Lenovo T61p + 64 bit Ubuntu 8.04

When I was looking for a new laptop last year I appreciated reading other people’s candid views on their recent purchases, thus I thought I’d write a post to contribute back.

I ended up getting a Lenovo T61p. Specs: Core2 Duo T7500 at 2.2Ghz, 4 GB of RAM, 1680×1050 screen, nVidia Quadro FX 570M graphics card with 256 MB, and a 9 cell battery. One factor in making this decision was that it was discounted through the university by about 30%. It came with 32 bit Visa Business and I installed Ubuntu 7.10, which I’ve now upgraded to Ubuntu 8.04.

Perhaps the biggest factor for me was reliability. Laptops seem to have a tendency to break and that’s a major pain to have to deal with. Unfortunately, after a few months of talking to people about their laptops I came to the conclusion that a significant proportion of all major makes and models have problems (and yes, that does include Macs… Jesus, you guys are worse than Jehovah’s Witnesses). All I can say is that after half a year I have had no hardware failures, of course your experience might be different.

The good:

The screen rocks. It’s 15.4″ 1680×1050, which gives you about 130 dpi and is still plenty bright. To start with I wasn’t sure about getting such a high res screen as it might make things too small. However, I just set the dpi in Ubuntu and everything rescaled up, i.e. all the fonts and menus etc. are the same size as normal but are now exceptionally clear and sharp. Sadly these high spec screens are not an option in all countries for some reason.

The keyboard is great and I now understand why people rave about ThinkPad keyboards. To start with I wanted the Fn and Ctrl keys swapped, however after a week I no longer noticed.

The chassis is the best I’ve ever had on the laptop. It’s all reinforced with magnesium so it’s super rigid. Indeed, physically the whole laptop feels very strong.

The wireless is perhaps too good? Every few weeks, usually on a Saturday morning, it’ll drop the wireless connection for a few seconds while in my apartment. However, I’ve noticed that when this happens the wireless system is reporting around 20 available networks, so I guess it starts having problems with conflicts? Seriously, I can pick up wireless networks from people’s houses half way down the street.

The performance seems good, but I haven’t really tested it against anything. As far as graphics performance goes, I know that Crysis is infamously demanding in this area. So long as I turn down the screen resolution and limit the texture size to fit in 256 MB, I find the game quite playable. Thus if it can (just) handle Crysis, I’d expect it to deal with most other games without a problem (though obviously this isn’t a high performance gaming machine).

The battery life is pretty decent. I get 3 to 4 hours depending on what I’m doing. And it’s quiet, very quiet. Even under full load it’s still pretty quiet.

The bad (or at least not-so-good):

The track pad is far too small. I’m used to using the red dot to move the pointer as then I don’t need to move my hands, so this doesn’t really bother me. However, if you’re used to big track pads you’ll hate this one. At around 3 kg it’s a bit heavy. The screen is slightly off centre to the right due to the wireless. I thought that might bother me to start with, actually I never notice it. I also thought that having the cursor arrow keys being slightly smaller than standard keys might bother me, but I got used to it. The only hardware feature I miss is not having a built in webcam for use with skype. Instead I have to plug one in. That’s about it really.

Oh, there’s also the missing DVI output. To start with I couldn’t understand their thinking in going with VGA, however now I get it: If you want a desktop set up, then get a docking station and you’ll get the DVI output from that. On the other hand, if you’re running around somewhere and want to plug into a projector, then you’ll want the VGA output anyway. Unless you manage to come across a very new high end projector, in which case you can skip the cables altogether and use the laptop’s wireless USB.

Finally a word on operating systems. It came with 32 bit Vista Business which is kind of a joke, but you knew that already. I dual boot the 64 bit version of Ubuntu 8.04 and am very happy with it. 7.10 had some issues, but with 8.04 things just work. Really.  Wireless, DVDs, all the special buttons to adjust volume and screen brightness, even the graphics system worked without me touching any config files. Once it was installed it informed me that to get accelerated graphics I’d need the closed source driver from nVidia.  So I clicked ok and it installed it for me and restarted X. The only thing that needed real intervention was getting suspend to work. I googled around a bit and found that I needed to add a line to some file to unload and reload my wireless. That fixed the problem. Even the colour laser printer down the hall now works, including the positioning of staples.  There used to be problems with flash player on 64 bit linux, but now that works too. Skype with video, also no problem. The only thing I know of that doesn’t work is wireless USB. Given that I’ve never met a wireless USB device before, it’s not exactly a problem. I guess that in a year or so when they become more common this will work.

Of course Ubuntu still has a few rough edges.  For example, I couldn’t work out how to get the VGA output to work in order to drive my projector. In the X config when I’d click on “Detect External Monitors” nothing would happen. The problem is that I’m running the nVidia stuff and thus I have to run the nVidia config software to set up more complex things like multiple monitors.  Using this software, everything appears to work.

Small update: One of my friends who’s doing a PhD here just got a new Dell laptop today and installed 64 bit Ubuntu 8.04.  Everything worked perfectly straight out of the box: wireless, suspend, sound configuration, dual monitors… everything.

Update 2, one year after purchase.  A few of the keys on the keyboard are looking a bit shiny from use.  I’ve seen this on Thinkpads before.  Not a big deal for me.  Ubuntu likes to make a loud beep noise when I resume from suspend.  It started after a system update so I’m sure it’s a software issue.  The only real hardware issue is the battery that is now at 62% of its design charge.  I don’t think any laptop companies make their own batteries, it’s all outsourced to battery companies.  This one says it’s a Sanyo.  So I guess it’s not really a problem with this Thinkpad, but rather with heavily used laptop batteries in general: if you use them a lot you need a new one every 1 – 1.5 years.

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16 Responses to Lenovo T61p + 64 bit Ubuntu 8.04

  1. Axure says:

    Dunno what you mean by saying high-res is not available in some countries… Here in Poland they sell T61p only with 1920×1200 ;-)

  2. Shane Legg says:

    According to the Lenovo website for the US, there they can only get low res screens. I have no idea why…

  3. steve says:

    How is your new laptop with regard to fan noise etc? I’m in the market for a new laptop and the Lenovo T61P seems to fit the bill but I don’t like working to the sound of a jet airplane.

  4. Shane Legg says:

    Steve: Very quiet. The hard disk turning usually makes more noise than the CPU fan. Under load it makes more noise, but it’s still much quieter than most other laptops. Apparently they used something to do with the shape of the wing of an owl in the newest Thinkpads in order to make the CPU fan extra quiet.

  5. mike says:

    Great work!
    Now just wondering how following things work under Ubuntu 8.04:
    1. suspend and hibernation. Could you please give more detail how to modify configure files?
    2. fan noise and heat
    3. power management
    4. from you article, do I need to update nVidia driver to drive external monitor?

    My T61P is 14.1” 4:3 ratio, with a Samsung 216BW, works great with Windows server 2003.
    Many thanks

  6. Shane Legg says:

    Mike:

    Yeah, suspend is a bit of a tricky one. It depends on your wifi card and drivers and stuff. Have a look at thinkwiki, or just Google for it. I don’t know about hibernation as I always just suspect.

    It’s quiet. Yeah there is a slight fan noise but even under full load it doesn’t get very noisy. Far quieter than my office mate’s MacBook Pro under full load. Heat: cool on top but can get pretty hot under the bottom under load.

    Power management features seem to work fine. Screen dim on idle, or suspect… however ever I configure it it seems to work fine.

    About using an external monitor… I don’t know. Probably. But it’s easy and fast, just click yes when Ubuntu asks you after install and it takes care of the rest… then you have fast 3D as well. Then just going to the nVidia X server settings application and that will set up the external monitor for you.

  7. mike says:

    Thanks Shane, sounds great. I will try later.

  8. Hi Shane -

    I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of my T61p, and going to install Ubuntu on the second hard drive. I had a couple questions about your experience with the combo.

    My current work laptop (a Latitude Core 2 Duo) has Ubuntu 7.10 32 bit, and there were some hassles with Wifi and quite often desktop effects would just die. You mentioned hardware etc. works out of the box, which is great – glad to hear it, especially with 64 bit. How is your experience with desktop effects? In my experience with 7.10 and the nVidia closed-source drivers, after a few hours of use the desktop effects would crash, leaving me with toolbar-less applications (I have to go into the Appearance menu and turn off effects to get it back to normal). I ended up turning off the effects completely, despite a legit gain in productivity while using them (mostly in switching between apps). I suspect part of the issue may be the external monitor. Anyway, curious what your experience is with it.

    Dave

  9. Shane Legg says:

    Dave:

    I haven’t had any problems with desktop effects that I can think of.

    Every few months I do have X crash however. It seems to happen when I’m playing flash video, though it’s rare enough that I can’t say for sure – and I play plenty of flash video. It logs me out and I have to log back in again and restart any applications that were running. Linux itself doesn’t crash. I’ve been told that this is due to bugs in the closed nVidia graphics drivers.

  10. Funny: just ran a search again on Google re: T61p+Ubuntu 64 bit+hardware, and your blog came up again. I finally received the laptop and as you said everything worked out of the box.

    Anyway, thought the coincidence (or semi-sort-of-but-not-really coincidence) was enough to post again.

  11. Shane Legg says:

    Dave: Yeah, sometimes now I look something up on Google only to see an entry on my own blog :-)

    By the way your photo “Kunsthistorisches at Night” is pretty cool.

  12. harrison says:

    if you have a problem with the nvidia config software you should try running it under root.

    nice write-up!

  13. linuxguy says:

    Now-a-days, things are coming pre-installed and solid. Still, there’s something to be said about getting your hands dirty by working ground up

  14. linuxguy says:

    added, im starting to see a lot of pre-installed linux systems flooding around…look at dell

  15. stewart says:

    Just thought you might want to know, the beep noise is an artifact of the BIOS settings. Go into your BIOS and you should find a setting that turns the beep off, as by default it is set to beep on any change in power status. This means that when you start up your computer or resume from hibernate/suspend, it should beep. Has nothing to do with your operating system.

  16. stewart says:

    Also, if you want to hook up an external monitor, run nvidia-settings in the console or run bar, and then go to ‘X Server Display Configuration’, Detect Displays, and a ‘disabled’ screen should appear. Click it, tell it to go to Twin View, place it in the position you want (directly over your primary screen for cloning) or set it to the primary, and click apply. And the Docking Station is definitely worth purchasing; if you have the money, makes life much easier.

    A caveat, however; it has been my experience on Linux that if you use an external monitor with an Nvidia card, the external monitor tends to have scan line problems. Nothing usually noticeable, but if you are playing a movie or something, occasionally portions of the movie will update faster than others. A minor annoyance, but it may turn you off of it.

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