The Thinkpad X230 in 2021
As I discussed in my last article, I've recently downgraded (upgraded) to a Thinkpad X230 - a laptop regarded as one of the greatest ever made. But does that claim still ring true when the X230 will soon be celebrating its 9th birthday? Can a machine so old by tech standards really keep up with modern workloads? Here's a look at just how well the X230 performs today.
A Quick Word
Reviewing technology largely depends on the kind of work the reviewer does. As such I'll offer some context before we dive in. For me a typical work-day resembles somewhat of the following:
- Vim for almost every text-based task.
- Compiling variously-sized programs.
- A dozen+ tabs open across various browsers.
- Some basic Web-development (Local web server running.)
- Listening to local MP3s or streaming audio.
- The occasional YouTube video (Generally playing at 720p).
Not an exceedingly power-hungry workload to be fair but enough that most machines should at least feel a little demand when jumping back and forth between tasks.
Most of the components in my X230 have been upgraded from the base model and as such the specs currently resemble the following:
- Intel Core i5-3210M
- 16Gb RAM
- 480Gb SSD
- Running Ubuntu 20.04
I'll also note that, although I haven't directly verified it with the previous owner, the laptop does appear to have been fitted with a new battery.
As is tradition with classic Thinkpads, the X230 is built like a tank. From the moment I picked it up for the first time there was a definite heft and body to it. Not to say that the X230 is heavy by any means, I wouldn't have any concerns about carrying it around in a backpack or even by hand.
This portability is furthered by how surprisingly compact the X230 is. Given the full-size keyboard and expansive I/0 on offer here it's great to see how much has been achieved despite its deceiving profile.
My model shipped with a 1366 x 768 TN panel which was something that almost every other user I'd heard from had said was the first thing to get replaced. In practice I haven't really found it that off-putting to use. Colours are certainly not as vibrant as they could be and there is a definite blue hue to the display however I've yet to encounter any task where this has really posed an issue. Overall the display is fine, I haven't felt any strain reading longer passages of text or felt the need to squint due to poor image quality. Brightness has also not been an issue, if anything I've had to turn the brightness down sometimes depending on the environment.
My only real complaint about the display are the viewing angles. Images tend to fall away very quickly if your line-of-sight is not dead centre with the display. Not a colossal issue for myself but if I need to show someone my screen it generally turns into one of us taking turns to look.
When I was buying the X230 I was quietly preparing myself to be ready to take a hit to performance. I was buying something older therefore it must inherently be slower, right?
After several weeks of usage however I am very pleased to say I was wrong. The i5 in this X230 does not let up. Even under what I would consider a heavier workload (Web server running, 1080p YouTube video playing, several Chrome tabs open etc.), the X230 handles it without making a noise. Even in scenarios where the fans do need to kick in, they are generally so quiet that I have a hard time noticing. And for my most demanding applications like Android Studio that do have the fans get louder, performance still remained excellent. No signs of throttling or slow-down anywhere.
Performance was so good in-fact that I started experimenting to see just how far I could push the X230. I experimented with running multiple Android device emulators and even playing back video in 4k without issue; even with my usual applications mentioned in the opening still running in the background. Something that would have been completely outside the realm of possibility with really any of my previous machines.
The X230 comes with an extensive range of I/O. On offer we have:
- Mini Display-port.
- 2x USB 3.0 Ports.
- 1x Always On USB port.
- A Mini Express-Card slot.
- Full-size RJ45 Ethernet port.
- Headphone/Microphone 3.5mm port.
- SD card slot.
- Finger-print scanner.
Some models also offer a SIM card slot so you can get online basically anywhere.
Overall, an excellent suite of ports for almost any situation. I can't even remember the last time I used a laptop with this many options.
Prior to purchase I'd seen dozens repeatedly clammer over how exceptional the keyboard on the X230 and its ilk was. Although I'd heard good things about Thinkpad keyboards for many years I largely chalked this up to an overall rejection of the chicklet, low-travel keyboards more commonly found on contemporary laptops. Even when I'd been using my previous Thinkpad L380, the keyboard was fine, not exceptional but nothing of particular note.
I was not prepared then for just how good this keyboard would be. Typing is satisfyingly crunchy, with a comfortable key travel on each press. I've actually stopped using the mechanical keyboard I used on my Desktop machine and just been using that on the X230 as it really is that good. Despite the compact size of the X230, this has not extended to the keyboard with full-size keys that are still spaced close enough that you can type for extended periods of time without cramping or sporadically darting around the keyboard to reach the character you're after.
The trackpad on the X230 is certainly on the smaller side. Although not unusably small, I did find myself flinging the mouse to wherever I needed it in an attempt to use the trackpad less.
Of course on a Thinkpad of this age you are supposed to use the Trackpoint, that little red dot in the middle of the keyboard. Although I'd used Thinkpads before I'd never really taken to the Trackpoint; often finding it imprecise or just slower than using the trackpad. Given my options on the X230 however I decided to experiment a little; I disabled the trackpad in the BIOS and attempted to use the Trackpoint for everything. Although still a little clumsy I am slowly taking to using the Trackpoint. The positioning of the mouse buttons above the trackpad do aid in making using the Trackpoint far more comfortable as your fingers naturally tend to rest over these buttons during use. Overall, the Trackpoint is something I still need to get to grips with properly but I'm slowing growing to like its ease-of-use.
My only, yet strongest, area of fault with the X230 is with the battery. In the few battery tests I ran along with general usage I can get around 4 hours on a full charge. Certainly nothing astounding given my previous laptop(s) averaged around 8+. Although I don't see myself working continually for such time without access to power in at least some form, I did find myself putting the X230 to sleep if I knew I was going to be stepping away for more than I few minutes. Overall, this is the only area in which I felt that it was me that needed to adapt to the Thinkpads needs rather than the other way around.
Overall I am very surprised with the X230, extremely surprised even. The fact I had gone blind to how good these machines really are for so long is something I genuinely regret now.
Despite all the praise however this machine is not perfect. The display is fine for general use and the battery leaves much to be desired. Despite these drawbacks however the X230 is probably as close as I'll ever get to the perfect laptop. It's small enough that I don't have any worries about it consuming the free space in my bag yet not compact enough that it feels cramped to use. Performance is also staggeringly good while remaining quiet enough to not sounds like a jet-engine.
So if you're in the market for a "new" laptop, the best option might not be whatever is new on the shelf, it might be a used Thinkpad. And even if it's not, you can easily customise and upgrade it until it is.