O.k. I admit it, the sheer performance of video calls on current notebook processors made me go for a new instead of a used notebook, as incidentally, a couple of other unforeseen developments required the move anyway. So instead of buying a used Lenovo X270 with a 7th generation Intel processor from 2017 with 2 cores and 4 CPU threads, I went for a new Thinkpad X13 Gen 1 from 2020 with an AMD Ryzen 7 4750U CPU with 8 cores and 16 CPU threads. So here’s the story of how that went.
The X13 (Gen 1) is the successor of the Lenovo X390, which is the successor of the X280 which is the successor of my initially targeted X270. The first digit in the lineup changed after the X280, as Lenovo decided to include a 13″ display instead of a 12″ display the X-series came with for at least a decade. And for reasons unknown to me, they once again changed the naming convention after the X390 to X13 Gen 1, which is the 2020 X-series notebook.
Why an X13?
The X13 Gen 2 has already been announced, so my X13 Gen 1 is not the latest hardware. But I wasn’t really too keen on getting the latest and greatest, as there’s always the risk of not all hardware being supported by the Linux kernel right away. Better to be a bit on the conservative side. But still, I wanted to be a bit on the adventurous side and have as much performance as possible. And from this angle, AMD seems to beat Intel by quite a bit while being cheaper at the same time. Also, Lenovo did the right thing for me and offered the X13 without Windows being pre-installed. Excellent, as the last thing I want to run on that notebook is Windows, and I really hate paying the “Microsoft tax” for nothing. The major downside of the X13 is that the RAM is soldered to the motherboard, so I will have to live with the 16 GB RAM it came with.
I also considered a T14s with an AMD Ryzen 7 processor that was also available without a Windows license. However, at around 1250 euros, it would have cost 250 euros more than the X13. That would have been o.k., but even the T14s line has only one free RAM socket, while 8 GB of RAM is soldered to the motherboard. Adding more RAM would have been possible, but when going beyond 16 GB, the two memory modules would have had different sizes. This in turn would have had an impact on performance. Also, this model would have had a brand new 5th generation AMD Ryzen 7 processor, which was a bit too new for my taste, Linux wise.
Let’s Talk About the CPU
My X13 Gen 1 came with an AMD Ryzen 7 Pro 4750U processor with 8 cores and 16 CPU threads. Most reviewers point out that this is the fastest processor one can get in small notebook in 2020 and it didn’t disappoint. Like in my post on the 10th generation Intel processor notebook I tested a couple of weeks ago, browser based video conferencing runs very smoothly at 10% overall processor load. This compares to the 50% load on all 4 threads on my X250. So perhaps the individual core processing power has not gone up all that much in those five years between the X250 and this X13, but the sheer number of CPU cores and threads makes a significant difference. Instead of everything slowing down during a video conference, enough cores are still idle to take-on other tasks at full speed during the conference. And this is the major difference I noticed compared to my X250 which made it worthwhile to jump five years ahead. Yes, sure, the desktop and GUI applications seems to be a bit faster and smoother, the NVME SSD is faster compared to the SATA SSD in the old notebook, but frankly, that’s hardly noticeable.
Out of the box, Ubuntu 20.04 with the current 5.11 kernel line supports all hardware in the X13 such as the AMD 4750U CPU, the CPU embedded AMD graphics card, the camera, the microphone and speakers, the touch-pad, etc. The only thing that did not work out of the box was suspend / resume to RAM when closing the lid. But this seems to be a known phenomenon caused by the rather useless ‘modern’ standby state that the X13’s BIOS supports for other operating systems. Fortunately, that can be switched-off in the BIOS and once done, suspend to RAM (S3) works as it should.
The other thing that kept me puzzled for a while was that I can’t assign an SSD power-up password in the BIOS. After a bit of research it looks like NVME drives don’t have that option anymore. Quite a pity, I really liked the disk password on power-up as an extra security measure that all SATA SSDs I’ve used in the past supported. [UPDATE 29.9.2021: While it didn’t work with the 2 TB Crucial P2 NVME SSD, I was able to set the password in the BIOS when I exchanged it with a Samsung 970 Evo Plus. So it looks like some NVMEs do have the option to set a power-on disk password, while others have not]
The one thing I replaced after I knew I would keep the notebook was the 500 GB NVME SSD, it’s just too small for my purposes. I replaced it with a rather cheap 2 TB Crucial NVME SSD for 200 euros. It’s not the fastest kid on the block if you believe the reviews, but still faster than my SATA SSDs. So that’s just fine by me.
One thing I was hoping would also work without much tweaking are my Windows and Linux virtual machines with Virtualbox. And indeed, everything worked out of the box as well and graphics performance is noticeably better than on the X250. Windows in a VM has the nasty side effect that when not being used, it starts scanning the hard drive and looking for updates. On my X250, this maxed out the CPU. On the X13, even with 4 CPUs given to the guest OS, it’s hardly noticeable anymore due to the sheer number of cores and CPU threads of the AMD 4750U CPU that Windows in the VM can’t grab.
So far, I’m running with the standard open source AMD graphics card drivers and since everything works fine, I have no intention of switching to the proprietary AMD drivers. I ran a quick ffmpeg video transcoding test to see how the Ryzen 7 fares against my 4 year old Intel Xeon based workstation below the desk with an Nvidia graphics card that has a dedicated H.264 hardware encoder. The AMD CPU without ffmpeg hardware support transcodes my test mp4 file at 5.1 times the real speed with all 16 CPU threads being fully used. The Nvidia GPU of the workstation sports an impressive 23x the normal speed for the same file, with the decoding done on the Intel Xeon 6-core CPU and the re-encoding done on the H.264 hardware encoder on the GPU. I’m glad there’s still a difference.
And finally, I am also very happy to see that Lenovo has stuck with delivering BIOS updates via fwupd. Once downloaded, the BIOS was updated automatically during the next reboot. Nicely done!
Overall, I am very impressed with the performance of the X13 and the huge delta to a 5 year old high end notebook. Spending an extra 400 euros compared to buying a used X270 definitely paid out. Also, I’m glad I took the slight risk of going for an AMD CPU and GPU. As things are working flawlessly, AMD and the Linux community have obviously done a great job to ensure that AMD based notebooks are a viable alternative. The one question that now nags me a bit now is how Linux fares on current notebooks that don’t have an option to disable the ‘modern’ standby mode. But that’s another story.