Saturday, April 02, 2011

Bye bye Thinkpad (R51) Hello Thinkpad (Edge 13)

[updated 10 April '11]

After almost 6 years, the LCD display on my IBM Thinkpad R51 has become faulty with thin coloured vertical lines, the hard disk is getting full and generally it's not as sprightly as it once was.

So I decided to replace it and as I've been generally impressed with the Thinkpad range, I've bought another one, though this time I'm much more on a budget. After reading a number of online reviews, I settled on a Thinkpad Edge 13, which balances reasonable screen size with portability, the latter particularly enhanced by processors that consume less power; I went with the AMD Turion II Neo K685 CPU as I felt I couldn't afford one with the Intel Core i3. I ordered directly through the online Lenovo store on St. Patrick's Day (for a 10% discount) and it was duly delivered by UPS within the advertised 1-2 weeks time slot. Some retailers were offering a cash-back deal that would make it cheaper, but it meant purchasing an external DVD writer, which would be surplus to my requirements. No, I didn't choose heatwave red or glossy options - the traditional boxy design would have been fine for me!

I opted for Windows 7 Professional, which allows me to run under XP mode software that I was using previously that's not supported by Windows 7. As this would run under in a virtual PC, I figured I probably would need 4GB to be comfortable, but I initially ordered just the minimal 2GB from Lenovo as extra memory seemed to be charged at something of a premium. I then turned to Crucial Memory (UK), but hit a slight snag. The first batches of Thinkpad Edge PCs had been shipped with an earlier versions of the AMD chipset and processor and so when I used their Memory Advisor Tool for the Edge 13, it only offered DDR2 RAM (and 4GB max). Checking the spec from the Lenovo site and elsewhere, I could establish that this machine comes with the AMD M780G chipset which supports DDR3 RAM, viz: 204-pin PC3-10600 DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz SODIMM. So on that basis I could find a suitable match and bought a 4GB module, part number CT51264BC1339. It was easy to install and has been accepted by the OS, which now reports 6GB of installed memory of which 5.75GB is usable (0.25GB gets swallowed up by the graphics card!)

First Impressions

I'm generally pleased with this new Thinkpad so far. It's still solid, has a streamlined yet familiar keyboard layout, a somewhat smaller form factor, lighter weight and much better battery life. So it makes it more practical to take with me, though it's some way from the Eee PCs I'm used to. :-) Anyway, last week I duly popped it in my work bag and kept it on during a two and a half hour meeting, for which I took the minutes, with reduced brightness, hardly any wifi. Afterwards 65% charge remained, which I thought was quite impressive. I do miss, however, having some indicator lights, particularly for hard disk and wireless connections. Sometimes, to check that something is happening I find myself listening for hard disk activity.

The OS looks okay and operates smoothly and I think the visual appearance and general look and feel of Windows 7 is better than XP. Here's a screenshot: in the background is a standard desktop theme of rotating scenes and in the foreground I'm running a virtual machine (see below).

Windows 7 desktop with VirtualBox running Debian Squeeze featuring WMI2

As someone who does a lot of reading on screen, I find the widescreen display (WXGA or 1366*768) offers significant benefits over the R51's XGA (1024*768), particularly useful for comparing documents side by side. It reminds me of when the HP320LX offered 640*240 instead of the previous norm of 480*240 for handheld PCs - the limited height mattered surprisingly little.

In terms of software, one of the first sighs of relief was being able to use MozBackup to migrate my Thunderbird email accounts and preferences.

Curious about the performance, the Windows Experience Index, rating from 1.0 (lowest) to 7.9 (highest) indicates middling performance:

  • Processor Calculations per second: 4.8
  • Memory (RAM) Memory operations per second: 6.5
  • Graphics Desktop performance for Windows Aero: 3.3
  • Gaming graphics 3D business and gaming graphics performance: 5.1
  • Primary hard disk Disk data transfer rate: 5.9

Curiously, immediately after I upgraded to service pack 1, I was prompted to update the index and the memory operations per second increased to 7.0. However, after a further update it reverted to 6.5!


I have tended to run Windows as my day-to-day OS, but I also use Linux for system administration and Web development. This has usually led me to create a dual boot setup, but this time I am experimenting with running virtual machines. In fact I'm already running two systems and teetered on running a third!

My first VM was installed through necessity - a few years ago I bought a combined package of HP Deskjet 950C printer and HP Scanjet 5370C scanner, but it turns out that only the printer is supported in Windows 7. To solve this, I needed to run MS Virtual PC and install as a guest OS Windows XP (XP Mode). Even then, care is needed to ensure that when the scanner is plugged in as a USB device, it is duly attached under XP and not routed to Windows 7: when running XP Mode, along the top of the VM there is a row of menu items; click on the USB menu and attach the unidentified device corresponding to the scanner.

I installed the second VM by choice - looking to use it for web application development on a Linux platform and am hoping that it will be robust as well as offer reasonable performance. First up is VirtualBox, but waiting in the wings is VMWare Player, so how does it fare so far...? Well, installation of VirtualBox itself is nice and convenient. I like the way that it can grow to use the resources as required and can readily tweak the allocations of RAM and video RAM. So, I've dived in and installed Debian Lenny off DVD followed by an upgrade to Squeeze. I strongly recommend installing the Guest Additions since without them I was finding the mouse pointer control rather unpredictable.

The first real test was to install Web Mathematics Interactive 2 (WMI2), a computer algebra system with a very user-friendly calculator-style interface. On the Web site, PHP scripts take the input and issue Ajax calls that are communicated to Maxima, which handles all the calculations and returns output for display. The screenshot above shows it in action - rather than having to remember some markup language like TeX, you can build up formulae by hitting the buttons. The system checks your input as you go along. I downloaded the package from SourceForge and followed the instructions (just one thing to note: timeout is already included in the coreutils package).

There has been a lot of software and data to transfer, but I am gradually emerging from this liminal state of migration... :-)