These posts were written on the Minifree X200, most posts will be dne on here from this day forward!
Two weeks ago I ordered a Minifree Libreboot X200 laptop. This is a refurbished ThinkPad X200 that has had many changes from the original laptop. The BIOS has been replaced with Libreboot, a free software replacement. These laptops are almost a decade old, running a Core 2 Duo with small amounts of RAM, and can be downright huge with the docking station attached.
So, whats the point in buying a laptop like this?
Free software radicals and the Free Software Foundation recommend specially refurbished ThinkPad X200s, T400s and other models for the computers that you should use if you want to have your freedom respected. While these laptops are not free on their own, they can have modifications to replace the WiFi card which supports free software and have the BIOS replaced with a free software replacement called Libreboot. This can make the laptop run a complete free software stack, which most modern laptops are not able to accomplish.
Running a Librebooted X200 with an operating system lke Parabola and Trisquel means you have a PC running completely free software, from the BIOS, the operating system, and the programs installed on it. There are no closed source bits of firmware1 whatsoever. Newer laptops like the Librem 15 are close to the same thing, so why don’t these people buy that instead? There is also a reason for this…
The Intel Management Engine (ME) is a proprietary tool built into Intel chipset processors which performs tasks separate from the computer. The FSF does not like Intel ME because it runs even when the PC is turned off, and has top level access and bypasses the operating system. They (and some security researchers) don’t like this behaviour because it has the nature of a backdoor. Newer Intel processors have no way of removing the Intel ME at the moment, and so the FSF do not approve newer PCs because of this. Older laptops like the X200 can have it deactivated.
Ministry of Freedom (or Minifree) is the supplier I bought the X200 from. There are several suppliers like Vikings and Technoethical all based in different parts of the world, but I chose to get my X200 from Minifree because:
- Minifree is owned by Leah Rowe, who is the lead developer and founder of Libreboot. Purchasing a laptop from Minifree directly supports the Libreboot project.
- Minifree is UK based, and I am in the UK so ordering from them gives me the least hassle.
- Most of the stock is sold cheaper than the competitors, and I got mine for about £190, with the docking station included. (05/10/2021: The prices raised, but still lower than competitors).
Some things worth noting
Even though Minifree is a company, it is mostly ran by one person (Leah) and if there are a lot of orders then there are possibilities of delays. It happened with me but I was consistently being notified via email on changes with the shipping and when it would ship. I got the laptop about 4 days later than expected but since there was alerts and contact I was not annoyed. As a customer you should consider them a sole trader with a workload and not to overestimate.
Prices of stock are also in USD, this is because most of the customers are Americans. If you’re from the UK like I am, send her a wire transfer the equivalent amount in Pounds with your order number and name. Since the site only runs on free software there is no possible way to send money outside of wire transfer.
The prices and the items bundled with the laptops also vary based on their total stock. Some days, listings will bundle a laptop with a docking station, a laptop with a docking station and 16MB flash upgrade, and sometimes just the laptop on it’s own. I’m not too sure why this occurs and I assume they want to sell items at the best value when they have a lot of stock. I bought mine with the docking station but no flash upgrade. If you buy an item and the listing changes after purchase, you will get what you was set to purchase, NOT what it was changed to later.
Leah posts updates on her Twitter, @n4of7 (not linking a nonfree service).
During the purchase, Leah kept in contact with me via email for updates on shipping and to also answer technical questions about the laptop that I had. It was a serious help on her part and I thank her a lot for taking the time to write back.
As I mentioned at the start, the X200 is pretty old. You are not buying laptops like this for the specs they have. This laptop has an Intel Core2 Duo P8600 processor, with 4GB of RAM and a 250GB HDD. ThinkPads have easily replacable RAM and disk drives, so I can upgrade to an SSD in the future.
With the docking station, the laptop has:
- 7 USB 2.0 ports (3 on laptop, 4 on dock)
- 2 VGA connectors (1 on each)
- 1 DisplayPort (dock)
- 2 ethernet ports (1 on each)
- Modem port
- 2 Headphone jacks, 2 microphone jacks (1 of each type on each)
- SD card reader
- 1 ExpressCard/54 slot
- 1 CD/DVD Drive (can be replaced with a second hard drive slot)
Using the ExpressCard slot it is possible to add USB 3.0 slots, eSATA, Serial or others.
I heard about the older ThinkPads having good keyboards. They are right, I like how far the keys travel down. It is like those Logitech membrane keyboards you’d find at a PC retailer for like 20 bucks. It isn’t as good as a quality mechanical keyboard by any means though.
For a refurb, I’d rate the laptop around a A as it functions perfectly but there are definite smudges and discolouration around the outside body. It does appear that effort was made in giving it a cleanup though. The material the ThinkPads used are the issue here, as my old X230 had it even worse with age. The keyboad works perfectly however the right arrow key is prone to getting stuck and is a bit squishy feeling. Some of the keys are also very glossy, mainly the E key and the spacebar. These types of things are expected however.
All Minifree laptops come with Trisquel GNU/Linux, an FSF approved GNU/Linux distribution based on Ubuntu which only uses free software. Using Trisquel since I got the laptop, iit has been a breeze to work with. Considering minimal installs of Ubuntu are very stable, it does not surprise me. Trisquel is a fun distribution, and is the first FSF approved operating system that I Have tried.
In terms of software, the repository that they provide is pretty good but not equal to a huge project like Debian. There have been some times where I have had to install programs from outside of
apt. Hugo (the site generator this site uses) and Anki are two programs I had to install manually.
Minifree provides the laptop with disk encryption enabled. For alternative operating systems, try Parabola and Debian.
Libreboot is the BIOS replacement flashed onto the X200, I have not tried to configure or play around with it as the default settings are sufficient. It’s extremely fast and it works pretty well. However, I have some issues with bootable USB drives although I believe that is because of the USB drives themselves. A Tails USB boots fine, a Parabola USB on a different one doesn’t. I’ll probably get more and try again as it might not be a Libreboot issue?
I really like the Minifree X200. When using these laptops you should be aware of the limitations of the hardware and the purpose of these laptops. I would recommend these laptops if you want to try using free software completely, try Libreboot, or even have a beginner PC to try a GNU/Linux distribution with. I would not recommend these laptops if you are going to use proprietary software on it, or if you need a laptop with modern specs or demanding software. Gamers, stick to your RGB rainbow keyboard 4K display giant chunky monstrocity of a laptop!
EC firmware, HDD firmware, Webcam firmware are still proprietary according to an E-Mail Leah sent me, this laptop has no webcam. ↩︎