I am always a fan of the retro stuff, retro gaming, retro hardware, etc. And in earlier this year, after watching some YouTube videos about old ThinkPad laptops, I decided to get one for myself and use it on many different purposes. After some researches, I found out the one that is enough “Retro” and still powerful enough to become a daily driver is the old good T420.
So why T420? The biggest reason is that it has the classic keyboard that discontinued after the “2” series, like on the T430 and the X230, Lenovo introduced the controversial island-style keyboard. Many people don’t think it is as great as the classic keyboard due to the typing experiences and the layout, so I think I must try this out. Although you can get a classic keyboard working on a “3” series ThinkPad, it does need some modding on the hardware which is what I am not ready to do at the time.
The second reason is that it is a — — — ThinkPad!
I love the look and feel of a ThinkPad, the professional looking makes them way more appealing to me than other laptops from the same time and at the same price range like
Dell Latitude, even until nowadays.
The third reason is: it is a laptop that cost a little but has great performance.
It can be found at various configurations online at 200 to 300 CAD range, which is very cost-effective for the performance you get. The most common Intel i5–2540M processor in those T420 is just as powerful as some 6th or 7th gen U processors like Intel i5–6200U you will get when you buy a new laptop released in 2016 or 2017, and it will cost about 500 or more CAD for different laptops. Thus the cost to performance ratio is very good.
The last reason is the most practical one: it is almost complete user serviceable and with good support from Lenovo and other suppliers.
What do I mean by that is, I can swap any part of the hardware that I want whether is I want something more powerful or something was broken and I need to repair it. All sorts of things can be done on this laptop, and spare parts are all over the internet, I can find any parts for it on Amazon, eBay, Kijiji, or Taobao (yes, I am Chinese) whether it is keyboard, trackpad, CPU, RAM, motherboard, case, or anything else.
It made me possible to upgrade this laptop, and my upgrade project starts from here.
But before that, let me list some specs of the T420 I got for 250 CAD very quick.
Screen: TN 1600*900
CPU: i5–2540M (PassMark 3781, as reference i5–6200U got 4016)
GPU: only integrated Intel HD 4000
RAM: 8GB DDR3 at 1333 Hz (4GB * 2)
Drive: 256GB Samsung 2.5" SATA SSD
1. Keyboard Replacement
As the name suggests: the T420 are produced in 2012, and that means almost all T420 you can get is used by someone else. Hence the keycaps will show signs of previous use and if you want a fresh look and feel of the keyboard, you’d better get a new keyboard.
It is doubtful that you can get a real genuine keyboard for T420 since a lot of replacement keyboard on those e-commerce websites are just cheap knock-offs that produced from unknown suppliers, they look like the original ones and functional, but the martial used on them is different thus give you different or even bad feelings.
When I was in China this summer, I made two purchase on Taobao, the first one is priced at 100 CNY (about 20 CAD )and I found it is very cheaply made and not ideal. So I made the second one for 150 CNY (about 30 CAD), and it feels good and I stick with it. But I still not sure where it came from.
Although 8 GB of RAM is definitely sufficient for my use case: coding, but I decide to upgrade the RAM to 16 GB (8 GB * 2) DDR3L for unlimited (almost) tabs on Chrome and future proof.
Also the DDR3L RAM run at 1.35V rather than 1.5V of regular DDR3, it helps to increase the battery life a little.
It costs me 476 CNY (about 90 CAD).
The 2540M is powerful enough for usual tasks, but I want to push the machine to its limit.
I look over online and found several options, what I consider the best is i7–2720QM. It is a 45W TDP CPU with 4 cores 8 threads and runs at 2.2 GHz base and 3.3 GHz turbo and PassMark of 6115. It is probably the most powerful CPU I can put on to the T420 within the thermal capability (so it won’t thermal throttling under full load). So I bought one on Taobao for 421 CNY (about 80 CAD) and started testing.
The CPU temperature is stable at 72 °C when I am running Aida64 System Stability Test (only stress FPU) with no Throttling, I am satisfied with the result.
4. M-SATA SSD
In the bottom side of the motherboard, there is an empty M-SATA socket for the second network card that is for using SIM card for connecting to the cellular network. Since I did not intend to use a SIM card on this T420, I can re-purpose this slot to an M-SATA interface SSD.
Then I can put in another 1TB 2.5" HDD to the hard drive bay with the original 256GB Samsung SSD out of the way.
So I bought a Samsung PM851 512G M-SATA SSD on Taobao for 608 CNY(114 CAD) and put it in.
5. The Dock
This is one of the most useful accessories for T420. Connect it with power and monitor, get a pair of bluetooth keyboard and mice, put the laptop on, suddenly you got yourself a desktop PC. When you are leaving, just push one eject button and your laptop is ready to go.
It only cost me 50 CNY (in China).
6. Express Card to USB 3.0
There is a legacy ExpressCard port on the T420 which you won’t see in modern laptops. One of the best use of it is put an ExpressCard to USB 3.0 adapter in. Because the T420 does not have other USB 3.0 port expect the expensive i7 model, the adapter is a necessity here.
But I have seen some people use this port to connect to external GPU, so if you got a T420, you could try that also.
7. Some other stuff
I also replaced the heat sink for better thermal (10 CAD), the Optical disc drive for a additional hard drive bay(20 CNY) (not for second HDD but for making the laptop lighter so easier to carry), the Bluetooth module(20 CNY) (the one came with it only support Bluetooth 3.0 but the mouse I use which is a Logitech MX Master 2S need at least Bluetooth 4.0). And I also replaced the damaged Lenovo logo.
What an Another(?) Long Strange Trip It’s Been
It’s very clear that my infatuation with the T420 is not healthy, too (why too?). In total, I spend about 3000 CNY (about 600 CAD) on it. It might seem silly that starting with a budget laptop solution but end up spending a lot, but the unique experience of modding laptop hardware it gives me may never happen again on modern thin and light devices with soldered on CPU and storage.
If you want to get yourself this kind of experience, I strongly suggest you read this article about “every possible modification in existence, including the more obscure accessories and mods” you can do to a more modern T430. The author of the article is a ThinkPad enthusiast and write great articles for ThinkPad.
Thank you for reading, I hope I provide you with some fun and useful info today.
Please leave comment about your thought on this project, until next time!