Working From Home with a New-to-Me ThinkPad

Like so many, but not nearly enough, I’ve been work-from-home since mid-March.

My daily driver is a Dell desktop with Ubuntu 16.04 (the GNOME spin), but it’s in the living room. It’s not the easiest place to work during the day, in that it’s high-traffic. My two-year-old daughter is way too fascinated by video calls! I took to working in the bedroom on my fairly old T420i ThinkPad for chunks of the day. It’s probably around 10 years old, but it’s rock solid, even though it’s 32-bit architecture and 8GB RAM. I ran Linux Mint Cinnamon on it and while it wasn’t blazingly fast, it handled my daily work without any issues. That is, until a Zoom update broke Zoom. Without Zoom, the computer was much less useful. And unfortunately, finding support for Zoom on a 32-bit Linux system isn’t as easy as it sounds.

I realized I needed a new laptop. I looked at new ThinkPads but they were much pricier than I wanted to spend out-of-pocket. I started hanging out in the ThinkPad subreddit, and seeing all of those people doing so well with used ThinkPads. I realized that the whole point of a ThinkPad is the durability. Why not go used? So I used this wonderful guide and started searching ebay, Newegg, TigerDirect, Overstock—anyplace that sold used ThinkPads. I eventually decided against ebay because I wanted some kind of warranty and I wound up finding a great machine at a great pricepoint: a T460 with 16GB RAM and an IPS screen (highly recommended in the subreddit; I’m not quite sure if it matters to me…) for less than $600, including the one-year protection plan, from NewEgg. It happens to be an ultrabook, which is a moot feature since I don’t go anywhere anymore. It also happens to have a fingerprint reader, which works better than one I had 15 years ago, but which feels like a solution in search of a problem.

I put on Ubuntu 20.04 without any drama, and it’s been smooth sailing. Zoom works like a champ. I can easily VPN into my work computer with Cisco’s Linux VPN client and Remmina remote desktop. My older ThinkPad couldn’t run Cisco, so I used openconnect, a command-line tool, that while not quite as simple as Cisco, was pretty darn close.

As I mentioned, I’m using TLP to manage the battery. I use Evolution as my Exchange client (you need to install the EWS plugin, which is in the repositories). And I learned you can bring over a Thunderbird profile, just by copying a folder. It was painless. I keep my files in-sync with pcloud.

I thought I loved Ubuntu 16.04 but GNOME is fast and much better integrated on 20.04. I’ll have to move off 16.04 soon, as support is ending in 2021, but I’m now excited to upgrade my main machine.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the T420i. It’s usable, but because of its age and architecture, using it requires a certain amount of expertise. My wife is passionate about sustainable technology, so she’s been looking into some programs that might benefit from it. Because I was very lucky to be in the position that I could spend as much money as I did for a second computer. It’s important to acknowledge that privilege because there are lots of people who don’t have the option of working from home, or who have the option, but lack the technological resources. Not everyone has home Internet. Not everyone has a home computer.

I wrote this to remind everyone that while there’s a shortage of new laptops, there are lots of good used options, and Linux breathes new life into older hardware. As the people on the ThinkPad reddit are quick to point out, the more you’re able to fix up a ThinkPad yourself, the more favorable the pricing. I needed something quick and operational, but I’m comfortable with the specs I got for the price.

I’m a ThinkPad nerd. I love them (this is my third) and have had nothing but great experiences with them. But this isn’t about ThinkPads. It’s about affordability and sustainability. My story is a reminder that even if you’re not looking for a fixer-upper, you can still find something used and reliable, that runs Linux, at a good price.