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My Favorite Dev Laptop

written June 2018, updated Aug 2018 with section about keyboard mod

I believe I have found my favorite laptop for development work.[1] It is the Lenovo ThinkPad X230. Let me attempt to make my case...

Things I Love

Very Portable

The X230 has a 12.5 inch screen, so it's very much on the small end of the notebooks spectrum. But the keyboard size and key spacing feels good. It isn't feather-weight, but it is easy to grab and go with one hand.

Powerful Enough

The X230 sports a third-gen Intel processor. Mine has an i5. For running Ruby and compiling Rust, this thing feels just as speedy as my blazing fast, cutting edge MackBook Pro. (It's probably not really that fast, but I really cannot tell a difference in my usage.[2])

Stays Cool

This laptop is always cool. Even when it's under heavy load, I hear the fan spin up, but there is almost no heat venting out. The case is cool to the touch and I can easily sit it on my lap, even when compiling a big codebase like Ruby.

I was reminded of this little laptop's efficiency today when my work-provided circa 2017 Apple MacBook Pro got hotter than wool socks in Oklahoma summer (believe me, that's hot). I don't even know what it was doing—the CPU showed only 20% usage, but my lap said “ouch.”

Rugged

This thing is made of several pieces of plastic, not a single stamp of aluminum. To me, that's a bonus. I'm not constantly worried about denting or scratching the case -- it's just a shell. Whereas fancier, newer notebooks cause me to feel I'm handling a family heirloom.

I've dropped my X230 on the floor and banged it against a doorway. Fine. I've scratched the plastic and was able to buff it out. No problem. And if I do break a piece, I can easily get a part for the case on eBay. Which leads me to my next point...

Cheap

The X230 came out in 2012 I believe, so it's a fairly old machine. You can buy two or three of these (that's actually what I did) and keep them around for spare parts. And you'll still be ahead versus buying a new laptop.

I purchased my X230 on eBay and tricked it out with an SSD and lots of RAM. But I also know you can get these other places (try NewEgg?) already beefed up.

Mod-able

Got a small Phillips screwdriver? Great! That's all you need to open this laptop up and make changes. No need for special Torx drivers or a heat gun for separating glued-together components.

I've had mine open a half-dozen times and it's a breeze. Things generally go back just one way, so no worries there.

Keyboard Mod

A few months after writing this page, I replaced the standard X230 chiclet style keyboard with a classic Thinkpad 7-row keyboard. This was a fairly simple mod, consisting of:

  1. Purchase a replacement Thinkpad X220 keyboard and palm rest from eBay. This cost me less than 50 USD with shipping.
  2. Unscrew the keyboard and palm rest, and install the new one.
  3. Follow the guide here to patch the firmware.

I've been very happy with the classic keyboard so far. The keys are a bit stiffer to press, so that took a bit of getting-used-to. I absolutely love the 7-row layout and the feel of the beveled keys.

Battery

The X230 has a replaceable battery! Revolutionary, I know. You can get a regular 6-cell battery or a big 9-cell battery. Or, (gasp!) both and use whichever one you feel like in the moment.

Using my 9-cell battery, doing the kind of work I do on this laptop, I easily get 8 hours of actual use. That's with me editing text files, compiling code, and browsing the web.

Not Great Things

Now, I should be honest... there are some annoying things about this laptop. Annoying, but workable...

Small Trackpad

The trackpad is not my favorite. I miss my gigantic MBP trackpad. This one has some sensitivity issues and clicking feels, um, weird. The sensitivity issue might just be my configuration in Linux—I'm not sure.

I end up using the keyboard much more than I would if the trackpad were a bit more useable. With Ubuntu and i3 window manager, one can get around much more quickly with the keyboard anyway, so I can live with the trackpad as it is. Still, if there is a way to make it more accurate and less janky feeling, I would spend the money and time to mod it.

Inverted T Arrows

Now, this could be a complaint of many different laptops, including my brand-new MackBook Pro. Hardware manufacturers, in an effort to cram more keys on the keyboard, have started jacking up the classic "Inverted T" arrow keys. This laptop has the keys in the Inverted T shape, but it fills in the spaces that should be blank (the space to the left and right of the up arrow) with Page Up and Page Down keys.

That's not quite as bad as making the up and down arrows half-height—that's an unforgiveable sin—but it's still annoying. I hit Page Up and Page Down, not meaning to, multiple times per day.

Screen Resolution

In the era of high-DPI screens, this laptop's 1366x768 screen resolution is a little embarassing. I like the idea of getting more stuff on the screen at once, but my mid-30s eyesight disagrees with it in practice. The screen resolution is just OK.

I'm Happy

Overall, I'm very happy with this laptop. And from what I can see on social media, there are many other vocal ThinkPad fans as well. There must be a reason.

That's about all I can say about this little laptop! If I think of anything else, I'll update this article.

Notes:

  1. At least, the kind of development work I do using highly portable, open-source programming languages
  2. I'm sure if you are rendering video or playing games, you would notice. Remember, this is my favorite laptop.

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