The Thinkpad X220, the best $50 laptop

I bought this X220 for $50 a year ago at my local computer salvage dealer. Similar models currently sell for over $200 on Ebay so it was a very good deal. This computer is 9 years old, but still just as usable as when it was new with a nearly $2000 price tag.

This X220 has the i7, IPS display, 8GB of ram, USB 3.0, and a 120GB SSD. I also made some other modifications that make this machine more unique. Most notably is I included an ATSC tv tuner.

I bought this HAUPPAUGE Mini PCIe TV Tuner Card T326N from Ebay for under $10. I replaced the X220’s internal 3G WAN module (which is useless in this day and age) with the TV tuner. Of course, Lenovo likes to make things harder for you to do so I had to also flash a custom bios firmware so that the laptop would boot up with this “unsupported” card.

I recklessly connected the laptop’s WAN antennas to the connectors on the TV tuner. And it actually worked just fine. Although I suspect I can only receive UHF channels since the internal antenna is probably not long enough to capture VHF, but still I can watch the majority of the same channels as my TV equipped with rabbit ears. Even though we’re in the age of streaming media, I think it’s cool to have a portable battery powered computer that can watch over the air TV.

There were a few other quirks I had to deal with to get this system up to 100%. First, there’s a bug with the SD card controller drivers. It will peg the cpu at 100% usage and make the computer very hot and kill the battery. To fix this I disable the SD card controller in device manager whenever I do not need to read an SD card, which is the majority of the time.

Because of this computers age, it desperately needed new thermal paste on the CPU to improve cooling and thermal throttling. The procedure to do this actually fairly complex and involves nearly the completely disassembly of the computer. The whole thing can take over an hour. However once I put some arctic silver on the CPU, temperatures came down dramatically and performance improved.

The battery life is still decent, I don’t know how old the battery is but I can still use this machine for several hours between charges. The performance is also pretty good. This would have had the best laptop CPU of 2011, which is still competitive today. A “budget” laptop bought new today would cost more, perform worse, and have a much shorter lifespan than the X220. These little computers were built to last, handle abuse, and keep on going.

The only reason to use a newer computer is if you wanted to play modern games or do resource intensive tasks like video editing. This is a new development that decade old computers are still useful today. A 2002 computer would be unusable in 2011, but a 2011 computer doesn’t just work in 2020 but it works great.

I suspect the main driver of why older computers are still useful is due to mobile. Most people don’t use PCs at all or only at work. A mobile phone is far less powerful than even the weakest PC. Since the internet and software was made to be usable on phones to get the greatest market share, power and performance is no longer as important as it once was. I wouldn’t be surprised if these old Lenovos can keep up for another 5 or 10 years. But perhaps by that point real PCs will be relegated to only hobbyists or specific professions. But if I can keep finding quality hardware for $50 I’m not going to complain.