You may recall that I've been using a Thinkpad X62 (an amateur-designed, small-run custom motherboard in the chassis of an X61, along with a display upgrade) as my personal laptop since 2018. Unfortunately, the nature of amateur-designed, small-run hardware is such that this (already somewhat janky) device has been slowly accumulating jank; and replacement parts to repair and refurbish it with are essentially non-existent. Given that, I've been faced with the truly horrifying prospect of upgrading my laptop for some time now. (This is horrifying because no OEM has made an acceptable laptop since roughly 2012, when Lenovo jumped on the abominable chiclet keyboard bandwagon and destroyed the most important touchpoint of their systems. But I digress, for now.)
A few months ago I picked up a refurbished Thinkpad X13 (second generation, with AMD processor) and started messing around with it. Having now suffered through it for a bit, here are my thoughts. This is a cranky curmudgeon's review, old-man-yells-at-cloud style.
Let's start with:
While it's bad, it's not all bad. Maybe this section can make me seem less like a joyless stick-in-the-mud! But probably not. We'll get the obvious out of the way first: yes, performance is good. Thankfully, bad smartphones and the death of Moore's law have done wonders to mitigate Wirth's law, so I have no issues with the performance of my 2016-era X62 and pretty much any modern PC will be acceptable. Fast is nice, but decidedly inessential. (My unit has the very excessively parallel 8-core Ryzen 7 5850U, 32GB of RAM—which unfortunately we're going to have to talk about later, not in the “good” section—and a half-terabyte of NVMe flash.)
The display is essentially why I was willing to give this device a shot to begin with. It's a 13.3" diagonal, 2560x1600 (which for those not doing four-digit division in their head is a 16:10 aspect ratio) matte IPS screen. Glory hallelujah, Lenovo put a decent panel in their system for the first time since checks notes um, ever!
The screen has very nice viewing angles, and good-looking colors. (I made no attempt to actually measure them. Find another review if you want a colorimeter report. They look nice to me. Way better than the horrible washed-out junk on the late '00s-era Thinkpads I've used for most of my life.) The resolution is fantastic for having enough screen real estate to be comfortable even on an ultraportable laptop. The 16:10 aspect ratio is too wide, but it's no longer the unacceptably-too-wide of 16:9 which has been a scourge on non-Apple laptops for more than a decade now. The matte finish gives good visibility in a variety of lighting conditions.
(I have one issue with the resolution, but it's decidedly a me issue, not a problem with the display itself or high-DPI software support—which for the record, is fantastic on Linux with Wayland. I'm very particular about my font rendering, and have it very carefully tuned. But it's tuned to a particular pixel size, and at 220-some DPI, the glyphs are floating just barely above the threshold of legibility. Scaling works fine, but things obviously render differently then. I'm going to have to spend some time considering my options and, ugh, probably evaluating fonts to come up with a good alternative.)
The laptop's footprint is roughly the same as an 8.5x11" sheet of paper, so it fits comfortably in laptop bags, backpacks, and pretty much any bag you might stuff a book or a few papers in. It's under an inch thick, which I literally don't care about at all (and results in apparent compromises in other areas such as key travel). It's a good portable laptop size.
It weighs 2.8lbs (1.3kg), which is fantastic. (For comparison, the X61 is 3.1lbs (1.4kg) with a small-capacity battery. The X62 is very similar, but I don't have weights to hand.) It's a very pleasant laptop to carry around. I guess that magnesium alloy chassis is good for something after all.
- This is an esoteric one, but the headphone port is on the correct (left) side. One-cord headphones (almost?) all have their cord emerge from the left earpiece. The vast majority of laptops put the headphone port on the user's right. This means the headphone cord crosses the user's body, which is both awkward and an invitation to accidentally pulling either the headphones or the laptop. (This isn't just a laptop problem; if you have a set of desktop speakers with an aux port, it's probably in the right speaker.) The X13 has the headphone port on the user's left.
- There's a built-in physical shutter for the webcam, which is actually surprisingly nice.
- USB-C is a truly hilarious disaster, but having a standardized docking connector is quite nice. I can swap the X13 in for my work laptop in my home office setup and everything immediately Just Works™. The monitor I'm using as a dock only puts 18W of power over its USB-C port (which is hilarious, and I assume has to be a weird oversight; it was not a cheap monitor, so presumably not cutting the few bucks of components for a power supply, but who knows), but this turns out to be way over the average usage of a laptop workstation and there's a big ol' battery right there to handle spikes in power usage, so it doesn't actually matter.
- Ports in general are… ugh. Ports are going to turn up in the “bad” section, too. But we have a tolerable selection here: multiple USB-C and USB-A ports, 3.5mm audio, and HDMI (I would prefer DisplayPort, but that seems to be dead in the laptop space).
- Battery life is excellent. Once we reach the benchmark of “lasts all day” (roughly six to eight hours), I don't have any use for more (and I'd rather save the weight in battery). The X13 lasts all day.
- Not getting stuck with an Intel chip (weirdly poorly-engineered, and more importantly, finances their awful cartel-like behavior) is fantastic, and a relative novelty in the laptop space.
Ugh, the keyboard. It's atrocious. Lenovo has not improved it since I last tried them out, shortly after the chiclet debacle. The travel is too short (presumably in service of making the laptop thin, which is the physical dimension I care least about). The key pressure is too low; it should be high enough that I can comfortably rest my fingers on the keyboard without risking mis-presses, and it's only barely there. And, of course, the chiclet (or, in a euphemistic attempt at legitimisation, “island-style”) keycaps enforce inaccuracy and mistyping. (I'll maybe delve more into the details of this in some other rant.) Lenovo's much-vaunted ”our chiclet is different” chiclet is, I'm sure you will be shocked to hear, not different.
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth has been done over the loss of the classic seven-row Thinkpad keyboard layout; and rightly so, but we're not going to relitigate that here. Instead, let's talk about some of the way more novel… oddities… of the new keyboard layout.
- Classic thinkpad keyboards had forward/back navigation keys above the cursor keys. They're gone in the new layout; that's now where page up and page down live. This is normal in laptops (and has been for a very long time), but the old layout was better.
- The context menu key is gone altogether, replaced with… print screen? Really? I virtually never use either key (in fact, the context menu key is one of those “really annoying to mis-press” ones, along with the meta key on Windows), so I have no opinion on this, but it's weird.
- They did the annoying thing where all the special keys (XF86AudioMute et. al.) share keys with the numbered F keys and can only be pressed in a chord with the Fn key. There's a toggle to switch the default mode (Fn+Esc) and an indicator for which is active but it's not at all clear which mode the indicator signifies. (For the record: unlit means the numbered F keys are default; lit means the special keys are default.)
- There's no sleep key? You're just supposed to close the lid, I guess, but that's a misfeature I disable with a sledgehammer at the earliest possible opportunity. Fortunately there are plenty of other special keys I'm never going to use (phone pick up/hang up, for example) I could coopt for this purpose.
I harp on the keyboard, constantly, because it is the part of the computer you will spend the most time physically touching. By, like, a few orders of magnitude, probably, if you try to do any kind of work on it. As such, it needs to be pleasant to touch and decently tactile. Twenty years ago, the cheapest, worst laptop on the market had an acceptable keyboard. Mushy, certainly, and far from pleasant; but usable. Now, there is no laptop with an acceptable keyboard, at any price. The best, most expensive laptop you can buy in 2023 has a worse typing experience than a cheap used Acer from 2003. Why? How? I blame Apple for this, but ultimately the cause doesn't really matter. The most important touchpoint on every laptop is bad. The X13 is no exception.
Lenovo many generations ago dropped the ThinkLight (a small LED in the top of the monitor bezel to illuminate the keyboard) and replaced it with keyboard backlighting, which is trendier but actually worse in practice. (You know what you can't see with keyboard backlighting? Anything other than the keyboard.) Except, um, the keyboard on my instance isn't backlit? Lenovo, that's not a valid feature combination. It's not 1999 anymore, we should be able to use our laptops in the dark. Swapping a backlit keyboard is easy (though not terribly cheap), but it really highlights the idiocy of dropping a two-cent LED for a much more complicated, much more expensive, less useful backlighting system.
The mouse buttons are terrible, as well. There's not enough height or texture to them to easily operate by touch. At least it has mouse buttons, unlike some of its contemporaries (glaring at you, Dell), I guess?
The touchpad is probably fine. I disabled it immediately, so I have nothing to report. Mis-touch detection while typing probably doesn't work well, like with every other touchpad.
Putting a sharp edge at the corner of the wrist rest, where the user rests their wrists, is just categorically unacceptable. I blame Apple for introducing and popularizing this, but everyone does it now, and it's a UX war crime every single time. The X62 has a pleasing bevel at the edge of the wrist wrest to avoid pressure points; the X13 does… not.
Rear-mounted hinges are also strictly worse than top-mounted, because the display inherently occludes the back of the laptop (which could otherwise be used for useful things like rarely-used ports or cooling vents) when open. The lack of a latch on the display is also a downside, since it's insecure but simultaneously doesn't allow the laptop to be opened one-handed. These are both annoyances, not dealbreakers, but if you make your system worse for the sake of—apparently—looking more like a Macbook, expect criticism.
User-serviceable? What's that?
The battery is screwed into the inside of the chassis and not hot-swappable. (Fortunately, unlike some other manufacturers we could name—Apple, for instance—it's not glued in and can be replaced with just a screwdriver, assuming you can find a replacement in decent health.) There are actual engineering tradeoffs to this (not just cost-cutting), so while I don't like it and I think it's the wrong choice, I'll accept it. The same, however, is definitely not true of the RAM.
The system RAM is soldered to the motherboard. This has a whole bunch of negative followon effects, and the plausible justifications I'm aware of are:
- cost-cutting, in which case go fuck yourself; or
- it's thinner than a SODIMM port, in which case go fuck yourself.
- The only way to upgrade memory is to pay Lenovo an exhorbitant amount to solder more on when they manufacture your laptop. If you've already purchased it, now you have to buy an entire replacement motherboard, which is expensive and very wasteful.
- Low-spec models very rapidly become e-waste. The base memory spec for the X13 gen 2 is 8GB. That's sufficient for casual use right now, but the continuous efforts of web developers to make life worse for everyone mean it wont be forever; and instead of getting their life extended with a cheap RAM upgrades, these devices will just get trashed.
- When the time comes that I'm looking for replacement parts, they're going to be thin on the ground because of all the junk 8GB motherboards floating around.
- I dunno if you've noticed this, but memory goes bad. It's a uniform high-density IC with limited ability to fuse around bad sections or avoid them at runtime. Memory is the component I replace second most-frequently, after only spinning-disk hard drives (which have moving parts, and are thus essentially in an entirely different realm). If the RAM in your X13 fails, you will have to replace the entire motherboard in order to fix it.
- The speakers are bad. This is a universal laptop property and I literally removed the (single!) speaker from my X62, so this isn't a meaningful criticism, but it's worth noting.
- There's no ethernet port; just a not-an-ethernet port to which a (maybe passive?) dongle can be attached. They should have just included a third USB-C port, as long as we're being forced to spend time in dongle-opolis. Also, there's no USB-C port on the right side, so you can only charge it from the left. (This was, obviously, status quo ante when laptops had dedicated charging ports, so it's not really a criticism. But it's something other laptops can do.)
- Let's talk about indicator lights! The X13 has several small, circular white LEDs on the inside for things like speaker/mic mute, caps lock, and fn key lock; a single red LED on the back of the display, in the "Thinkpad" logo, which is lit for power on and slowly blinks in sleep mode; and a single white LED next to the power port which is lit when the laptop is receiving power. This is all generally insufficient, especially if the laptop is closed (and blinking indicators are the devil: not readable at a glance while simultaneously distracting). The competition is much worse on this front (especially Apple, with no external indicators whatsoever), but that certainly doesn't earn Lenovo a pass.
- There are a surprising number of bad translations in the firmware.
Other decently-modern laptops I've used non-trivially in recent memory include:
- An HP something-or-other, who cares, their entire product line is garbage, let's move on
- A Dell XPS 13
- An Apple Macbook Pro M1 16"
I think I'm going to keep it. The X62 remains usable for now, but the writing is on the wall, and it's pretty clear that the laptop market is not going to significantly improve any time soon. (The third-generation X13 is strictly worse than the second gen in display options, for example.) The X13 is almost not terrible, which seems to be about the best one can hope for these days.
I'm not happy about it, though.