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…

waiting for Santa Rosa

Anandtech has a comparison of the Yonah and Merom processors from Intel – known more popularly as Core Duo and Core Duo 2 – and concludes:

Overall, Merom may not be as big of an upgrade to Yonah as Conroe was to NetBurst, but the bottom line is that you get equal or better performance in every test without increasing cost or decreasing battery life. Owners of Core Duo laptops really have no reason to worry about upgrading for now, and waiting for the Santa Rosa platform before your next laptop upgrade seems reasonable. Those looking to purchase a new notebook on the other hand have no reason to avoid Core 2 Duo models, assuming pricing is consistent with what Intel is promising. There will be a delay of at least a few more weeks as we await availability, and testing and validation by laptop manufacturers may delay things a bit more, but within the next month or so you should be able to get a Core 2 laptop.

I bought my T42 Thinkpad with a Dothan chip (ie, Yonah’s predescessor, the Pentium M). I have no regrets; I bought the T42 in December and have used it heavily. As Anand points out, the Santa Rosa platform will really give Merom it’s full potential – primarily the counterintuitive impact that increasing the front-side bus speed will have for lengthening battery life:

With Santa Rosa, clock speeds will go up slightly but more importantly we’ll get access to a faster FSB. Unfortunately a side-effect of keeping Core 2 Duo fed with a faster FSB is that while performance may go up, battery life may go down. It’ll be interesting to see what Intel can pull off with the new platform; one of the funny things about performance and battery life is that if you can complete a task quickly enough thus returning your CPU to an idle state faster, battery life will grow even though instantaneous power consumption may be higher.

Note that the other big selling point for Santa Rosa is 802.11n wireless, which promises much improved range and bandwidth. However, the 11n standard got delayed again, so the impact on Santa Rosa’s rollout is unclear. I think we won’t really see Santa Rosa until midyear 2008, which is really fine by me.

Another reason it’s worth waiting is because of storage technology. A big technological advance is perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR), which promises higher data density (and thus, more GB for the buck). Seagate has already introduced a 200GB notebook drive using PMR technology, though it only runs at 4200 rpm. Presently, you can find notebook drives up to 160GB running at 7200 rpm, so I imagine that by the start of 2008 we should see PMR drives sized 200GB and above at 7200 rpm as standard.

But more important than PMR is the new hybrid drive technology. Hybrid drives use a flash-based disk in addition to the rotating platters as a kind of super-cache. This technology is being developed jointly by Samsung and Microsoft, and Windows Vista will be heavily optimized for hybrid drives, for both performance boost and longer battery life.

Overall, notebooks in 2008 are going to have a lot of these “incremental” seeming changes under the hood. But the net effect should be pretty dramatic gains in usability. The ultimate goal: a laptop that you can take anywhere, all day. We aren’t there yet but we will be a lot closer in 2008.

black is beautiful


I’d been using an IBM Thinkpad T40 for the past couple of years for my research. It was a fine machine, ordered and paid for by my advisor. After my graduation though, he needed his sizable investment back of course, so I began researching what I should replace the machine with.

My needs were 1. thin and light, given that it would be used for travel to conferences and on the bus, 2. fairly powerful given that I will be running IDL and MATLAB, and 3. rock-solid and dependable. These requirements, along with a lot of help from the forum at, led me right back to IBM/Lenovo’s T42. I chose the T42 instead of the T43 primarily because I could get a faster hard drive. I spent about a month and a half researching models from Fujitsu, Asus, Toshiba, and HP before finally deciding that the T42 was indeed the machine for me. I placed an order in November and the machine was received early December.

Here are some specs:

* Pentium M 1.86 GHz
* 14.1″ SXGA screen
* 1 GB RAM
* 7200 RPM, 60 GB hard drive
* Bluetooth and Wireless 802.11b/g
* model part number 2373m3u

I ran some basic benchamrks on the old machine before sending it back to my advisor and will run the same ones on my new one soon for a laster post.

One of the major issues I faced was whether I should wait until the new Yonah (dual-core) Pentium-M chips were released in January. I decided to buy right away, however, because new T60 model with Yonah would be more expensive anyway, and I also needed a machine asap since my advisor needed the old one back and couldn’t wait until January (esp with ISMRM 2006 on the horizon)

I got a very solid config at a very reasonable price, which I think will be more than sufficient for the next few years to handle whatever I need. I could have saved another $150 had I purchased from an ebay reseller, but I think that the peace of mind of buying direct from Lenovo was worth the markup.

I notice via Brian that Apple has finally played catch-up to IBM and released a black laptop of their own. If I were a Dell user I might have some envy, but come on, a glossy screen and iPod lacquer finish? And what’s with the chiclet-style keyboard? It reminds me of the Apple IIc.

I love my ThinkPad. The keyboard is the best I have ever used on any computer, laptop or desktop (and I’m not alone in that assessment). The wireless antenna is built into the screen lid, so you get tremendously stable and sensitive WiFi reception. The components are top-drawer quality and the support software suite for rescue, recovery, administration, and security is astounding – easily several hundred dollars worth of software alone. Even the small touches, like the built-in keyboard light and the hard-drive shock protection are designed with the actual user experience in mind – not bells and whistles (like the integrated iSight on the macbook) that have no contribution to actual productivity.

Yeah, I am a partisan. But unlike in politics, my partisanship doesn’t require that I hate Macs – in fact the day the Merom-based Mac Mini comes out, I am buying two! A laptop is an intensely personal choice and everyon’es mileage may vary, but this is the best computer I’ve ever owned, and where else to share my love for it than here?