Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Search for the Laptop Ends

After a long search (parts I, II and III), I finally found my laptop. It’s the Lenovo ThinkPad T400. And so far, it’s amazing.

The configuration

  • CPU: Centrino 2 T9400, 2.53GHz, 6MB L2 cache
  • Memory: 4GB DDR3 1GHz
  • HD: 250GB internal (I later added 500GB in a bay)
  • Screen: 14.1" WXGA+ (1440x900) LED w/ camera
  • Video card: ATI Radeon HD 3400 256MB + Intel onboard 945 (yes, it has 2 video cards)
  • Multimedia 7-in-1 Card Reader
  • 3 USB, 1 FireWire, LAN, modem (who uses that anymore?)
  • VGA output (unlike the MacBook)
  • Network: Gigabit Ethernet, Intel 5300 Wireless-N, modem, Bluetooth 2.1 EDR, (I skipped the built in wireless WAN option, since I have a Verizon PCI card)
  • 9-cell battery
  • OS: Vista Business 64 bit + XP Pro Downgrade CD

The price
The laptop itself cost $1409. The HD bay cost $39. 9-cell battery added $99. 3 years depot warranty added $50 (the default is one year). The Windows XP Pro CD and license cost $0 (do you hear that, Dell?). The total price was $1570 and it reflects sales taxes and California recycling tax (thanks Arnold!).

The tricky part is getting the best price. Every time I entered the Lenovo site, I got a different price. Different coupons yield lower prices. You can also enter the site from a special MasterCard sub-site, which yields even lower prices. Here’s what I did, and I suggest you do, on the Lenovo, or any similar site: find the best price you can see, call the sales team (they always have their number, or chat link) and ask to turn your shopping cart into a quote. Once that’s done, your price is locked. On the day I actually ordered the laptop, the site showed a price that was $200 more.

I also needed a dock, but did not intend to pay the $172 price at the Lenovo site. Since the T400 is compatible with T61 accessories, I picked up a dock on eBay for $66. The dock allows me to use my own keyboard and mouse, and use my full HD 24” display over DVI (the laptop has just a VGA socket) for the full digital HD experience.

The good
The laptop performs extremely well. With a 64 bit OS, I finally have access to the full 4GB. The machine is extremely quiet – you can’t hear the fan, and you have to strain to hear the HD (and that’s before I even switched it to silent mode). And the heat is kept to a minimum level. Finally a laptop that you can keep in your lap (unlike the MacBook, that can fry your ba.. er, knees. Apple actually recommends you don’t keep it in your lap).

The speakers are great. But the crown jewel is the display: the LED display is so bright, that I have to keep it at 2-3 levels below top brightness, even when connected to the AC. It is the best display I have seen on a laptop so far.

The T400 has the same basic qualities as all T-series ThinkPads: a robust frame, a set of backup and recovery tools, that includes the ability to re-image your machine whenever something fails, a set of wireless and management tools (some of which are redundant and can be removed). It also enjoys worldwide support by IBM.

Power management functionality is beyond amazing. There are so many options that allow you to increase your battery usage time: you can turn down CPU, memory, HD performance; display brightness; you can switch from the ATI video card to the Intel internal (useful if you’re just working on documents – adds almost a full hour); or you can use a “battery stretch” wizard, that controls even more parameters. All in all, too many options (almost caused me to mention this feature in “the bad” column) but you can get over 9-10 hours out of a 9-cell battery, which is impressive. Switching between the video cards is painless and can be done at any time (unlike the MacBook Pro that requires a reboot for the switch to take effect).

The bad
This laptop is not going to win any beauty contests. Unlike the MacBook and the Dell XPS, it looks like a simple black box. It seemed like the ThinkPad designers quit a decade ago, and haven’t been replaced since.

The laptop is also not the lightest out there. Dell’s XPS and Sony’s VAIO break new weight record with every model. The ThinkPad is a slab of robust plastic. Add to that the 9-cell batter that protrudes from its back, and you have an ungainly computer. I’m actually considering getting a 4-cell battery for home.

The laptop comes with some crapware installed. I just re-installed the OS and used the incredibly simple Lenovo Update tool to download the latest drivers and utilities.

The keyboard causes me some consternation as well: The bottom-leftmost key is not CTRL, as you’d expect, but the Fn key. Since I’m an avid copy-cut-paste CTRL-key user, I keep cursing under my breath every time I hit Fn-C and end up with nothing in my clipboard.
The absence of hard multimedia buttons (play/stop etc.) is also felt (there are Fn combinations available).

I’m not sure if it’s the 64 bit Vista, or the remainder of Lenovo’s software, but my laptop consumes almost 2.2GB when the OS is up and running. I just can’t wait to Windows 7 – I’m sure the performance would blow my mind (waiting for the 64 bit beta to come out sometime next week).

The bottom line
Buying a ThinkPad is like going home for me. I schlepped a T42 around the world for 2.5 years (just look at the picture on the right, taken en-route from Budapest to Vienna in 2006). I’m very glad to see that the basic qualities of the ThinkPad were preserved, but that most current technologies were added.

Of all the machines I got to test (XPS and D630 from Dell, a MacBook from Apple), this one provided the best performance and the most features, for the best price. I highly recommend it as a professional machine for developers and road warriors.

I’m just thankful that all companies practice refund policies.
This post was written on my T400, using Live Writer.


Unknown said...

I also share the same "getting home" feeling regarding Thinkpad's (strange coincidence!).
But - last yeat (Sep. 07 to be precise) I bought a new real Thinkpad (not Levono) T41 for private use (writing documents) - and did not add the 3 year guarantee. Sadly, exactly 13 months after the purchase it died. It's a mother board thing, and fixing it will cost like buying a new one.
This was quite a disappointment.

Traveling Tech Guy said...

I hate it when the MB goes...
Here's a suggestion: I just ran a "T41 mother board" search on eBay - average price is around $100. Maybe it's worth getting it there (if you're comfortable with installing it), or just get another used T41.

Anonymous said...

About the annoying Fn/Ctrl loation thing - As I share the same annoyance when using my partner's lenovo (actually I write this post from it) -
Can't you flip their functionlity using the same trick you disabled the Caps Lock key?

Traveling Tech Guy said...

That registry trick relies on changing scancodes (the code the OS get whenever you click a key). Sadly, the Fn key does not have any scancode - all it does is change the scancode of the key pressed with it. But Clicking Fn alone is not even registered by the OS, thus swapping it is impossible.

IBM (and later Lenovo) provide a key management tool that allows you to swap keys easily on the keyboard (i.e., Shift for Alt etc.), but even that app does not allow changing Fn.

The 'net is full of frustrated Thinkpad users looking for a solution. So far, the only 2 solutions that make sense are:

1. pull out the Fn key. You'd still be able to use the plastic underneath it for the few times you need Fn, but your finger won't mistake it for key, thus Ctrl turns to be the leftmost key.

2. Map Caps Lock (which we're not using anymore :)) to be Ctrl, and stop using the bottom line of keys.