The $300 ultraportable experiment

Unless you've locked yourself into the Apple ecosystem and thrown away the key, laptop shopping can be a daunting prospect. A dizzying array of options cater to almost every possible niche: ultrabooks, netbooks, thin-and-lights, desktop replacements, ultraportables, convertibles, lions, tigers, and bears—need I go on? Within each category, countless models from numerous brands are on the prowl, stalking your wallet with various feature and levels of quality.

I recently embarked on a mission to snare a 12" or smaller traveling companion. My freshly penguinized 15" HP laptop isn't exactly tray table friendly, and the geeky voices inside my head were crying out for something with a little extra horsepower. Beyond this, my humble list of demands included a decent keyboard, 128GB (or so) of SSD goodness, matte body panels, and reasonable battery life. To make things interesting, I decided to see if those demands could be met with a budget of only $300.

After searching extensively, I found that brand-new machines in the $300 ballpark weren't exactly bending over backwards to satisfy my needs. Nearly all of the contenders at this price point are outfitted with anemic Atom processors and enough glossy parts to make a Zamboni blush. SSD? Dream on. Decent keyboard? You might as well draw some letters and numbers on a soggy loaf of bread. What's a discerning laptop shopper on a budget to do?

Disappointed, but hardly surprised, I ripped a page from the car buyer's handbook and tried my luck at the used lots instead. Because good laptop keyboards are notoriously hard to come by, I started my search with the Lenovo X Series. First stop: the ThinkPad X200. Several units were available near the upper limits of my price range. However, there would be no room in the budget for upgrades, and I'd be saddled with a used battery and a mechanical hard drive. I kept looking.

Dropping back a generation to the X61 gave me cheaper options, but they were still too expensive to accommodate my planned SSD upgrade. I trudged on, dipping my sifting pan into the eBay river until I finally struck gold: $87 shipped for an X60 devoid of its hard drive, battery, and power adapter. I placed my bid and bit my nails as the auction clock ticked down. Three days later, a laptop-sized parcel was waiting on my doorstep. The foundation had been laid.

A ThinkPad X60 with a 12.1" 1024x768 display, 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo processor, and 1GB of DDR2-667 RAM is quite a bit of kit for 87% of a Benjamin. The CPU easily outpaces the similarly clocked Pentium M chip in my HP laptop, and it can obliterate any Atom-based pretender. The crowning jewel has to be the keyboard, though. Some would argue that Lenovo itself doesn't make keyboards this good anymore. The shell I received obviously spent much of its life in a docking station, and as a result, its keyboard and chassis are nearly pristine.

As luck would have it, my parts closet already housed another 1GB stick of 667MHz DDR2, which slotted into the ThinkPad without fuss. The necessary 20V power adapter was also on hand, courtesy of my electronics hoarding tendencies. I would only have to hunt down a battery, an SSD, and an operating system.

Battery shopping presented me with a conundrum. Purchasing an official Lenovo battery would seriously eat into my remaining budget. Alternatively, I could gamble on a cheaper, aftermarket model. I've used one of those in my HP laptop without issue for over a year and a half, but I've also had an aftermarket battery die after only a week. Those are 50/50 odds. In the end, I put down $25 for an aftermarket X60 battery. After two weeks of use, the battery is holding up well and offers between three and five hours of run time depending on what I'm doing—usually long enough to hold me over between outlets.

At this point in the game, I had spent only $112 out of pocket. The extra RAM and power adapter would have added another $30 to the total, leaving $158 in the budget. Armed with this knowledge, I impatiently headed over to the local Micro Center to seek out an SSD. Reasonably priced options in the 64GB range were plentiful, but I came to go big or go home. After enlisting the aid of a friendly sales associate, I eventually I found my 120GB contenders: an OCZ Vertex Plus and a SanDisk Ultra SSD.

Neither offering was familiar to me. Because the X60 sports a first generation SATA link with only 150MB/s of bandwidth, either SSD would be fast enough to saturate the interface. In need of a higher power to guide my decision, I busted out my trusty Galaxy S and fired up its Newegg app. Customer reviews would determine which drive got to ride shotgun on the way home. The verdict was swift and decisive. The SandForce 1222-based SanDisk drive beat its Indilinx-powered competitor to a scrambled pulp, five eggs to three. With the SSD in hand, I grabbed my customary bottle of Bawls from the beverage cooler and handed over $162 to the girl behind the front counter.

My new mini-laptop was nearly ready to take on the world. All it needed was an operating system to make sense of things. Having exhausted my budget, my OS options were limited to Linux or an unused Windows XP license I had on hand. Despite the suggestive Windows XP sticker affixed to the bottom of the X60, I opted to roll with a fresh copy of Ubuntu 11.04. The decision to use Linux was mostly based on the lack of TRIM support in Windows XP. Most modern Linux distributions (running kernel 2.6.33 or greater) support TRIM in some fashion, with a simple modification to the fstab file.

To accommodate the handful of Windows applications I need to run, I dusted off my existing copy of Windows XP Pro and installed it on a virtual machine using VirtualBox. Although my ThinkPad now runs the software I need, even the cheapest new netbooks come with some version of Windows 7, which would have been my preferred OS if the budget allowed. I also would have preferred to avoid the pathetic Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics. While it's enough to handle some basic Compiz interface effects, I'd be better off gaming on an Etch-a-Sketch. Fortunately, gaming is not what I bought this computer for.

Overall, I've been extremely happy with my ultraportable number cruncher. Despite its age, the X60's Core 2 Duo will soundly thrash any modern netbook that gets in its way. As icing on the cake, the extra oomph provided by the SSD makes this system feel impossibly fast for something that cost only $300.

As I tickle the fantastic keys on my "new" machine, I'm convinced I've made the right choice. It may not be as sleek as an ultrabook or as small as a netbook, but this X60 has the size and performance to suit my needs. I set out to prove that $300 can buy a lot more portable computing than most people think, and I feel like I've succeeded. Taking the DIY mentality to notebooks probably isn't for everyone, but there's a lot of value to be found on the path less traveled.

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