51nb ThinkPad X210 Mod Review: From an Alternate Reality
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Thinkpads.com 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.
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.|
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|Consulting Disclosure:||51nb/LCDFans is not a current client of Shrout Research for products or services related to this review.|