Published Aug 31, 2019
Hello guys! As a tech enthusiast, finding the best tech has always been my dream. However, due to the lack of proper fundings I do have access to the latest RTX graphics cards, macbooks, high end builds etc. So, I decided to turn my sight to a different niche for the time being, which is “how do I get the most out of my money to make my best developer’s setup?”
Greatly inspired by codingIndex, take a look at his website here, he has written very strong and concise reasons to buying a Thinkpad X220 in 2019.
Without further ado, let’s get started with my personal journey!
My current system is a Acer Nitro V 2018 version with pretty beefy specs. 16Gb of ram, IPS pannel, 8th gen i7 and 1050 graphics card (non-Ti). When I purchased it I had wayy too much problems with my previous laptop and if I had as much enthusiasm in computers at that time, I would’ve gotten a cheaper Thinkpad instead. However, given my budding Deep Learning interest, i think it was a neccessary evil and that laptop has since followed me through numerous competitions and prizes.
“Bryan! You already have such a good laptop! Why did you buy a small, less powerful Thinkpad! What a waste of money!”
Well, I’d agree with that to some degree. But as someone who looks at a computer way more often than regular users, I’ve since understood what is more important compared to the latest and fanciest tech like RTX laptops, 240Hz screens etc.
Not saying my previous system is not capable, but my only big gripe with it is that I needed to bring a power brick that is literal with it’s name, a brick, not to mention the somewhat heavy weight of the laptop and it’s short battery life. I also dropped my Nitro V before and immediately it had a small bent. The annoying elevation on the left, although went away after I sent for repairs as I had free warranty, worried me quite a lot ever since. Furthermore, the 1050 graphics card is making me less confident in my deep learning models due to it’s small VRAM. The more I had it in my hands, the less I think it is truly as good as I thought.
A device that made me less confident in my abilities (yes I’m not that confident when it comes to tech at times), made we rethink what I truly need in a laptop. I have since explored other small form factor laptops and having very mixed opinions on what I truly require.
I tried getting a touch screen laptop with the lowest I can personally afford. I bought an Acer One 10, which was pretty neat if you have the 4 Gb version and 64Gb internal storage. It’s pros are:
and cons are:
However, I thought to myself at the time that the 32 Gb internal storage and 2Gb RAM is good enough for me. After using it for a while I started to really regretted that decision for 2 main reason: I really wanted to use a pen with it to write notes etc, but the pasive touch screen shattered my dreams; the small keyboard relaly hindered my switching between my main drive and this small laptop.
As of now, I’m listing my acer one 10 on Carousell. It’s still looking for a home if anyone is interested.
I next stumbled upon a 14-inch Fujitsu Lifebook S series. It has a pretty capable system with a 3rd gen i7 processor, 8Gb RAM (4GB soldered and 4 GB additional), and a full sized keyboard, my only gripe was the terribly bad TN panel it came with. I’m pretty sure if anyone got that, they would be very happy to use it as their daily drive (if it didn’t look soo beat up). That being said, i was still satisfied with it’s performance as I wiped the disk and installed ubuntu on it. I would really use it if forced to do so.
note: I got a black one
The scary part came when I was in school one day using it. I laid my hand on the left palm rest, and lo and behold, it rebooted. This led me to believe that this laptop was given up primarily for this reason. It soon became very consistent and really annoyed me. Not only that, i actually felt a small shock at the palm rest resembling static, making me very paranoid of using it ever since.
All these led me to believe the device was past it’s lifespan. So I was forced to use my trusty acer nitro V while I searched for another device.
This was when I thought to myself an IBM that I used when I was a kid. My father actually brought it back when I was a kid for me to use instead of my main desktop to discourage me from playing games (which failed cuz I got a bad addiction to flash games instead). That was when I realized the reason I wasn’t satisfied with any of the laptops I got was because I was basing my standards on that laptop.
Albeit the laptop wasn’t the fastest, it really nailed it for me in terms of media consumption, and typing and flash games played no problems! Sure, having the most recent processor makes it more power efficient, faster, sleeker etc, but it just doesn’t feel like a laptop to me. That was when codingIndex introduced me to the world of Thinkpads, where he not only showed me how cheap they could be, but also how capable they could be compared to today’s standards.
As per his blog, he got a very capable 8Gb RAM, 2nd gen i5 processor, 128 SSD refurbrished model. Only problem was Computrace, where he had to literally wait for 24 hours before it was disabled!
After taking a look at his device in person, I was really impressed. Not only was the keyboard inviting to type on, but the display despite not being IPS, was decent enough to do work on. Boot times were amazing with the SSD. However, I was not really convinced at that time, believe it or not.
It went off my mind for a while. It wasn’t until one day I was in my school’s lab whereby I actually forgot my brick for my Acer Nitro V, I was forced to do my asignment on the school laptop. After typing on it more and more, I found that I got more and more attached to it. Before I left, I checked the model of the laptop and sure enough, it was a Thinkpad, but it had a prefix that I wasn’t familiar with “T” instead of the “X” codingIndex showed me. This puzzled me. What do they mean?
Jolly well, let’s just buy an X220 online! What could go wrong?
That was what I believe a lot of people would do. But I am a strong advocate of doing research on your own and re-evaluating what you truly need.
I looked through all the models available, from old to new. To summarize:
Pricing wise, I followed this guide: https://www.truefla.me/free-stuff/used-thinkpad-buyers-guide
After all my research, I concluded I would get a Thinkpad that was 200SGD or less with 8GB RAM and i5 processor with an SSD. This fit well into my budget. My choices quickly limited to:
If I were in the US, I believe I’d jumped onto Craigslist or ebay, then find the best deal, meet up with the seller and buy the item after physically inspecting it. Since I was in Singapore, the only platform that was similar was Carousell. I decided to look there and after a few months of snooping around most thinkpad listings (think I went through at least 600+ listings), I found a used thinkpad x220 series with negotiable price.
I offered 100SGD to buy his Thinkpad X220 with 4GB, 320 GB HDD an 2nd Gen i5 processor. We met up and the deal went very smoothly. I refered to codingIndex’s blog to ensure Intel AT was disabled (not permanantly as it could increase resale value one day) and more importantly, Computrace. Upon checking, I was plesantly surprised that on my unit, Computrace can be manually disabled. other than some annoying stickers, a small chip at the left palm rest, a faulty left click that came with the keyboard, and an iconic Indian scent (no offense sorry!), I was pretty satisfied with the device!
My next step was to remove the sticker on the device, clean the device physically, then upgrade the device with more RAM and an SSD.
Stupidly enough, i did not take a picture of the before and after cleaning the laptop. However, here’s how it looked like on the listing:
Before Cleaning X220
I bought some general LCD panel cleaning tools to clean everything except the electronics. I also bought a compressed air blower to clean the fans.
I managed to remove the stickers, but not so much the residuals. Sad but I think I did the best I could. I gave the fan a good blow with compressed air, now they’re very clean! I also gave the screen and other aspects of the laptop a good clean and I was very pleased with the result!
I purposely omited the whole process of scrubbing and scuffing at how bad the sticker was than what I anticipated but hey, that’s what you get for paying for 100SGD. The whole device was now very vert inviting to use!
This was actually where I was most worried of. I wanted to give this laptop at around 50SGD upgrade to an 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD. It is virtually impossible as according to my calculations it will take around 100 dollars for 2 sticks of 4GB RAM and the cheapest SSD. I decided to give my local shops a shot (I live in Malaysia btw). I went back to Malaysia, and found a super cool shop that sells some SSDs. The shop owner asked me to check what type od SSD I needed, most people just use SATA so she suggested I get that. However, since the hard disk had a Windows 7, I decided against purging it for now. I hence decided to just use the WWAN slot in the X220, which accepts mSATA instead. I bought a 120GB mSATA SSD as my boot drive with POP! OS installed.
Next is the more troublesome RAM. RAM nowadays are really expensive. Lucky for me, the Lifebook S Series has a 4GB stick which I can use. However, I recalled that my previous laptop (Before Acer Nitro V) had 8GB of RAM, so I decided to check it out. Lo and behold it did! So I took the RAM from that computer and speced out my Thinkpad!
Rejoice! Specs wise this laptop is pretty top notch! I plan to buy a hard disk drive for this system one day/purge the current system.
Funny enough, my decision of not purging the hard drive came in handy when I needed to update the BIOS. It was very easy and I didn’t need any weird hacky method to do so.
Yes, with that, I’m proud to say that this laptop is ready for daily use!!! I will be using this laptop more often and am planning to make my Nitro V a home server of some sort, or resell it for some cash before I study my degree. Anyways, I do have plans for it hehehe.
The final thing I wanted to do was to have an external monitor. I have a TV screen at home which I use to boost my productivity and have better posture when using my laptop. If I could, I would bring that laptop around all day, every day. Sadly, it simply is just too big to do so (duh!) so my quest in searching an external monitor begins!
I was inspired by my Gigabyte Teamate Lee Weijuin when he showed me his external monitor. After looking at a video by Great Scott, I knew I had to get my hands on one somehow.
I also checked out my mentor Mr Teo Shin Jen’s instructables guide on how to repurpose a dead laptop’s screen and find that his method truly is the path of least resistance. Link here: https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Re-purpose-dead-laptops-LCD/
It is not uncommon for people to market their laptop as old and want to dispose it, and since I didn’t mind what screen quality it was (yet!), I figured any old laptop with a screen would fit the purpose well. I went on to buy an old Dell Inspiron 1420 which cost me 20SGD (without HDD and RAM) and repurposed it’s LCD screen. Next, I bought the correct LCD screen controller which cost me 60SGD (hehehexD) to control the screen itself as a proof of concept.
After a long wait, I tested the screen with the controller, and to my surprise it worked out of the box. Rejoice!
Tada! Thinkpad with external monitor!
With my simple and cheapo combo, I have a dual monitor, awesome keyboard and fast boot time setup. This is really all I need to be truly productive as anything power hungry can be done in the cloud if so needed. This setup helped me finish this blog way faster than I could with my TV screen and Nitro V due to the similar screen size, inviting keyboard, and less multitasking required. Task that I used to need to split screen can be done in 2 screens which is the best feeling ever! I am still evaluating the setup to see whether this setup really is just a laptop and a screen or will it bring more benefits that maybe I have yet to discover. Regardless, here is the price breakdown:
Total: 240 SGD
This setup took less than 240 Singapore Dollars given you have the proper power supply and VGA cable. With this price one could usually only get a Thinkpad X220 with 8GB RAM and 240 SATA SSD (not m) refurbrished.
All in all, I think this experiment/setup is a good exposure to what is possible in terms of setups. In the past I would be very scared of spending a dime on tech as I had the misconception that the best is always what I need and the best is always the newest and since the newest always changes, the need to wait for tech to stabilize is mandatory. Although a strong arguement, the hardware within doesn’t improve productivity as a coder, but the will to improve oneself does. Although the journey was tough, it sure was an interesting one.