Retrospective on the Thinkpad T14s
Around three years ago I wrote a post describing my criteria for selecting a laptop, a post I wrote that post while in the process of selecting a replacement for my Dell Latitude E7470. The outcome of that search was the generation 1 ThinkPad T14s AMD. This post will be a retrospective on my experiences with this laptop.
The ThinkPad T14s was, at best, a compromise. As I do lots of rather heavy GHC builds I generally work on larger machines via SSH. However, this laptop was an experiment to determine whether AMD’s (then) new Zen architecture was enough of a performance uptick to make working locally viable.
When I bought this laptop in 2020 good AMD-based options were somewhat few and far between. This is especially true due to my strong preference to stay within the set of “corporate fleet” models.1 Consequently, I had to give up a few points in my usual criteria:
LCD panel: the T14s’s panel is 1920x1080, the bare minimum of what I consider to be acceptable. Furthermore, the brightness is marginal at best. Working in the sun is not easy.
Ethernet: The T14s has a “dongle” but no in-built RJ-45 jack. While I can see why this is the case given the geometry of the chassis, I find this trend towards “thinner at all costs” to be unfortunate
touch screen: I quite liked the touch screen of my E7470; it was a very convenient (and less strain-inducing) mode of interaction (especially for gross movements like scrolling)
repairability: The Lenovo is not great, which is a point I will come to
Despite these shortcomings, the Thinkpad has been an decent machine. Battery life is not stellar but better than my last machine (although battery quality wasn’t great; I noticed palmrest bulging around 18 months into the life of the machine which rompted battery replacement). The firmware is largely bug free and does what it should do (at least after disabling suspend-to-idle). CPU performance is good and while the machine does get warm it does not throttle even during a long GHC build.
I found that the lack of ports was manageable with a USB C docking station. Unfortunately, the fact that the primary USB C port is used for both docking station and standalone charging is a durability concern. I have already had one motherboard replacement due to the USB C port becoming unmanagably finicky and I expect another will be necessary in less than 18 months.
The USB C problem is frustrating as it is completely predictable; there is no way that a 9mm-by-3mm connector carrying dozens of Watts and several gigabytes per second over a handful of differential pairs can maintain its design parameters for more than a couple of years with several actuations per day and the mechanical rigors that a charging port sees. I still miss the days of dedicated, robust charging ports.
In addition to having to give up RJ45 for thickness, chassis geometry also apparently required some compromises in internal connectors as the motherboard’s m.2 slot does not comfortably accomodate double-sided SSDs. This greatly limits SSD options at higher capacities and is particularly problematic as most drive vendors do not clearly mark whether a particular model is single- or double-sided.
Ultimately, the biggest problems with the T14s are its build quality and serviceability. While machine’s magnesium chassis gives it a solid first impression, its durability has left much to be desired. The first failure I had less than a year into the life of the machine, when the backspace key became intermittent.
Like most modern laptops, keyboard replacement on the T14s is a pain as it requires removing the screen assembly, battery and motherboard (that is, nearly every component of the machine). However, Lenovo takes this a bit further by rivetting the keyboard to the palmrest, turning what is usually a $30 USD keyboard replacement into a > $100 palmrest/touchpad/keyboard assembly. While this is Lenovo’s cost to bear and not mine, I am not pleased with the thought of this entire assembly unnecessarily entering a landfill. This design decision suggests that the machine has been excessively cost-optimised; I would happily pay the extra $2 for a few threaded inserts and some M2.5 screws.
To make matters worse, this “intermittent backspace” problem has started to recur less than two years later. It appears that this failure mode is extremely common. To say that flaky keyboard input from a $1900 machine is merely “disappointing” would be a tremendous understatement.
To make matters worse the screen assembly, while rigid (i.e. does not oscillate during typing), is quite weakly coupled to the hinges. I found this out the hard way when the placing the machine firmly on a table while the screen was wide open: The sudden torque this placed on the hinges was enough to cause one side of the bezel to fail which lead to an eventual LCD panel failure. This is the sort of failure that one that simply should not happen and seems directly tied to the machine’s thin design.
Throughout my experience with the laptop, my experience with Lenovo’s service department has been poor. Repair of the LCD failure took no less than two months and four service visits (during much of which the machine was usable only via external display). The first keyboard repair took one month and three visits; the I am still waiting on a service visit for the second keyboard failure. In both cases, repeated logistical failures (that is, sending the wrong part or not sending enough parts) as well as long part lead times contributed heavily to the poor experience.
Sadly Lenovo, in contrast to Dell, does not seem to support parts-only self-service. This is a shame since parts-only service seems like a win for both sides:
- the OEM does not need to pay for an expensive field service technician
- the customer does not need to coordinate time-and-place with the technician
- the customer does not need to wait for technician availability and can perform the repair as soon as parts are available
- the customer can perform the repair without time pressure
I bring up the last point in particular because the two-month LCD failure ordeal was greatly worsened by the fact that the LCD assembly replacement was escalated to a motherboard replacement due to the breakage of the eDP connector. To be clear, the technician is not to blame here; rather, I the problem is an incentive structure which places technicians on a fixed schedule to perform repairs of unknown duration. Mistakes become more likely when you are approaching the end of your time-box for a given customer’s repair and still need to eat lunch and make it to your next appointment on time.
I recognize that not all laptop users can or should be working inside of their machines, but as someone who has performed countless repairs on everything from laptops, to dishwashers, to cell phones, I greatly appreciate having the option available.
Modern electronics exact a severe cost on our planet. Moreover, the majority of a laptop’s environment impact has already been committed by the time it arrives at the customer’s door: the embodied carbon of a modern laptop is roughly 350 kg-CO2eq whereas the “variable cost” of operating it is relatively small (in the US, 5W of electricity costs roughly 10 kg-CO2eq per year). For this reason, I typically prefer to have laptops to last at least five years.
However, while my T14s is only barely three years old, I am growing tired of the Lenovo experiment: Both the machine itself and Lenovo support have lost my trust. Naturally, as Murphy would predict, failures inevitably happen directly prior to travel. This situation is simply untenable.
On the other hand, I am thrilled that there is finally a vendor, Framework, which seems to align with my preferences. A few months ago I put in an order for an AMD-based Framework 13. Initial indications seem to suggest that the hardware is solid; time will tell.
This preference for corporate fleet laptops was a lesson from my days of using Dell models where I found that “consumer” and “professional” support departments are (at least in the case of Dell) completely different divisions of the company which have vastly different stances towards their users.
The Dell support consumer/professional support distinction is not merely an organizational difference: in my experience attempting to extract a repair out of the consumer support department was invariably an arduous exercise of being walked through an lengthy (and largely inapplicable) diagnosis script by someone who spends their days working with a largely technically-illiterate user-base. May the gods help you if you inadvertently admit to the rep that the machine is not running Windows.
By contrast, my interactions with Dell’s corporate support department were largely efficient and unproblematic. Generally I would tell them my self-diagnosis of the problem and they would dispatch a service call or, even better, just parts for self-service; no further discussion needed. This is because these reps are conditioned to expect technically competent corporate IT department employees on the other end of the line. They understand that the machine is a vital tool for the user, not an appliance for occassionally watching cat videos and must work ASAP. They are not (quite as) surprised by non-Windows environments, and generally recognize when an issue is clearly operating-system agnostic.
This difference, coupled with the fact that my first laptop, a Dell Inspiron, suffered from extremely poor build quality resulted in my current stance.↩︎