Archive for ‘Linux laptops’


Lenovo ThinkPad T420s Review

As I have said many times before, when buying laptops, I tend to stick to Apple, ThinkPads, and now HP EliteBooks.  Lately, I’ve found ThinkPad quality to be lacking and have been instead recommending EliteBooks.  My reasoning is that great build quality, keyboard, battery life, and warranty are the most important purchasing decisions for the people that I buy and recommend systems for.

Lenovo ThinkPad T420s

In general, IBM was very guarded about what it released under the ThinkPad name.  Perhaps understandably, Lenovo has been less so over the last several years.  They call the X120e a ThinkPad, the Edge-series, and more.  While the X300 and X301 were great, the X2xx series has been getting bigger, thicker, heavier, and I think generally of lower build quality over the last several iterations.  I use the following ThinkPads at work and home:  An X61, T60, R50p, and X40.  These are all older models.  I’m sticking with them because I have felt that they are superior to Lenovo’s offerings.  This appears to have changed with the new Lenovo ThinkPad T420s.  In my opinion, it is by far the best combination of size, weight, speed, battery life,  screen, and price of any ThinkPad in the last five years.  I was beginning to give up on the ThinkPad brand, the T420s has renewed my interest and faith in Lenovo’s ability to produce a true quality business-grad laptop.  Please, read on.


The ThinkPad T420s is a 14″ laptop.  Despite the size, it is remarkably thin and light.  The default screen resolution is 1366×768.  The model I am reviewing has an upgraded 1600×900 display that I would absolutely recommend.  As configured, the T420s is as follows:

  • CPU: Intel Core i5 2540M (2.6GHz)
  • 8GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 14″ 1600×900 LED display
  • 3 USB ports, including one combo eSATA
  • Intel HD graphics 3000
  • SD Card reader
  • VGA and DisplayPort
  • GB Ethernet
  • DVD RW drive
  • ThinkPad Dock expansion option
  • 3.7 lbs with included 6-cell battery rated for 5.5 hrs

In my opinion, the last great ThinkPad was the incredibly expensive X301.  These machines were about 3lbs and had a 13″ 1440×900 display.  However, the size and weight came at the expense of expansion, power, and price.  As noted, these machines were very expensive, in part because of the 128GB SSD 1.8″ SATA SSDs.  They were also underpowered with a ULV 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo CPU.  Finally, their biggest flaw was the lack of a proper dock connection.  While the T420s is about a half a pound heavier, it addresses all of these shortcomings.  Like the X61 before it, the T420s has a standard 2.5″ SATA drive, it is a full Core i5 and yet still offers great battery life, and it can accept an optional ThinkPad dock.  It is also worth noting that it isn’t even obvious that it weighs more than the X301.  This machine has a great balance of speed and weight

The fantastic keyboard of the T420s

Screen, Keyboard, ThinkPad Light

As mentioned, the T420s has an optional 1600×900 display.  The extra screen resolution makes a huge difference to me.  This is a great resolution for a 14″ screen and is even a significant upgrade from the X300s 1440×900 display.  The display is also much thinner and brigher than previous ThinkPad displays, yet this doesn’t seem to affect build-quality.  Yes, this is a proper matte display.

Next. we have the keyboard.  In short, it is perfect.  If you are a long-time ThinkPad user, you will be delighted.  This is a traditional, excellent ThinkPad keyboard, not the odd chicklet-style used on the X120e.  The keyboard, trackpoint, and trackpad are great and are subtle improvements over previous offerings.  The ThinkPad light is present and accounted for.

Heat, Noise, Odd and Ends

I am very fussy when it comes to system noise.  This ThinkPad is among the quietest I’ve used, and I certainly haven’t felt it get very warm.

The extra width of the 14″ widescreen display has been put to good use on the T420s.  The great keyboard is flanked by the best speakers I’ve heard on a ThinkPad.  They still aren’t great but are a vast improvement over most ThinkPad speakers.  In the miscellaneous category, it’s worth noting that the included power adapter is nice and small – much smaller than any other stock Lenovo ThinkPad adapter I’ve seen bundled.  It is the usual T60+ style with the grey and yellow plug.

The T420s between an 11" MacBook Air and a 12" ThinkPad X61

Overall Build Quality

I’m happy to report that the T420s is also a standout with respect to build quality.  Despite being quite thin for the size, the laptop is very sturdy.  The thin display has a slight flex if forced, but is also very solid.  They keyboard is perfect, no flex at all.  The T420s incorporates the traditional ThinkPad black plastic finish over a roll cage, and the keyboard has the usual drip holes out the bottom of the laptop.

Cases Closed. Again, the MBA, T420s and X61

Linux Compatibility

I installed Ubuntu 11.04 AMD64 on the machine in a wubi install.  All hardware was detected and is properly supported.  Great job, Canonical!  I haven’t tested but would be willing to bet that there would be some issues with the new Intel integrated video in older releases.

Wrapping Up

I think that just about says it all.  This unit (type 4171-52U) was $1500 to start.  Upgraded from 4 to 8GB of RAM and with an 3-year NBD on-site warranty covering accidental drops, it was $1850 before taxes.  Not cheap but not terribly expensive either.  This is a great machine that easily lives up to the ThinkPad name and heritage.  I highly recommend this machine as a full-time, every day working machine and would be sure to get the high-res 1600×900 version.  In my opinion, Lenovo has produced the first great post-X300 ThinkPad.  It is an excellent meld of the X300 and T60 lines.


ThinkPad X120e Review (X120e vs X61)

I bought a Lenovo X120e today thinking that it would be a great small work machine for the next three years.  I’m taking it back tomorrow and opting instead for a used ThinkPad X61.

Lenovo ThinkPad X120e

The context
I’m a Systems Specialist at the School of Computing at Queen’s University.  In my role their, I have used many, many machines.  Among these, my consistent favourites have been ThinkPads, Apple machines, and HP’s EliteBooks.  Between work and home I own and use on a daily basis the following ThinkPads: X40, X61, T60, R50p.  Of these, the X40 and X61 are my favourites.  The X40 is as small and light as they come, the X61 is marginally bigger is blazingly fast, and is almost as light with a full 2.5″ SATA drive.  Both of the Xs, from ebay for $150 and $340 respectively, belong to me personally.  I tend to avoid ebay for long-term day-to-day work machines, so thought the X120e would make an excellent work machine.

I liked the X120e in principal because the X2xx series that have replaced the X6x line are much larger and heavier than the older sub-3lb ThinkPad X machines.

Having read the initial poor reviews of the X100e and then the subsequent overwhelmingly positive reviews of the X120e, I felt it was time to take the plunge.  After all, a slightly under-specd 11″ MacBook Air is my current favourite all-around machine.  Like the X120e, the low-end MBA is an 11″ dual-core system with 2GB of RAM.  It must be close, right?  Read on…

The hardware
The Lenovo ThinkPad X120e is a fairly high-quality netbook.  However, it is a very low-quality ThinkPad.  Having used ThinkPads since the A30, I expect certain things with the ThinkPad name.  Here’s what was missing with the X120e:

  • The keyboard, while spacious for a netbook, pales in comparison to every other X-series keyboard available. Specifically, it is missing common keys (such as ScrLck), it has no CapsLk light, no dedicated volume keys, and the overall feel of it is much cheaper.
  • It has no ThinkPad Light, and no backlit keyboard.  For me, if it doesn’t have a ThinkPad Light, it’s not a ThinkPad.
  • There’s no fingerprint reader, and Bluetooth is an optional module
  • It’s loud.  The X61, with an SSD, is silent under light load.  The X120e fan is always running and is quite a bit louder than my other ThinkPads under load.
  • The overall design is cheaper than every other ThinkPad I have owned.

ThinkPad X61 (Left) and X120e (Right)

While it is true that the X61 that I’m typing this on was originally a $2000 machine and the X120e was $589 as configured, I bought the X61 for $350 on eBay, and this is a completely normal price.  There are always X60 and X61 ThinkPads on eBay for under $400.  As far as I am concerned, these are such a clearly better purchase than the X120e, that it is simply no contest.  The plastic is cheaper, there’s no roll cage, no dock option, the X120e is fairly thick, and the entire thing feels like a netbook.

Then there’s Linux support.  The AMD Fusion APU is new and is not well supported in Linux yet.  I have no doubt that this will improve quickly over time, but the X61 works perfectly in Ubuntu 10.04 and RHEL 6 today.  This isn’t a big stumbling block, but for me it is yet another reason to select a used X61 over a new X120e.

Having said as many negative things as I have about the X120e, there is one place where it shines:  The screen.  The 11″ 1366×768 screen is much nicer than the 1024×768 12″ screen in the X61 and earlier.  However, for me, the tradeoff between the lower build quality, sub-par keyboard, lack of raw CPU power, and noise, to say nothing of the higher price, make the new Lenovo ThinkPad X120e a poor substitute for a used Lenovo ThinkPad X61 or X60.

ThinkPad X120e keyboard close-up


In case I wasn’t clear enough above, I would recommend skipping the ThinkPad X120e.  Instead, pick up an older X60 or X61.  The X61 is faster, cheaper, more expandable, can handle 8GB of RAM, and is easily repairable.  If I were Lenovo, I would be very careful about what they put the ThinkPad name on.  It used to mean something.  Between Apple’s top-notch MacBook Air and HP’s EliteBook line of laptops, I have a very difficult time recommending a ThinkPad these days.  It’s good to see Lenovo trying a 3lb machine again but the X120e is an inferior product.  Compared to older X series ThinkPads, the X120e proves that newer isn’t always better.  I’m honestly not sure why it is receiving positive reviews.

Lenovo ThinkPad X120e ($589 as configured)
+ Better screen resolution (1366×768 vs 1024×768)
+ Well placed secondary PgUp and PgDn buttons
– Build quality mediocre at best
– No ThinkPad light
– Keyboard is missing keys!
– No capslock light
– No ScrLk, pause
– No dedicated volume
– Keyboard isn’t as nice, period.
– 2.5hrs on small battery, 5+ on 6-cell
– No fingerprint reader
– Constant fan noise
– Mediocre Linux support

Lenovo ThinkPad X61 ($350 with dock on eBay)
– Fast (2GHz C2D)
– 2.5hrs on 4-cell battery, 5+ larger
– Up to 8GB RAM
– ThinkPad light
– Better keyboard
– Dock option
– Firewire
– Quieter (Silent with SSD under low load)
– Perfect Linux support


Living with EL6: RHEL/SL6 tips and tricks

  • Add atrpms repositories:  (x64) (x86)
  • Install Dropbox, then delete the repo:  rm /etc/yum.repos.d/dropbox.repo
  • Install KeePassX from here.
  • Download and install NoMachine client and server here.
  • Install some handy packages:

yum install mc gconf-editor gimp vlc screen gstreamer-plugins-ugly inkscape

  • Enable compiz: terminal desktop-effects, or System -> Preferences -> Desktop Effects
  • Map Alt-Tab to all-windows:

gconf-editor /apps/compiz/plugins/switcher/allscreens/options/next_all_key <ALT> Tab

gconf-editor /apps/compiz/plugins/switcher/allscreens/options/next_key Disabled

  • Make the Compiz Cube unflold Mac OS Spaces-style:

gconf-editor /apps/compiz/plugins/cube/allscreens/options/unfold_key F5


    Living with EL6: Installing Nvidia drivers using elrepo

    First, enable elrepo:

    rpm –import

    rpm -Uvh

    Next, install kmod-nvidia:

    yum –enablerepo=elrepo install kmod-nvidia nvidia-x11-drv-32bit

    According to what I read, that should be enough.  However, I also had to disable the nouveau driver by editing /boot/grub/menu.lst and adding the following to the end of the kernel line:


    That’s it.  Just reboot and enjoy.

    If you’re not familiar with elRepo, it’s pretty cool.  You can read all about it here.  The short version is that it is a helpfui set of repositories that work for CentOS/Scientific Linux/RHEL 5.x and 6.  The repos exist only to enhance the stock EL kernels with new hardware drivers.


    Scientific Linux 6: RHEL for Research

    I am a long-time Debian fan.  As with many people in 1997/98, I started with Red Hat 4.2 and flipped between many Linux distributions before setting on Debian at home.  Ever since then, I’ve pretty much stuck to Debian-derived distros, from Storm Linux to XandrOS, Mepis to Progeny, and most recently Ubuntu.  I’ve been using Ubuntu at home and at work for years now and am generally very pleased with it.  Canonical has done more for end-user Linux than any other company by a country mile.  They’ve made Debian usable, and available on Dells, HPs, and many other laptops, netbook, and desktop machines.

    Scientific Linux on my ThinkPad X61

    However, I’m a full-time sysadmin.  On the server side, we have been moving very slowly from Solaris to Linux.  In general, we have a mix of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, CentOS 5, and Ubuntu 10.04 (and 8.04) on servers.  While RHEL is certainly less usable as a desktop, it makes a fine server OS.  Red Hat is also the strongest backer of the Linux kernel and other key parts of the plumbing that forms the basis for the Linux ecosystem we all enjoy and should support.

    All of this to say that, while I prefer Ubuntu on a day-to-day basis, RHEL is my reality for core servers.  So, I thought it best to use it for a while on the desktop as well.  The results have been surprisingly positive.  For this test run, I am using Scientific Linux (SL.)  It, like CentOS and White Box Enterprise Linux, is a community-supported rebuild of RHEL.  You can mix and match sources between these distributions, ending up with a remarkably flexible and well-supported base.

    I have been focusing mostly on SL6, a new rebuild of RHEL6.  Thus far, I have installed in on the following machines:

    • Sun Ultra 40 Workstation (Dual dual-core Opteron, 32GB RAM, Nvidia Quadra FX5500 video)
    • Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, 2.2GHz, 2GB RAM, 64GB OCZ SSD)
    • IBM ThinkPad x24 (Pentium III, 640MB RAM, 1.8″ PATA drive)

    I also tried unsuccessfully to install SL6 on an IBM ThinkPad X40.  The processor in this machine doesn’t support PAE, so I have reverted to SL5.5 on this machine instead.  This has given me the opportunity to test both major releases on a variety of hardware, from the low to the high-end.

    Overall, all systems have been remarkably stable.  SL6, being based on Fedora Core 13, is very straightforward to configure with Google Chrome, Firefox 4, LibreOffice, and all of the modern niceties that Ubuntu users take for granted.  SL5.5 is based on the much older FC6.  This means that adding newer versions of software is far more problematic.  That said, both can be very usable systems.

    I’ve also been impressed with Scientific Linux’s additions.  Flash worked out of the box, and adding support for MP3s and other file formats, while not as straightforward as Ubuntu, is easy enough to manage.

    Still, I miss Debian’s 10,000+ packages.  This is unfortunately a common find:

    Missing packages: Not an uncommon occurence

    Thankfully, I have yet to find a package that I need that isn’t easily installable. True, there isn’t too much in the repositories, however you can still find RPMs of most programs. For the example above, Cluster SSH is packaged here. In general, this has been my experience using an RHEL-based distribution for a week. Overall it is a bit more work, but is no big deal for someone who has been using Linux for a while.

    Overall, I’ll stick with SL6 on my desktop machines for a bit.  It’s no Ubuntu, but I try not to get too tied to any OS vendor.  I like Red Hat as a company and it’s worth trying to use their product (or at least a community rebuild of it) for day-to-day use.  I’m not a huge RHEL5 fan but it is very stable.  My biggest beef with Red Hat Enterprise Linux in general is the lack of upgrade-path.  I find it nothing short of stunning that there is no supported way to upgrade a server or desktop machine from RHEL5 to RHEL6.  Yes, it’s good that Red Hat is ready to support their releases for many years but upgrading OS releases is a problem that Debian solved ages ago.  Here’s hoping that Red Hat will tackle this with the inevitable RHEL7 release that is to come in the years ahead.

    Next up:  Tips and tricks for making RHEL6/SL6 usable as an end-user desktop.


    SSDs: A great upgrade for any laptop

    One of my favourite things about the now-ancient Asus EeePC 701 was the tiny 4GB SSD that it shipped with.  It meant that the EeePC could be completely silent – something that I think is underrated in general.

    Now, I’m fussy about system noise, I realize this.  But if you haven’t used a completely silent computer, you owe it to yourself to try.  They are a joy to use.  Maybe it’s just the amount of time I spend in our noisy server room at work, but I find the noise (if any) of a computer to be absolutely key to how much I enjoy using it.

    My HP 2710p sold me on the value of SSDs.  Here’s a computer with pretty low-end specs:  Core 2 Duo at 1.2GHz, 1.8″ PATA 4200 RPM drive, nothing special.  Add an SSD into the mix and suddenly you have a much faster – and silent machine.  The end result:  The HP 2710p is pretty much still my favourite all-around PC.

    The MacBook Air, though, was what really sold me on the idea.  Again, this machine is now great shakes spec-wise:  1.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB of RAM.  Still, with the super-fast SSD that Apple ships with, the machine just flies.  In day-to-day use, I find the little MacBook Air to be faster than both a current-model 13″ MacBook Pro and an older 15″ MacBook Pro, both of which have better CPUs and more RAM.

    Now I have added SSDs to my old HP Mini-Note 2133 and my ancient but still-mighty IBM ThinkPad R50p.  The R50p, off the assembly line in April 2004, is worth keeping around because it has a 15″ 1600×1200 IPS screen.  This makes it perfect for print production.  The 5400RPM drive in it has now been replaced with a KingSpec 64GB PATA SSD and already the machine is faster, and silent under light load.

    If you’re not convinced that the upgrade to an SSD is worthwhile and need the space of traditional drives, the Seagate Momentus XT line is an interesting option:  They pair a 500GB SATA drive with a 4GB SSD buffer.  The result is performance approaching that of an SSD but with a standard HD capacity, all at only about $40 more than a traditional 500GB SATA drive.  If hard drive noise doesn’t bother you, this is a great upgrade.


    Living with Lucid: Monochrome Dropbox icons

    Here’s a quick little one:  If you’ve upgraded to Dropbox 1.0.10 or newer, you can download and use monochrome icons.  The .deb package is available here.


    Living with Lucid: HP 2133 Lucid Setup

    I have an HP Mini-Note 2133. Despite the flaws, I really like this little netbook. In yet another vain attempt at making it fast enough to do the job of a machine with a decent CPU, I have added a screaming SSD to the machine. (What the heck, it worked for the MacBook Air, right?)

    Well, the SSD isn’t all that I’d hoped, but it did give me the opportunity to go over what is involved in setting the 2133 up with Ubuntu 10.04:

    1. Install Ubuntu.  (I chose the Netbook release)
    2. Patch it completely, using wired LAN for the network; reboot
    3. Activate the restricted Broadcom STA drivers; reboot
    4. Download and install the closed Via drivers found here
    5. Before rebooting, download this xorg.conf file
    6. sudo cp 2133.xorg.conf /etc/x11/xorg.conf
    7. Now you can reboot and X11 will start with some degree of acceleration.

    That’s pretty much it.  Any way you dress it up, this is still a 1.2GHz Via C7 CPU with a dog-slow S3 GPU.  The SSD helps quite a bit but there’s just no getting around the specs.  MacBook Air, this ain’t.  Still, it’s a lovely keyboard.  Sure the 1280×768 display is too small for a 8.9″ screen but I’m the one that normally likes high ppi.  Serves me rice for supper.


    LaTeX Environments for Windows, Mac, and Linux


    As I was recently asked, here is what I typically install for people looking for a reasonable LaTeX environment in Windows:

    Another Open Source option for a cross-platform LaTeX IDE is Texmaker. It’s smaller but doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as TeXnicCenter.


    On Linux, Kile seems to be the LaTeX IDE of choice.  I’m a LaTeX wimp, so I use LyX and TexMacs.  The following gives you a fairly complete LaTeX environment in Ubuntu:

    sudo apt-get update && sudo aptitude install texlive-base \
    lyx kile texmacs texlive-bibtex-extra texlive-binaries \
    texlive-common texlive-doc-base texlive-extra-utils \
    texlive-fonts-recommend texlive-formats-extra \
    texlive-generic-extra texlive-generic-recommended \
    texlive-latex-base texlive-latex-recommended \
    texlive-plain-extra texlive-pstricks texlive-math-extra


    On the Mac, start with the absolutely huge MacTeX distribution.  It includes pretty much everything you’ll need.


    Ubuntu Font for Lucid

    Ubuntu 10.10 is out. While I’m planning to stick to Lucid, I love the new Ubuntu font in 10.10.

    Of course, this is easy enough to add:

    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:webupd8team/ubuntu-font-family
    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install ttf-ubuntu-font-family

    The default Ubuntu themes have also received nice, subtle improvements.  These can be installed by running:

    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:murrine-daily/ppa && sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install light-themes gtk2-engines-murrine

    And while on the topic of themes, you may wish to add the following:

    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:bisigi && sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install bisigi-themes