Review Index:
Feedback

51nb ThinkPad X210 Mod Review: From an Alternate Reality

Author: Ken Addison
Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: 51nb

Design and Usability

As mentioned earlier, the X210 is based around an 8th generation Intel Core i5-8250U CPU. Note, that engineering sample CPUs are being used in these machines, likely because they are easier to get their hands on than official CPUs. As far as I’ve found, these processors function identically to the retail parts However, the legitimacy of these parts is questionable at best, since Engineering Samples are still property of Intel and not legally able to be sold.

 

51nb ThinkPad X210  (configuration as reviewed)
Processor Intel Core i7-8250U (Engineering Sample)
Graphics Intel UHD Graphics 620
Memory 32GB DDR4-2666 (2x16GB)
Screen 12.2-in 1920x1200 IPS 
Storage

Samsung 960 EVO 512GB 

Available 2.5" drive slot

Wireless

Broadcom 802.11AC
Huawei ME909s-821 Cat4 LTE Modem
HDA CX20585 Soft Modem

Connections Ethernet
Phone Jack
3 x USB 3.0
SD Card Slot
Audio combo jack
Mini DisplayPort VGA
Battery 85 Wh
Dimensions 11.6-in x 8.3-in x 1.4-in (294mm x 210mm x 35mm)

As far as the other specifications go, it’s mostly a Bring-Your-Own components sort of affair. Storage options are available in both SATA and PCIe variants through the 2.5” drive bay, and the M.2 slot on the motherboard. In my case, I opted for a 512GB Samsung 960 EVO. Additionally, I installed the maximum 32GB of G.SKILL DDR4-2666 memory.

View Full Size

As far as power options went, I opted for a third-party 9-cell battery from Amazon. While I would have preferred an original Lenovo battery, they are increasingly difficult to find for the X200/X201 notebooks, and this will only get more difficult. Luckily, the third party battery market seems to still be strong for these models.

The keen-eyed will notice that the motherboard has a SIM card slot on it, and LCDfans was nice enough to equip my X210 with an optional LTE radio in the form of a Huawei ME909s-821. While LTE radios in notebooks isn’t a radically new thing, it’s still a relatively rare option to have, and surprising it’s in a machine like this.

View Full Size

The port situation on the X210 is... odd at best. Since the designers are working around a legacy chassis built for the devices of a different era, there are some interesting compromises.

View Full Size

In addition to the legacy ThinkPad charger connector and a VGA port, you’ll find a dial-up modem, as well as three USB-A ports (at USB 3.0 speeds). Also, the Mini DisplayPort connector has been retrofitted into what was previously the ExpressCard slot.

The port situation represents my first major fault with the X210. I would have really loved to see at least one USB-C connector capable of charging and video output on this device, ideally Thunderbolt 3 (although it would probably be difficult for these individuals to get their hands on a supply of Thunderbolt 3 controllers.)

While the ThinkPad barrel chargers work fine and can be found cheaply, it would be very nice to be able to use commodity USB-C chargers here. A USB-C connector in the place of the Mini DisplayPort would also help alleviate the potential future compatibility issue with devices without losing any core functionality.

Beyond the ports, the big focus on this device is the input devices.

View Full Size

The trackpad seems tiny compared to modern laptops and remains a bit difficult to use at times. Since it’s the original part, it doesn’t feature any modern updates like two-finger scrolling, which I’ve grown to miss. However, the iconic TrackPoint device remains in the center of the keyboard, with it’s dedicated mouse and scroll buttons, which is ultimately what I used as a replacement for two-finger scrolling.

While the trackpad might feel like a relic of its time, the keyboard on the X210 is the saving grace.

View Full Size

The classic 7-row ThinkPad keyboard remains exalted among ThinkPad fans and purest, it’s difficult to remember just how great of a design it was. My personal point of revelation was using the ThinkPad 25th anniversary edition at an event last year. While that specific notebook had some understandable compromise that I wasn’t a fan of, but were necessary to make it a more sellable device in the modern era, the keyboard left an impression on me.

Using this iconic keyboard remains as great as ever, with the right marriage of key travel, tactility, and noise. The only thing is a bummer in the modern era is the lack of a backlight for the keys. As it turns out, moving from the ThinkLight at the top of the machine shinning down on the keyboard to fully backlight keyboard designs represented a major step forward in ThinkPad notebooks.

View Full Size

All of the various alternative functions and dedicated keys for things like screen brightness, speaker control, and the ThinkLight worked directly out of the box with Windows 10, which was quite surprising to me.

It’s incredible how much utility this keyboard provides compared to modern notebooks, with things like dedicated page up/down/back/forward buttons, home/end keys, as well as a standalone print screen button.

Another great anachronism of the ThinkPad X210 is the 16:10 aspect ratio display. In a world where notebooks are mostly 16:9 (except for some newer machines moving to 3:2), 16:10 remains a good compromise of the extra vertical real estate for productivity, while still being acceptable for video playback.

View Full Size

At 1920x1200 in a 12-in form factor, the display on this X210 remains as clear and crisp as modern notebook displays. Given the pixel density, I have taken to running this display in 150% scaling mode from within Windows.

Despite the surprisingly high build quality from the rest of the notebook, the screen retrofit is the lacking area of the X210. It’s clear that it isn’t a perfect fit, and adhesive strips have been placed between the bezel and the screen to compensate for this. It isn’t particularly noticeable most of the time, but occasionally you’ll hear the screen creek a bit when opening the lid.

Despite the language gap, support has also been surprisingly good for a product like this. Through a thread on the ThinkPads.com community forum, and some Google translated info on the 51nb forum, I was able to figure out some of the BIOS oddities that presented themselves during setup.

Additionally, software support seems to be ongoing for these machines. In fact, a BIOS was released on July 2nd, which addressed one of the major issues I had, where the display wouldn’t wake back up when the machine was coming out of sleep mode.

Video News


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.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <blockquote><p><br>
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.