Laptop on a Budget: a Low-cost Powerhouse Option (Two Internal Drives, Lenovo Based)

Introduction: Laptop on a Budget: a Low-cost Powerhouse Option (Two Internal Drives, Lenovo Based)

About: A Chemist, Ham Radio Operator, Maker/Artist, and Communicator. Some days you just wake up and smell the coffee!

This instructable will focus on an updated configuration to the Lenovo T540p laptop as a daily driver machine for web browsing, word processing, light gaming, and audio. It is configured with solid-state and mechanical storage for speed and capacity, in a frame that is tough and modern. Most importantly, it is configured at less than $250 (including Windows OS if purchased with laptop.) When paired with headphones and a wireless mouse, it is a capable and road-tested machine.

This is designed for writers, engineers, and scientists who are comfortable with a screwdriver, but not necessarily with advanced computers. Review this instructable before proceeding.

Credit for laptop white-staged images to eBay user bargainbytes. (no affiliation, used with permission)

**Story**

During a between-jobs period I found myself often at a coffeehouse, sipping coffee and writing resumes and cover letters on my Asus Vivobook laptop. While this machine was a powerhouse, it was not economical, and also not resilient to my carrying it around in a laptop bag all day. After a couple of bumps and an unfortunate mishap involving leaving my bag in the car during a cool night, condensation rendered the motherboard's bios corrupted. I did not have the money to replace the laptop, which was a needed tool for my job search and income at the time.

It was during this time that I was reintroduced to the ThinkPad, which in its current iteration is a) a spectacularly equipped machine, and b) exorbitantly expensive on the new market. However, during my reviews I found these machines were commonly sold after lease by corporate users on eBay, and as such were quite affordable. A YouTube binge found several users who crow about the capabilities of these off-lease machines, and I took some research time to find a setup that covered my needs.

Most users on YouTube point out the T440p model as their preferred machine due to its keyboard and trackpad, and bemoan the 500 series for the conversion to the 'chicklet' style keyboard (on which I am now typing.) Given the I/O updates and processors, I am comfortable with the 500 series as my primary machine. Most importantly, its slim profile and professional look is not out of place at a Starbucks or a boardroom.

The primary reason for this exercise was my disappointment in low-cost PC options at major retailers. Much like my taste in cars, I prefer high quality, high capability and low cost. The stickers in the store will show capability and low cost, usually at the expense of the laptop's construction. For this price, we outstripped the functionality and quality of a well-equipped $700 laptop.

Supplies

  • Lenovo T540P (Suggested Config: i5 4300M, 4GB DDR3 RAM) with Win 10 License Key
  • 240gb Solid-State Hard Drive
  • SSD/ HDD Caddy Adapter for Lenovo T540p (Suggested: Nimitz BC78329)
  • Wireless Mouse (Suggested: Logitech M705)
  • Webcam Slide Cover, Adhesive
  • OPTIONAL: DDR3 1600 Memory Cards, 2x 4GB (8GB Total)
  • OPTIONAL: Wireless AC 7260 Wireless Card NGFF M2 (Wifi/Bluetooth)
  • OPTIONAL: Headphones (Suggested: Bose QC25 Wired)
  • OPTIONAL: Laptop Neoprene Sleeve

Step 1: Ordering Your Device and Specifications

To order your device, here is some general information.

For the T500 series, you will find plentiful sellers on eBay, Amazon, and local resellers of corporate equipment. Comparison shop and compare the reviews, specs, and cost you are evaluating. Also confirm the seller is a Microsoft Certified Refurbisher (by email or advertisement) I settled on the T540p i5 configuration which has integrated graphics and a lower-tier CPU than the T540w (i7, dedicated GPU). For my A/V work and gaming, this is more than sufficient. (Honestly, if you're worried about graphics power, get a desktop. Cheaper, more ergonomic and better in every way IMO).

Key things to review:

  • Grading: Some will advertise 'Grade A' and 'Grade B' Laptops. For the price, get a grade B. Look for the images showing any scuffs and discolorations. My unit is a 'Grade B' and there are *no* significant scuffs. Do NOT purchase a unit with any cracks on the case. This indicates physical damage that even if the unit is functional, it may be a long-term failure point. Also, at time of writing, there's enough of these on the market for it to be easy to choose a quality unit.
  • Wireless card: Ask if the unit has an AC wireless card. This shipped initially with a BGN card, that has 2.4 gHz wireless, but not 5gHz. A replacement card is ~$12 on Amazon, but if your unit is already equipped, you can support the latest wireless security modes.
  • Operating System: If you purchase with an OS, you're good. If not, an activation key is needed for Windows 10. If installing MacOS, you will need to follow guidance on that protocol. These machined do Linux fantastically, at no cost. For my use, I needed Window 10.
  • Hard Drive: This is negotiable. For my use, I configured my machine with a 750GB HDD. This was planned to be my second (storage) hard drive.
  • Memory: I suggest 2 sticks of 4GB DDR3 memory for this machine. The reason for this is two sticks allow your computer to use 'dual channel' memory, as opposed to one stick 'single channel.' The benefit is bandwidth- think if it like a pipe carrying water. Two pipes with the same capacity can deliver water more quickly in parallel than one pipe alone.

Step 2: Recieving + Assembling Unit

Once you have received your device, and confirmed it is in good working order, it is time to configure it. Here we will:

  1. Install an SSD in the main SATA bay
  2. Install the SSD/HDD Caddy in the DVD drive bay
  3. Install memory if needed
  4. Install wireless card if needed.

Install an SSD in the main SATA bay

Remove the two screws on the back of the SATA bay on the laptop. From this area we can see the hard drive, memory slots, and the back of the DVD drive.

Remove the HDD and replace with the SDD.

Install the SSD/HDD Caddy in the DVD drive bay

Remove the screw holding the DVD drive in place. With a gentle push of the screwdriver, the drive will slide out.

Install the HDD in the SSD/HDD Caddy using screws. For added security, double sided tape is also useful.

Slide the Caddy into the laptop, seating the screw mount and the SATA backplane. It'll click in. Replace the screw.


If memory is not needed, replace the cover on the back of the laptop. If needed, proceed.


Install memory if needed

Lift the clips and the installed memory will lift up as if on a hinge. Remove gently and replace, pressing in the new modules.

Replace the cover on the back of the laptop when complete.

Step 3: Software Configuration + Wrapup

Using a PC, create a bootable USB drive and install the operating system of your choice on the SSD you've installed.

Once you have installed the OS, and confirmed the unit is working, open the device manager and review the drivers. Install any driver updates from the official Lenovo website ONLY.

Once the software is configured, set up the mechanical hard drive in the SSD/HDD caddy as a dynamic volume. This will allow you to use it to either

  • Serve as an internal backup drive to the SSD
  • Serve as a media library drive for the PC (music, documents, games, etc.

Confirm your wireless is working effectively connecting to both 2.4gHz and 5gHz Wifi connections.

Install your optional wireless mouse into a USB port, or configure it through Bluetooth if that is an option.

Install your adhesive webcam cover and confirm it does not interfere with the latching mechanism (optional, good idea for privacy).

Finally, insert your device into a neoprene sleeve to protect it in your bag or laptop backpack. This will ensure a long aesthetic life and prevent damage from scraping in the bag against books or the power brick. With care, this is a powerful and well-built tool for a comparably minor investment.

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