A few months ago both my personal laptops broke. My Compaq v3000z (only a little over a year old) had a power socket that went trippy, and my fallback old reliable iBook G3 900 finally gave up the ghost. But I didn’t have the money for a new laptop (and I was annoyed that my HP went soo soon), so I went without a personal laptop for a while, which meant lugging my 15” work MacBook Pro home all the time. Not a bad laptop, but I like to work late into the night, and the MBP gets scalding hot and the fan turns on at the drop of the hat (or a compile of anything longer then a few seconds). The heat and noise made it annoying to use in the same room as my sleeping wife.

So, I scrounged up enough money to treat myself to a new laptop. I didn’t want a mac given my experience with the MBP (even though I loved my 12” iBook), and I wanted something that was going to LAST, i.e., something that wasn’t a consumer level HP notebook. I also wanted an AMD processor because I do virtualization work and SVM is -soo- much nicer than Intel’s VT, but that wasn’t really an option outside of HP. I wanted small, cheap, light, and reliable.

So, Lenovo it was, and the fact they released the new T400 just recently made me take the plunge. It arrived this morning. It’s a pretty minimal config: P8400 processor, 2GB ram, 160GB 5400rpm HD, 4cell battery. But I did splurge on the LED 1440x900 display. Here are my impressions so far:

  • It’s pretty light weight, only slightly heavier then my old 12” iBook. Not bad for a 14” laptop.
  • The lack of heat and noise is wonderful. Head and shoulders above the MBP. The bottom gets lukewarm at most, and the fan is barely audible. And this is with running with the ATI 3460 discrete graphics card enabled
  • Vista Home Basic is slow. I wasn’t expecting bloatware from Lenovo, but they have a lot of it, and no easy way to install a clean install.

Of course, I spent most of the day getting Linux up and running. I’m now running Intrepid, and it’s running very smoothly. A few things that tripped me up:

  • Switchable Graphics: If you leave this option enabled in the BIOS, then linux will see both video cards (the internal Intel card and the discrete ATI 3460HD). This trips up the Intrepid installer, so I couldn’t install Intrepid directly. Interestingly, Hardy worked, although it detected and used the Intel card when I was expecting it to use the ATI one. By setting the BIOS to ‘Discrete only’ and the primary video device to ‘PCI Express’ instead of internal, Linux only sees one video card now.
  • ThinkPad Wireless a/b/g III: The actual card is an Atheros AR242x wireless device. This is not supported by the version of MadWifi in Hardy, so it doesn’t work. It may be supported by latest madwifi SVN code if you compile it yourself, I didn’t try. It is, however, supported by the new open source ath5k driver in Intrepid. There’s a catch though. Intrepid ships with both madwifi and ath5k. In my case, madwifi got loaded first, putting the card into a bad state that only a reboot would fix. Blacklisting the madwifi drivers (ath_pci, ath_hal) in /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist and rebooting allows the card to work like a champ. UPDATE 11/2/2008: Ubuntu decided to throw us a curveball right before intrepid was released. To fix the madwifi/ath5k conflict, they removed the ath5k driver from the default kernel.  This means that you’ll have to install the package linux-backports-modules-intrepid-generic to get the ath5k driver.  You will probably still need to blacklist madwifi as shown above.  This package is supposed to be included on the default install CD.  See the 8.10 release notes for more details.
  • ATI Radeon 3460 HD: Intrepid detects the card fine and uses the ATI driver. Interestingly, I tried to use the radeonhd driver, and got a blank screen. I should probably report that. Of course, no 3D, or even 2D acceleration, but ShadowFB acceleration seems plenty fast enough for now. I always have the option of switching to the intel graphics in the BIOS if i need 3D before the R600 folks figure it out. And yes, I could run fglrx too, but I like the fact I think I’m running with a completely open source system.
  • Fingerprint Scanner: Not supported under Linux. Mine’s an AuthenTec 2810 USB scanner, and it doesn’t have linux support. Yes, I know fingerprints aren’t very secure, but it’s just cool to use. I’ll see if I can work with the fprint folks to get it working. I just hate USB snooping.
  • The Back/Forward keys: This is an annoyance more then anything. Lenovo has an inverted T-style cursor keys on the keyboard (good), that’s slighly dropped down from the level of the spacebar (ok), and they’re narrower than the other keys (ok), but unstead of leaving a blank spacer around in the upper left and upper right of the inverted T, they added two new buttons. A ‘Page Forward’ and ‘Page Back’ button (bad, very very bad). Because the keys are narrower then the other keys, and are dropped half a row lower then the spacebar/bottom row of the rest of the keyboard, I’m often hitting these buttons when I mean to hit the cursor forward/back keys. This is extremely annoying when typing on a web page, because these keys are mapped to forward/back in the browser. You just try typing a long entry into a web form only to look up and see that you hit the back button 50 words ago and you’ve lost everything. I must find a way to disable these keys, or I’ll go insane.

That’s about it, I’m very happy with it. Hopefully this one lasts a lot longer then my HP.