Apple Fanboy to Thinkpad Diehard

Note: I am publishing this relatively unedited post in celebration of ThinkPad’s celebration of 25 years.

For about 15 years I was an Apple Fanboy. While I originally learned to program on a CoCo II, then a Unisys ICON, and later on Windows, the Mac operating system and hardware is what allowed me to start my own small business in the mid 2000’s. I ran that business until the mid 2010’s and over the course of nearly a decade I slowly became less enchanted with the Apple Ecosystem.

In the beginning I had multiple Apple computers, from a Macintosh Performa, to a handful of iMac G3’s, a Powermac G4, a Mac Pro with a Cinema Display, a Mac Mini, and finally a MacBook Pro that I bought in 2013. I had iPhones, Apple TV’s, heck I even went through a number Apple routers. There wasn’t a piece of tech in my house for a number of years that wasn’t made by Apple. I was happy to pay the Apple Tax at every turn.

Mac Mini and Mac Pro with Apple Cinema display

Around 2008 I started to experiment with Linux. Initially I’d run a PowerPC version, virtualized on my G4 hardware. I loved everything that Linux stood for. Back then, Apple and Windows were charging hundreds of dollars for their OS’s and here was Linux, free and open source.

When my non-tech savvy in-laws wanted to get a computer for the first time, I wanted their introduction to computing to be cheap, easy and low risk. So I got them set up on an off-lease PC and Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope. By 2009 I was repurposing a G3 iMac into Ubuntu servers and by 2010 I was building my own 1u rackmount server which I ran numerous headless Linux distros for various purposes over the last 7 years (I still run this server today).

internal image of server

For a while my interest in Linux was separate and apart form my obsession with Apple hardware and OS. Linux had a utilitarian purpose while Mac OS X was the OS I did real work on. Apple had the software I needed, it just worked, I made my living off Apple hardware. I even had an Apple Server for my file server and mail server. Linux was just for my web servers.

A number of years into my Apple obsession I realized how poor support was from Apple. Products were considered obsolete after only a few years, making legacy support non-existent. Persistent problems in current products were ignored by the company until the product was obsolete. Products were under-powered from initial release, making them all but useless at a few years old. And over time, Apple products became less and less user upgradable which was their plan to put you on an upgrade path of every couple of years.

In 2012 I decided to take some time out of my company to help out a startup. It required me to have a Windows laptop. I bought one. It was my first serious non-Apple hardware in a long, long time. It wasn’t awesome, but it wasn’t horrible either. I kept Windows on it for the few months that I worked with the startup but afterwards I used it as my Linux Desktop playground. Since it was a laptop, it found it’s way on to the couch with me more and more, and so did Linux.

image of an Asus K55A

In 2013 I left my company all together and joined the corporate workforce where Windows, and Lenovo ThinkPads dominated. I didn’t like either one. They were clunky, had hard edges, were hard to look at, and ugly as hell (yes I’m talking about both software and hardware). So after logging less than 20 minutes on a Lenovo T420, I brought my own laptop from home, running Linux. Of course I could only access any of the corporate infrastructure from my corporate Blackberry device and not my personal laptop, but that was their loss, am I right?

My personal laptop, a consumer grade turd, was no nicer to look at than the ThinkPad tanks, but at least it was running Linux. And this is how I ran for a few months, until one day, for reasons unknown, compelled by dark forces, I went out and bought… no… paid for the privilege of owning a $2,200 MacBook Pro.

Let’s put this into perspective… I was primarily a web developer working primarily in the terminal, with vim and all the command-line tools that come with a terminal. All tools that are arguably better on Linux, and for whatever reason I decided that I needed to spend $2,200 for a MacBook Pro with a retina display so I could look at a terminal emulator in high resolution.

macbook pro in a stand at a startup I worked at

That MacBook Pro traveled with me from a that corporation to an agency to a startup over the course of the next 2 and a half years. It occurred to me that I was logging a lot of working hours on a personal machine that I paid a lot of money for. That was the sort of thing I did for my own business — spend a lot of money on the best hardware and work on in. But these weren’t my companies and when the laptop wears out, neither myself, nor the companies I was working for, were going to replace that MacBook for me. I finally realized what I should have back in 2013 — it’s time to get used to what you’re given in the workplace. By 2015, that was a Lenovo T450.

ThinkPads and MacBooks (PowerBooks) are two of the longest running lines of portable hardware around. Both have stayed true to their original philosophies — IBM wanted rugged, durable, longevity… and Apple wanted beautiful, powerful and cutting edge. Both of them, when new, share similar pricetags when outfitting them with equivalent specs. Both of them fit a certain persona of user. It’s rare that you’d catch an Apple fanboy with a ThinkPad in their hands, or A ThinkPad diehard with a MacBook on their lap.

My dad was a ThinkPad diehard in his days at the office. He’d rave about the TrackPoint and how there is nothing like it, how he can drop the laptop from desk height and nothing would happen to it, he could spill coffee on it and it would just pour out the bottom… Yeah but it looks like a slab of asphalt, I’d say. Back then I couldn’t see the allure and I wouldn’t be caught dead using one. A ThinkPad was my dad’s computer.

thinkpad's iconic trackpoint

I think I got over the initial shock of it in a week or two, once I got Linux installed. This was a T450 Dual-Core Intel Core i5-5200U CPU @ 2.20GHz, Intel Corporation Broadwell-U Integrated Graphics (rev 09), 12 GB memory, with 250 GB SSD. The display was a TN panel at 1600 * 900, so not the retina display I was used to, but the terminal looked fine. The trackpad and keyboard were a lot nicer than what I remembered on the T420 and I was actually enjoying using both. And then a weird thing happened — just like I stopped using my personal laptop at work, I started using my work laptop at home. I think part of me wanted to make this work and part of me was actually falling for the ThinkPad form, function and aesthetic.

My time with the Lenovo ThinkPad T450 lasted about a year before moving on to another company who issued me a Dell Latitude E7450 running Linux (of course). The Dell was not a bad machine by any stretch, but it lacked the engineering of the ThinkPad. It wasn’t nearly as rugged and rigid, it felt cheap and port placement was terrible. The trackpad didn’t have much going for it but the keyboard wasn’t bad, apart from the body flex which gave it a spongy feel. But the most important thing to note is that I was comparing my experiences on the Dell to that of the T450 — not my MacBook Pro.

I was reunited with that T450, on loan from the startup I had worked with, who I was now helping out of a jam. And that was when I realized how strong the draw was to the ThinkPad. Getting back on the Lenovo was wonderful, and since I had this thing as a loaner for a bit I was going to make the best of my time with it. I decided to see what I could use the T450 for beyond just programming. I started recording and editing YouTube videos on it, blogging on it, recording music on it, and so on. Keep in mind this loaner T450 has the slower i5-5200U CPU, but I was able to do everything I wanted on it without feeling short changed. As developers we love horse-power, but in reality the most intensive thing we do all day is compile code, and that rarely compares to rendering video. The rest of the time we are just typing in a text editor.

Fast forward a year and I am now working in a corporation again, but this time I was given a touchbar-equipped MacBook Pro 15″ Retina. You think I’d be happy to be reunited with Apple again, with their latest and greatest hardware, but to be honest, that machine doesn’t do it for me. To be sure it is true to Apple form and there could be little you could say bad about Apple’s design and engineering on this laptop, but using it is sort of meh for me. From the pizza-box sized trackpad which I palm all the time, to the keys that don’t move, to the lack of ports… all make this a machine that I will use because I have to, but I’d never buy one for myself. I don’t love anything but the retina display on the new MacBook Pro.

At home I was still using the loaner ThinkPad. In fact I was using it so much that I had the same realization that I had in 2015, but in reverse… I’m putting a lot of personal hours into a work machine that someone else paid for and if it were to wear out, neither myself nor the startup that owned it were going to replace it. It’s time I start shopping for my own ThinkPad.

Even as recently as 5 years ago when I was on the hunt for the “perfect linux laptop”, all the online forums would echo the same sentiment, “get yourself a T420”, “you can’t go wrong with a x220”, “it’s gotta be a ThinkPad, you can pick one up on eBay for…” What was wrong with these people? In my Apple world, new and shiny was what you did, you bought the newest hardware with the latest specs, that was the only thing that would work and keep up and running in today’s world. I was looking for something more, like the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition with Linux pre-installed or a System 76, made for Linux. I wasn’t looking for a clunky old ThinkPad.

When I stated using the ThinkPad in 2015 I still wasn’t immediately swayed to the extent where I would actually consider buying one. I would have bought the aforementioned Dell XPS 13 in a heartbeat but not this ThinkPad I was using. It wasn’t unit this year, after a few years of using the ThinkPad and after having also used other laptops (a couple of MacBook Pro’s and a Dell Latitude E7450) that I really came to terms with the fact that if I was going to buy another laptop for home, only a ThinkPad would make me happy.

That’s when I started scouring eBay and doing all kinds of research. I came to know the background of the whole ThinkPad line. I started to join the forums and follow the subreddits, got the inside scoop of which models were popular and why. It turns out the T420 which I logged less than 20 minutes on are still one of the most beloved models in the T series, especially among Linux users. And then there was the 12″ X series and the Carbon and the E series and the L series. I became so obsessed with the whole ThinkPad ecosystem.

I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to go for the tried and true T420, the more modern but equally cheap T430, or the upgradable T440p, the X240, the light-weight second-gen X1 Carbon, a T450 like I was used to. Did I want HD+, FHD, TN, or IPS, core i5 or i7… I had refined eBay searches with notifications set up for all these models and more. What got me so excited about looking at any and all of these models is that they can all do something that my now aging MacBook can’t — be easily upgraded. From their RAM, and storage, to their screens, batteries, keyboards, trackpads… even the CPU in the case of the T440p.

I could pick up a solid, built-like-a-tank, gently-used laptop for anywhere from $150-$650 and have it last for 5 years or more and repair it along the way. For what I can justify having yet another home computer for, this prospect makes a lot more sense than that $2,200 I spent on my now age-worn MacBook Pro.

After a few solid weeks of searching and inquiries, I finally got the eBay notification I had been waiting for. Someone on eBay wanted CAD$700 + CAD$30 shipping for a mint-condition T450s, Dual-Core Intel® Core™ i5-5300U CPU @ 2.30GHz, Intel Corporation Broadwell-U Integrated Graphics (rev 09), 8GB DDR3L SDRAM, with 256 GB SSD storage, a 1600 x 900 (HD+) anti-glare TN display. Anything above a T430 is pretty rare on eBay in Canada and I had no interest in dealing with customs for a machine from the US. $700 was more than I was willing to spend, plus the shipping, so I offered $600 and no shipping. We met around the middle, $645 all in.

The laptop arrived a few days later in better condition that I could have hoped for. The trackpad and keyboard look barely used and it didn’t take me long to open up the back and pop more RAM in, install Linux and make this laptop feel like home.

lenovo-thinkpad-t450s

I think that’s what draws me to ThinkPads. ThinkPads are one of the few commercially available devices on the market that are FRU/CRU (Field Replaceable Unit/Customer Replaceable Unit). This is what I loved about computers back in the day, even the old Apple products. They were upgradable for a few hundred dollars here or there. Instead of buying a new laptop every couple of years, like you do now, you used to add new CPU’s to your PC towers, add more storage, more RAM… even replace the motherboard if you had to. With these ThinkPads you can do most of that. I ThinkPad can arrive in almost any condition and still be serviceable… almost.

After having such incredible luck with my eBay purchase, I decided to look for an eBay gem for my daughter as well. Her Chromebook died tragically, and while I could have easily replace it with another Chromebook, her computing needs were outgrowing what they’re capable of. I decided to hunt down a ThinkPad x230 with an IPS display, circa 2012. If you’re at all familiar with the x-line from Lenovo, you know that these are venerable machines at any age and the x230 is no exception.

After much research I bought a particular x230 said to be in excellent working condition. Red flags with the seller started to go up as soon as the payment was made, as the very same post for the very same machine that was pictured in the auction I just bought, popped up on eBay immediately after. This made it clear that the item I just bought was not the actual item in the pictures. My questions to the seller to that effect went unanswered.

The laptop arrived a few days later and I was far from pleased. The chassis was bent and cracked in several places, the lid was cracked at the hinge, both hinges were loose to the point of the screen nearly falling off, the keyboard was buckled, the keys were worn smooth… I had paid $260 + tax + shipping for something that had clearly been dropped on at least one occasion. It should have been sold as-is for parts. But here’s the thing — the laptop worked.

damaged but still working

I could have kept the unit and replaced the chassis, replaced the screen, replaced the keyboard, etc… for a cost that was above and beyond what I paid for the machine already. These are things I’d do if my daughter was the one to drop the laptop or damage it later in it’s life with her at the helm, not when I’ve just taken possession of it. So I sent this particular x230 back.

The next Lenovo ThinkPad x230 I sourced out was from a seller that was more than communicative with me. I asked about the condition, cracks, hinges, etc… and once I felt like I had a reasonable relationship with the seller, I made the purchase for a Lenovo ThinkPad x230, Core i5, IPS display, 500GB HDD, 8GB RAM, also including an Ultradock. I crossed my fingers waiting for this package to arrive, hoping for something better that my original purchase.

What showed up was nothing short of spectacular. A mint condition unit with nothing more that a few barely visible scuffs on the lid to indicate that this unit was anything but brand-new. I was so pleased. My daughter was even happier.

Thinkpad x230

There was a time in my house when all my kids were begging for Macbooks. Now at least one of them is a convert to ThinkPad as well. This is not to say that the migration from Apple to another brand was isolated to their laptops. Since 2013 I have slowly migrated from all Apple hardware to alternate solutions from other vendors. My choice of phone has shifted from iPhone to Blackberry to Android (and now ironically enough I have a corporate iPhone which I despise), and everyone else’s phones in the house are Android; my set-top box has gone from Apple TV’s to Roku streaming sticks; my routers are now Cisco; my displays have gone from Apple Cinema to Monoprice, and so on. I have just generally fallen out of love with Apple.

And what became of that MacBook Pro 13″ retina from 2013? My wife still uses that on a daily basis. For $2,200 I am going to get as many years out of that machine as I can, though the battery is already starting to go on it. I think she’s seen enough between myself and my daughter to know that she’ll be getting a ThinkPad too when that Macbook finally decides it’s had enough.

 

Adam Merrifield

 

3 thoughts on “Apple Fanboy to Thinkpad Diehard

  1. Excellent read – I find I am on a similar path and your article may have helped speed up my transition!
    -JPD

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