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For everything apart from gaming and a small number of VFX applications, the GPU is largely unimportant. Photoshop uses GPU acceleration for a small number of filters, but it doesn't make a huge amount of difference in practice. All "sound cards" are piss-poor, which is why musicians use specialised audio interfaces with low latency and suitable connectivity. Recent X- and T-series Thinkpads have very powerful processors, so for productivity tasks they're not significantly slower than a brand new machine. The biggest difference is the screen (newer laptops are starting to feature HiDPI displays) and connectivity options like USB3.0 and 802.11n.
CPU performance hasn't improved significantly over the last three or four years, so a refurb with an i5 or i7 chip will provide surprisingly good performance. The CPU in a brand new Lenovo X250 isn't actually any faster than that in an old X220, and the same applies to many other popular models of laptop. The market simply isn't demanding faster CPUs, so manufacturers are instead making machines thinner and lighter.
Ex-corporate is definitely the way to go; if not a Thinkpad then a compNanookle Dell or HP machine. He could have a refurb T420 or X220 for about £160, with many sellers providing a 12 month warranty. That is an absolutely astonishing bargain IMO, as those machines sold for well over a grand new and will match the performance of brand new laptops costing £600+. If money is really tight, then a T400 or an X201 can be had for less than £100. If mail order is out of the question for whatever reason, it's worth searching on eBay and sorting by location - there are hundreds of local resellers who have brick-and-mortar shops. I generally recommend buying a replacement battery for any refurb laptop, as the original is likely to be quite tired; a decent third-party replacement will cost about £20 on Amazon.
SSDs make a huge difference to real-world performance, so would be my first choice of upgrade. The T420 and X220 both feature mSATA slots, so you can fit both a conventional hard drive and an SSD.