There are often people asking “what laptop should I get to use Linux and face the least amount of hardware issues?” For me, this is almost a settled answer for many years now. My default choice is Lenovo, and more specifically the Thinkpad line (originally designed by IBM). Why did I go that path, you might ask? Let me give you some perspective. Note that I am not doing this on behalf of Lenovo or anyone else for that matter: I’m just a very happy user of this brand over the years on multiple machines. And of course, I am typing this on a Thinkpad. So here goes:
1. Excellent Linux support
Most Lenovo models work out of the box with the most well known distributions, whether it’s Ubuntu, Mint, Arch or Fedora. One factor which explains this is the fact that for a long time, Red Hat had (still has?) a partnership with Lenovo to ensure that all of the Lenovo Thinkpad laptops would run Linux properly (mainline, no specific patches). Lenovo is also now selling Thinkpads with Linux pre-installed on their US store. But since you will see below I’d recommend to buy them second hand, you will probably get a model with Windows installed. Wipe it out, and install your favorite distro afterwards.
In practice, you COULD almost buy a Lenovo (Thinkpad) laptop eyes closed and expect no issues, but there are two exceptions to the rule:
- Fingerprint scanners: if you plan to use those, most of the time you need to install extra software to get such support. There’s a whole Arch wiki page about it. Personally I don’t really care and I don’t use them.
- Some models of the X1 Carbon series: the 7th gen model had notorious issues with Linux (microphone not working, etc…) but that’s almost an exception in the history of virtually impeccable hardware support. In any case, just double-check that the model you plan to buy has no such issues (the X1 carbon has a new generation model every year, so you need to check which generation they belong to).
It’s changing a bit these days, but for a long time Lenovo were amongst the most modular laptops available on the market. For an end user, it was fairly easy to do any of the following:
- change the internal battery (or swap the external battery for older models)
- replace/upgrade the screen
- replace the keyboard
- expand internal storage (HDD,SSD)
- expand internal RAM memory
- change wireless card (as long as not blacklisted by the BIOS)
- replace the trackpad
- (some models only) replace/upgrade the CPU!
- replace the CPU fan
Here’s for example what the service manual looks like to replace a wireless card in a T590:
Note that all of this info can be downloaded directly on Lenovo’s website – quite a few manufacturers prefer to only provide such guides to “professionals” instead, for a fee.
Thinkpads being easy to service is a property from the original Thinkpad line. But the bad Apple’s influence can be felt these days: more recent models have been compromising on such aspects. Some models tend to have RAM soldered on the mobo (with only an extra slot available, or worse, none!), but even the MacBook-type models (the X1 carbon series) can be opened by removing just a few screws to service them – a dead battery will never be a problem: you’ll be able to order a replacement one and change it yourself without trouble. Same for a broken screen. One of the most modular Thinkpad laptops is the T440p (a legend) where you can upgrade the CPU super easily to get much more powerful ones if you wish, and expand the whole thing to be a little monster with 32GB of RAM and a Full HD screen (which is very nice in 14 inches format).
Lenovo has some servicing guides for just about anything you can do with each model, with very clear instructions. Such guides are typically made for IT departments in corporations, who can customize or repair the computers they give to employees. Opening a Thinkpad is something natural: it does not void your warranty.
On my Thinkpad X220 (12 inches format from 2011), I have replaced by myself the CPU fan once. It was not super easy on that model since the CPU on that model is kind of hard to reach, but it was still doable with a bit of time and patience. My X220 now keeps humming just fine under heavy workloads. Yeah, it’s an old machine, but it’s amazing even to this day – typing on it is a pure pleasure.
I typically replace the screens also on all of my Thinkpads. The default screens you get them with are typically low-quality (except on X1 carbon), but there’s a very healthy market for replacement screens for just about every model under the sun, whether it’s for high resolution, better contrast or better color rendition – or all of them combined. Replacing the screen is usually super easy: remove the bezel, remove a few screws, then take the current panel off, and then put the new one and put back everything. Always just a 5 minutes job. Love it.
3. Hard to break
All of the Thinkpad laptops are encased in carbon-fiber shells. You may have heard the joke: “I dropped my thinkpad on the floor, it broke the kitchen tiles” – yet this is not even so exagerrated. Thinkpads are made to survive falls from several meters, and older models have a mechanism to evacuate fluids if you happen to spill your mug on your keyboard!
I have owned more Thinkpads than I can count now and I have never seen any of them break, even after unfortunate drops from a table or from a bag. These things are SOLID. This wins over a Mac (and most other brands) anytime in terms of robustness. The only thing that’s probably even more robust is anything in the Panasonic Toughbook laptops line.
4. Thinkpad Keyboards: there’s no challenger.
While all of the above factors are really important for me, at the end of the day one of the most important factors is the legendary quality of Thinkpad keyboards. It’s hard to convey in words how good they feel: I have a mechanical keyboard on my desktop and I love it, but Man, do I love my Thinkpad’s keyboards too! They feel just as good, precise and responsive on a much smaller footprint. I can type hours and hours without getting tired. Since I do a lot of coding/typing, this is a huge deal for me. The earlier models (x20 and earlier) have a very complete keyboard with 7 full rows of keys which make them absolute productivity beasts. And if you happen not to like the keyboard you got with your model, you should know that there’s typically two different manufacturers of Thinkpad keyboards: LiteOn and Chicony (you can identify which is which using the FRU code attached to their parts), and they have a different feel (pressure applied, and material used for the keys), so there’s always the chance to find what fits you the best.
5. The Nipple. Some call it a Trackpoint.
You know the red dot thingy right in the middle of the keyboard? That’s the Nipple.
It replaces the mouse by having some kind of pressure sensor in all directions. If you have never used it it will feel weird and useless at first, but give it a try and soon you will forget about the Trackpad under the keyboard. I guess people coming from the Mac rave about their trackpads and all the crazy gestures they do with them. Thinkpads are Nipple+Keyboard machines – with an trackpad for people who can’t convert – once again it’s hard to switch to another brand when you have experienced and like this combo (your hands can stay full time on the keyboard this way). Not many other laptop makers offer those, and when they do, they don’t work even half as well as the Lenovo trackpoints.
Growing up I have had to work hard to earn any kind of cash, so I always feel guilty when buying something new with more than 3 figures. The great thing with Thinkpads is that they are made for the enterprise market. Which means, corporate clients will replace their whole fleet of laptops every 2-3 years and throw them away for almost nothing – this is when you will find them hitting second hand markets (Ebay, or Yahoo Auctions in Japan for example). This makes it possible to get a 2-3 years old model for a fraction of the initial price. Since numerous components of Thinkpads can be replaced/upgraded, you can end up with a very powerful configuration cheaper than what’s sold for new – and since Thinkpads are built to last and not to break too fast, a 2 years old model won’t have much scratches and should work just like it did as new.
7. Ports Galore!
If there’s one thing I hate the most about Macbooks or every brand that follows what Apple is doing, is the ongoing war on laptops ports – all the while selling you official adapters at 5 times the normal price. Now you end up with laptops that have less ports than your Raspberry Pi these days. Absolutely ludicrous. Thinkpads typically have plenty of connectivity. My good old Thinkpad T530 has a VGA port, a mini DisplayPort, an Ethernet port, 2 USB 3 ports, 2 USB 2 ports, one SD card slot, a DVD drive (which can be replaced by storage on the SATA port), an audio jack and another expansion slot for specific hardware (such as external GPUs). And if you intend to transform your laptop into a real workstation, Lenovo sells docks that can bring this to a whole different level.
Which models ?
Since Lenovo releases new Thinkpad models every single year, there’s an abundance of configurations and models on the market. Here’s a rough way to split them into different categories:
- X series: the smallest form factor (12 inches screens) made to be very portable and easy to carry, from X200 to X290, the higher the number the more recent the model.
- X1 Carbon series: While it’s in the X category, they are actually 14 inch models, and they are made like MacBooks, i.e. very very thin, and the battery is inside the shell (not outside) but can be replaced easily anyway. They are premium models, they tend to have better screens than usual, excellent keyboards (with keyboard light for night usage) but their memory is fixed (no expansion slot). X1 carbon models don’t have numbers so instead you can refer to their year of production or their generation)
- T series: larger screen sizes (14, 15 inches) which are more comfortable for doing work for long hours. They also tend to have more ports. Models range from T400 to T490 for 14 inches, and T500 to T590 for 15 inches.
- P series: the workstation series, with numpads on the keyboard, large screens (17 inches), and very bulky (not for carrying around) but with tons of expansion slots for memory and storage. Excellent if you don’t need to move. Some models in the P series have discrete GPUs too. The branding is typically something like P50, P51, P52, P53, P71, P72…
- Yoga: convertible versions (with touch screens, can be used as tablets when folding them around) – I don’t recommend using that though.
Note that Lenovo has non-Thinkpad lines – usually of lower build quality for the consumer market. I’d recommend avoiding those.
Very recently Lenovo has started to rename their newer models after they reached the 90 figure: the newer models follow this kind of codes now:
- X13 – corresponds to the previous X series. (with both Intel and AMD offerings)
- T14 – the new T series for 14 inches. (with both Intel and AMD offerings)
- T15 – same for 15 inches. (with both Intel and AMD offerings)
- X1 carbon – they have not changed how they called those.
- X1 extreme – a derivative of the X1 carbon, focused on having high resolution screens (4k) and discrete GPU in a very very slim format.
I don’t recommend looking at these latest models for now (in 2021) as they are still relatively pricey on the second hand market, but in a year or two they should become more affordable.
Never Looked Back
I don’t game on my laptops (apart from very light games). I have never looked for configurations equipped with discrete GPUs, so Thinkpads meet my needs exceedingly well. But it’s not for everyone. Some people are enraged that they have to replace the screen in order to get a decent one on most models (because corporate clients don’t care about good screens and good viewing angles!). I can understand that it’s a little annoying, but at the same time I enjoy a little bit of online shopping for screens (and other parts) and the DIY that goes with it. It’s nowhere near what you can do on a desktop, but it’s nice to have that feeling of control over some parts of your laptop hardware, without relying on bringing a shiny piece of shit to an official shop that is the only authorized dealer in town to do repairs (and charge you heavily for the priviledge).
Now there are alternatives in the wild. The Framework laptop is probably even more modular and user-friendly than most Thinkpads. Not sure how good their keyboards are, and they certainly won’t come cheap anytime soon either. But I like the fact that Lenovo is not alone anymore in that category. System76 offers laptops with Linux pre-installed as well, and as our friend cow_killer mentioned before in his reviews (such as the Galago Pro, the Serval…), they include excellent online servicing guides to repair and upgrade your machines. Now, they are not cheap, and they don’t have Thinkpad-grade keyboards either. There’s also Tuxedo in Germany, as reviewed by cow_killer as well. So, we are spoiled with choice.
If you have any question about Thinkpads and Linux, don’t hesitate to ask below. I will be happy to answer if I can. You also have excellent resources such as Thinkwiki, and also the r/thinkpad subreddit if you need inspiration or convincing (a lot of users in this subreddit are Linux users on Thinkpads).
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