T43 IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad Upgrade – Tech Talk

The T43 Thinkpad was released and manufactured in 2005 by IBM/Lenovo. I bought mine several years later and I’ve used it quite a lot, but recently it’s just not cutting it anymore as technology has advanced quite a bit and software as well as online content has increased in complexty and thus has the demand in processing power.

thinkpad

So I want to document what I did in the last few years to improve the usability of the good old T43. The old Thinkpads are still used everywhere and I’m sure someone finds this information to be of use. I’ll divide this article by hardware sections. Basically I’ve modified or exchanged every component of my original T43.

T43 Original Specs

These are the specs of my T43 when I first got it:

CPU: 1,86GHz Pentium M 750
GPU: ATI Radeon X300 64MB (soldered onto the mainboard)
HDD: 60GB IDE 5400RPM
RAM: 512MB DDR2
Display: 14″ XGA TFT 1024×768
Ultrabay: DVD-R/RW
Mini-PCI: Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG Mini-PCI Adapter
CDC: 56K Modem

OS: Windows XP

CPU

I first replaced the Pentium M 750 with a Pentium M 770 at 2,13GHz. The highest available model is the 780 at 2,27GHz, but because it’s the top of the line model, it was produced in lower quantities and sold at a higher price ($637 in 2005). Thus it’s a little bit rare and still a little bit pricey. Until dual and quad core CPUs became the norm in laptops, it exceeded the price of a used T43. Recently they’ve shown up for a low price in China and so I decided to get one.

780

As there are no Dual Core CPUs for the Socket 478/479, I chose to go with the highest clockrate available. The lack of Dual Core CPUs is one of the biggest drawbacks of the platform. I was seriously considering switching to a T60/61, but I didn’t want to give up on the T43 just yet.

GPU

The GPU is soldered onto the board and can’t be swapped without swapping the whole motherboard. The only better option is getting a T43P motherboard, which has a 128MB FireGL GPU, but they’re pretty scarce, especially if you’re looking for a cheap one and don’t want to buy a whole T43P by itself.

I’m not sure there’s much advantage to be had. There shouldn’t be much of a performance gain in most cases. The main difference I can think of is Windows 7 Aero, which officially requires 128MB of VRAM and the Windows Experience Index will always rate any GPU with less VRAM, regardless of actual capability, at 2.0, the lowest score.

RAM

This is a no brainer. The T43 has two SO-DIMM DDR2 slots and recognizes a maximum of 2x1GB. I got that quite a while ago and it’s still more or less sufficient for day to day tasks, but I sure wish I could put in 2x2GB “just in case”.

Display

I swapped the original 4:3 1024×768 TFT display out for a nice 1440×1050 SXGA+ display. At 14″ it has about 124 DPI, which is quite nice and still good for office/internet tasks. Actually a lot of modern small notebooks have much lower resolutions at 16:9 ratio, which is quite disadvantageous for web surfing in my opinion.

Swapping the display seems daunting at first, but if you get the whole thing with frame/bezel in one piece, the whole process takes about one hour.

There is a 1600×1200 UXGA display for the 15″ model, but I prefer the smaller form factor of the 14″ thinkpad.

Unfortunately the back lighting will sometimes get progressively darker as it ages and there’s not really much you can do about it other than swap the whole display or, if you’re skilled, exchange the CCFL tubes.

Ultrabay

There’s a variety of options here. I originally got a IDE adapter so I could pop in a second IDE HDD for extra storage and backup space. Later I replaced that one with a SATA adapter, so I could use bigger and cheaper SATA HDDs. In theory you could also put an SSD in here, but the speed is somewhat low and I had trouble installing and booting an OS from the ultrabay.

Mini-PCI

The original intel wireless adapter is nice, but the driver isn’t updated anymore and has trouble with more modern operating systems. In addition to that, 54MBit aren’t really sufficient nowadays.

Of course getting a replacement isn’t super easy as the faster 802.11n protocol at 300MBit was getting more popular when Mini-PCI was already on it’s way out. So there’s only a handful of cards from companies like Atheros and Marvell that were made for Mini-PCI instead of Mini-PCI Express. Swapping the card isn’t a lot of work, you just need to remove the touchpad bezel and keyboard, remove the card and swap the antennas.

The 802.11n cards usually have 3 antenna connections, while the 802.11g cards only have two. The T43 display frame also contains just two antennas. I’ve connected the main antenna and first auxiliary input so far. The reception isn’t great, but so far it works. I’ve got a third antenna, but I’ve still got to find a way to house it in the case.

I got myself a Marvell card. I realize Atheros cards are more reliable and possibly even the WiFi access LED will remain functional, but I got a really good deal on a Marvell card, which will have to do for now. I’m not getting any random disconnects anymore and the speed is much better than before, so I consider the operation a big success.

If you want to do the same, you have to install a custom bios on your T43, because IBM actually has a whitelist in the bios for the CDC, Mini-PCI and IDE slots and any device not on that list will produce an error message and except for the IDE slot, not even boot at all. The modified bios removes the whitelist check for the Mini-PCI and IDE slots, but not for the CDC slot.

CDC

Not much to do here. Since a 54K modem is pretty much useless these days and my new SXGA+ display came with bluetooth wiring, I swapped the modem CDC card for a dual modem/bluetooth adapter. Of course I made a mistake at first and got a card from an old T41, which isn’t on the bios whitelist and I had to make a second purchase.

Clearplate without Bluetooth indicator
Clearplate without Bluetooth indicator

Now everything works. The display has a bluetooth indicator LED, but I need new clearplates, because it seems this particular display has the LED and antenna, but no fitting clearplate with bluetooth so I can’t actually see when bluetooth is enabled.

OS

I’ve used Windows XP for the most part, but I’ve recently switched to Windows 7 for various reasons. XP usually performs better, but at the state my T43 is in now, Windows 7 is really smooth and perfectly usable. I also feel more comfortable having a more current OS installed.

The driver support is good, you might need to look around a little bit for a few devices as the Windows 7 standard drivers don’t have everything covered and the current Lenovo update software doesn’t work with the T43 anymore. Or so I’ve heard, I don’t actually use the software myself.

Cooling

The T43 runs a little bit hot and with the fastest CPU available installed, I really want to keep the system as cool as possible. The T4x series are notorious for their “flexing” bug, which results in the GPU not working properly anymore. It’s caused by defective solder points and is supposed to be caused by excessive strain on the motherboard combined with heat. Here’s what I did to improve cooling:

The southbridge chip below the WiFi card is not even passively cooled and produces a lot of heat so I put a thin sheet of copper on the chip which extends to the left side onto the PCMCIA connector, dissipating a little bit of the heat. So far it seems to work. The northbridge also got a smaller sheet of copper, I’m not sure how much it actually helps.

t43-cooling

Cleaning the fan is a no-brainer and so is replacing any old thermal paste. What’s a little bit more risky is the GPU cooling. The GPU gets really hot because the cooling block doesn’t extend all the way down to the GPU, that’s why IBM put a thermal pad on the GPU to cover the gap. Since these pads are really bad head conductors, this is a problem. The solution is to carefully scrape off the pad and put a small copper shim between the GPU and cooler. You want to make the gap as small as possible, so I also bent the cooler down to the GPU. Be careful to make sure it’s not bent at an angle and don’t kink the heatpipe. This helps a whole lot and the system runs a lot cooler now, even when using the GPU with a 3D application.

The last thing you can do is undervolt your CPU with the RMClock utility and also putting the GPU to mobile mode in the Catalyst driver if you don’t need it.

Other Stuff

I’ve put a PCMCIA USB2.0 card in the PCMCIA slot to have some extra USB ports and a Transcend 8GB SSD in the Express Port as a readyboost device for Windows 7. Since I don’t need readyboost anymore (you’ll see why), I’m swapping that with a USB 3.0 card and I’ll replace the USB 2.0 card with a card reader, that the T43 is also lacking.

I also replaced the palmrest for a model with fingerprint reader. They’re a bit rare and because my original palmrest came with a scratch when I originally got it, I’m quite happy with the replacement, which seems to be unused.

Next time: HDD/SSD

This has gone on long enough for one article. I’ll talk about the most recent, but most important modification in the next part. You see, I love SSDs and I firmly believe almost every system should have an SSD. But IBM has not made it easy for me. The T43 is SATA capable, but IBM decided to convert the SATA data on the mainboard with a converter chip to IDE. So in the end there’s an IDE connector on the T43 and I’ve had quite the adventurous journey to finally get a proper SSD in the T43.

T43 SATA SSD preparation

This is from a couple of weeks ago, where I was preparing for the big mod.

What do you think about this project? A waste of time and money or do you like preserving and breathing new life into old hardware? Especially if it’s something like a robust and reliable Thinkpad. Let me know in the comments!

Further reading: ThinkWiki article