Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! I wasn’t unhappy at all with the X220 I bought almost exactly two months ago, but Microsoft has announced that on Dec 31, 2017 they are changing the rules on free Windows 10 upgrades. It is no longer clear if it’ll be possible to use the XP/Vista/Win7/Win8 OEM keys on old eBayed machines to activate a virgin install of Windows 10. Given this, I was going to buy a couple more X220s to use as spares, and activate Win10 on them before the cutoff date (if it is a cutoff date). However, in browsing eBay I happened across a vendor selling a bunch of X230s with 8GB RAM, charger, no HDD (but caddy and rails included), no battery, no webcam or fingerprint reader, for $120 each. They were in very nice looking cosmetic condition, so I acquired two, and started building up the first one as my new daily driver.
The X230 is a minor model year bump up from the X220, and in fact almost all of the parts are interchangeable, though not identical. The main draw card is a newer generation CPU (i5-3320M, 2.6GHz in my case) and – more relevant – a newer and – according to reviews from 2012 – significantly more performant Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics subsystem. The mainboard also has two USB3.0 ports on the left and one always-powered USB2.0 port on the right for all the SKUs, unlike the X230 where only one of the very top end models had USB3.0. My two units also have Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 AGN WiFi, which provides optional 3×3 MIMO vs the 6205 card in the X220. The two major changes that are, shall I say, not positive, are:
- The keyboard has changed from the 7-row typewriter style keyboard on the X220 to an island-style 6-row keyboard. If you read contemporaneous reviews of the X230, this factor caused major purist angst. Offsetting this, however, the X230’s keyboard has a two-level backlight. I thought I was going to hate the keyboard, but it’s really still very nice to type on, and I can see myself putting in a good many thousands of words on it.
- The machine now enforces DRM on its batteries. Although the X220 batteries are mechanically identical, the X230 will refuse to charge them. This also means that most if not all third-party batteries are unusable even if they claim to be X230 compatible. Buyer beware! Either buy genuine, or obtain a credible promise from the vendor that their third-party battery is fully compatible with the genuine battery check. This one is pretty irksome.
There are actually BIOS hacks around both of these issues – the old 7-row keyboard is mechanically compatible with the X230 and someone has created a BIOS patch with the correct scan matrix for almost all of the keys. Similarly, enterprising hackers have patched a BIOS image to skip the genuine battery check. Much like the comments I made on my X220 posting, I file all of this under “risky and not worth it”. Genuine batteries aren’t THAT much more expensive, and besides are almost certainly going to be objectively better than priced-to-move clone batteries.
Given that I had to purchase new batteries for both these machines, I was curious as to how far I could get on the lighter 6-cell battery. I’m honestly not often that far from AC power, even when I’m in flight. My worst-case power scenario is usually flying transatlantic to/from CDG on old Air France A340 metal, which has no outlets – not even USB. But I don’t do this too regularly, and those old planes have no WiFi anyway, so my ability to work is limited.
A new-production (September 2017) Lenovo 6-cell cost me just under $50 from Amazon. Per powercfg /batteryreport, design capacity is 62,640mWh, and full charge capacity was 65,070mWh – note that this means the battery is actually celled above spec, which is what you get when you buy genuine merchandise, I guess. Pleasant surprise anyway. Rather than leave you in suspense – this battery lasts anywhere between 4hr30m and 7hr, which I realize is a horribly wide spread, but it is highly variable depending on what features you’re using. For watching movies off SSD, or some very light web browsing (basically anything that doesn’t make the cooling fan kick on continuously), I get about 6hr. I’m still deciding if I want to spring for a 9-cell, since I will ultimately need to buy a battery for the second machine anyway.
I also bought a 2.5″ KingDian 120GB SSD for $49.99. Note that there are two styles of drive caddy for the X220/X230. One style has screw posts for an mSATA drive; the other style is a 2.5″ caddy. My X220 has the mSATA caddy; the X230s both had the 2.5″ caddy. This latter is slightly unusual in that the drive is not screwed into the carrier; there are two rubber bumper caps that go over the sides of the drive and hold it into the caddy. The drive bay is quite slender; only 9.51mm slim drives can be accepted.
So how well does Windows 10 work on this device? Actually, I can’t see any noticeable performance difference between this machine and the X220. Windows installed off USB media (2017 Creators’ Update), activation accepted the Win7 Pro key out of the device’s battery compartment, and all the hardware worked with Windows drivers, though there’s an asterisk on that comment. Once I had the machine booting, I found out that there was an unadvertised cellular card in it; Sierra Wireless MC8355 Gobi 3000, which is a 3G card. Actually, there was a clue to this – although all X230s have a SIM slot in the battery compartment, units that were factory configured with WWAN cards also have an IMEI sticker. This card, which you can see just above the CMOS battery in the photo, is the one item you won’t get working out-of-box with Win10. While the actual Lenovo drivers for it install just fine, you also need an activator program to set it up for use with a cellular carrier – Lenovo’s activator refuses to detect the card. As a matter of interest, Verizon (and probably others) provide proprietary activators, and I did get as far as installing Verizon’s Gobi 3000 activator, which did see the card and could probably activate it.
However… As soon as I had Windows up and running, of course it wanted to download the 2017 Fall Creators Update (build 1709). After installing this update, Explorer gets into a crashloop on login, right about the time the system tray icons are loading. After much troubleshooting, I found that disabling the WWAN service prevented this symptom. Since I didn’t want the WWAN card anyway – and even when quiescent, it consumes battery power for no useful purpose – I just pulled them out of both machines. Problem solved. This also leaves the slot free for a storage device, if I so wish.
Next issue – a very common one on X220/230 machines. The majority of the chassis is made of magnesium alloy, but there’s a small plastic lip at the top of the LCD, where all the WiFi and WWAN antennas live. The Bluetooth antenna seems to be under the palmrest- you can see it at the bottom center of the picture above. Anyway, the antenna “window” is secured to the top part of the lid by two thin metal ears which very frequently break off. Depending on how long the machine has been used in this state, this may lead to other damage such as breaking the LCD bezel while opening and closing the lid. Fortunately, my machine had no such secondary damage. While the howto guides make it seem quite intimidating, it’s really a very simple repair too – use an Exacto to remove the two self-adhesive screw covers at the bottom corners of the LCD bezel, pull the two screws, then pry up the bezel. There’s some adhesive on the lower edge of the bezel, but it’s not difficult to remove nondestructively at all. J-B Quik is my weapon of choice to repair this type of break; placing the LCD on a flat surface to keep everything nicely aligned, simply push the broken pieces together as shown and put a small dollop of J-B over the two halves of the broken ear (don’t mind the antenna cables that you’re also gluing down). Hold for 6 minutes and you’re done. You could also hold it together with duct tape while the glue cures, but I didn’t have any handy.
I didn’t actually notice on the original listing that these machines lacked webcams, so that’s an upgrade I need to look into. The cable harness already runs to the ThinkLight here, and has the connector for the webcam module tucked away ready for use (it appears to be an internal USB connection). However, as you’ll see, there is a black blanking plate over the place where the webcam lens and activity LED should be visible. Like almost everything ThinkPad related, both the module itself and the replacement cover are available from vendors on eBay and Amazon – you could literally replace every single part of a ThinkPad from the largest chassis component to the smallest screw, simply by buying repair parts off eBay. Most of the plastic parts available for sale ship from China, however – so while I already have two webcam modules ($11 each) I’m still waiting for the cover plates.
There’s a wrinkle here that I’m going to have to look into, which is that apparently the 3×3 MIMO antenna configuration occupies the space that the webcam module requires. I haven’t actually tried to fit the part yet, as I’m traveling right now, but I will be back home in the New Year and will be able to tinker with all the parts in front of me. You can see an overall shot of the antenna area below (and also get a better idea of how I had the laptop on my desk to fix the broken ear – this is a pre-fix shot, as you can infer from the sealed package of J-B on the bottom right):
Once the webcam is installed, I think this machine will be roughly where I want it. It is possible – easy, even – to add a fingerprint reader, but I’m not sure I need it. The module itself is about $20, and in order to mount it, one must also replace the palmrest/trackpad area with a part that has the hole for the fingerprint sensor. Overall an extremely simple upgrade; I’m simply not sure I care enough about this feature to retrofit it.
The second machine, by the way, is in similar shape but the DC input jack is loose. It makes a solid electrical connection, but the connector itself seems to have become un-anchored from the mainboard. While this is very repairable, it’s unfortunately a real pain in the neck to get to – stripping down to replace the PCIe Mini cards or the trackpad is just a few screws, but disassembling the chassis far enough to remove the mainboard involves another 25-odd screws and lots of messing about. Definitely a rainy weekend project. I did temporarily put a hard drive in it to install and activate Windows, so that Microsoft gets its GUID/UUID on file for future reinstallations after Dec 31.
Overall, the only real “meh” I have at the X230 is the OEM battery lock, mainly because I was hoping to use my existing batteries. Performance and form factor wise, I have otherwise nothing but good things to say so far. It’s certainly enough machine for my use cases in 2018.