Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Thinkpad T420 Impressions

Right about now, manufactures are releasing a bunch of new Ivy Bridge laptop models. With that said, it is a great time to get major discounts on last generation Sandy Bridge models. Ivy Bridge promises to be 10-20% faster but is it worth the 40% premium when there are significant savings on the last gen core Sandy Bridge?

I recently took advantage of those major discounts during the Memorial Day close-outs and picked out a Thinkpad T420 with a corporate discount. I'm glad I got the T420 over waiting for the newer T430.
Most notable change in the newer models that will infuriate traditional Thinkpad loyalists, Lenovo is abandoning the traditional keyboard for the island chicklet style. With that change and the major discounts ($800 or so w/ tax and shipping), I could not resist.

I intend to run a Linux workstation with multiple virtual machines so I had the following requirements:

  • Higher than 1366x768 resolution screen. Check! The T420 comes with a 1600x900 display.
  • More than 8GB of RAM. Check! My T420 runs 16GB.
  • Processor support for advance virtualization. Check! i5-2540M has VT-D/VT-X support for hypervisors.
  • The ability to run WQHD (2560x1440) monitors or higher. Or the ability to run two FHD(1980x1080). Check! T420 has displayport and I wanted to avoid HDMI and its limitations.
  • Expansion, docking, and modular drive expansion bays. Check! The Thinkpad can use a docking station that has multiple video outs. The Ultrabay allows me to swap out drive caddies.I intend to run three SSD drives on the machine. 256GB SSD in the main drive bay for the OS, 32GB mSATA in the PCIe slot for swap/VM,  750GB Seagate Momentus Hybrid in the ultraboy.The 34mm express port will allow me to attached a eGPU (external GPU card via express-to-PCIe) to power even bigger and more monitors.

When you look at all my requirements, the Lenovo Thinkpads hit all the right notes. Ultrabooks were out of the question.

The beefier workstation class laptops like the W520 are nice all and with their FHD screens but I explicity wanted the easiest Linux laptop to run multiple 27" and higher displays.
The W520 can run 32GB of RAM in a quad-core configuration but the discreete optimus switching graphics is problematic with Linux and multi-monitor setups involving displayport/dual dvi.
Furthermore, the weight,enormous girth,and bricky 170 watt power supply, and short battery life of the W520 turned me back to the T420. And on a surprising note and unexpected advantage, the T420 is easily hackintoshable if that matters.

So, the T420 or the T520 seems to be the most ideal laptop for my usage. If you are a power user with similar requirements, look no further than the Thinkpads.

 Pictured: Ubuntu 12.04 running a Apple 30" Cinema Displat at 2560x1600

What can I say? In a nutshell, it is a "real" Thinkpad. You either like the looks or you don't. If you think the machine looks dated or old school, then this is not the laptop for you.
To me, it has an intangible elegance to it. The spartan, all black, matte professional appearance screams enterprise ready.
This is a professional workhorse and it makes no excuses for it. The only visual cues that separates this from a 10 year old Thinkpad are the video display port, e-sata jack, and the various inside Intel stickers.
So far, Lenovo has done a good job of not messing  up IBM's iconic design.

I'm currently working on various deadlines so I haven't had time to set it up and play with it. In the coming days/weeks, I will follow up on my experiences with it running Linux.
I have the mini dock 3 (433710U ThinkPad Mini Dock Series 3), various ultrabay caddies, monitors, and various drives ready to go. I'm most interested in seeing hack together an eGPU (external graphics card) to it.

It will be interesting to see how well it compares with the upcoming, revised quad core Ivy Bridge Retina Macbook Pro 15" that I will be getting from work.
Between 4/5 high res monitors and 2 powerful laptops on my desk, it will be computing nirvana this year.

Post blog notes:

I got it running the 30" Cinema Display using display-port from the laptop and the dock with the basic install of Ubuntu 12.04. No hassles, No xorg config files. It was able to play a 720p MKV on the 2560x1600 display while running a Virtual Machine, compiling, and cloning DD the Windows partition. Impressive and hassle free Linux experience.

(pictured above is the dock with the various ports)


  1. Nice review. I'm considering buying a T420 with an i5-2540M and 1600x900 display mostly for all the reasons you said on your review.

    I intend to use Ubuntu on it and mostly do Java and Android development using Eclipse.

    Do you think this is a good choice? I'm not fond of the 1366x768 resolution trend, and I think 1920x1080 is just too much for a notebook <= 15".

    Some people say that the display is grainy. Does this annoy you? I don't like glossy displays. My work notebook is a Dell Vostro 3500 currently, but the T420 will be for personal use.


    1. the display is so-so. I am looking at it straight no so it doesnt bother me. I use it as a workhorse. Do not get a 1366/768p display.

  2. I'm attempting to do the same with my Apple Cinema Display and the Thinkpad T420 (running XP) I noticed from your picture you have an adapter connecting to the Cinema display cord. What adapter would I need to replicate your set up. I don't have the docking station but I'm assuming I would use the display port on the left side of the laptop?

    1. You dont need a docking station. What you need is a displayport to dual link dvi adapter. My dual link dvi adapter is mini-displayport so I added an extra displayport to minidisplayport which then connects to my mini-displayport to dual link dvi adapter.