Solid, practical and cheap(ish) laptop

I’ve been fortunate enough to be supplied with MacBook Pros for my last few jobs, including my current role. I passed my own (now aged) MacBook Air on to my Wife when we met and since then I’ve been pretty much using my work machines for personal stuff too.

I was thinking about buying a cheap, reliable laptop for web browsing, coding and other odds and ends. Unfortunately the requirement that it should be cheap pretty much disqualified all Apple products. So I thought I’d look through eBay and see what I could find.

The keys feel very similar to, or possibly better than, those on the MacBook Pro.

In the end I settled on a Lenovo ThinkPad T430 (circa 2012). I chose it because it was available under £250, had a reasonable spec, solid build quality and a very, very nice keyboard. The model I bought was an i7 2.90Ghz with 8GB of RAM, NVIDIA NVS 5400M graphics, a 500GB HDD, DVD-CDRW and a 1600 x 900 antiglare display.

The first modification I made was replacing the optical drive with a HDD caddy and relocating the original HDD there. I then installed the cheapest 240GB SSD I could find as the boot drive.

ThinkPad DVDRW & HDD Caddy
I mean seriously, who needs an optical drive in 2017?

Next up I installed Windows 10 Pro and dual booted it with Linux Mint. I followed an online guide to setup a development environment in Windows, although I expect the Windows partition will mostly be used for coding C# in Visual Studio. I set up the Linux partition as I’ve never experimented with Linux before and this seemed like a good opportunity.

The trackpad was showing its age and had that weird spotty texture that only seems to exist on ThinkPads. It turns out the entire surface is just a sticker. So I peeled it off and replaced it with a smooth trackpad surface made to fit the T430.

Hey that’s smooth

So now I had a machine that ran the OSes I was interested in playing with, held a good charge, had a usable trackpad, a secondary drive for storage and booted up quickly thanks to the SSD. The one remaining and somewhat unexpected issue was the screen. The antiglare TN panel fitted to the T430 is one of the worst displays I have ever seen. It had to go.

A bit of research later and it seems that I was by no means alone in my assessment of the display. Several other users had investigated alternative displays. Sadly it seems there are no IPS displays that are a straight swap. The best alternative appears to be the AlienWare M14X R2 glossy display. The first one I ordered from eBay was a bust as they lied in the description and shipped me the same antiglare panel I already had. In the end I found the panel from laptopscreen.com. The difference is night and day, it’s still not an IPS display but the viewing angles are significantly better and the image is so much sharper.

All in all I’m pretty impressed with this ex-corporate brick. It boots up almost instantly thanks to the SSD. The fingerprint scanner is a surprisingly handy addition and works flawlessly with Windows Hello. The discreet graphics, although old, have turned out to be surprisingly capable. I’ve played Darksiders, Tony Hawks HD and Grid 2 at reasonable frame-rates without issues. On the flip-side rendering in blender is pretty lacklustre, the BMW scene renders in 38 minutes. However for under £350 all in it’s a pretty competent all-rounder!


The things I wish I’d known before I started

You can use sellotape to remove the HDD if it has lost its tab
If you watch any of the many YouTube videos on changing the HDD in a ThinkPad you’ll see how you simply undo one screw, slip off the plastic cover, fish out the tab, give it a tug and you’re done. Sadly it turned out that when I tried this my HDD had no tab to tug.
I contemplated a few approaches to retrieving the stubborn storage device, needle-nosed pliers, supergluing wire to it, even disassembling most of the laptop to get better access. Eventually I figured I should try using some tape. It was pretty fiddly to thread the tape between the HDD and the edge of the enclosure, and then to get it to stick to the HDD but I managed it on the third try. One gentle tug and the drive was out.
The standard display on the T430 is truly an abomination
If I had realised how bad the screen was I would probably have spent the extra for a newer ThinkPad that came with an IPS display. I genuinely hadn’t realised how spoilt I had been by the screens on the Apple laptops I’ve had over the years.
Replacement screens are harder to find than I anticipated
I bought an allegedly 1600 x 900 glossy screen from eBay. I removed the screen that was in the laptop and then fitted the new one. Only to discover that when I removed the protective film it wasn’t a glossy screen at all. It was exactly the same antiglare (matte) screen that I had replaced. After a bit of arguing with the supplier, swapping the screens back over and a trip to the post office I managed to get my money back. I then managed to source a replacement from laptopscreens.com. I suppose scarcity of parts for a 5 year old laptop is to be expected but you need to be careful when buying screens online, there are a lot of misinformed dishonest sellers out there.
Make sure you disconnect the battery before swapping displays
In the interests of full disclosure the machine pictured in this post is not the machine I’m using. It’s an i5 model that I did all of the upgrades on. Unfortunately in my excitement to get rid of the awful display that came with the machine I forgot to disconnect the battery. I took the old display out, swapped the new one in and booted it up. The screen showed an image but it was only visible under a very strong light. Some research online led me to believe that I blew a fuse on the motherboard that controls the power to the backlight.
Disassembling the entire machine and a quick continuity test with a multi-meter seemed to confirm my suspicions. I considered my options, a new motherboard would have been around £100, the proper tools to replace a surface mount fuse would have been well over £100 and neither would guarantee a working machine. So I went back on to eBay and bought a second ThinkPad (the i7 mentioned above) and transferred all of the upgrades over to the new machine. I’m hoping I can sell the other one for spares/repairs.

Pebble Review

Note: This post was originally published on iamianwright.com it’s been moved here for archival purposes.

What is a Pebble?

The Pebble smartwatch connects to your Android or iPhone handset via bluetooth and displays text messages, emails and other configurable alerts on it’s e-ink display. It’s the result of the most successful kick-starter project since the site’s launch. Pebble were originally looking for $100,000 but wound up raising a staggering $10 million during their campaign.

I thought it looked like a great product when I first saw the demo videos during the funding stage but due to a lack of funds I didn’t back it. I signed up to pre-order one in February this year and was contacted at the beginning of August to say that my Pebble was ready for me. It arrived about three weeks later and after paying around £25 in import duty it was in my grubby mitts.

It arrived in a very minimal package, just the watch and the proprietary USB charger in a long thin mailing box. The setup instructions are available online and in the companion apps for iOS and Android. Setup was almost instantaneous, download the app, open it, it asks for permission to connect on both devices and then you start configuring any IMAP accounts you want it to alert you to.

(NOTE: As I have an iPhone 5 the rest of the pebble review will be around the experience of pairing a pebble with iOS 6.)

Notifications

Notifications were the main reason I wanted a pebble. Text messages (SMS) and iMessages are displayed on the Pebble in full and they work flawlessly. I have been surprised at how handy it is and I wouldn’t want to be without my Pebble for this feature alone!

Like most people I get a lot of email, some of it is even important but soon after getting my first iPhone I disabled the email notifications as it became frustrating to get my phone out when it buzzed only to delete yet more spam or social media notifications. Pebble allows you to set up a number of IMAP accounts that it watches and then notifies you when new email is received. It vibrates and displays the first few lines of the message. For email notifications to work the Pebble app has to be running in the background on the iPhone. So far I have found that it doesn’t consistently alert me to emails but it’s hardly life or death.

You can set up notifications from any app to display on the Pebble by setting them to show on the lock screen in the Notification Center preferences of the iPhone. However at the moment this is a bit hit and miss. Pushover seems to work fairly consistently but Prowl refuses to play nice with the Pebble at all. The general consensus seems to be that iOS notifications should be improved in iOS7 and until then it’s a case of turning the settings on and off until they stick.

Pebble Apps

Pebble comes with a built in Music app that allows you to play, pause, skip forward and skip back through what is playing on your iPhone. It also works flawlessly, if nothing is currently playing it will start playing wherever you left off, whether you were in an album or playlist. There are no controls to navigate through your library so you’ll have to get your iPhone out if you fancy switching album or playlist. In it’s current incarnation I think it’s perfect for skipping the dud tracks on albums while commuting or walking when you might rather leave your phone out of sight. It’s also good in shuffle mode to check the name or artist of a track you’ve forgotten.

There’s an inbuilt Alarm Clock app that allows for multiple alarms. The alarm itself is silent as it just vibrates the watch against your wrist. I don’t really have any need for it as I don’t wear it to bed and have no need of alarms during the day but it’s a sensible addition.

There is one other app included although it only gets activated when you launch a compatible companion app on the iPhone. The Sports app works with iOS apps like RunKeeper to display information on the Pebble about your workout; elapsed time, miles covered and current pace. It also allows you to pause the workout without having to get your phone out. I have been using it to track my rides to work for the last week. I found just the act of tracking them to be quite motivational and being able to put my phone in my bag and start/stop the workout from my wrist makes it much more convenient.

The Pebble SDK has been available for a few months and there are some third party apps available. Even though I didn’t buy the pebble for apps, it was a fun to play Space Invaders on my watch although the buttons make it too uncomfortable and impractical to be any more than a novelty. I did also download Cave Worm, which is a clone of a game I spent many hours playing on the school computers during form time. It runs smoothly and is easily playable, in part because it requires only one button but again it becomes uncomfortable quickly.

It will be interesting to see what third-party developers will come up with as the install base increases.

Watchfaces

There are quite literally thousands of watchfaces available for the Pebble. The vast majority of them are created using online generators and as such are all much the same. There are some diamonds in the rough though, in the picture above I’m using Squared, I also really like the idea behind LinesWatch although it’s not easily legible. The built in Fuzzy Time face was part of the original draw for me as I’m a bit of a typography geek.

I cobbled together my own watchface with the generator and it was very simple but limiting in what you can achieve. The SDK is available and there seems to be quite an active community but I don’t have time to investigate it in detail at the moment.

In Use

Having not worn a watch for a few years it felt strange for the first day but I soon got used to it again. It’s light and comfortable on my wrist although I wonder if people with slimmer wrist might find it a little too large. The build quality is pretty much exactly what I expected, it’s not Apple’s level of industrial design but it looks good and it’s the first product from a small crowd funded startup. It’s smooth and sleek, the screen is excellent and clearly legible in all lighting conditions. It comes with a user-replacable silicone strap which I will be changing as I’ve always found they irritate my skin in the past. It’s a fairly standard size so there are plenty of options to customise the strap.

The vibrations are strong enough to get your attention but discreet enough not to alert everyone around you.  The battery life is quoted at around seven days and so far that seems in keeping with my experience. I had been concerned that it might kill my iPhone’s (already poor) battery life but it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of difference and I’m still charging the phone each night.

I have received a couple of positive comments on my Pebble mostly due to the slightly peculiar watchface I’m using. It seems that most people have never heard of it but at least one person that I talked to about it asked where to buy one. I think the Pebble is understated enough that the majority of people are unlikely to remark upon it unless they recognise it.

My only real worry is scratching the face of the watch as it’s plastic. There are a number of companies offering wraps for Pebble and they also include a clear screen protector so I may invest in one of those.

Verdict

After my first week with it I’m really impressed with the Pebble and I wouldn’t willingly give it up. I’ve been fascinated by wearable technology since I was a teenager and it seems like this may be the first consumer priced step on that journey. I’m hopeful that the imminent release of iOS 7 will address some of the inconsistencies with notifications and possibly allow more communication from phone to pebble.

If the much rumoured Apple smart watch ever materialises then no doubt it will have a higher build quality and be more feature rich than the Pebble but I doubt it will be priced around $150 nor will it last a week on one charge.

Pebble offers an attractive, well-priced and open platform to those interested in wearable tech. It’s probably not for everyone but it suits me and I’m looking forward to integrating Pushover in future projects purely for geek value.