Review: ThinkPad T61 with SLED 10 Linux


Used to be that the only way to get a Linux laptop was to buy a laptop and install it yourself.

While it sounds simple, it was generally time-consuming, tracking down Linux drivers for all the hardware, downloading hacks and patches to fix BIOS issues, and testing the system to make sure it was stable.

Not anymore, now that Dell and Lenovo are both offering laptops with Linux pre-installed. Solution providers now have not one, but two, vendors they can turn to when customers ask for a Linux laptop. No more nail-biting-teeth-gnashing moments trying to get networking to work.

Lenovo shipped a ThinkPad T61 pre-installed with SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 to CMP Channel Test Center for review. Instead of a bare-bones machine, the T61 turned out to have solidly respectable hardware specifications, featuring an Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2 GHz processor, 1 Gbyte of memory and a 100-Gbyte 7200rpm hard drive. The T61 also has 14-inch widescreen display with vNIDIA Quadro NVS 140M graphics, an ultra-slim CD-RW/DVD combo drive, and an Intel PRO Wireless 3945ABG network adapter. There are two USB ports, two PCMCIA slots, one IEEE 1394 Fire Wire port, a fingerprint scanner, a built-in modem and Ethernet port, a VGA port for an external monitor, and a switch to manually turn the wireless on or off. It also came with an extended battery. At this configuration, the system was priced at $1,090.

After powering it on, the laptop booted directly in SUSE's GNOME desktop, with grey wallpaper and a handful of icons to the left. While it's clearly different from Windows, the desktop is laid out in a manner most familiar to Windows users. The "Computer" menu sits where the Start menu would be, and offers a menu of applications, documents, as well as system settings. The systray has the software updater applet that lists any available updates to the system. T61 had the Linux kernel 2.6.16.54 installed. While this is not the most up-to-date kernel (2.6.24.3), it is the latest available for SUSE.

Lenovo didn't install any third-party applications on to the T61. All the applications are part of the default SLED install, including OpenOffice.org, Evolution, Kino Video Editor, and Firefox. However, the Linux integration shines the most on the hardware level. When manually installing Linux onto laptops in the past, difficulties involved the BIOS conflicting with the graphics card, not properly recovering from hibernate, and getting the modem to work correctly. On the T61, sleep and hibernate is effortless " the system sleeps and wakes up smoothly, and hibernate takes a little less than a minute to turn back on. All the hardware concerns are taken care of by Lenovo, freeing up solution providers to do other things.

For example, the fingerprint reader works on the laptop. Through User Management, a fingerprint can be assigned to each username as part of login credentials. These kinds of security modules have been historically tricky to configure under Linux. Having it work out of the box, so to speak, is a (dare we say it?) novel experience.

The README file on the desktop lists features and functions that are not supported on the SUSE ThinkPad, such as the ThinkVantage Active Protection System, the DVI output, and some hotkeys (fn+F2 and fn+F8). While the README says the Wireless WAN Adapter is also disabled, the built-in wireless had no trouble connecting to a secured 802.11g network. There was some trouble getting a wireless PCMCIA card to work, but it was unclear whether it was because the slot was disabled, or because of a driver issue.

Instead of installing the OS, solution providers can now take the time to install third-party and custom applications, tweak specialized configurations, or add-on remote monitoring and protection services (especially since ThinkVantage is not supported).

Performance was measured twice using the Geekbench software from PrimateLabs. The first score was 2782, which is amongst the highest results seen in the Test Center for this processor and clockspeed since the Test Center's standardization on Geekbench three months ago. A recent review of the Toshiba Protg M700 scored only 2455, with an identical processor, double the memory, but running Windows Vista. The benchmarks were re-run after reviewers realized the Desktop Effects, similar to Vista's Aero, was enabled on the T61. After turning off the Desktop Effects, which did eye-candy-ish things like wobbly windows, ripples with the pointer, and even the illusion of raindrops hitting the screen, the T61 scored 2820. The most significant differences between the scores were in the floating point tests, which drive a lot of the graphics, such as blur/sharpen for images.

The T61's vNIDIA Quadro NVS 140M is a great graphics card " much better than expected. To get a better feel for the graphics capabilities, reviewers ran the SPECviewperf test from SPEC. This uses eight distinct viewsets to measure the graphics performance of systems running in higher-quality graphics modes and requires Open GL 1.5. The weighted geometric means for all the tests ranged from as low as 0.7479 frames per second to as high as 4.551 frames per second. After Desktop Effects were disabled these values almost doubled, ranging from 1.539 frames per second to 22.24 frames per second.

As for battery life, the ThinkPad performed well. A movie was copied onto the hard drive and played continually using the Totem Movie Player that came as part of the OS. The T61 preinstalled with SLED 10 lasted over four hours, clocking in at 4:14. Having seen slightly less than three hours on an older ThinkPad R60 running Linux, and less than two hours on a ThinkPad T42, this was a welcome result.

One big deterrent to installing Linux on laptops has been the difficulty in finding drivers for hardware components, whether they are new, not mainstream, or just not have Linux support. With pre-installed Linux laptops, that is no longer as big a factor, since the assumption is that Lenovo has tested each component to ensure they work, and has drivers available.

This is a very different situation from The World Series of Linux, when reviewers struggled to configure networking under SLED 10 on a PC with a ASUS motherboard. Lenovo here is making sure all components work correctly, as it should be, instead of making the solution providers deal with the issues.

With the ThinkPad T61, solution providers now have a solid system for customers interested in making the leap to Linux.