Liberating a Thinkpad X220

September 22, 2013

I had been looking for a suitable replacement to my old, slow Compaq laptop that I purchased during my freshman year of college when I had very little money. What I liked about my old laptop was that it played well with free software. I had no trouble getting all of my hardware to work out-of-the-box with fully free GNU/Linux distributions such as Trisquel, and I wanted any future laptops of mine to play nicely, too.

I have heard much praise for Thinkpads over the years. Solid build quality, utilitarian design, and cheap to buy used. However, upon further reading, I realized that most newer Thinkpads require nonfree software in order to the drive the Intel wireless chip. Furthermore, there was DRM present in the BIOS that would prevent the installation of PCIe wireless chips that weren't in the whitelist.

This really bummed me out, but I bought a Thinkpad anyway. I found a great deal on a used X220 on ebay for $400. In order to liberate it, I had to make a small deal with the devil: Use the pre-installed Windows 7 to flash a hacked BIOS that removes the whitelist. I could only find the needed BIOS as a Windows executable, so I didn't have much choice. This process left me hoping that coreboot gains wider adoption.

Once I had verified that I didn't brick my Thinkpad, I installed the new wireless card. I purchased a Wireless N, half-height, mini PCIe card from Thinkpenguin. It uses an Atheros chipset and is free software compatible. I met Chris, the owner of Thinkpenguin, at this year's Northeast GNU/Linux Fest at Harvard. He is doing some great work and I wanted to support his business. It was nice to buy from someone who could assure me that the hardware I purchased is fully supported on a libre GNU/Linux distribution.

Now that my Thinkpad was free (sans BIOS, of course), it was time for the final touch. I replaced the hard drive with a 128GB SSD and installed Debian testing. It takes roughly 9 seconds to get from GRUB to the GDM login screen. It feels very nice to have a device that boots so quickly.

Now that everything had been installed and configured, I was able to start hacking and get a feel for things. The keyboard is the nicest I've ever used on a laptop. The TrackPoint is quite a nice way to move around once you get used to it. The ThinkLight is pretty neat when you're in a dark area. The battery life is extremely impressive. I don't know exactly how long it lasts yet but I never have to charge it while I am using it. I was lucky if I got 2 hours of battery life out of my old laptop, which caused me to be constantly tethered to an AC adapter. The screen is matte, which is awesome because it's very difficult to use a laptop outdoors when the screen is glossy. 1366x768 is not an ideal resolution (16:9 be damned), but I can live with it on a 12.5" screen. Last but not least, I honestly like the aesthetics. A lot of people are enamored with the brushed aluminum designs by that fruit company, but I love the flat black, functional design of the Thinkpad.

I hope to really break this thing in over the weekend at the GNU 30th Anniversary hackathon.