Lenovo Linux-Powered ThinkPad in Action

My old reliable X40 IBM ThinkPad finally came to the end of its day so I had to replace it with a new laptop. These days though instead of having to buy a Windows laptop and retrofitting Linux on it, I have a wide variety of Linux notebooks to choose from.

I’ve tried a good sized sampling of the current generation of Linux laptops—the Dell 1420 with Ubuntu, and Asus Eee spring to mind–but I finally decided to buy a Lenovo R61 ThinkPad. It’s not that I found the other laptops lacking. For most users, I’d recommend the Dell 1420. For users on a budget or for whom having the lightest possible full-service laptop is all important, I’d commend the Asus models without a moment’s hesitation.

I, however, have been an unabashed ThinkPad fan for over a decade now. Historically, I get about twice the life span from a ThinkPad than any other brand of laptop. They’re little tanks in notebook computer clothing.

I also hate, and I mean hate, touchpads. When I use a laptop with one, the very first thing I do is deactivate the pad and add a portable mouse to its power-cord as absolutely required equipment. I don’t have to do that though with a ThinkPad because it comes with keyboard-mounted TrackPoint. As far as I’m concerned a TrackPoint is the way to move around a laptop’s screen.

So, now that I had decided on the brand, I needed to decide on a specific model. I gave serious consideration to picking up an IBM ThinkPad, not least because I know many of Novell’s own SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) and openSUSE developers use them. Not being made of money, I finally decided on the ThinkPad R61. While a bit heavier than I’d like, 5.8 pounds, it’s still lighter than most of the laptops I’ve been lugging around for the last few years, and it was a decent amount lighter on my wallet.

After thinking about it, I decided to upgrade the CPU. By default it comes with a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7250. For a mere $37.50, it seemed to me that upgrading to a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7500 was well worth the minimal increase in price.

I briefly considered, but then dismissed, getting the R61 with the fingerprint scanner security option. It just didn’t seem worth the extra $22.50 to me.

I also opted for more memory—2GBs rather than 1. SLED 10 SP1 runs just fine with 1GB of RAM, heck it runs decently on 512MBs of RAM. But, since I tend to overload any computer within range of my hands with applications, I decided to spring for the extra RAM.

That’s one reason why at my office I have no fewer than six PCs with a KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) switch to jump between them on my desk. Of course on the road, or as now at my dentist office, I only have my laptop—and an iPod Touch—at my beck and call. So, to be able to handle half-a-dozen Firefox Web browser sessions, Evolution e-mail, the GAIM 1.5 IM client, OpenOffice, plus whatever else I need at the time, I tend to splurge on additional RAM.

I also found that no matter how long a battery will live, it will never live long enough. So, I shelled out the extra cash for the extended battery. If I spent a lot of time on the road and I could only afford one extra feature, I’d go for the extra-long life battery pack every time.

The total price, with all my upgrades, came to $754.50. No, it’s no sub-$500 laptop, but for a well-equipped ThinkPad, I was more than happy to put it on my credit card.

While Lenovo’s SLED 10 SP1-powered laptops are now a standard item, they’re custom made in Lenovo’s China factory. Despite having to travel half-way around the world, my order made it from the factory to my door near Asheville, NC via UPS in ten days. Fast service.

Setting up the R61 once it got here consisted of little more than installing the battery, plugging it in, and turning it on. I still hear from people who seem to think that setting up Linux on a computer—even one that has it pre-installed—is some how or the other a big job. To be kind, these people haven’t used a modern Linux desktop. The really short version of my review is: I plugged it in, I got to work.

That really was it. There were no hoops to jump through. No configuration headaches. No fuss, no muss. The ThinkPad R61 and SLED 10 SP1 just work.

Once it was on, the first thing I did was adjust the GNOME 2.12 desktop to my tastes. Since SLED 10 SP1 is a stable distribution meant for long-term business use it doesn’t have the latest software. Eventually, I’ll switch it out to another Linux, but for this review I wanted to see how the factory-installed Linux worked out.

The biggest exception to this is that SLED 10 SP1 does use the latest version of 2.40. And, of course, Novell ships all the application security fixes. So, for example, the Firefox Web browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client are both at the release level.

My basic setup done, I moved on to hooking it up my Wi-Fi network. With a DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) 802.11g network setting the PC up on the network took less time than it did for me to write this paragraph. Logging the system into my hybrid AD (Active Directory)/Domain network took barely more time. In short, within a few minutes I had the laptop using my networked HP printers, and with SMB (server message block) file systems on Windows 2008, Server 2003, and several Samba servers.

I then updated the system to the latest patches. SLED 10, unfortunately, is still a bit slow at this. The process works, but I know Novell is working on making the updating process faster and I’ll be glad to see it. I also installed a few programs, like the Banshee music player, that are particular favorites. Installing new software on SLED, though again slower than I would like, is a very simple process. I select the Software Installer tool from the menu, search for the program I want, find it, select it, and install it.

Novell doesn’t offer a large selection of software for SLED. Again, recall this desktop is meant to be stable first and foremost. It does, however, support all the programs I, or anyone else, are likely to need for basic office work.

Once that done, I started taking the R61 with me to do my work away from my office. In the several weeks that I’ve had the system, I’ve found it to be a pure pleasure to use. The wide 14.1” screen is clear and easy to read. The keyboard, like those of other ThinkPads, is good-sized and offers excellent tactile feedback. Much as I like UMPCs (Ultra-mobile PCs), as a touch-typist, the R61 is a much more useful PC.

There’s no question in my mind that I made the right laptop purchase for me. I believe that anyone who wants a reliable, secure notebook PC will find the Linux-powered R61 an excellent choice. Is it the cheapest laptop out there? No way. But, for what you get for the money, I don’t think you can beat it.

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