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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Start-up wisdom

One of the great things about guys who start tech companies that make money is that they like to share what they learnt online. Here’s one article I recently read that was quite interesting.

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You know you have almost finished a PhD when…

… you spend two hours trying to understand the correct usage of semi-colons verses colons, when to capitalise following a colon, and then fixing up your text.

For those who really must know: go here and then here.

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I just saw this on a TED talk, it’s called PhotoSynth. Basically, it brings together photos from all sorts of different angles to construct a 3D model of something. As an example, the guy gets pictures of Notre Dame de Paris from flicker and PhotoSynth then works out how to stick them all together. He then sort of flies around looking at different parts of the cathedral.


I really didn’t think current image processing technology could do this… it’s like sci-fi come real.

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The vetta project on WordPress takes to flight…

Over the coming days I’ll be playing around with settings, themes etc.

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