thinking about Thinkpad, seduced by Alienware

I’m waiting for my aging Thinkpad T42 to be delivered today from repair – it had the same fan error as last time, and fortuitously chose the day before my 3-year warranty expired to conk out. My desktop PC replacement saga aside, I need to think seriously about what my next laptop will be – especcially since I can’t renew the extended warranty on the T42 anymore.

The T42 is a 14″ machine and it’s basically been the best laptop I’ve ever owned. I have no complaints, and for a replacement the T401s looks like an obvious choice. However, my dalliance with netbooks has me convinced that smaller is better. Unfortunately, netbooks seems to have imploded as a category, I still cant find a decent Core Duo 9-inch netbook with an SSD and Nvidia’s ION2 “Optimus” – and even if I could, I doubt it would come in under the $500 mark (if anyone knows otherwise, though, please let me know ASAP!).

However, I’ve become aware of Alienware’s new M11x, an 11-inch laptop which is designed for gaming portability. The smaller size makes it compelling, and it would scream at my scientific work as well as run Warcraft better than anything I’ve ever played on. And it has Optimus and an SSD option (only on the R2 revision, which has the i-series processor instead of Core Duo). The downside is of course that it won’t be cheap, probably $1k minimum if I get a good deal or closer to $2k loaded including 3yr warranty. Thats what I’d be paying for a Thinkpad though as well.

I’m going to have stay tuned to @DellOutlet and see if they have any deals on the M11 in the pipe. I’m seriously tempted by it, enough to even consider straying outside the Thinkpad tent.


As soon as I finish downloading Microsoft Office Ultimate (which I bought for $60 – you need a .edu email address to qualify), I am going to shut down my Thinkpad, remove the hard drive, and install the new hard drive I bought earlier. Then I will put the nlited DVD of Windows XP SP3 (using the original Windows license that came with the Thinkpad) in the drive and hopefully boot to the install screen. If all goes well, I’ll have a clean install on a clean hard drive. I’ve already backed up my data and also have an external USB case for the old hard drive handy.

Gulp. Here goes. I’ll be twittering updates if anyone is curious to follow the progress.

upgrading to 250 GB

WD Scorpio 250 GB PATA UltraATAMy T42 Thinkpad came with an 80GB Hitachi Travelstar hard drive. I’ve been living at 95% maxed out capacity for well over half its lifetime, surviving by migrating a lot of files to an external disk (mostly personal video and raw data from my MRI research). The Thinkpad is also starting to show its age in terms of cruft; my new Asus EEE is much easier to use in some ways because I’ve installed only a core set of software that I use often (limited by it’s tiny 4 GB SSD). A clean XP install – nlited to save me the hassle of installing service packs and software – is clearly necessary. So, an upgrade was clearly (over)due, despite my tightwad constraints. Winning a $30 Amazon voucher from Read/Write Web spurred me to action; I’ve just placed an order for a Western Digital 250 GB Scorpio drive.

Since my Thinkpad is older, it only has an Ultra-ATA interface instead of the newer SATA ones. Hence, my choices were limited and I had to choose between 250 GB for $130 or 160 GB for $90. WD is the only manufacturer which makes a laptop drive at 250 GB capacity with the Ultra-ATA interface, but I am satisfied that the drive is worth the cost (partially offset by the Amazon voucher to boot). The performance of the SATA version is reputed to be excellent, and I doubt the UATA lags it much (as it happens, SATA requires slightly more power consumption, so what I lose in marginal performance, I will regain in marginal battery life).

I am planning to stay with Windows XP for the time being, most likely Service Pack 3 (which is not an official release yet, but you can download it as a release candidate from Microsoft). I’m not sure how well my Thinkpad will run Vista, since it’s only got a Dothan chip instead of a Yonah (aka Core Duo). Steven’s travails are also a cautionary tale.

My plan is to also order a cheap external 2.5″ case to house the old drive, so I can more easily transfer the data off (and of course reserve it in case I ever need to boot back into my old setup). Now I need to think about something a bit more rigorous for backup; at present I have the external disk I mentioned, but it would be better to invest in a NAS like a Linkstation Pro. Sigh. A print server would also be nice… argh! It never ends.

exploratory surgery

Last week, I started up my trusty Thinkpad T42 and got the dreaded “fan error” message. The laptop performs a fan diagnostic at boot time, and if the fan doesn’t pass muster, it beeps twice and shuts down. You can’t even get to BIOS. The standard solution is to simply replace the fan; my warranty service doesn’t expire until next year so it only took a single phone call and the part was on its way. I decided to ask for the part and attempt to repair it myself on the theory that this would be faster than asking for a mail-in box to send the laptop to them for service.

According to the parts sheet for the T4x series (MIGR-46474), the correct fan part type for my specific model (2373-M3U) was 26R7860. This morning, armed with some common sense and a few instructional videos, I took apart my Thinkpad for the first time. Here’s how it went:

So, in the end I had to put everything back and admit defeat. I have a box from IBM arriving tomorrow for me to ship the laptop back to them. I decided that I’d take out my hard drive before sending the thinkpad in, as I’ve wanted to upgrade for a while now. It was ridiculously easy to remove the hard drive. I ordered a new one, with twice the capacity of my old drive (160 GB) but a slower rotational speed (5200 rpm). The low power consumption is the main appeal over competing products from Seagate or Samsung. I’ll dump the old drive in an external case and migrate my data onto a fresh install of Windows XP.

I’m pretty happy about how easy it was to take my laptop apart and put it back together, wrong part follies and wasted time aside. Hopefully I’ll be back in action with a new fan, new drive, and clean OS fairly soon. It’s almost like getting a new one 🙂

Thinkpad a wannabe Wii

Since IBM Thinkpads come with a built-in accelerometer, which serves to protect thehard drive if sudden movement is detected, some enterprising folks figured out a way to use the entire laptop as a motion controller similar to the Nintendo Wii. They have a simple file to download that works with a few games like Tux Racer and Blazetris (a Tetris clone) – you just move the laptop physically around to control the game action. This isn’t some third-party hack but an actual research project at IBM. I am tempted to try this out, though the idea of shaking my precious laptop in the air has me abit leery…