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Tinkering with Hardware

Now that I had my first set of decent precision tools, I could really get into a few hardware tinkering projects I had in mind. One of those projects—replacing a broken keyboard—I did together with my younger children.

ThinkPad on the (very) cheap

This week, I responded to a younger person on the Techlore Discussions forum who was worried about their school's excessive digital oversight. In the discussion, several people recommended a physical school/personal life separation. I know that dependents may not be able to just come up with money for a second laptop, so I suggested looking for an older used one.

While it is still possible to find decent prices on second-hand laptops online, I have noticed that the price of used ThinkPads in particular has gone up some over the last few years. This could be an unfortunate back-firing of good work done by privacy and pro-refurbishment communities, which give these laptops extra attention for their interchangeable parts and ubiquity. ThinkPads are much loved in the Linux communities, resulting in a smooth installation experience on most older Lenovo devices.

I have found, however, that you can find excellent deals in real-life second-hand shops. This is especially true if you've put a few hours in learning about older laptops and what's inside them; you are then better able to spot a good deal. You do need to check the battery quality, and make sure the screen isn't damaged, but a lot of the elements, including the battery, can be replaced at a relatively low cost.

One day, browsing through baskets of IT junk in a thrift store, I discovered a dusty Thinkpad x200s. This laptop has a unique square-shaped screen, and one of the lovely old classic Lenovo keyboards. This keyboard, however, was missing a key. I was able to barter it down to around 50 USD because of this.

Once home, I looked up some video tutorials about replacing keyboards, and found an affordable replacement part online. I then asked my kids if they'd like to open up this laptop to see what it looks like inside, and to try to replace the keyboard. They were interested.

I had them do some of the work and took the opportunity to explain what some of the parts do, why it is important to remove the battery first, and how to avoid transferring potentially damaging static shocks to the device. We had a lot of fun together; with the Lenovo site and a video tutorial open on another screen, it felt a bit like building a Lego set. It was great to see the laptop boot up with a newly placed working keyboard. I still use that laptop today for experimenting with Linux distros.

Swapping parts around saves money!

A second interesting change brought about by owning tools was that I began to see opportunities for swapping parts in and out of the various old to ancient devices we had collected over time.

It can be a real eye-opener to learn about the difference between SSD and HHD memory, or to discover some discarded laptop contains two perfectly good sticks of 8GB RAM.

The process of tinkering and swapping reminds me a lot of role playing video games. Readers who play games where you control a party of heroes, such as the Dragon Age series, will understand the joy of moving various pieces of armour and weaponry around amongst your party until you have the most optimum setup for each character. Dedicated RPG players will spend hours in the equipment menu doing just that. I get the same sense of fun optimising older hardware, now that I know what the main parts do, and have learned how to open up the devices and swap elements out.

I have also been pleasantly surprised to discover this new-found knowledge can save quite a lot of money! New parts are pricey, and repair shops charge a high fee just for opening up your laptop. In terms of privacy, these repair shops sometimes also ask for your login details, which I am not comfortable giving. Repairing your own devices feels empowering that way.

I have a box with unused RAM sticks, and SSDs with lower memory capacity ready to use for when I find another laptop in a second-hand shop. I like to score a laptop for a low price, fix it up so it has improved performance, install a version of Linux that best fits the age of the device, and then hand it over to a charity shop. These laptops are perfectly fine for word processing and web browsing. It's satisfying to see that you get better and more confident with practice, and to know someone else might benefit from your hobby.

Swapping a CPU

Tinkering with these really old laptops gave me enough confidence to try and tackle a more serious upgrade. The Thinkpad T440p that I am writing this article on is my main device, and I wanted to try and replace the CPU (Central Processing Unit—the brain of a computer) with a better one.

I had read a T440p hardware upgrade article that recommended a switch from the original CPU (called i7 4600M) to the faster i7 4702MQ. This promised to bring better performance at the same level of energy consumption. The 4702MQ name rang a bell, and after browsing my notes (I keep meticulous notes on what's inside each laptop) I discovered I had exactly that CPU in my now unused Thinkpad E540!

I needed Isopropyl alcohol in order to clean the old thermal paste off of the element that you screw the CPU onto. I also needed to buy a small tube of new thermal paste in order to put a dab onto the body before placing the new CPU. While it looks like old glue, the paste in fact reduces the amount of heat transmission, hence the word 'thermal'.

All of this felt like a tricky operation, despite the steps themselves being quite straight-forward. I had just never attempted such a thing before, and had always considered myself belonging to the category of people who defer to experts for hardware repairs. You worry that you, the non-technical person, might push your luck too far and end up with a dead laptop and a heap of regret. I experienced the same worry the first time I flashed a new ROM onto my smartphone.

If the CPU switch had gone wrong, and if I had ended up with a borked laptop, I wonder if I might have turned back from the adventure and given up on hardware tinkering. I don't know. But fortunately, the CPU was replaced correctly, and it still works today. As an additional bonus, it was satisfying to calculate how much money I'd saved not paying for parts and repair costs. That came to a significant amount.


Techlore Discussions forum

OctoPerf's Thinkpad T440p Ultimate Buyer's Guide


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