Getting your own good enough laptop for under $500

I recently bought a cheap, used Thinkpad T480, replaced a bunch of parts, then wrote about the experience. Some folks were asking exactly what parts they needed to do the same thing, so I figured I'd write about that too.

You don't actually need to replace anything if you want to use this laptop as-is (for around 250 USD), but you can, which is what attracted me.

The laptop

First of all, you're going to want a Lenovo Thinkpad T480, not a T480s, not a T470, and definitely not an L470/L480.

The specific laptop you're looking for has either an 8th Generation quad-core Intel i5-8250U or i5-8350U CPU. They did build versions of this laptop with an i7, but the i5 is significantly easier to find.

It's a 14 inch laptop, but in its base configuration came with a 1366x768 LCD screen with what feels like zero brightness and contrast, so if you want to save around 90 USD (the specific replacement I got was an Innolux N140HCE-EN1 Rev.C2), look for a model with a 1920x1080 IPS screen.

For a model in great condition with 16GB of RAM and a nice 1920x1080 screen, you're looking at around $250 USD on ebay, plus $125 USD for a new battery and trackpad. Over in the EU, it's around 350 euros, plus upgrades, plus potentially needing to swap out whichever keyboard you find for a US-international one (thankfully keyboards are $30 on AliExpress).

For a totally beaten up T480, I've seen them go as low as 150 USD and still look like they work, but you'll need to spend an hour or two swapping parts out.

The OS

This needs repeating: Pop!_OS 22.04 Just Works™ with this machine. I did not configure a single thing in arcane config files, not a single terminal command to run either.

Bluetooth, WiFi, the screen, the keyboard, the speakers, suspend/sleep, power management, Everything. Just. Works.

I installed the OS, installed my regular apps (Chrome, Firefox, Spotify, GitKraken, DataGrip, Slack, Discord, VS Code, Insomnia, 1Password), cloned my repos, and everything just worked.

What do you mean good enough?

I have OnlineOrNot's dev server (several node servers and a postgres server) running with zero perceptible lag as I write this article with the following apps open: two VS Code windows, Chrome with about 10 tabs, Discord, Signal, Slack, DataGrip, GitKraken.

You might notice I don't build or compile binaries as part of my workflow. If you need to compile binaries as fast as possible on your dev machine, this is not the laptop for you.

That being said, React hot reloading is pretty fast:

wait - compiling /404 (client and server)...
event - compiled client and server successfully in 264 ms (556 modules)
wait - compiling /articles...
event - compiled client and server successfully in 267 ms (563 modules)
wait - compiling /[slug]...
event - compiled client and server successfully in 495 ms (896 modules)

Jumping to my MacBook Air, sure it feels higher quality, but it doesn't feel faster when running the same workload.

The upgrades

In its default configuration, booting Pop!_OS 22.04, I was getting around 6.5 hours battery life, on a 5 year old battery that only charged to 80% of its capacity.

For my purposes, the first upgrade worth getting was a new battery. I opted for a genuine Lenovo 72wh battery (part number 01AV427), and that set me back 90 euros. With the new battery, I get 15 hours in "battery life" mode, and about 30% screen brightness.

The second upgrade I recommend is a glass trackpad from the Thinkpad X1 Extreme (possible part numbers: 01LX660, 01LX661, 01LX662). It's not exactly as good as a MacBook's trackpad, but it's one of the best trackpads I've tried on a non-Mac.

RAM: it's replaceable too. The T480 takes two DDR4 2666 MHz SO-DIMM sticks, up to 32GB total, but runs them at 2400MHz. Either 2400 or 2666 will work, get whatever is cheapest.

Optionally: you can upgrade the WiFi chip to an Intel AX210 for Bluetooth 5.2 and WiFi 6 support, but it isn't noticeably faster than the default chip.