Lenovo Thinkpad T420: Another excellent, inexpensive Linux laptop

January 11, 2016

I recently purchased a used Lenovo Thinkpad T420 laptop to replace the Lenovo Thinkpad T400 I was previously using as my main platform for researching open-source network simulators and emulators. The T420 is a five-year old product but it offers all the ports and performance I need. Because it is well past its depreciation curve, anyone can purchase a used T420 for a very low price.


I wanted a computer that supports high-resolution external monitors so it required a DisplayPort output. I also wanted to expand the number of VMs I can run concurrently with adequate performance so I needed a processor that supports HyperThreading. I wanted to switch to the Ubuntu Linux distribution and the Ubuntu Unity desktop environment needs just a bit more processing power to run smoothly. The Lenovo Thinkpad T420 meets all these requirements.

Continue reading to learn more about the Lenovo Thinkpad T420, another excellent and inexpensive Linux platform.

The Lenovo Thinkpad T420

The Lenovo Thinkpad T420 is a business-class notebook produced in 2011 that was leased in large volumes by companies for use by their employees. Now, these companies are returning these computers to the leasors so Lenovo T420 laptops are available at used-computer re-sellers and on eBay at very low prices.

When purchasing a used Lenovo T420, you need to be aware of what you will get for your money. The Lenovo Thinkpad T420 was originally produced in many different configurations. When comparing prices, take into account the features added to the computer.

When looking for a used T420, I suggest you purchase a model with the 1600×900 LED screen. Other parts of the T420, such as the hard drive and memory, are easy to upgrade. Some models of T420 come with a discreet NVIDIA graphics chip, which is not important for most users so don’t pay extra for it. Some models offer a fingerprint reader, which is a convenience.

Upgrading memory on a Thinkpad 420 is very easy. When Lenovo installs the base level of memory in a Thinkpad, it only uses one memory slot so it is inexpensive to upgrade the laptop to 8GB by purchasing one more 4GB DIMM — and the second slot is very easy to access.

Replacement parts for the T420 are still available and Thinkpads are made to be easily repairable. You can download the T420 maintenance manual from the Lenovo web site. For example, the T420 I purchased has a few keys on which the letters are fading. If I decide to replace these keys, I can find multiple online stores that sell replacement keys just by searching for “thinkpad T420 key replacement” on Google.

My T420

The T420 I purchased was a well-equipped model with the Intel i5-2540M processor, a 1600×900 HD+ LED screen, Intel HD Graphics 3000 and NVIDIA NVS 4200M discreet graphics with Optimus graphics switching technology, a fingerprint reader, a webcam, 4GB memory, and a 320 GB 5400 RPM hard drive. It also has four USB2 ports, a Firewire port, a VGA output, and a DisplayPort output that supports an external monitor with up to 2560×1600 resolution. It came with Windows 7 Professional already installed.

All this cost me just $280 in Canada (or US$200), so it was very inexpensive for a well-built computer that will last me two to three years.

Install Linux on a Thinkpad T420

I describe the Linux install process and the software I use on my computer setup page.

Ubuntu Linux works very well on Thinkpads so the installation should be painless and Ubuntu should automatically set up a dual-boot system if Windows is already installed on the laptop.

NVIDIA graphics in Linux on Thinkpad T420

As mentioned above, the T420 I purchased has an NVIDIA NVS 4200M discreet graphics chip. In Windows, the laptop will switch between the Intel graphics and the NVIDIA graphics as required by programs running. Unfortunately, the graphics switching technology does not work well in Linux so we must do some extra configuration to enable manual graphics switching, or just disable the NVIDIA graphics in the BIOS settings.

By default, Ubuntu Linux uses the NVIDIA graphics chip if it is installed. This offers high performance but it uses up battery power a lot faster than the Intel graphics. To improve battery life, you may install the NVIDIA driver that will allow you to manually enable and disable the NVIDIA graphics chip so you can choose between performance and battery life.

NVIDIA Graphics and Windows

The T420 I purchased came with Windows 7. When I booted up Windows 7, it offered a free upgrade to Windows 10. I chose not to upgrade to Windows 10 because it is not clear if the NVIDIA Optimus graphics switching technology will be supported in Windows 10.

Lenovo does not officially support the T420 with Windows 10 so they will not provide updated Windows 10 drivers. Without the right drivers for the NVIDIA chip and for power management, battery life may be much shorter in Windows 10.

For now, I will keep Windows 7 so that the NVIDIA switchable graphics and Lenovo power management features continue to provide good battery life when I run Windows.


In the past five years, computer performance has been “good enough” for most activities. Open-source software, such as Linux, runs very well on older computer hardware and provides all the newest features and security updates. Today, most people may be well served by a computer that is four or five years old. These older, used computers are very inexpensive to purchase.

I am very pleased with the performance of my used Thinkpad T420 laptop when running Ubuntu Linux. In two or three years, I will upgrade to a Lenovo T450 or X1 Carbon when those models are close to the same US$200 price point that the T420 is at today.

I may never buy a new laptop computer again.

13 responses to Lenovo Thinkpad T420: Another excellent, inexpensive Linux laptop

  1. I’m looking into this for the a low cost mobility machine. What battery life can one expect on such an old machine, and would it be necessary/still worthwhile to purchase a new battery?

    • Hi Ric,

      On my T420, I get about 90 minutes of battery life with the 6-cell battery. I am not sure it is worth it to purchase a new battery. A real Lenovo-branded battery will cost as much as you paid for the used laptop. A cheaper third-party battery may be worth the risk, if you trust the supplier. I have no experience with third party batteries.

      90 minutes is good for me because I am usually near a power outlet when I need one.


    • I’ve just completed my Ubuntu 14.04 installation on my T420 and it runs smoothly!. Good performance and graphics and all ports are working as expected.

  2. Hi Brian,

    This is a great idea, and I really wish I had read it a month or so ago. After doing a bit of research on new laptops, I went for a rather stripped down Thinkpad T460 with Intel i5 6200 processor and just 4gb of Ram and a 500GB 7200 HDD drive (with shipping it was under $900). It also has the lower resolution screen. Basically all thees things can be worked around, and the main thing is that it’s a very well-built machine with a great processor (though not the best out there, of course). The battery also lasts a long time.

    Do you think Linux Mint with Cinnamon is a good choice for a starting Linux user? I’m not really a computer expert, but I would like to use this computer for research, writing, and some power-point and excel stuff. (Right now I’m using LibraOffice, and notice off the bat that everything looks better for these programs on Linux Mint than it did in Windows 10…to the point that I suspect some foul play by Windows). However, I think I probably have a long way to go before I have everything working the way I need it to.

    I really can’t figure out whether Ubantu might be better, and which flavor of Linux has the best support for newbies out there. I already can’t connect to wifi, and am having trouble figuring that out.

    • Hi Joel,
      Thanks for reading my blog. To answer your question: I think Linux Mint is an excellent distribution for someone who is new to Linux. It is full-featured and it’s default desktop environment, Cinnamon, has a familiar feel to it if you have used MS Windows in the past.

  3. Hey Brian,

    Just thought I’d let you (and any others who may find this article) know that the T420 can actually support up to 16 GB of RAM. I picked up an off-lease T420 on eBay a few months ago for $185 USD. I purchased (separately) 16 GB of RAM and a 120 GB SSD and installed those myself. For about $250 USD all in I’ve got another pretty awesome Linux laptop! (FWIW, I definitely second the recommendation about going for the 1600×900 display. Skip out on Optimus also, if that’s an option.)

    My primary “workstation” is a 3.5 year old W530 that I pretty much “max’d out” when I originally bought it but even the T420 isn’t far behind my one-year-old MacBook Pro in terms of overall “power”. The W530 has Optimus but I haven’t bothered trying to get it working since I switched from ArchLinux back to Ubuntu so I can’t use multiple displays. Multiple displays works perfectly out of the box on the T420, though, so I use it (along with a projector) when giving presentations and such.

    To anyone else who may be considering a T420, I say go for it. At the current prices, you really can’t find a better machine. I’m running RHEL 7.2 on mine but none of the recent distributions I tested (CentOS/RHEL, Debian/Ubuntu, ArchLinux) had any issues.


  4. I agree. I was in search of an laptop that I wouldn’t mind losing but also had an excellent keyboard. I was able to pick one up on Craigslist for around $80. I use Arch + i3 and haven’t had any issues.

    I find it hard to justify purchasing a more expensive computer when I can get 95% of the functionality I need for a fraction of the price. Anything that needs actual horsepower I can do on the cloud or my desktop.

  5. Thanks very useful, including the answer about Linux Mint.

    Do you think it would be good as a dual boot with Windows 10? (or better 8.1 if already installed?) Is there another Lenovo that would be more appropriate?

    And good on either Linux or Windows for lower end semi-pro video editing?
    (ie for DVDs, Vimeo and YouTube, not HD cinema releases) Is there another brand that would be more appropriate, and have a bigger screen? – I’m not a huge fan of the red nipple)

    And BTW you came up on the first page of a google search 🙂

    Oh any thoughts on this: (less important than the other questions) Acer Aspire E5-575G-53VG

    • Hi Ray,
      Thanks. I am now running a dula-boot setup with Windows 10 and Ubuntu on my T420. Windows 10 runs well. I can’t comment on how well the T420 will perform video editing because I don’t use it for that. Regarding other models, Linux will generally work well on any older laptop but I’ve only had experience running it on Lenovo laptops and on Apple Mac laptops.

  6. I bought a T430 on ebay for $135 and slapped an SSD into the DVD Drive slot. Battery is okay i haven’t really given it a test. but I must say it’s pretty fast. 100% working from install.

    i5, intel video, 8gb ram. Crutial M4 HD.

    Maybe someday i’ll buy an MSATA ssd or a thinner ssd and take the mechanical HD out that windows 7 is on.

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