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30 January 2021
1043 words / 3 minute read

Introducing Lenovo’s T480: The Adventurer’s (value) Laptop [Part 1]

Lenovo T480

The Lenovo T480 aka. ‘The Last Great Thinkpad’

Background

One of the best parts of 2020 - a year without many good parts - was that work saw a dramatic shift away from the debaucherous, rotten cities, toward a remote workforce. This won’t bode well for everyone, in fact many nothing jobs in the city might not exist in a few years. But if you have a hard skill, or offer a service in need, it has opened up a wealth of business and career opportunities. But that begs the question, in the new economy, what will be the weapon of choice for technologists on the move.

Right now my primary workstation is the XMG Fusion 15 (in Asia and the USA it is branded as the Aftershock Vapor 15 Pro or the Eluktronics MAG-15 respectively). I can’t recommend this machine highly enough, its magnesium chassis is sleek, it boasts a mechanical keyboard, 15 inch display and extensive upgradeability. XMG shipped the machine without RAM or storage drives, which allowed me to choose exactly the configuration I wanted. The final specifications I opted for are as follows:

Processor: Intel Core i7-9750H | 2.6 - 4.5 GHz | 6 cores / 12 threads | 12 MB cache | 45 watts

Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1660 Ti | 6 GB Dedicated RAM

Memory: 2 x Samsung 16GB DDR4 2666MHz RAM

Storage: 2 x Samsung 970 EVO Plus | 500 GB | NVMe M.2 Internal SSDs

Of course its running Pop!_OS and I installed Windows 10 on the second drive (for the moment). However, while the machine is light considering the punch it packs, I still wouldn’t feel comfortable backpacking around India with it. The 230wh charger is fairly bulky, and the battery lasts only around 5 hours with modest use. I could certainly optimise it, but I just don’t really feel the need to travel with this machine, nor - to be fair - is that it’s intended purpose. Frankly, what I really need is a second laptop that I don’t mind seeing scratched up or dropped off the back of a truck in Indonesia. I do have the T440p which has proven itself a reliable workhorse, but it is THICC, and with the larger battery I’m running, it is around 2.3 kg excluding the charger and case. Even that 9 cell battery doesn’t get more than 3-4 hours with normal use. No, what I need is a laptop which is:

Light weight but durable - and, well tuff;

Powerful (relatively) - to render video content, manage VMs, handle half a dozen local containers;

Upgradeable - to make it fun;

Long battery life - for long trips on the road, hiking, sailing, camping etc;

Good Value - this is my second machine, and its for long, rough hikes, sailing and so forth so it will probably break or be lost at sea;

Bonuses - bright screen, good keyboard, Wireless WAN, decent speakers etc.

So between the long coding sessions I was doing in mandatory quarantine in Darwin, Australia I went on a bit of a search to see what what out there. Most google searches involving travel and laptop returned trendy machines like the Dell XPS 13 and the 13” MacBook Pro. Neither of these examples came even close to meeting the above criteria. But then, there is always a ThinkPad right? The newly release Lenovo X1 Nano is a beautiful machine, but also expensive and with understandably limited upgradeability. However, the T480 meets almost all of above criteria. The Dell XPS 13 weighs in at 1.2 kg. While not the lightest or the slimmest laptop, the T480 isn’t actually much heavier at 1.6 kg. The extra inch on the display also doesn’t hurt when it comes to being productive. The T480 also has one major advantage, it is one of the last ThinkPads to roll with the Power Bridge, meaning the laptop has both an internal battery and an external battery which you can swap out with a freshly charged one while you’re on the move. The T480 came 8th generation i5 or i7 processors and sports two upgradeable RAM slots (for a maximum of 2 x 16 gb = 32 gb). The T480 screen is also upgradeable, and to top it off, these laptops use a USB Type-C charging cable, the same as most new smartphones (excl. Apple of course) so you only need to pack a single charger. The Kaby-Lake integrated graphics, while laughable in comparison to my XMG Fusion 15 is still a big step up on the T440p and provides enough power to do basic video editing, especially if you’re patient (the T480 did also come with an entry-level dedicated GPU variant using the MX 150, but for the sake of battery life, I wanted to stick with the integrated GPU version). Finally, while not mechanical, ThinkPads are renown for their best in class keyboards/typing experience.

Hunting a T480 down in the wild

“$400 - Lenovo Thinkpad T480 i5 8th gen - issues” - Seller, Gumtree.

Gumtree is like Craigslist/Ebay Classifieds in the States or Ebaykleinanzeigen in Germany (in fact it’s owned by Ebay). Unfortunately, asides from two grainy photos, the advertisement offered no further details on my future side kick. I tried to contact the seller to garner more details, but to no avail. So I put in a bid for A$200 (approx. 125€). Most listings in Germany put the price around 700-800€ or more than A$1,200. So this offer was about a fifth of what I might have expected to pay for it in Germany. In Australia listing prices were only slightly more attractive. The mandatory haggling took place, and ultimately I secured the unit for A$300 or ~190€.

Not bad right?

Or so I thought. Actually, and to be expected, the laptop was cheap for a reason. But it wouldn’t be any fun if it worked right? Between a faulty screen, BIOS Supervisor password, missing hard drive and extensive wear and tear, this unit was potentially unsalvageable.

Part 2: auf Vordermann bringen (whip it into shape)

Stay tuned for Part 2. where we deal with BIOS password issues, damaged screens, missing RAM/Hard Drives, WWAN cards and install Arch Linux to turn this Lemon of a laptop into a digital nomad’s scimitar.