My old laptop, nobu, finally bit the dust. Well, he's not entirely dead, but after five years, the screen has choked out its last viewable pixel. I'm actually surprised it took this long. The touchpad hasn't worked for years, and the optical drive has been pretty much worthless for even longer. I replaced the hard drive almost three years ago. The PCMCIA slots became worthless last November when the computer fell on the side that they were on, while a wi-fi card was plugged into one of them. And the proprietary, so-called quality that I've come to expect from Sony this past decade made opening the computer for any repairs pretty much impossible.
I had already been looking around at new laptops, and been giving serious consideration to Lenovo's Thinkpad series. I'd already decided that Dell was out of the question, and HP even more so. Plus, the majority of my coworkers have Thinkpads that they love, and with an office full of seasoned Linux geeks, that really says something. But since I just bought a new house and any small wealth I once had has been sucked into it, the infamous T61p was out of the question. Fortunately, Newegg had an R61i at a really great price, and I had them overnight one to me.
Rather than posting initial thoughts, I decided to give it a couple of weeks before posting what I thought about it. I think it takes at least that long to get a good feel for a piece of hardware like this. So far I have found things that I like, things that I don't like, and even things that I thought I wouldn't like that ended up being pretty okay.
Let's get the bad things out of the way first. The touchpad seemed to work well, but after a few minutes typing, I found myself wishing it were about an inch and a half to the left, like it was on my old Vaio. Apparently Sony can do some things right, believe it or not. Some people at this point are wondering why I don't use the mouse nub that Thinkpads are so famous for, but I can't stand those things. In fact, it was one of the big reasons I considered looking at a different company altogether. But when the computer came with two replacement nubs, I realized I could just yank it out and not even think about it. File that with The Good.
I unfortunately ended up paying the Microsoft tax on this computer, but at least it was only the XP tax, and not sullied by the likes of Vista. I even booted to XP once. Just once. After a setup process that took several minutes, I was dumped to the once-familiar, hideous desktop that I had been forced to use in a previous life. It started out with two error messages telling me something about my anti-virus software, and some system update FUD. The desktop was already cluttered with icons that I would never click even if I ever used Windows, and was generally unfriendly from the start.
As much as I hate Windows, I decided to keep it. Not as my primary OS of course, but it still might come in handy. In particular, I have an old student copy of AutoCAD that I bought years ago that I still love, and have missed these past few years. If nothing else, that might be good enough reason to keep a Windows partition around. Unfortunately, the Thinkpad did not come with recovery discs. And unlike other models, it does not appear I can purchase them. They decided to set aside a FAT32 partition at the end of the drive with a copy, seriously hampering my abilities to repartition the drive for Linux. In the end, I used dd to make a copy of that filesystem, and then blew it away.
Unfortunately, when I killed the FAT32 partition the blue ThinkVantage button on the notebook stopped working. This seemed to be the primary way to get into the BIOS. But fortunately, I am still able to get to the BIOS's boot menu, which has an option to "Enter Setup". As you can imagine, I'm pretty unhappy with Lenovo by this point. But there are good things to say about this notebook.
Within hours of receiving my notebook, I had booted to an Ubuntu Hardy Heron Live CD to get a real OS going. Since Ubuntu ships GParted on their Live CDs, resizing the Windows NTFS partition down to 20 gig was trivial. Had I been thinking I would have popped up fdisk, made note of the starting and ending cylinders for the FAT32 partition before blasting it away. It was marked as a primary partition, and I wonder if I could have made it a logical partition later on and still had the ThinkVantage button work. I guess it's gone anyway.
I set up some Linux partitions and got Ubuntu's Hardy Heron release installed. In only a matter of minutes, I had a dual-boot set up with XP and Ubuntu, with Ubuntu as the default. When I booted to Ubuntu, it was configured. The install program had asked for far less than the Windows XP setup thingy, and on the first boot I was given a desktop that just worked. A review of Hardy itself will have to wait for another post. Here I'm going to focus on how the Thinkpad worked with Hardy.
Right off the bat, I started testing some of the special buttons on the Thinkpad. The mute and volume buttons worked right off the bat. When I opened Rhythm box, the Fn key plus the arrow keys were able to control it without a problem, even when it was on a different virtual desktop. Bluetooth works out of the box, but it was kind of a pain to find an interface for it. Fortunately, I was able to find several sites willing to tell me how to map Fn+F6 to toggle it. Most of the other Fn buttons seemed to work right off the bat, even including the external VGA functionality, which works beautifully in Linux, as opposed to my old Vaio which would fuzz out on VGA the second it went to any graphical mode.
Wireless also worked out of the box, as did the built-in ethernet jack. And I have blinky lights on my ethernet port! I'd been wishing I had them on the Vaio. A guy shouldn't have to check ethtool every time he needs to see if the hotel network jack is even active. I haven't had a chance to test the PCMCIA slots since, well, what am I going to use them for? The only thing I used it for on my old notebook was wireless, and that's built-in now. I also haven't had the chance, or even inclination to test the modem. It's almost a waste of real estate and resources.
Speaking of a waste of real estate, I also haven't played with the fingerprint scanner. I don't know how much it added to the cost of the machine, but if I could have bought an identical model minus the fingerprint reader and its associated cost, I would have. Some of my coworkers tell me that it's great in Ubuntu, but I've never been a fan.
This model came with a DVD/CD+/-R/RW burner. Sweet! It's not that my external burner really took up a lot of space in my luggage, but I'm glad to no longer have to pack it with me. And even better, this drive is removable! If it dies, I still have a nearly-identical burner laying around that I bought for my Vaio before I realized that actually repairing and replacing parts in a Vaio is no more than a shattered dream.
There are two keys on the keyboard next to the arrows that I haven't figured out. Each one looks like a page with the corner bent over, with one having an arrow pointing to the left, and the other having an arrow pointing to the right. I don't know what they were supposed to do in the Wild Wacky World of Windows, but it would be kind of cool if I could map them to something in Linux, like switching virtual desktop. The arrow keys are in a decent place, but I still haven't gotten used to the odd placement of the Insert, Delete, Home, End, PgUp and PgDn keys. I imagine that will come with time. It always takes time getting used to a new keyboard. The fact that this keyboard is slightly smaller than the Vaio took about a week to get used to.
There are three USB ports on this guy, two on the left side and one on the right. I have had zero problems with them. I also have a firewire port on the front. I have had zero need to test it. I did note with some dismay that it is the mini variety, which has given me no end to troubles in the past. I don't expect to use it in the future.
In short, while there is some hardware that I'm probably not ever going to bother with, but with the exception of the ThinkVantage button, the stuff that matters all works with Ubuntu. With the exception of the misplaced touchpad that my right palm keeps touching as I type, I find myself far more productive than I ever was on my Vaio, even though the processor is only slightly faster, the hard drive is only slightly larger, the keyboard is just slightly smaller, and the screen is just slightly wider.
All in all, this seems to be a great notebook for just about any Linux user. In fact, Linux seems to work even better on it than the copy of Windows that it actually shipped with. I wish that Newegg could sell an Ubuntu version of this guy, saving me the cost of the Microsoft tax. I'm increasingly starting to wonder how anybody takes Windows seriously anymore. It lost out to Linux in the server arena long ago (if indeed it ever was ahead), and now it's started to lose out in the desktop world as well. I guess now I'm getting preachy. Sorry about that. The point is, if you're looking for a good notebook to run Linux, I don't see how you could go wrong with a Thinkpad, especially the R61i.