Month: June 2021

New year, new project: ThinkPad T530

I’ve always been a fan of ThinkPads, dating back to growing up and seeing some of the late-90s/early-00s models around my Dad’s IT colleagues. They’re utilitarian in a way that reminds me of 1980s consumer electronics, like hi-fi components, and I’ve always been nostalgic for that Sony/Kenwood sort of look.

I’ve actually ‘owned’ two previous old ThinkPads, actually: an extraordinarily thick, circa-1997 380D with an original generation Pentium CPU, and a relatively-modern-ish T500, both pulled out of the e-waste garbage at work. Given that neither will really run a modern OS all that happily (and one doesn’t support Windows versions after like, Windows 98SE), they’re fun novelties but not really practical to use regularly.

ThinkPad 380D. Somehow heavier than it looks.

So instead, after getting more sold on ThinkPads and the tinkering possibilities by my girlfriend, I went on eBay and found a T530. It was in solid physical shape, firmly middle-of-the-range for what Lenovo offered, and at a decent price. I threw out a bid, and ended up winning it for $127.50 of my hard-earned dollars, with an additional $28.80 for package and posting from Pennsylvania and $12.50 for the alphabet.

It arrived an understandable amount of time later, as listed, and I was very pleased. Spec-wise, out of the box, it was equipped with the following:

  • CPU: i7-3320M (dual core Ivy Bridge)
  • RAM: 4GB DDR3L-1600 (OEM)
  • 1600×900 15.6″ LCD
  • Wifi: Anatel 1×1 B/G/N Wireless (OEM)
  • ODD: CD/DVD Burner
  • Original (dead) battery
Image 01 - Lenovo ThinkPad T530 Laptop 15.6" i5-3320M 2.6ghz 4GB Ram 120GB SSD Win10 Pro
Pre-tinkering, from the original eBay listing. (biggitybiggims on eBay)

To be honest, I bought it mostly for the chassis and motherboard since those are the hardest/most annoying to source and swap. Getting the 1600×900 screen instead of the (substantially worse) 1366×768 panel was also nice. But pretty much everything else was getting pulled before long.

So, after unpacking and firing it up for the first time, I ran a few tests to make sure everything was working as expected, and then was hand-held through how a tool called 1vyra1n works. It’s basically a BIOS ‘jailbreak’ that grants access to every possible feature available, not just the ones Lenovo wants end users to have. Neat!

Then it was time for upgrades.

First came a SSD swap, pulling out the SATA drive and sticking a 256GB Samsung PM871 mSATA drive in one of the open mini PCIe slot. Out came the basic OEM ram, and in went a 2x8GB kit of properly nice Crucial Ballistix Sport memory. Not just 4x the capacity, but running at a higher clock speed with lower latency. Nice.

Next came a proper OS. This is a Lenovo ThinkPad, and while it was shipped with Windows, had a Windows sticker on the bottom, and has the Windows logo on the keyboard, you don’t run Windows on a ThinkPad. That’s not what they’re for, and if I wanted to run Windows on a laptop, I already have a Surface Pro with Windows 10.

No, this thing got Linux, and in my specific case, it got KDE Neon. It’s basically Ubuntu with the latest and greatest KDE desktop environment and programs. I’ve been a KDE fan forever, and I like getting the shiny new KDE features, so rock on. And since it’s built off Ubuntu (which is already built off of Debian), it’ll run damn near anything that’s been ported to Linux. It also lets me get all fun with the theming and customizations, which of course I did immediately.

Happiness is a customized KDE desktop.

But all of those are still fairly basic, routine upgrades. Those aren’t weird.

The real fun began with the CPU upgrade. Now, one could just go look at the CPUs the laptop shipped with, find the top-tier chip, and buy it off eBay. One could do that and have a very normal, reliable, consistent experience. But that’s extremely boring. Instead, I went on AliExpress and ordered an Intel engineering sample of the i7-3720QM. The finished, actually-released-by-Intel 3720QM is at least twice the power of the original chip, mainly due to the fact that it has four cores, not two. But the one I have is technically Intel’s confidential property from when the 3720QM was still in development. I don’t think they particularly mind that I have it now, given that the final product was publicly released 9 years ago and has long since been discontinued, but it might technically have been stolen property-adjacent. Also it’s not fully guaranteed to work the same as the final product given that it’s a testing sample made while the CPU was in development. But really, that’s a far better story and far more fun.

CPU arrived one standard AliExpress wait later, and it worked exactly as advertised by the vendor in China. Neat!

Next came a few touch-ups to deal with a few of the issues any second-plus-hand laptop would have. The battery was the original battery it came with, and was in bad shape as any 9-year-old laptop battery likely is. Amazon to the rescue with a reasonably-priced equivalent. The laptop was also missing two of its rubber feet and the trackpad sticker was worn out, which again were easily handled thanks to Mr. Bezos’ Rube Goldberg Machine of Suffering.

Next to go was the wifi card, which was fine but basic, the lowest-tier OEM part Lenovo ever used. Instead, I went for an Atheros AR5B22 card. It’s the same spec of B/G/N wifi, but uses fully FOSS firmware (meaning no need for proprietary blobs to work in Linux) and runs a good 5-10% faster than the original card. For $10 or less, it’s totally worth it.

The most recent major component that needed replacing was the keyboard. The one it shipped with was in rough shape. It was bent, the bezel was falling off, and the keys had their coating almost completely gone, making them feel slimy and unpleasant. Any random 30-series ThinkPad keyboard is compatible, and getting a high-grade USA layout keyboard from eBay is quick, easy, and cheap, but again, that’s boring.

No, it’s far more fun to import a backlit dual English/Korean keyboard from AliExpress. Which, of course, I did.

One more standard AliExpress wait later, and the Meme ThinkPad is nearing completion.

There are a few things left I’d like to work on. I have a random 500GB 7200rpm hard drive in here for additional storage which I’d really like to replace with something faster (either hybrid SSHD or SSD) and bigger (1-3TB would be nice), but the storage market is fucked because of Chia Coin mining. So that’s on hold until the dumber side of stupid crypto hype dies down. Instead, I’m going for a screen upgrade. For about $100, I can upgrade to a full 1080p panel with better dynamic range and marginally newer and nicer technology. Since $100 doesn’t go anywhere nearly as far as it should in the storage market at present, that’s a much better quality of life upgrade for the money. Plus, KDE supports proper fractional scaling so I can dick with those settings and upscale a bit. Perfect!

In the end, I’ve ended up with a $150 laptop with about $250 worth of parts in it that performs about as well, CPU-wise, as my current personal Surface Pro 6. Yes, I could have probably just bought a faster laptop for the money, but again, that’s boring and pedestrian and not fun. It’s far more fun to have a project computer that can get upgraded piece by piece into something nicer than it was when it was new, and having that in a laptop is actually practical.

So instead of having regrets, I have the opposite: a literally brand new ThinkPad X230. It’s the T530’s little brother, cramming much of the same features (sans optical drive) into a tiny little laptop. It’s delightful, and the ThinkPad nerds at large have already modded it to hell and back. I can put in ridiculously high-end screens and reworked motherboards and make it almost as fast as its full size sibling. But those parts are more expensive and trickier to get ordered, and they require far more work to install. So for now, I’m cutting my teeth with this one.

Don’t talk to me or my son ever again.

This thing has actually been in use more often than my Surface since I got it, and I love using it. I have my graphic design tools installed, I have Bitwig for working with audio and music projects, and OBS for some video capture. It’s not quite powerful enough to handle editing, but I have both a Surface Pro and a proper desktop that can handle that easily. 90% of what I want to do on a computer can be done happily on here, and it’s just more fun to be running a modded Linux laptop than something stock.