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51nb ThinkPad X210 Mod Review: From an Alternate Reality

Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: 51nb

The Story Begins

In the automotive world, there is the idea of a sleeper car. Sleepers are high-performance cars in mundane, dull shells. This performance can come from a variety of different areas; it might be a high-performance trim level of a vehicle that most people associate to be cheap or slow, from modifications, or even entire drivetrain swaps.

The enthusiast PC building world also has their equivalent sleepers. In general, these sorts of project swap new, high-performance hardware into chassis from vintage desktop computers, this build from Linus Tech Tips springs to mind as a standout option.

One area that largely gets left behind in the PC hardware modification world is notebooks. Generally, notebooks don’t use standard components, making it virtually impossible to do something like swap newer hardware into an existing notebook chassis.

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What we are taking a look at today, however, defies all common knowledge of the PC world. Through the work of some intrepid modders, I am now the proud owner of a 2010-vintage Lenovo ThinkPad X201 with a modern, 8th generation quad-core mobile processor, NVMe SSD, and 32GB of DDR4 memory in it.

How is this possible? Let’s dive into it!

For several years now, the forum section of the Chinese 51nb site (a general technology news/review site), have taken it upon themselves to develop, test, and produce new motherboards to retrofit modern technologies into older ThinkPads such as the X60/X60s, X61/X61s, T60/T61, and in this case the X200/X201.

For ThinkPad fans, these model numbers will have a special place in their heart. These ThinkPads represent the transition time for the ThinkPad brand from IBM to Lenovo and are some of the last notebooks to feature what fans consider standout “ThinkPad” details such as the fantastic 7-row keyboard with the blue enter key, 16:10 displays, and the ThinkLight.

Since there’s not a whole lot of information on the crew behind these notebooks (including the elusive “HOPE” who provides excellent updates and details on the forums), we don’t want to speculate too much. However, it seems likely that at least some of these individuals are working in the PC industry as their day job, which gains them access to the much-guarded documents and materials to make something like this happen in their free time. Keep in mind, a lot of the available information is poorly translated, so I’m going to do my best to represent my personal experience with this notebook.

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For enterprising enthusiasts who want one of these modified machines, there are two main routes to go a DIY or a prebuilt option. For the “X210” motherboard can be ordered on Weidian for a price of 3000 Chinese Yuan, or about $450 USD. This package comes with the motherboard, processor (an i5-8250 Engineering Sample), and the CPU cooler. From what I can tell, this motherboard will work the stock X210 display, but another very common mod is upgrading to a 1920x1200 display, which can be found here on Taobao.

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Both Weidian and Taobao will likely require the use of third-party package relay services to order these components for delivery outside of China. Once you have the motherboard, you can follow the instructions on the 51nb forum for the slight modifications that need to be done to the X210 chassis to fit the new components.

The second option and the one I went with, is to go with a third-party inside of China who is taking these same parts, and installing them into X201 chassis to provide a more turnkey solution. The most popular (and potentially only) one of these services goes by the name LCDfans. LCDfans deals mostly through their Facebook page and email (although they have recently opened a website with some of the information) and provides different runs of these pre-modded machines to interested consumers.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road as far as the sketchiness of this endeavor. After emailing back and forth a bit, Jacky from LCDfans sent me the details for the pre-modded barebones machine (sans RAM, battery, AC adapter, and Storage) and the information of how I could send the payment;(just under $1000 with the upgraded 1920x1200 display) via wire transfer or Western Union.

Clearly,  this is a considerable risk, without any guarantees, and not something people should generally do. However, given that I had seen posts on places like the forum and ThinkPad subreddit about people getting these machines through LCDFans/Jacky, I eventually decided to go forward with the deal.

After some frequent emailing back and forth wondering if my $1000 had just disappeared into the ether, Jacky eventually informed me that my machine had been shipped. Unlike other goods coming from China, LCDFans shipped the notebook via DHL Express airmail, so I received it in a matter of days rather than weeks.

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Opening the package, I was greeted with what appeared on the outside to be a brand new ThinkPad directly from 2010, still with plastic protective coating over the trackpack and display. LCDFans seems to be sourcing new-old-stock ThinkPad chassis and using them instead of modifying used machines.

Now that I’ve gotten my hands on this elusive notebook let’s look at what’s inside. 

Review Terms and Disclosure
All Information as of the Date of Publication
How product was obtained: The product has been purchased by the writer for the purpose of this review.
What happens to the product after review: The product remains the property of the writer, and the usage is at their discretion after the review.
Company involvement: 51nb/LCDFans had no control over the content of the review and was not consulted prior to publication.
PC Perspective Compensation: Neither PC Perspective nor any of its staff were paid or compensated in any way by 51nb/LCDFans for this review.
Advertising Disclosure: 51nb/LCDFans has not purchased advertising at PC Perspective during the past twelve months.
Affiliate links: This article contains affiliate links to online retailers. PC Perspective may receive compensation for purchases through those links.
Consulting Disclosure: 51nb/LCDFans is not a current client of Shrout Research for products or services related to this review. 

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July 27, 2018 | 08:51 AM - Posted by realmenretrofit2000eraImacs (not verified)

that's pretty cool! its missing RGB lighting though...and wheres the fire wire?

July 31, 2018 | 02:42 PM - Posted by equalunique (not verified)

Might just be my opinion here but I doubt most people doing this mod are interested in RGB lighting.

July 27, 2018 | 12:09 PM - Posted by Jawsh (not verified)

That's pretty cool. I've been carrying around my t510 (not quite as old, but still has most of the good stuff) and am really feeling the first gen core i5 at this point... It would be amazing to get a motherboard to upgrade the USB to USB3 and a modern cpu and ram (maybe even replace the charger with a USB type C port.... I tried something like similar by putting a raspberry pi in an old thinkpad chassis once, but I never managed to get the screen working so it was mostly just for fun.

July 27, 2018 | 12:45 PM - Posted by Gikero

Is it likely that heat and thermal issues are due to the Engineering Sample or is it more likely that a stock chip would still behave the same? The stock X201s could be configured with a 25W i7-640LM. I'd be guessing that the cooling solution in this custom laptop could properly dissipate heat generated by the i5-8250U because of it's thicker design and more robust cooling.

July 27, 2018 | 01:11 PM - Posted by Ken Addison

I don't think that's the case, it would be problematic for the design process if the engineering sample chips handled very differently thermally than the retail parts.

However, I do echo your confusion about the seeming lack of cooling ability from the stock heatsink configuration.

July 27, 2018 | 04:25 PM - Posted by Rick C (not verified)

I have an Acer laptop with an i5-8250U, which has a 1.8 base and 3.4 turbo speeds, and what I see with handbrake encoding is the exact same curve as the first one, only 100MHz lower.

That--and the TIM change--suggests to me it's not the Lenovo that's holding the CPU back here. (I see mention that undervolting produced a good-sized speed boost but I can't see that chart, just a temperature chart--is the speed one missing?) In any event it makes me want to try out the XTU on my own machine.

July 27, 2018 | 10:37 PM - Posted by oijwoeiwq (not verified)

Does the ES processor support the meltdown/spectre patches?

July 28, 2018 | 05:03 AM - Posted by MrSmith (not verified)

That was brilliant. Pointless, but fascinating.

July 28, 2018 | 06:26 AM - Posted by dragosmp (not verified)

Thanks for the review Ken! I was really waiting for this article ever since you mentioned something in a podcast. It's a very interesting project. I still use almost daily my X200 configured with a 25W C2D P8600, 4GB DDR2 and an OCZ Agility3 that works like a train despite all the internet is saying. Thermally, the stock cooling solution is borderline for the 25W CPU; I have to re-paste the CPU HSF every few years as any degradation in the contact patch pushes temps high above 80C - yes I had it long enough to do it more than once.
Otherwise from a 90Wh battery it gets 5+ hours, same ballpark as you; it could the components (sans CPU) are not really low power: RAM, SSD (and its lack of LP state) and display.

My base X200 could be more usable if it had more RAM, which your mod achieves (and more). I'll use your article as a reference point. I'm more inclined to go the "buy motherboard and mod your own laptop" route.

Cool story

July 28, 2018 | 09:53 AM - Posted by Another one with x210 (not verified)

I guess everything comes down to it being an engineering sample? Mine reaches 3.39Ghz and it peaks around 80c. Really loving it.

July 28, 2018 | 10:50 AM - Posted by Ken Addison

Interesting to hear! Do you know if yours was in the first or the second batch? Maybe there's some deviation on the firmwares. Did you mod it yourself or order the machine from lcdfans?

July 28, 2018 | 09:37 PM - Posted by Another one with x210 (not verified)

I bought the second batch. Yup, only the board and put everything else together. One thing that they mentioned is the stock cooler will require a piece of thin metal to make better contact with the processor.

July 28, 2018 | 02:55 PM - Posted by Tantor (not verified)

Great story. It's tragic that we cannot do this in the US. We have 330 million people, but the tinkering instinct seems to have fled. Even RadioShack is gone.

July 29, 2018 | 05:09 AM - Posted by Chris Ramseyer (not verified)

HAHA! I can update my T61p, the best notebook ever built.

July 31, 2018 | 02:45 PM - Posted by equalunique (not verified)

Can confirm. They should have just kept producing updates to T61 series. No significant improvements have been made outside of performance/efficiency/weight advances. The T61 had the best usability and ergonomics of all.

August 20, 2018 | 01:03 PM - Posted by loshihyen (not verified)

Great article! (reading from an X210 :P)
Can I ask where did you find the power manager program that makes a little green battery icon on the lower right corner on the screen?

September 20, 2018 | 02:55 AM - Posted by annysmithh (not verified)

I think battery life is less significant an issue given that the 9-cell can be swapped out, and that the NVME power-saving management (ASPM) has not yet been enabled in the BIOS. Apparently, this will come in a future firmware release.

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