Archive for ‘Ubuntu’


Moving to

Hello there!

I’m moving this blog to my company blog site,

For a start, I’ll be moving and updating my PlayBook review. I’ll likely leave everything else here but there likely won’t be anything new.

Thanks for reading!



My must-have BlackBerry apps

Having recently moved from webOS to BlackBerry OS, I’ve decided to compile a list of my must-have BlackBerry apps. Some of these are free, some are not. Most are available through the AppWorld, though I’ve installed some directly from the web.

BlackBerry Bridge

Bridge pairs a BlackBerry phone with a PlayBook. The PlayBook then essentially becomes a 7″ version of the BlackBerry phone, providing views of your calendar, browser, address book, messages, and documents. I love the approach and find it to be a better fit for my tablet use than native PIM apps. I can start a document on the phone, move to the PlayBook, and move back to the phone again. Slick.


Dropbox is fabulous. It gives you your folder of files on every computer and every device, all syncing in the background, silently, perfectly. Dropbox is the key to my ability to move easily between devices.

BB Podcast

RIM’s podcasting app. It works well, allowing you to search and add your own podcast feeds. There’s not much more to say about it. The app provides options for how and when to update podcasts, ensuring that users don’t run over their data allowance.


Like the podcast app, this RSS reader from RIM is a capable, no-nonsense app that brings you the information you need when you need it. It isn’t fancy but works well.


This is my must-have BlackBerry app. QuickLaunch enhances the BlackBerry experience in many subtle ways. I have it assigned to my convenience key and use it constantly to run and switch my main apps. I also assign launchers for adding a task and appointment. QuickLaunch just makes using the BlackBerry much more efficient. I highly recommend it.

Globe News

As a good Canadian citizen, I count on news from trusted sources. Globe News is one of those sources. You can read majour Globe and Mail news as it hits in a convenient mobile app.


I know this may sound strange but one of my main beefs with the BlackBerry is how it handles email. I’m sure it’s great for low-mail-volume or BES users but I get a lot of system chatter on my work email. Because of this, I don’t use BIS to check the account. Thankfully, there’s LogicMail, a plain old IMAP/POP client. It doesn’t go through RIM servers, so it wouldn’t be subject to service outages. You can see your IMAP folders, it’s great. The downside: it isn’t well integrated into the rest of the BBOS, the interface is a little rough, and it doesn’t integrate with Bridge. Still, as a secondary mail program, it’s great.


I’m using WordPress now to write this! It’s a great, simple WordPress client. It’s free, it’s complete, and it easily handles multiple blogs.


This is an open source ssh client for your BlackBerry. It’s a great safety blanket for this sysadmin. It lacks the visual flair of iSSH but handles multiple connections well and absolutely gets the job done.


The only thing I don’t like hardware-wise about the Torch 9810 is the unlock mechanism. SpeedLock fixes this completely. It is $1 well spent. If you have a Torch that you ever accidentally unlock, buy it. Trust me.

Google Sync

This app from Google syncs calendar and contacts. It works very well and makes switching devices and platforms as painless as possible. It runs in the background. You almost don’t know that it’s there.

Google Talk

Another Google app. Talk works as well as BBM but means the person on the other end doesn’t have to have a BlackBerry.

Font Manager

The fonts on the BlackBerry are fine. That said, Font Manager let’s you bring in your own. My only beef: it only works with small font files, so I can’t use the Ubuntu font for everything. Pity.

That’s a wrap

That’s it. That’s what I use. There are plenty of other gems out there, but these are mine. If you’re reading this and have suggestions of your own, please let me know.


Living With Lucid: Updates for VirtualBox and Firefox 5

I have updated my Living With Lucid Linux Setup guide to include Firefox 5 packages and VirtualBox 4.1.



My view of the mobile landscape – 2011.07

I’m a systems guy at Queen’s University’s School of Computing, and a budding entrepreneur with a small web development business with an eye on mobile development.  (What better way to keep my skill set current?  Then there’s the fact that my partner in both life and business happens to be the best programmer I know.)

Given that we are clearly in a shift away from desktop computing to truly personal mobile computing, I’ve been soaking it all up and taking everything in.  As such, I have a device from each of the major platforms.  Here are the devices:

  • Android: Motorola Cliq 2 (2.2), Asus Eee Pad Transformer (3.1), Archos Internet Tablet 70 (2.2)
  • iOS: iPhone 3GS, iPad 1
  • BlackBerry: Torch 9800 (BB6), PlayBook (Tablet OS 1.0.6)
  • WebOS: Palm Pre 2 (WebOS 2.1), HP TouchPad (WebOS 3.0)

I have strong opinions on what I like and don’t like, but have no particular interest in any of these platforms.  I don’t own shares, though I own and have owned many HP and Apple products over the years.  My first cell phone was a BlackBerry Curve 8320 with Bell.  I never really warmed up to it and had a rather pessimistic view of RIM until the PlayBook.  The PlayBook lead me to picking up the Torch, which I use about as often as my beloved but frustrating Palm Pre 2.  Of the above, these are my two preferred devices and platforms.  I consider myself to be a strong supporter of Open Source software, yet despite this, I have a general disdain for Android.  I find it inexcusably rough, overly complex, buggy, and garish.

I understand Apple’s success and generally recommend an iPad for most users and iPhones when someone asks me to recommend a smartphone that they won’t mind being stuck with for three years.  However, I don’t really like use iOS and am a bit worried about Apple’s clout in the market.  With that out of the way, here is my detailed take on the view of the mobile  world.

Day-to-day use (Smartphones)

Day-to-day, I find webOS the nicest to use.  However, the Pre2 reboots randomly, and I get fairly constant Google authentication errors.  At the moment, with respect to smartphones, I split my time fairly evenly between the Pre2 and my BlackBerry Torch.  The Torch isn’t as slick to use but the hardware is much better, the battery life is fantastic, and my core day-to-day requirements are met better by the Torch than by any other smartphone.  It’s not as pleasurable to use but is functionally superior for my needs.  Plus, I love the way it pairs with the PlayBook, more below.

The Pre2, Torch, and the iPhone 3GS all have the same screen resolution.  The Pre2 is a 2.9″ screen, the Torch and iPhone are 3.2ish and are nicer to read for an extended period of time.

I find the Pre2’s calendar and email programs to be vastly superior to the other smartphone platforms.  I find the Pre2 and 3GS to have comparable cameras that are better than the Torch or Android phones.

On the topic of the Cliq2, I find the Android 2.2 device’s apps to be buggy and inferior to the other platforms, the hardware to be shoddier than the Torch, and the screen, despite a higher resolution, to be unusable in the sun, low-quality, and the wide-screen ratio to be less useful day-to-day.  On top of this, battery life is quite poor, certainly not lasting a day.

The app situation is, of course, best on the iPhone and close on Android with lower-quality and cheaper apps.  webOS (used by the Pre2) has some real gems but also has gaping holes in the store.  The lack of a Remember The Milk client in particular frustrates me.  The game situation on webOS is surprisingly good.  The numbers are lower than iOS or Android, but the quality and variety are great.  The BlackBerry Torch has very few fun apps.  The game selection in particular is abysmal.  However, it has a good Dropbox client, excellent GTalk integration, top-notch PIM apps, and a good RTM client.

Day-to-day use (Tablets)

I haven’t found many ways to integrate tablets into my daily work life.  I find 10″ tablets to be about as heavy and large as my 11″ MacBook Air, which is an absolutely fabulous productivity machine.  That said, I find myself taking the PlayBook with me rather than a laptop when I go to a client or to help someone at work in a lab.  The 7″ screen makes it about the size of a 6×9 pad of paper, so it’s easy to keep out of the way.

iPad As far as tablets go, I purchased a refurbished iPad for testing.  I rarely use it except for testing but the battery life is great.  Of course, the app selection is also second-to-none.  The screen is gorgeous, the resolution is nice.  The iPad has great media apps, including Netflix and access to the vast iTunes library.  However, the speaker is very quiet and is quite low-quality.  Perhaps this is something Apple improved with the iPad2.

The iPad is great overall, and, at this point, if someone asks me, I generally recommend an iPad, but I’m just not a fan of iOS’s multi-tasking and I really don’t like the 10″ form-factor.  It’s fine around the house but as I mention above, it makes the tablet about as bulky and large as my MacBook Air to take with me, but lacking a keyboard, it’s far less functional.  On that note, let’s turn our attention to the Asus EeePad Transformer:

Asus EeePad Transformer I love the 11″ MacBook Air, and have found 10″ tablets an awkward size without a keyboard.  Enter the 10″ EeePad Transformer.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s the Android tablet to beat.  It starts at just $399, making it much cheaper than the iPad, it has a great 1280×800 IPS screen, and up to 16 hours of battery life with the optional keyboard dock.  The dock is basically a big battery that transfers charge from the keyboard to the display.  On paper, it is a perfect combination of form, function, and price.  And yet, I find it utterly frustrating every time I try to actually use it at work or at home.  Why?  Android 3.  To sum it up, Android 3 is incredibly rough.  Where Android on a phone is unpleasant to use, I find Android 3 on a tablet to be practically unusable.  There is no global Undo, which I didn’t notice until typing and making mistakes in the bundled Mail program repeatedly, the tablet app situation on Android is pathetic, multi-tasking is bizarre, and the entire interface, while clearly designed for a larger screen, is garish and inconsistent.  Every time I try to use the Transformer, a device which I would love to love, and with great hardware, the software thwarts me.  I’m hoping that Ubuntu 11.10 will work reasonably well on the Transformer.  Until then, it mostly sits idle on my desk at work.

Overall, as far as Android tablets go, I actually prefer the older Archos 70 running Android 2.2 on a device with a 7″ screen.  Android 3 makes better use of screen real estate but phone apps don’t scale up to the 10″ screen as well as they do to a 7″ screen.  Moreover, I find the user interface in stock Android 2.2 to be more pleasing and consistent than Android 3.1 on the Asus EeePad Transformer.  This quite surprised me, as I wouldn’t say that I was a fan of Android 2.2.

HP TouchPad On a happier note, we have HP’s new TouchPad.  The TouchPad finally brings webOS to a large display.  While the device itself feels a bit cheap and the OS could use further optimization, I feel that the TouchPad is a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in an elegant OS made by someone other than Apple.  The TouchPad feels like a 10″ iPhone 3GS.  It is virtually identical in size, weight and thickness of the iPad1.  It has the same 4:3 screen and fits well in most (now discounted) iPad1 cases.  The screen, while fine indoors, doesn’t hold a candle to the PlayBook screen, especially outdoors.

The app situation is surprisingly good on the TouchPad.  It doesn’t have as many native apps as the iPad, but it has far more tablet-native apps than Android 3.  Android 3 can run 2.x’s apps but they don’t scale to the 10″ screen well, and often don’t work well in landscape mode.  I have yet to run in to a similar problem with the TouchPad.  The TouchPad’s speakers are much better than the iPad’s, though they aren’t as loud as the PlayBook.  Again, at 10″ I don’t find the TouchPad to be terribly usable day-to-day at work, but the core PIM apps scale up to the large screen beautifully, so using it is a joy.

If HP releases a 7″ 1024×600 version of the TouchPad, releases their promised OTA update to work out some of the software glitches, and releases updates to the productivity software that allow editing of common office formats,  it would be a very compelling work tablet.

BlackBerry PlayBook I’ve already written quite a bit about the PlayBook.  In short, in daily use it’s by far the best tablet I’ve used.  The more time I spend with it, the more I find ways of integrating it into daily use.  RIM bucked the trend of copying Apple with a 10″ screen.  Instead, they went with a very high-quality 1024×600 7″ IPS screen that is very bright both indoors and outside.  They then coupled the display with the best speakers I’ve heard in a tablet.  The sound is loud and clear enough for me to use in the kitchen, a computer lab, and in my office.  They aren’t as nice to listen to as a full set of speakers, but they’re close.

On release, the PlayBook took great criticism for the lack of native apps.  Reviewers, however, seemed to mostly ignore just how well the PlayBook works in tandem with a BlackBerry phone using Bridge.  I was not a BlackBerry fan but decided to pick up an inexpensive Torch just to test out Bridge.  The implementation completely convinced me that, in some situations, this is a better approach than native apps for quick on-the-go access to PIM data.

The browser that ships with the PlayBook is absolutely top-notch.  The interface allows for full-screen viewing or fluid tabs.  The browser UI is the best that I’ve seen in a tablet.  The entire OS feels and works much like webOS, though it is much faster and more fluid.  The bundled Kobo app works well for eReading, as does the size and weight of the PlayBook.

As far as apps go, the situation is pretty terrible.  Things start off well with a great browser, a decent Podcast and audio player, a way to read eBooks, Flash support, the ability to edit MS Office files, and Need For Speed to show that the hardware is there to make this a good gaming platform, but then that’s about it.  The app selection is, frankly, pathetic.  RIM gave away tablets to anyone willing to make apps.  This sounds good on paper but resulted in thousands of poorly-tested, rushed-to-market, low-quality apps that clearly took less than $500 of developer time.  The situation is slowly improving, but the TouchPad on day one had a far better app selection that the PlayBook does now, three months after release, and is still missing core-functionality such as a working IM program.  That said, it’s still by far my favourite tablet option.  The QNX OS is fantastic, Bridge works well, and the size of the device fits very well with my current needs.  With better apps, the PlayBook would be brilliant.  For now, I would only recommend the PlayBook to existing BlackBerry smartphone users, or to people who are content with the (excellent) out-of-the-box functionality.

Development and testing using an emulator

I may have one device per-platform  but have tested using emulators for most of platforms.  Here are my findings:

iPhone emulators are Mac-onlIy but work well. Before I had an iPhone 3GS, I briefly use the emulator to test websites.  It was fine.  Not pleasant, but usable.

I haven’t used RIM’s emulators.  They tend to be Windows-only.

Android emulators are, frankly, terrible.  They integrate well into Eclipse, but it is a chore to set this up.  Things get worse quickly, as trying to use the emulator is terribly slow and not at all like actually using an Android phone.  I suppose it is useful for making sure your app doesn’t crash, but I find Andorid emulators useless for web testing.

Palm’s webOS emulators, by contrast, are the best.  They use VirtualBox VMs.  webOS is a Linux-based OS, so VirtualBox was a natural.  Both the phone and tablet emulators are fast and fluid.  The command-line Palm tools work with either the emulators or the devices, if plugged in and in development mode.  Being VirtualBox-based, the VMs work on Mac, Linux, and Windows.

Development tools

I haven’t developed for all of the above platforms, unless you count mobile-optimized websites.  That said, I have played with or configured development environments for iOS, Android, and webOS.

iOS, of course, integrates brilliantly with Apple’s Xcode.  I have used it a bit and was quite impressed.  If you aren’t a Mac user, I suppose you could use Adobe Flash CS5 to create iPhone apps.  I hate Flash, so I haven’t gone down this route.  Knowing what I do about Apple’s development process and tight-control over the store and over just accessing iOS devices, I would guess that even using Flash, you would need a Mac a some point to get your code onto a device.  Certainly the emulators are Mac-only.  You’ve got to pay if you want to play.

Android integrates reasonably well into Eclipse and ships with an SDK that provides command-line tools for Mac/Linux/Windows.  I haven’t used the IDE extensively but have configured the environment for the undergrads at work.  It wasn’t super-slick but Google provides good documentation.

HP/Palm’s developer tools are great.  You install the SDK and VirtualBox, and you’re done.  They provide packages for Mac/Linux/Windows and provide excellent documentation for using their development tools and PhoneGap, a cross-platform HTML/CSS/JavaScript package for developing native webOS/iOS/Android/BlackBerry apps using web technologies.  the webOS SDK itself is largely this, as apps other than games are generally written in HTML/CSS/JavaScript using either Mojo or Enyo, HP/Palm’s developer frameworks.  You can use Eclipse to develop webOS apps, though I tend to stick to Palm’s excellent command-line tools combined with my favourite text editor.  I find this development model to by quite flexible.  I even wrote an app that I use quite often.

I haven’t used RIM’s developer tools.  They seem to largely be Windows-centric, though I gather they can be shoehorned in to working on Mac.  RIM’s WebWorks SDK is of interest to me, though I haven’t tested it.

Developer relations

Here, again, HP/Palm to me are the people to beat. HP is aggressively courting all kinds of developers.  Palm has a strong history with the Homebrew community, a group of tinkerers and hackers that extend webOS in unexpected and interesting ways.  HP appears to be actively encouraging this group, which is a great sign.

In start contrast to Apple, RIM, and even Google, there is no such thing as a locked-down webOS device.  There is no need to root or jailbreak your device.  All shipping webOS devices can easily be put into Developer mode, which encourages casual development. Despite Android being Open Source (mostly), webOS is a far more open environment to both use and develop for.

I haven’t used RIM’s development tools and haven’t tried working with them.  Certainly their devices are locked down and they don’t have a great reputation for developer relations, especially with small developers.  The PlayBook device promotion was an interesting attempt to change this, but based on the quality of available apps, I don’t think this could be called a successful experiment.

Apple allows all iOS devices to be used for development, but you have to pay to have apps signed, and iOS won’t run unsigned code.  This results in jailbreaking for those who want to Think Different and use their devices in a way that is unsanctioned by Apple.  I understand the advantages of this approack, and there is certainly no arguing with Apple’s success.  Still, I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to participate.

Google, with Android, has quite an odd approach.  The software is Open Source, allowing for all kinds of weird and wonderful devices to float around, but how locked-down a device is depends on who makes it.  Moreover, with the rapid growth and talk of fragmentation, Google appears to be locking the development process down, favouring larger device manufacturers, and providing them with early access to new versions of Android.  Android source code may be Open Source, but the process is far from open, and Google seems to be far more concerned about market share than making sure that device owners can do what they would like with their devices.

Wrapping Up

And that’s my view of things as of July 2011.  If you’ve made it this far, please let me know what you think.  iOS is clearly the platform to beat, but things can change quickly.  Just think: Apple wasn’t in this space before 2007.  Personally, despite the allure of Open Source, I just can’t warm up to Android.  Are you a fan?  What makes it compelling to you?  Have you had a chance to use a PlayBook or TouchPad?  What do you think of them?  Am I the only one out that that thinks BlackBerry Bridge is a good idea?

Me, I find that I like a 7″ tablet but that clearly they all need more work.  If the PlayBook had the TouchPad’s app selection, or if the TouchBook was in the PlayBook’s body, that would be a compelling device.  As far as phones go, I’m more excited about what RIM has in store for BlackBerry than what the iPhone 5 might be.  Of course, I have my fingers crossed that HP’s Pre 3 will finally give webOS the hardware to match the great software.

Mostly, I find this an interesting time.  Whether it’s Apple, Google, HP, or RIM, we are clearly moving post-PC.  There are teething pains, for sure, and it will take us years before desktops and laptops are displaced. (And really, when is a technology ever truly displaced.)   I hope that all four of these platforms continue to improve and remain viable over time.  Choice is good.  The PC era began to wither when choice dwindled.  All of these competing platforms may be a pain for developers, web and otherwise, but it keeps us all thinking and allows for new ideas to bubble up to the surface.

These are exciting times to be a systems person, developer, or end-user.  It’s even better being all three.


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.


Lenovo ThinkPad T420s: A ThinkPad worthy of the name

A new Lenovo ThinkPad T420s arrived today for someone at work.  I must say, this is the first ThinkPad that has impressed me since the X301.  This is a nice machine.  I’ll do a full review soon but all of the elements are there:  High resolution screen, great keyboard, ThinkPad light, optical drive, no bulging batteries, and a tough design.  I offer my congratulations to Lenovo. This is a very nice machine worthy of the ThinkPad name.


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 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.