ThinkPad X220 Tablet – Eight Years and Counting

In Spring 2012 I bought my Lenovo ThinkPad X220 Tablet. It was during the second semester of my Bachelor's course. I've used it for studying since then, wrote my Bachelor thesis, my Master thesis and now my dissertation on it. It has served me well for over eight years now, and I have no intentions of replacing it yet. During those years I carried it around in my backpack, and it has seen quite some wear. Still I find it remarkable that there are just minor issues with it.

At the time I chose the Intel Core i5-2520M, 8 GB of main memory. Later on I added a 500 GB SSD, which made the whole thing much faster. and more pleasant to use. Upgrading the ThinkPad is very easy, one can just see the screws on the bottom. They are even labelled with the parts that they give access to, and replacing those parts does not void the warranty.

One can also see the water drain holes, I have never actually needed that this laptop supposedly can cope with water on the keyboard.

In general the build is very nice, it feels sturdy. When I first say it, I thought that the display hinge would break first. Well, I have sometimes lifted the laptop by grabbing the screen, and it just works. The connector is anchored deeply in the chassy, and I guess it will stay fine for years to come.

The fan control is done in a remarkable pleasant way. The fan speed is steady and only increases when there is significant load. I've seen Acer and Medion laptops where in idle mode the fan would change speed every couple minutes, making it rather annoying. Somehow Lenovo has figured this out, the speed stays constant with constant CPU load.

Processing power

If I had known that I would be using this laptop for so long, I might have chosen the i7 processor back then. However, the i5 still seem to have sufficient power to do all the things that I need to do.

With the current pandemic, the university institute is closed, I am just working from home. In-person meetings are replaced by video conferences over Zoom. I have tried to use it both with the official Linux client and also within the Chromium web browser. In both cases the CPU load from the video is extensive, it blocks the whole computer. The worst thing is that occasionally the load is so high that the audio gets clipped. Basically Zoom is unusable on this machine, I assume that it uses some video codec that has no hardware support on the Sandy Bridge CPU. From what I could see Zoom uses the H.264 codec but hardware support only comes two generations later, with Haswell. I am now using my Android phone for this, there the video and audio quality is much better.

A colleague has a T460s with a Skylake CPU. We did the same operation in R and on his laptop it is roughly three times faster. We think that the DDR4 RAM in the new laptop really helps with the operation that hinges on RAM latency. I am not sure how much faster a newer CPU would actually be. But as for work I either use it as a text processor or to log into the cluster, I do not need that much power locally anyway.

Dock

One of my favorite features about the laptop is the docking connector on the bottom. It hooks into the docking station where I have all ports replicated such that I can just insert it and start using it right away. I have one dock at home, a second one at the institute. When I bought the institute one in 2016, prices have fallen such that I paid only like 30 EUR for dock and a power supply.

For most ThinkPads there is a docking station that just covers one corner of the laptop. This type is compatible with the non-tablet version of the X220 and also the larger T420 and T520 models. The X220 Tablet protrudes more in the back, and does not fit. Some people have removed the little plastic guide and made it fit that way. I have bought the UltraBase 3 instead. There the laptop fits in perfectly and also one has a DVD drive slot such that one can make up for the lacking DVD drive in the laptop. These days one does not care about DVDs anyway, but it was a nice touch back then.

The dock connector collects dust over the time. In the past year I started to get connection issues and needed to undock, clean it, and dock again. I have tried a can with compressed air and just blowing in myself. It usually does not last that long, there seems to be some residue building up.

The cooling fan is set on the left back corner of the device. It seems to pull the air from below and push it out to the left side. One can see how the dust accumulates in the bottom intake mesh. The battery sticks out a bit, giving the laptop a bit of room to take in the air. But as soon as one sets it onto the dock, there are merely a few millimeters of room left. I can see how the CPU starts to throttle at some point. This cooling concept does not feel too well thought-out.

The Apple iBook that I had before was much better in this regard. There the air would be taken in through the keyboard and pushed out between keyboard and screen. This provides clean air flow and even works when set down into a soft surface. Apple generally has insufficient cooling and the CPUs throttle, but that is another story.

Tablet mode

The display features a pen digitizer and touch screen made by Wacom. While I was still solving problem sets, I often used to scribble notes using Xournal. Over the years I have changed my note-taking habits away from hand-written notes to Markdown documents.

Linux support was not that good when I started with it in 2012. So I created the thinkpad-scripts which make using it much easier with screen rotation and making sure that the physical input is coherent with the orientation of the screen content. The project is stable for years, providing the necessary tooling for X.Org.

Colleagues have bought tablets with digitizer pens, either the Samsung Galaxy Tab or the iPad Pro. These are much better suited for this task as one then still has the laptop free to use. When I take notes on the 12.5 inch screen, I cannot have anything else open. When an external screen is attached (like at my desk), the screen is rather high above the ground. It feels as if you were taking notes on a stack of 400 pages of blank pages. I need to put some sort of wrist-rest in front of the docked laptop to use it sensibly. The alternative is to only write in the top part of the screen and rest the wrist on the screen. So in general it was nice in some nieche situations, but in general I have lost the use for it.

The Wacom digitizer is non-linear at the edges of the screen. This means that one cannot use the whole screen surface for note taking but rather need to stay away a bit. That supposedly got better in the generations afterwards.

A few years ago the touch screen started making ghost inputs, it would just randomly click at points. This was really dangerous as it might click on something like “delete”. I have disabled the touch screen completely now. This is a loss as I used the fingers to scroll in Xournal, now I have to use the pen and the window scroll bar.

As the screen is only attached to the one joint in order to rotate, there needs to be some alignment mechanism to prevent it from rotating when the screen is on the keyboard. On the sides of the keyboard there were rubber alignment pins, which have long vanished. I have tried glueing them back in, but it just does not work.

This non-alignment of the screen also leaves room to wiggle and scratch over the keyboard. On normal laptops one just has impressions of the keyboard on the screen. But here with the movement inside a bag one gets rather deep scratches on the screen. They might be the cause for the touch screen ghost input. I have put in a cloth now, but the damage is already done.

For some reason there is dust coming in from the left side. It really looks like a spray through a nozzle there. It has crept a few centimeters into the screen and just shows up as a dark shade. Somewhere the display sandwich must have a gap. It is annoying, but not too bad.

The whole screen is only partially nonreflective. I much prefer nonreflective screens, but apparently for the touch screen and digitizer one needed to make it a bit more glossy to work. This is no fun to work with when there is light around. Lately I mostly use external screens anyway, so I do not care about the internal screen that much any more.

There are a couple of bright spots in the display, the backlight is not even any more.

Wear & issues

At some point the UEFI firmware showed a faulty implementation which lead to the laptop not waking up from suspend (see post). This is now worked around, but it still was an issue.

The chassy is rather sturdy, but I still managed to chip the corner which sits in the bottom of my backpack. I have fixed it with electrical tape a few times, but it just keeps getting worn down. Well, I guess that will happen with every laptop at some point.

As the battery is easy to replace, I have made use of that. At the time of writing I am on my fourth battery. When I bought it with over 60 Wh of capacity it would last like five hours. Now it is worn down again, it lasts only slightly over an hour now. One can still buy batteries for that laptop, but I rather chose to buy a fourth power supply for like 15 EUR to use it on the balcony.

The rubber feet on the underside of the battery always come off after a short while. I have tried super glue, repair glue, that did not work out. I tried felt pads, but then it does not fit into the docking station any more. I have just given up and accept that it does not stand on the surface well any more.

The track pad is a joke. It is really small, not very precise and I have disabled it in the firmware rather soon after buying the laptop. The TrackPoint is much better, and I really like it!

The top is covered with rubber, and that is slowly coming off. The upside is that it never got sticky as cheap rupper coating sometimes does. I've had a Razer mouse with such cover and eventually it just turned disgusting.

Eventual replacement

I really hope that it will last a few more months until I am finished with the dissertation. After that I do not have the need to use my personal laptop for work any more and then just a single docking station (if at all) will be sufficient. The Thunderbolt docks are rather expensive, and I feel reluctant to buy one, yet alone two of them.

My next laptop will have a larger screen. The 12.5 inch and 1366×768 pixel resolution is no fun to work with on the go. I'd rather carry a 15 inch laptop and have a nice 1920×1080 (or more) instead of this thing. Back in 2012 there was either small and light or large and heavy. But today I would say there is small and super light and large and still light. The laptops that are sold as regular ones are lighter and thinner than my ThinkPad, and the ultrabooks are just even more so.

Laptop keyboards also got better over the years. I have a Medion laptop from 2013, and the keyboard just sucks. I've seen other consumer laptops with keyboards that I don't want to type on, but I am picky with them anyway. Perhaps I'll just go with another ThinkPad at some point.

I am amazed that the laptop which I bought in 2012 still serves me today. When I spend around 1400 EUR at the time, I felt that it was quite the investment. I just didn't know grand it would be, and hopefully it will last a little longer.