When I started my own company about a year ago I ended up buying an ASUS G73JW gaming laptop - I took a deliberate decision to focus on raw power for decent money and totally ignoring portability. Generally it has served me well, although it does tend to make a lot of fan noise, at least under Ubuntu. It might work smoother in Windows, but I seldom boot into Windows.
Needless to say though it is a real ton of bricks (8.8 lbs = 4 kg) and including the truly fat power supply it simply weared my back down during 2011. I have been carrying this beast in a backpack every day - and my body eventually said “enough dammit!”. :)
So I decided to upgrade to some hot new hardware weighing below 2 kg and naturally I started looking at the current crop of ultrabooks. And no, Macbook Air is not for me, sorry. After reading lots of reviews my perception is that all of the current Ultrabooks have one problem or another. This may be because of this being the first generation of Ultrabooks in combination with manufacturers pushing the envelope technologically:
Keyboards tend to be troublesome given the limitations on thickness making the keys too shallow, the Zenbook for example suffers from bad reviews pointing out the fact that you really need to hit the keys in the middle for them to register.
Touchpads are also an area lacking, probably because most of them are now moving to so called “clickpads” with integrated buttons.
Screens tend to be less than stellar.
There have also been reports on issues with wifi having bad reception.
Then of course, a general lack of ports, but that is to be expected in this form factor.
I was still leaning towards the Lenovo u300s. It seems to be a truly awesome machine with no apparent weakness although they say the screen is not something to write home about. But I simply can not find where to buy one! Reading up on this Lenovo I came across a lot of people proposing the X220 as a better choice. Eventually I started to read up more on the rest of the Lenovo line, especially the X220 and X1.
After some serious soul searching I decided that I really need an X220 instead of a shiny ultrabook toy, and today when I was home sick I ordered one from Dustin with home delivery - 2 hours after placing the order a car drove up to the house and delivered it - sweet!
So what about the newer X1 then? Well, what did it for me was the weight and size difference combined with the fact that I really wanted the IPS display. I have read some more comparisons afterwards and feel I made the right decision, although the keyboard on the X1 does get rave reviews even compared to X220. This means it must be insanely great since the keyboard is one of the true highlights of the X220.
After just a few hours with the X220 I am certain I made the right choice. This machine is… well, if Ultrabooks are flashy slim Ferraris and Porsches this machine would be… a mini Humvee. It is function focus all the way. Here is a list of key arguments for the X220:
Superb real keyboard which is a true joy to type on. This is important and a key differentiator for Lenovo in general. It also has the Trackpoint (the little red mouse stick thing), quite nice if you learn to use it - which I am trying right now.
Full voltage CPUs with top of the line being a Core i7-2640 giving even more power than the low voltage variations found in Ultrabooks.
8 Gb RAM (two replaceable slots). Many ultrabooks only give you 4 Gb max and non replaceable. For a small additional price I got an extra 4Gb memory module that was trivial to install. In fact, there are people who have managed to install two 8Gb modules giving a maximum of 16Gb!
1366 x 768 matte IPS panel, same technology as in the Ipad they say. Awesome display and a rarity among laptops. And matte damnit! This is alone a very strong argument for the X220. I mean, this screen rocks! Of course, higher resolution would have been nice but it’s fine.
Tons of ports and ways to extend and replace parts (battery, memory, hard drive etc)
1.3-1.6 kg depending on choice of battery, clearly in Ultrabook class.
Insane battery life with several battery options! The protruding 9-cell battery I got is meant to give up to 15 hours! There are 4 different battery sizes, just pick and choose. I am going to get an additional 4 or 6-cell variant which doesn’t protrude, when I want to be “slick” :)
So it has most Ultrabook properties (real power, lightweight, small form factor, good battery life) although not as slim. But in all other respects it is a true work horse for professionals. And for me weight is what counts, not thickness.
I guess it boils down a bit to what kind of person you are. I wanted a really good and lightweight laptop that I can work on, but I also wanted something different, as the title of this blog says - I travel the road less taken. And X220 is a true utilitarian beast sending a “100% no nonsense” message.
Getting acquainted with the machine I decided to run some benchmarks in Windows 7. I downloaded the CrystalDiskMark and while not as good numbers as the best drive in UX31E it still got decent numbers:
Sequential Read : 259.164 MB/s Sequential Write : 170.058 MB/s Random Read 512KB : 172.326 MB/s Random Write 512KB : 169.432 MB/s Random Read 4KB (QD=1) : 17.175 MB/s [ 4193.1 IOPS] Random Write 4KB (QD=1) : 31.436 MB/s [ 7674.9 IOPS] Random Read 4KB (QD=32) : 140.489 MB/s [ 34299.1 IOPS] Random Write 4KB (QD=32) : 95.920 MB/s [ 23418.1 IOPS]
But this is of course an attribute of the Intel SSD drive more than the actual notebook. I also downloaded and ran the free PCMark 7 in which it scored 4004. This is better than the fastest Ultrabook (UX31E which got 3653) but I had hoped for even better, perhaps I missed cranking up the speed correctly.
To top things off, here is a list of more funky details:
A small downward directed LED lamp (Thinklight) right beside the web cam that illuminates the keyboard. Hehe, kinda low tech compared to backlit keyboards, but it works. I guess it is hard to make a traditional “non chiclet” keyboard backlit.
A 720p HD web cam. Oh. :)
A fingerprint biometric reader! So now I log on W7 by swiping my index finger, funky.
54 mm Express Card slot. No idea what to use it for yet!
One combined mSATA/PCIe internal slot. In my machine it holds a UMTS 3G card. I just slid in my SIM card and it hooked up nicely!
The second half PCIe port. No idea what to use that for either.
Option to buy an additional mSATA SSD drive (currently available up to about 128Gb) giving even more disk space. Unfortunately this would mean ripping out the UMTS card.
The navpoint (red mouse stick) has three buttons below and if you hold the middle button you get scrolling for the navpoint - really nice! Or perhaps obvious, but I like it.
Negative stuff so far
Well, these are nitpickings, but still, these are things that have annoyed me a bit:
Although I really like the little red nubbin, it does get in the way when I type “b” sometimes, my right hand index finger “stumbles” over it. Might be simply an issue of getting used to the keyboard.
The palm rests are very small on this machine due to its size. For my right hand it is not an issue because the red nubbin and touchpad is slightly off to the left so I tend to rest my right palm slightly more to the middle. But my left wrist ends up squarely on the left side corner of the laptop. And while the front edge is sloped downwards to make it comfortable, the sides are not sloped at all.
The Ctrl and Fn keys seems swapped for my taste, the Ctrl should IMHO be in the corner. In the BIOS one can swap these (!) but then I would really like to change the writing on the keys too…
UPDATE: The nubbin doesn’t get in the way anymore, obviously a thing that one “learns” automatically. I haven’t thought about the palm rests since I wrote the article, so it was nitpicking. I haven’t swapped the Ctrl-Fn keys, simply learned the layout. Possibly will swap still though.
Normally I don’t care about installed software but Lenovo has actually included quite a few useful utilities for Windows 7. Power management, biometric finger print management, yaddayadda. This makes it harder to make the decision to wipe Windows.
Here comes…. Ubuntu!
First I tested running Ubuntu in a VirtualBox and while it works quite well it still seems to behave better on the real hardware. This is probably due to the graphics capabilities in VirtualBox. Anyway, one of the main reasons for going with a Thinkpad is also of course the fact that they tend to work really, really well with Linux. And the X220 is not an exception. I have been running Linux as primary OS for almost 6 years now so I really want to continue doing that, but I am being cautious and will go for a dual boot setup for now.
These are the basic steps I performed:
Produce the so called “Factory Recovery” disks. This takes the recovery partition that Lenovo has put on the SSD and slaps it onto external media so that you can wipe that partition and reclaim about 16Gb of disk space. It’s also nice to have, if something goes bonkers.
Shrink the Windows 7 partition thus leaving unpartitioned space for Ubuntu.
Prepare a USB stick with Ubuntu.
Install Ubuntu from the USB stick producing a dual boot setup.
Funny enough it was the first step that turned out a bit tricky, the rest was a piece of cake.
Producing Factory Recovery media
One would think that since everyone should do this it would be trivial to do. If I would design this procedure I would make it possible to produce iso-files that can just be saved onto an USB hard drive, but no no… :)
Prepare a USB drive according to this document. It must be either at least 350Mb (only for booting) or about 9Gb (both bootable and recovery data).
If you picked a small USB like I did, when you run the utility from Lenovo - only select “boot” when you get the dialog with two check boxes. It will then wipe the drive and make it bootable, but not put recovery data onto it. Then you can fire up the utility once more and use an USB hard drive for the other checkbox (recovery data), it does not need to be empty because it will not wipe it, it will just create a directory called “factoryrecovery” and put all data into it.
If you picked a large USB stick (or hard drive) then you can select both checkboxes and get it all in one place in one go.
NOTE: You should try booting from it to see that it actually boots. To do that you will need to enter the BIOS setup (F1 or F12 on boot) and move the USB flash drive higher up in the boot order list. Of course, when this is all done one could produce an iso from that bootable USB stick and store it away somewhere to free up a perfectly good USB stick :)
Then finally you can let the tool “reclaim” the partition, it will nuke the paritition and then enlarge the Windows 7 partition with that space, but we will shrink it in the next step.
This is easy in 2012, Windows can do it for you. Just open control panel, type in “partition” and open the tool that it finds. Select the Windows 7 partition and use “shrink” in the popup menu. Then you get to a dialog in which you can specify how much you want to shrink it.
Prepare a USB with Ubuntu
There are many ways to install Linux and in the older days the traditional way was to burn a CD and boot from it into the installation procedure. These days I guess the most common procedure is to do the same, but with a USB stick. In retrospect the Wubi installer might have been even easier, but I wanted to install the beta 2 of Ubuntu “Precise Pangolin” and didn’t think Wubi was up to date with that, but it seems you can download any iso you want on the side for it.
Well, what can I say? Just boot from the stick and go with the flow. The installer is trivially easy, it will detect the existing Windows 7 and even offers to import bookmarks and stuff from your Windows user! A dual boot setup is produced without questions asked even, it was simple as that.
I love this machine! And the only thing not working perfectly smooth in Ubuntu is the 3G, it fails to unlock when I give the PIN code, not sure why. Also, one will need to do some tweaking to get less battery drain in Linux, but I think the forums indicate that it is possible to get similar results as in Windows.
So take my advice - if you are looking at the Ultrabooks, do take a long look at the X220 before making your decision. :)
UPDATE: The 3G card actually works perfectly, the failure to unlock was just a glitch. Also, now there is X230 which seems to be an upgraded X220 but with the new backlit chiclet-keyboard instead. Good move Lenovo, although I honestly don’t know if I would pick it in favor of the “real old-fashioned” keyboard of X220.