User laptop review – Paul Macklin
I have 2 laptop experiences:
About a year ago I bought a Winbook Si (PIII 850, PCMCIA, USB, CDROM, etc.) used off of eBay to see whether or not a laptop would be useful to me and for limited use on trips home. It worked pretty well, especially after installing Gentoo linux on it to make it snappier and more work-friendly.
However, it started to die recently and when the CDROM died, I realized that it’s not user-serviceable. Even when stripping the laptop down, it was nearly impossible to get access to the CDROM to remove and replace it. I spent a week trying to figure out how to install linux without a CDROM and eventually ran out of time and cried “uncle.”
So, in the last week or so I set out to replace my laptop. After my last experience, I had a few important criteria:
- The laptop must be as user-serviceable as possible, and
- It needs to be of high build quality and rugged.
After much research, I settled on the IBM ThinkPad R series.
They have many of the same features as their more expensive X and T series but at much more manageable prices. What’s more, if you look on eBay, you can find IBM-recertified laptops with a 1 year warranty for well under $1000. Nice compromise between quality and price.
I use my laptop daily at school as a guaranteed personal work station with all the software I want on it. I dual-boot Windows XP SP2 and Linux Gentoo and use it for computational biophysics programming, scientific writing, web surfing, and teaching.
Here are my impressions thus far:
- Build Quality Is Excellent: Even while being much lighter weight than my previous laptop, it feels much more rugged. I’m not worried about biking with this in my backpack. The screen has a lot more structure to it (so it doesn’t flex when moved), and the rest has similar quality.
- Battery Life Is Good: I consistently get 3 hours+ of usage even with the Wifi on.
- LCD is good: Although it’s 1024 x 768 and 15″, it feels substantially brighter and more crisp than both my wife’s 15″ laptop LCD (Compaq) and my desktop 15″ Samsung 151v LCD.
- Hard Drive Protection: This model not only has a hard drive housing for shock protection, but also active drive protection: it has an accelerometer that can detect bumps or a laptop drop and park the hard drive platters. The IBM software that runs it is adaptive, in that it can figure out if the bumps are small and repetitive (such as in a jet) and ignore them. This depends on Windows software and won’t work in linux for the time being.
- Wifi Reception Is Very Good: It has its antenna built into the screen, and I can pick up networks reliably with it that I couldn’t with my older PCMCIA-based Wifi adapter. Connections aren’t dropped and speeds are reliable. What’s more, I’ve gotten the Wifi to work with the ipw2200 driver in linux Gentoo without any problems.
- Extra Goodies Are Good: It has (among other things) a small built-in LED light to give a little extra light to the keyboard if you’re typing in the dark, extra hard drive shock protection, and active drive protection as mentioned above. It also has some of the extra features that should be standard on laptops but often aren’t:
- Function keys to turn off the LCD (save battery power and have some privacy when you hit the restroom at Panera)
- Turn the Wifi On/Off with a keystroke (save battery power when you’re offline)
- Adjust screen brightness
- Touchpad and Trackpoint Combined Navigation: It has both the traditional IBM trackpoint in the center of the keyboard and a touchpad. I like the trackpoint more than I thought I would: you can navigate without leaving the keyboard: right pointer-finger can move from “h” to the trackpoint, and you can use your thumbs for the right, left,and middle mouse buttons.
If you don’t like the trackpoint or touchpad, you can disable one or the other in the BIOS. Also, the touchpad is by synaptics, rather than an off brand.
- Good BIOS Options: there are many things that can be set in the BIOS. One of my favorites: set the CDRW/DVDROM speed to max, normal, or silent. I choose silent for better power consumption and so you can’t hear the drive when playing DVD’s.
- Radeon Graphics: Any 18xx-based unit has radeon mobility graphics, rather than Intel graphics. Seem to work nicely. Radeon Mobility 7500 linux support is a little lacking from what I’ve seen, so you might want to try to find one with a Mobility 9000. It’s also nice that it has its own memory, so it won’t be stealing/sharing your system memory.
- Keyboard Is Just Like I’ve Heard From IBM: Very nice to work with, a nice feel, and precise. The one complaint I often hear is the lack of a Windows key. This annoyed me too until I set the right “alt” key to be the Windows key. (IBM provides the software to do so.) Avoiding the trackpoint when typing takes some getting used to, but it’s not too bad.
- Fantastic IBM Software: Among the best: very configurable power management profiles, good use of Speedstep with the Pentium M, and a software update package that checks their online site for BIOS, driver, and software updates and downloads them for you.
- Refurb Issues: The software out of the box was somewhat incomplete. I had to burn Wifi drivers to a CD to get started, and WinDVD was missing. However, downloading the IBM update software once I was online helped fix most if not all of these problems.
- Recovery Partition: Takes a bit too much space in my opinion, but I suppose it’s useful. It didn’t come with CD media of the software, but you should be able to recover from the partition. This last item would be my only gripe on the laptop.
- User Serviceable: You can readily find hardware maintenance manuals on IBM’s site, and it’s very nicely written: To replace item X, remove the following components in this order, etc. It also gives part numbers, which you could then Google, etc. Also, the CDRW/DVD is modular, so if it dies, you could always get a replacement online and swap them.
All in all, I’ve been pretty happy with this laptop thus far. Since one of my primary buying decisions was ruggedness and durability, I’ll try to report later on that.
Paul Macklin (macklin01)