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Reviving a classic: ThinkPad modder rattles tin to fund new motherboard for 2008's T60 and T61 series of laptops
When vendors don't update old models, someone must step up
"The goal is to recreate the TP experience as much as possible, while incorporating the latest CPUs and technology," XyTech's Xue Yao writes. "As the motherboard is not from [Lenovo], it will require quite a bit of hands-on from the user to get the best experience out of the machine. It will be as stable as any other computer motherboard but will not have original TP software support and features."
XyTech is not alone. CnMod is another small Chinese business that updates teenaged – and by laptop standards, that's positively geriatric – ThinkPads. The replacement motherboards come from cottage-industry scale manufacturers on the forums at 51NB.com. They offer replacement motherboards for various classic ThinkPads, including the X200, X201 and X62, updating them with modern processors, memory and storage. There's also the X330, which combines the classic keyboard of the X220 with the faster mainboard of an X230.
If you perceive computers as just office equipment, anything that works will do. But some obsess over it. There's already a thriving and lucrative market in desktop computer customisation: fancy cases, motherboard, graphics cards, cooling systems, and so on. But it's rare in laptops: because of their lack of standardisation, it's almost impossible to switch around components. The IBM-and-then-Lenovo ThinkPad range, however, are – or used to be – a bit different.
They are legendarily favoured by techies. One reason is that they're exceptionally solidly made, so a 10- to 15-year-old chassis is probably still fine. They were also exceptionally easy for end users to work on, maintain and upgrade – more so than just about any other laptop. For instance, back in 2010 writer and activist Cory Doctorow wrote about using a ThinkPad X200 with Ubuntu – a model sometimes (swearily) described as "the best laptop ever made." Later, Doctorow moved to an X220, also sometimes described as the best laptop ever made.
- Lenovo refreshes workstation ThinkPads with 11th-gen Intel CPUs, RTX graphics, 5G
- Lenovo's ThinkPad line goes under the knife: X13 models look a bit taller but worry not, the 'nipples' are still intact
- ThinkPad T14s AMD Gen 1: Workhorse that does the business – and dares you to push that red button
- Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 Gen 8: No boundaries were pushed in the making of this laptop – and that's OK
Arguably, Lenovo is losing its lustre of late. Since 2011, ThinkPads have had what El Reg called a "godawful chiclet six-row keyboard." Presumably Lenovo is aware that they're not universally loved, since the 25th-anniversary model came with the old type. Doctorow also decries driver issues and deteriorating build quality in recent models.
Such issues aren't unique to Lenovo, of course; among many others, Apple is famous for it, as well as for terrible laptop keyboards – it mothballed its much-hated Butterfly keyboard mechanism in 2020. And for an extreme example, consider the process of upgrading the RAM in a Dell XPS13.
There are signs, however, that at least some small corners of the industry are turning towards more maintainable and upgradable kit. The modular Framework laptop won praise for its repairability from "teardown nerds" iFixit, and we've previously mentioned the MNT Reform open hardware laptop. There are also laptops with mechanical keyboards.
The latest MacBooks have more ports, better keyboards, and replaceable batteries. Perhaps major players such as Lenovo will realise that the existence of a cottage industry upgrading its old models indicates that we don't all want ultra-thin, glued-together, disposable laptops. ®