks.

Input devices

The keyboard in this laptop is pretty good, even though it is a chiclet style keyboard. It has decent travel distance, tactile feedback and it is not very noisy. All in all it is the best laptop keyboard out of any other laptops of its time.

The trackpoint is as good as they get. The fact that it is here is already a good thing, since not many laptops have a trackpoint, even though it is such a good pointing device, especially when you're working with the keyboard most of the time, as I do.

The trackpad is decent, but it could be improved (or maybe even removed). It is big enough, not so big that it starts to get in the way, such as in Macs, but big enough to be comfortable to use. The texture is also nice. I don't use the trackpad that much though, I mostly used it to scroll when reading in bed.

I/O and comms

Compared to most modern laptops it has a good array of ports, with the following ports:

  • 2 USB 3.1 ports
  • 1 USB 3.1 Type-C port
  • 1 USB 3.1/Thunderbolt 3 Type-C port
  • HDMI port
  • Gigabit Ethernet port
  • Smartcard reader
  • SD card reader
  • Headphone/mic jack

It might not be as a diverse and big array of port as on older computers, but it is enough for my use case.

There's also the ThinkPad dock stations, which offer a very comfortable way of plugging in all devices and getting access to more ports at home or in the office. I got the ThinkPad Pro Docking Station, which makes use of the two Type-C ports on the left side to provide power and a plethora of ports:

  • 3 USB 3.1
  • 2 USB 2.0
  • 1 USB 3.1 Type-C
  • 2 DisplayPort
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Audio out/mic jack

It is quite convenient as it is hot-pluggable and doesn't require any special configuration or drivers.

Regarding the comms, it comes with a WLAN card that supports WiFi 802.11ac at both 2.4 and 5 GHz, and Bluetooth 4.1. My model also came with an LTE WWAN card, although I have never had use of it.

Serviceability

It is quite easy to service and replace parts on this computer, which already puts it at an advantage over most modern laptops.

By just unscrewing two screws you can then lift up, disconnect and remove the keyboard. By removing four more screws you can remove the bottom plate, and get accesses to basically all of the components of the computer. You can replace the storage drive, WLAN card, WWAN card, there's two DDR4 RAM slots. The internal battery can also be replaced.

The CPU and GPU are soldered to the board though, as in basically every laptop nowadays.

Chassis and build quality

The computer body is made of plastic materials that are nice to the touch. The body doesn't bend and creak on pressure from my palms and when lifting the laptop from one side, as in other laptops I've owned. For the size of the laptop it has a nice balanced weight, not very light, but not heavy either.

The hinges of the screen are also quite good, as they don't wobble at all, compared to other laptops. You can't open the lid easily with one hand, not that it is very important for me.

The internal chassis is made of metal, some magnesium allow I think, which is supposed to make it more sturdy and protect it from outside forces. It is indeed a more sturdy design than most laptops out there.

While the build quality overall is better than most laptops nowadays, it is still lacking.

It is all mostly on the details, such as the keyboard, trackpad and trackpoint leaving marks on the display that can't be removed, just in the name of making the computer thinner; I wouldn't have minded a couple more millimeters of thiccness just to avoid having my display being scathed for life.

Another thing is that the frame of the display is just a flimsy piece of plastic that is glued to the lid, which starts to come off pretty easily. Also a piece of the palm rest chipped off, even though I have never dropped the laptop.

Audio

The speakers are not good, quite frankly, but the DAC on this computer seems to be fine and I don't get any noises from the audio jack. That said the audio jack is a combo jack for out and microphone. I can't stand these types of ports, they are fine on mobile phones, but certainly not in a computer. Not to mention that it already has worn out, resulting in the laptop detecting a microphone when there is none.

A smaller complaint that I have, is that the port is placed on the right side of the laptop. Being that 99% of headphones have the cable on the left earcup, I can't understand why most laptop designers can't put in a little more thought and put the damn jack on the left side.

Firmware and drivers

Overall all devices, except for the fingerprint reader which I don't use anyway, work out of the box in Linux. The devices' firmware, including the UEFI, also get updates through fwupd.

The Novidya card, of course, has crappy drivers. That said, there were build without the Nvidia card, and had it been my choice I would have forgone the card, since I don't use it anyway.

The UEFI is kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand it generally works well, has many configuration options, a diagnostics tool and you can even change the splash image (as in most ThinkPads) although it is not very straight-forward. However, the thing takes ages to load. My Linux installation with encrypted root boots the same if not faster, and that's not acceptable. It takes about 8-9 seconds to load, where it should take no more than 2 seconds. Not to mention, as expected, that all of it is proprietary and there's no Coreboot for this machine, at least yet.

X200

For computer standards, this would be considered a pretty old machine, being first released in 2008. That said, if you don't need to do any intensive computing this is still a pretty decent machine and even better in many regards than any modern laptop.

One of the first models manufactured by Lenovo after the brand was bought from IBM. It still preserves the classic feel of the IBM ThinkPads with specs that are more than enough for most home, programming or office tasks.

I acquired it a couple of weeks ago for around $120 USD dock station included.

Computing performance

  • Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2 cores @ 2.401GHz
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM expanded to 6GB, expandable to 8GB
  • 480GB SATA SSHD (SSD + HDD hybrid)
  • 12" 1280x800 LCD CCFL-backlit matte display
  • Intel GMA 4500MHD
  • 56Wh external battery
  • Weight 1520g

Quite low specs for 2021, most "tech enthusiasts" would cry, but it is quite capable nonetheless, unless you are planning on compiling something big like a browser or the Linux kernel, or doing photo editing or video editing.

As far as daily computing tasks go, the processor in this thing handles it mighty fine. Web browsing, text editing all work fine. Video playback is also fine, being able to play videos without drops up to 1080p@30fps, not the best for 2021 when we already have plenty of content in 4K and even 8K, but I don't use this computer to consoom, and 1080p is plenty most of the times. 60fps without drops would have been nice, though.

The GPU is weak, so in many cases, such as the web browser, it is better to go with software rendering.

The SSHD that came with laptop when I bought it from the previous owner works quite well. It's not the original disk, but whatever. It boots faster than my desktop with a standard HDD. It is nonetheless and unsurprisingly slower than my T480's PCI SSD. I am planning on replacing with a SATA SSD in the future, but in the meantime, it does its job.

Even the relatively low amount of RAM that it currently has installed (6GB, came with 4GB), it is still plenty enough for most tasks.

Display

The image quality on this display is atrocious. It is bleak, the contrast is so low the blacks are gray, the color coverage is horrendous, and the viewing angles terrible. The resolution is also not very high, but that's not as big of a deal especially in such a small display.

That said, it is 16:10 and not the pathetic 16:9 aspect ratio. That's already a big win in my book. I do plan on changing it to a better display, I've seen that it is possible to change it for an AFFS display, and maybe even a LED 900p display.

Power consumption and thermals

Being such an old laptop, the power consumption and thermals are not as good as most modern laptops. It still managed to surprise me a little, since I was expecting worse power consumption and especially higher temperatures.

Using powertop1, at about 80% display brightness (any lower in a well-lit room becomes uncomfortable with its current display), and with mild usage (see T480), it uses 11-16 Watts which yields about 3-4 hours of usage with its current battery. Not ideal, but enough most days. I hope that a screen and SSD upgrade help to lower the power consumption.

For its age thermals are pretty good. As with the T480 with average mild usage it heats to around 40-50ºC, sometimes a little bit higher. Unlike the T480, though, its cooler fan is on basically all the time. It is still very quiet, so it doesn't cause any distractions or annoyances. The body of this laptop can get a little bit hot if doing more intensive tasks than web browsing or text editing, such as watching Full HD videos.

Input devices

This is the best laptop keyboard I've ever typed on, 'nuff said. It doesn't beat a mechanical keyboard, but it definitely beats any modern laptop keyboard. There are probably other classic ThinkPad models with slightly better keyboards, but I haven't tested those out, so I can only compare this with other laptops I've used, like my T480 and plenty of Dells, HPs, Acers, Asus and some Toshibas. It has great key travel, sounds good without being loud, great tactile feedback, and also a nice 7-row layout, with dedicated volume keys.

There is no trackpad on this laptop, but the trackpoint is still better than a trackpad, so no big loss there. If you actually need accuracy, for example when manipulating graphical elements in GIMP or Inkscape, a traditional mouse is still a better option anyway.

I/O and comms

It has plenty of ports, although it might lack more modern ports, such as HDMI:

  • 3 USB 2.0 ports
  • Ethernet port
  • VGA D-bus port
  • Dedicated Headphone jack
  • Dedicated Microphone jack
  • SD card reader
  • Expresscard expansion slot

Quite good for such a small laptop. The person I bought it from also sold it to me with a UltraBase dock station that includes the following ports:

  • 4 USB 2.0 ports
  • Ethernet port
  • VGA D-bus port
  • DisplayPort
  • Headphone jack
  • Microphone jack
  • Serial port with included DVD drive

It is also hot-pluggable and besides those ports it also includes a charging station for batteries and audio speakers that don't seem to work under Linux. The DVD drive also doesn't seem to work under Linux.

As for the comms, it includes a WLAN card supporting 802.11n, and as a surprise to me for a laptop so old, it also supports both 2.4 and 5 GHz networks. It also has Bluetooth 2.1 and the ability to add a WWAN cellular card, but once more, I'm not really in need of that.

Serviceability

This laptop has quite a lot of screws, however, I like that it is very modular in its approach to servicing. Not only is the keyboard removable without having to open apart the laptop itself, but also the hard drive; and the memory has its own compartment with its own lid. To get to the motherboard you just need to unscrew 9 screws and remove the keyboard and palm rest.

Alas, even this laptop has the CPU and GPU soldered to the motherboard.

Chassis and build quality

The materials of the exterior body are not as different, at least to the touch, as those on the T480. The materials feel great and sturdy. The exterior is covered is a soft touch rubberized finish, and the palm rest and inner frame of the display is a more standard plastic. This laptop also has an internal magnesium allow chassis.

I must emphasize that the display frame feels very sturdy and doesn't flex at all, and the hinges are also sturdy with no wobble. It is a little easier to open this laptop's lid with one hand, although the latch might hinder that a little bit. I am not sure if I like or not having a latch, maybe it is better without, but I gotta admit I have some bias towards it mainly for nostalgic reasons; also makes it feel a little bit sturdier somehow.

There's no creak or bend of the body either, no matter how you hold the laptop. The keyboard is of superb quality, doesn't bend at all and doesn't rattle.

I really only have good things to say about the build quality, although it might have to do with having it used for just three weeks. That said, the fact that this laptop is about 12 years old (almost half my age!) and theres no dents or cracks and only slight scratches on the rubberized surface and other slight marks of use, speaks volumes of its build quality. If I do end up finding something to complain about, I might update this article in the future.

Audio

The audio in this laptop is bad in basically all fronts. It doesn't even withcome two speakers. Yes, it only has one speaker (mono). That wouldn't be that bad if it weren't for a small buzz and other noises present when listening some music or sounds through the headphone jack. That problem is also present with the dock station's jack, which leads me to think it's a problem with the DAC, which must be a piece of crap, or it might be badly isolated generating noises from the other components of the computer.

Good thing I have a music player with a really good DAC that can double as an external DAC for audio out. Also might end up making use of the fact that this computer comes with an Expresscard expansion slot and buy an Expresscard sound card.

I understand this is a business laptop mainly, but one would expected at least clean sound from the audio out port.

Firmware and drivers

Everything works out of the box with no extra configuration on Linux, which can be expected of a laptop of this age.

This laptop doesn't have UEFI, which I have already gotten used to with it's set of nice features such as the ability to boot Linux (EFISTUB) without bloated GRUB or any other bootloader. It's all good ol' BIOS with it's ups and downs.

But, this laptop has a big advantage, and that is Coreboot and even Libreboot support. I haven't flashed the ROM chip of this laptop with Coreboot yet, but I definitely plan on doing so as soon as I get my hands on a SOIC-8 clip. Also, I should probably fix my T480 so that I can at least use it as a backup in case everything goes wrong and my poor X200 ends up exploding. I might even write about my experience in the future.

Modern vs old

T480 and X200 side by side

Now that I have reviewed each computer separately I will be comparing them in each category I've reviewed them to see which is the better one overall.

Computing performance

Well, there's obviously no contest in this one, there isn't even a reason to compare a top of the line two year old model, with a 12 year old model. That said, it really is enough for my productivity needs.

As you might have guessed, I am using Linux. On a cold boot to my WM I am only using around 200MB of RAM and most of the programs I use for productivity and even consoomption are really lightweight so I very rarely have any noticeable lags that would distract me, if ever. Of course, if you are using something like Windows 10, which uses around 2GB-3GB on a cold boot and is full of bloat, you might not have such a good experience. Even Windows 7 is bloated compared to Linux using around 1.5-2GB on a cold boot.

Of course, anybody would be better using even a newbie Linux distro such as Mint and even on a modern machine, rather than Winbloat, and for other obvious reasons besides performance. I am just not expecting that "normies" will switch operating systems, they will use whatever comes with their PC.

Winner: T480

Display

This one is a hard for me to decide, since the screen on the T480 has really good image quality with a high resolution which is miles ahead of the poor quality panel on the X200, while the T480's 16:9 aspect ratio sucks compared to the better (yet improvable) 16:10 aspect ratio of the X200.

Winner: DRAW

Power consumption and thermals

This one is also quite obvious. My T480 consumes on average around 3 times less energy than my X200, which of course also translates into less heat, although not that big a difference. This, I would say, is the biggest advantage of modern laptops against older ones.

Winner: T480

Input devices

The trackpoint hasn't changed in quality much if at all. The keyboard is a different story. The keyboard on the T480 is good, but it just doesn't compare to the classic ThinkPad keyboard, which is present on the X200. From the layout to the form of the keys to the travel distance and the tactile feedback. Everything is just better on the X200's keyboard. This is the one part that suffered in quality just because of trends, which is ridiculous.

Winner: X200

I/O and comms

They both have a good array of IO ports and good comms, but of course, being that the comms and ports on the T480 support newer standards, it means that it has got the advantage. That, and also the fact that it has two USB Type-C ports on of which is Thunderbolt, meaning that you don't rely on a proprietary port to be able to connect your computer to a dock or hub. The ThinkPad docks are still a better fit for them and they are better than most docks or hubs out there, but it is always to have options and not having to rely on proprietary technology that is only supported by one company, and which obviously loses support much faster than open standards.

Winner: T480

Serviceability

They are both pretty easy to open to clean and maintain or replace any parts that might need an upgrade or repair. However, I think the modular approach to the disassembly of the X200 is slightly better than the approach on the T480.

Winner: X200

Chassis and build quality

Well, I've already written plenty on the materials and build quality of both machines in their respective reviews above. The X200 is just miles ahead in this respect.

Winner: X200

Audio

Both have poor quality speakers, which I don't really care too much about, but the noise problem with the jack on the X200 is a big no-no.

Winner: T480

Firmware and drivers

The UEFI loading times suck on the T480. The X200 has an old but good enough BIOS. But. I can flash Coreboot and Libreboot on the X200 and get rid of the Intel Malware Management Engine.

Winner: X200

Conclusion

If we count each comparison category equally they seem to be pretty close. In the end it will depend on what you need the laptop for. In my case, if I didn't have a laptop at all right now, and I had to buy myself one, I would buy the X200 or another old ThinkPad of similar caliber: great build quality, superb classic keyboard, corebootable.

I recommend the X200 or a similar old ThinkPad to most people that use a computer for daily productivity or internet tasks, not limited to but such as: email, web browsing, text editing, school/college stuff, programming. I mean, buying a ~$1600 new computer doesn't make sense when you can buy a computer for ~$120 that is of same use for you, but with a better keyboard and build quality.

Buy a brand-new computer only if you really need the computing power, if you really need to squeeze as much battery life as possible without having to buy multiple battery packs or if you need a display that has good color reproduction for things such as photo editing. I, for example, obviously don't do my photo editing on the X200, I have a desktop with a decent monitor for that.

Epilogue: modern software also sucks

Many people have this idea that with time old computers slow down. Indeed computers do seem to slow down over time. It is not the hardware itself that slows down or becomes less capable, unless it actually breaks, it is a problem with newer software becoming more and more bloated, of which proprietary software is the biggest offender.

It seems like the production of newer more powerful hardware just breeds more and more soydevs that, thanks to the advancements in computing power, can hide the slowness and bloatness of their horrible code among layers of abstractions that execute just as fast (or rather slow) as good written software on older machines. You don't need a Threadripper or Core i9 or even a super modern Core i3 to do basic daily computing tasks. If you use good software, that is, and most of the times it is libre software.

Proprietary software is not only worse from an ethical point of view, but it is also worse from the point of view of quality most of the times (with some minor exceptions). As time goes on, proprietary software gets worse, because they just care about launching the next version with the next new "features" as soon as possible to get even more money in the shortest amount of time possible.

There are many other reasons why modern proprietary software is just plain worse than minimal free and open source software, but this is already beyond the scope of this article. Maybe I'll write about my thoughts on modern software, and proprietary and libre software in the future.