In Praise Of Old Hardware

Posted on 2021-03-01

I have been fortunate over the years to use a variety of state-of-the-art hardware for my work and play. I've used several generations of MacBooks, as well as highly tuned modern Windows machines. Whether supplied by my employers or purchased for my own use, I've had access to the best.

And yet, these days, the machine I find myself using the most (including to write this very post) is a ThinkPad W500, which hasn't been state-of-the-art for at least a decade now, probably longer. Why is that?

For one thing, the build quality is superb. ThinkPads of the W500's generation are famous for their quality keyboards, the TrackPoint device, and their bento-box design. Yes, the thing is as heavy as two or three MacBooks, but I'm not hauling it to too many places these days.

Unlike many modern machines, the ThinkPad was also designed to be repaired. Swapping the old, slow wifi card for a newer model was a matter of removing several screws, gently removing the keyboard, removing a few more screws, and switching the card. Same went for swapping in new RAM when one of the old DIMMs went bad. Switching to an SSD was even easier. None of this is impossible on modern systems, but they make it a whole lot harder.

The limited horsepower compared to this year's model is not a big problem for me. I don't run things like machine learning or AAA games on this machine. I've tried several versions of Linux (and recently settled on NixOS; maybe that's a future post) as well as the BSDs, and they all run fine. I even use this ThinkPad to stream my weekly radio show using the excellent and free Mixxx DJ software, without the machine suffering at all. Sure, this would all run fine on the latest and greatest, but it's not required.

This machine is even hackable to remove the proprietary BIOS (which needed to be done to support that newer, faster widi card) and replace it with Coreboot. I got someone else to do this for me, but if I felt like acquiring the necessary tools and expertise, I could've done it myself. Try that with today's increasingly-locked-down machines.

And lastly, I'm happy knowing I've taken some steps off the planned-obsolescence cycle. When I moved last year, I threw out (well, responsibly recycled) lots of old electronics. I don't anticipate throwing out this machine any time soon. With the repairability I mentioned earlier, and spare parts fairly easy to find, it'll take something extremely complex and heavyweight to make this machine unusable. This is good for sustainability, the planet, etc. as well as my wallet.

Granted, it's not for everyone. If you are a gamer, or a high-end graphics specialist, or just the type of person who wants "nothing but the best", my ThinkPad probably isn't for you. But if your needs are more like mine, you can probably get a machine much like this one for much less than you'd pay for something newer, less flexible, with a shorter life span. And it just might work for you like it does for me. Good luck!

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