Now I don’t game as much, I thought it might be worth replacing my laptop with something a bit newer and a bit more portable - ready for travel (that went well this year) and study. When I purchased my previous ASUS X556 laptop, it was chosen due to its dedicated graphics chip over anything else; I prioritised the raw power over things like the build quality (all plastic), screen (a mere TN 768p) and battery life (no longer lasts very long).
My requirements for any new laptop were quite boring:
- Not overly expensive
- Decently portable (under 14”)
- Durable (can be chucked in my bag without an excessive sleeve)
- Not terribly outdated
- Able to run Linux Distros (Ubuntu/Arch) well
My first thought was a Dell XPS, however a quick eBay search showed that even a relatively old XPS 13 would set me back a pretty penny. I spend a while browsing offerings from HP and ASUS before remembering the ever-popular business-favourite ThinkPad series from Lenovo. I did some research and very quickly came to the conclusion that a ThinkPad was for me - superior keyboards, excellent durability and an understated boxy black look.
Choosing the Right Thinkpad
I did some digging on /r/thinkpad, the ThinkWiki and the Lenovo website and found out that I’d be looking out for an X-series or a T-s series model. The vast majority of ThinkPads are very Linux-friendly, so I was able to check that off my list. The T-series machines are traditionally 14” and the X-series are 12-13”, so portability is more than fine.
The issues arise when we get to “not overly expensive” and “not terribly outdated.” I was drawn to the 8th generation Intel chips and the newer AMD Ryzen models, meaning I would need to get an X280 or a T480s, since an X1 Carbon Gen6 would be far, far out of my price range.
Both the X280 and the T480s have their pros and cons:
The X280 is really portable with its 12.5” display, but it’s also got a large bezel, soldered RAM and not as many ports.
The T480s isn’t as portable but it has a much better port selection.
Both of the models have mediocre display options as standard (as seems to be the norm with Thinkpads), so I would be looking for an FHD/WQHD model.
What I Got
After scouting pre-loved Thinkpads on CeX for some time, I was able to acquire an X280 for just under £500. It’s pretty well equipped for the price—check here for all the details—and came with all the bells and whistles I’d ever want, including a backlit keyboard, fingerprint scanner and a WWAN card for 4G connectivity on the go.
The Brief Review
There isn’t a whole lot to complain about, in my eyes at least.
The instant I took the device out of the packaging, I knew I had made the right decision. My touch-screen model sports a “Glass Fibre” top case, which feels durable (despite picking up fingerprints very easilly), and a magneisum palm rest that rarely gets warm-to-the-touch. I was initially worried that a 12.5” display would be too small, especially at 1080p, however this turns out to be perfect for me; no need for any scaling in any operating system I tried. The keyboard is obviously not as good as earlier Thinkpads or my desktop’s DAS with MX Browns, but it certainly lives up to the hype and I’m very happy to be typing this blog post with it right now. In the middle of the keyboard is the Trackpoint pointer, to which I’ve also taken a liking. The addition of a sliding shutter on the webcam is a nice touch and the function key to quickly enable/disable the microphone is very handy. With Windows Hello the fingerprint scanner is plenty fast and the overall performance of the machine is beyond adequete.
I don’t have a solid number for battery life, however I very rarley find myself plugging the device in. I would estimate about 4-9 hours depending on usage. The laptop can charge over 45W USB C, so I decided to purchase an inexpensive powerbank capable of delivering this. While not as elegant as the previous Thinkpads with their swappable batteries, this certainly does the job.
My only complaint would really be how warm the device gets during use. At idle in the middle of a classroom, the 8th-gen i5 sits at a toasty 40-50 celsius. The magnesium bottom cover dissipates quite a bit of heat straight into your lap and the fan cuts in and out abruptly as the BIOS tries to juggle thermals and noise. Speaking of the fan, it certainly gets audible more often than I would like, however the sound is more of a ‘whoosh’ than a whine and is far from annoying. Additionally, the lack of upgradability (no RAM sockets) - while expected in a modern device of this size - is unfortunate.
My experience with Linux (Ubuntu Budgie and Manjaro Budgie specifically) has been a pleasant one. The 1080p resolution is perfect for the 12.5” display - no need for janky fractional scaling. All the important function keys on the keyboard work with no problems and even the WWAN card works just fine, integrating with Modem Manager and Gnome Settings.