Friday, June 8, 2012

A New Computer (Yet Again)

So, I've ordered a new computer, only two years after the previous one. As you may have seen lately, the Panasonic I have has developed a few problems over time. The internal fan stopped working a while ago, a few keys are getting wonky, and yesterday the wired Ethernet port stopped working, leaving me with only a Wifi connection.

I still average well over three years of use for a laptop, so failing after only two years is fast. But I use my laptop more than any other thing I own — over ten hours a day, every day, on average — so no wonder it wears out over time. The build, the screen and the keyboard quality is important when I spend so much time using it, so a budget laptop is generally not a good idea. I try to stay within 100k yen per year for all my electronics; that is, computer, phone, tablet, peripherals and so on. It leaves me with about 200k for a new computer, with room to spare for other gadgets over the next few years.

I'd use the laptop on airplanes and trains, airports and stations, and I'd use it on the go to take notes and check my itinerary, email and other stuff. Low weight and a small footprint were both important, and the Panasonic Let's Note series I've been using are full laptops in a very compact, light form factor. But lately I use my phone and Android tablet on the road while the laptop stays in the bag. I can look for a larger, more featureful computer with fewer compromises in the name of size.

When I checked Lenovo's Japanese site this morning, they had an all-night sale on the T430 Thinkpad model I was interested in — perfect timing, and it took me only a few minutes to customize and order. I managed to squeeze in just below my 200k budget with a better machine than I could ever have hoped to get. Main points:

  • 16Gb memory. Because that's the maximum they offer. Can you have too much memory? No. No, you can't. Nothing else does more to improve your computer. For work, I need 8Gb to run my simulations, so with less than that I can't even use the laptop for development. Your operating system will use any remaining memory as a disk cache, speeding up everything.

  • 128Gb SSD and a 500Gb secondary disk. Next to memory, a solid-state disk will give you the most performance improvement. 128Gb is technically enough for me — I use about 110Gb on my current drive — but it's rather tight. With the secondary drive I can put archival stuff such as old projects and most of my pictures on it and free up lots of space on the SSD. SSDs have a reputation for sudden failures, but I can set up the computer to back up the SSD to the secondary disk once or twice a day; I'll lose no more than a few hours of work in case something happens.

  • NVIDIA 5400M discrete graphics card. I'm taking a chance with this one. Support for both discrete and integrated graphics is not well developed under Linux yet, so I may have to mess around a bit to get things working. I still wanted a real, discrete card, though, for Minecraft work-related OpenCL development.

  • A decent 14" screen, with 900 pixels vertical resolution and a matte, not glossy, surface. The vertical resolution is important (and I'd have wanted even more), as that limits how many lines of text or code you can see at once. I'm not against the current trend toward wide screens; I like to compare text side-by-side, for instance. But it shouldn't happen at the expense of vertical resolution. At the same time, you don't want too high resolution either, as it uses more graphics memory, power and other resources. For instance, games apparently sometimes run in lower quality on the newest iPad than on earlier models because its graphics engine can't keep up with its high-resolution display.

    A matte screen is a deal-breaker. With a glossy screen, everything — ceiling lights, bright walls, people, your own face — is reflected back at you. It's distracting, and bright backgrounds can completely obscure the screen contents; besides, I'm not narcissistic enough to want to stare at myself for hours every day. It's less of a problem on a phone that you can easily angle away from distracting lights, but the large screen of a laptop is almost impossible to shield properly.

It's a Lenovo (former IBM), a premium brand alongside Apple and Panasonic, so the build quality is likely to be quite good1. They are justly famous for their keyboards; I know people who swear by Lenovo machines simply because of the keyboard quality and feel. A lot of people love the trackpoint — the little red nipple — while others hate it. It's easy to ignore if you want.

It comes with Windows 7 installed apparently. I'm going to install Ubuntu on it, so it doesn't matter one way or another. I wonder, though, if it shouldn't be possible to reinstall or move Windows into a virtual machine under Linux somehow? It could be practical to have now and again, I've got ample memory to run it in a VM, and I have paid for the license after all.

The looks are typical Thinkpad — dark and utilitarian. Me, I rather like it; it has an industrial no-nonsense feel to it that sets it off from the shiny metal cases that is all the rage right now. There's microphones, a camera and a memory card reader, none of which is likely to see much use (my phone and tablet are both more convenient for video meetings). There's an assortment of other ports, some potentially useful, others less so. At least I remembered to deselect the fingerprint reader.

The downsides are mainly weight and size. At over 2.2kg it's almost a kg heavier than my current machine, and a fair bit larger. Oh well. That's the price for getting a good, large screen, lots of memory, two drives and a full-size keyboard. Battery lifetime is likely a fair bit less than the 8 hours I get on the Let's Note, though you can add an insane amount of battery capacity to it if you want. Nowadays I don't use the laptop unplugged for more than an hour or two so I doubt it matters a lot in practice.

The system will ship in a week or so, and probably take another week or two to actually arrive. Plenty of time to prepare, though I'm a bit weary of yet another OS install so close after upgrading or reinstalling my current machines so recently. Just hope the Panasonic holds up until then. I thought it would be fine well into autumn, but with the Ethernet card suddenly breaking I'm no longer so sure.

#1 "good" is not "perfect". My current Panasonic is failing before its time after all, and we've had one Apple notebook literally falling apart (the touchpad was coming loose) right out of the box. You get what you pay for, and nobody wants to pay enough for a guaranteed trouble-free machine.


  1. I've had my current work laptop, an HP Compaq 8510p, for 3+ years; the best thing I did was to upgrade it to 128GB SSD and 8GB RAM almost 2 years ago. Since then, I've felt little need to upgrade. It's got a 15'' 4x3 matte screen at 1680x1050, which is hard to beat these days without losing vertical resolution. And it weighs about 3kg, making it useful in battle.

  2. My plan was to get a computer much like yours: 8Gb and 128Gb SSD. It was only when the Ethernet died and I checked the Lenovo site this morning that I noticed their "all night sale", and could get twice the memory, an extra drive and NVIDIA graphics for the same price.

    I'm not complaining - this machine is bound to be very useful for Humble Indie Bundle^X^X^X^X Serious Research Activities Without Any Eye-Catching Graphics At All.

  3. Regarding the pre-installed Windows system: just resize the partition and dual boot. I've futzed around with virtualization before, and it's not worth the hassle. You won't be rebooting that often anyway that the act of choosing system will be an annoyance. (At least if suspend/resume works as it should under Linux.) It might come in handy for some gaming, so just run it native. You have plenty of disk anyway, so you should give it room enough for some big installations. I guess you'll have a system partition on the SSD and a user partition on the spinning metal. It might be tricky to move the system partition to the secondary disk, but it could be a possibility for saving the SSD for better things.

  4. I'd use Windows about once or twice per year at most; I certainly don't want to give any scarce space on the SSD to it. And a comment on G+ indicates that the OS install and license will not let me relocate it to other media.

    No, I'll just erase it, as usual.

  5. Well, Valve have said they'll release a Steam client for Linux this year, so that might keep you knee deep in games anyway.

  6. "Well, Valve have said they'll release a Steam client for Linux this year, so that might keep you knee deep in games anyway. "

    And just in case my boss reads my blog, let me assure you that this exciting fact has nothing at all to do with my decision to get a discrete graphics card this time around. Nothing at all, I assure you. Nope.

  7. "the OS install and license will not let me relocate it to other media. "

    I've been battling with a desktop rebuild since a Dell MB went west. The Windows 7 OEM license install is quite happy to run on a new MB and HD, which surprised me. Ars Technica has a long explanation of why this works in Win 7. So I think you could probably move Windoze to the HD, though for a couple uses per year it hardly seems worth the effort.

    Also I find the latest Ubuntu has a Windows installer which installs Ubuntu and configures the system for dual-boot.. couldn't be easier. Very nice. I might just give up on Windows..

  8. Doug, thanks for that link.

    Dual booting is not going to happen, I think. I don't want anything except Ubuntu on the SSD, and I doubt I could put Windows onto a non-bootable disk.

    Also, rebooting is a lot more hassle than just firing up a VM, and I'll just end up never doing it. I had Windows XP dual boot on my previous work computer and I never, ever used it - it was easier to walk over and use one of the lab computers than to close down everything I was working on, rebooting into Windows, rebooting back into Linux then try to pick up my work again.

    You approach seems worth trying. The one thing that may be a real problem is that I think I got the Japanese version of Windows 7 and it's not clear if the iso linked to in the article will actually accept such a license key.

  9. Yesterday I did some router rotation with my uncle and while trying on my netbook (it was his) I updated ubuntu (11.04 to 11.10), that reminded me of you. Sadly, I use it very seldomly.

    I've passed on my computer avocation and nowadays I can do everything on a simple PC. Not playing much anymore (did a Flightsim X hop yesterday, though)and I limit myself to browsing and listening to music (sadly, foobar 2k, the player I use is windows/mac only).

    Dual booting is interesting, but I find myself going to Windows just 95% of the time...

    Having finished studies for a while, I want to revive my OM-1 again.

  10. George, I use Linux for a lot of different reasons. But perhaps the main one is that like you, and like most people, I'm used to the OS I normally use.

    I know my way around, I have my set of favourite applications, and I know how to deal with pretty much any trouble that can arise. Even if I had no other reason to stick with Linux (and I have plenty), just the simple fact that I know it already would be more than enough. The same thing applies to most Windows and OSX users too.

    I find dual booting nearly useless; it's just too much hassle. This time around I will try to install Windows 7 on a virtual machine - I already paid for the license after all - and perhaps this time I will actually use it for something.

  11. So nice to read!!! I am planning to buy the same laptop, and also throw ubuntu on it. I am looking into the graphics card as well, since I will be looking at some proteinstructures. So I would be very interested in reading how you are finding the linux support for graphics :)

    Best Regards Jakob

  12. I think support will be OK. "Bumblebee" is a system for switching graphics adapters that seems to work fine. And NVIDIA just this week released a new Linux driver that adds support for the 5400M card, and the driver is already part of the bleeding-edge X package repository.

    I wanted the card mostly for the CUDA/OpenCL support actually. Don't know when I'll have time to play with it though.

  13. Nice, I will look into Bumblebee.
    I will finally receive my T430 tomorrow.

    What have you done for extending life of your SSD?

    - Jakob

  14. I'm going to post about it later, but briefly, you want to use "relatime" and "discard" as a parameter for the SSD drive in /etc/fstab (I think Ubuntu actually uses relatime by default); and I also put /tmp and the firefox cache on a RAM disk.

  15. :) I will look forward to read about that.


  16. Hi Jan,
    Jakob here again.
    I got a very successful 12.04 installation running w. a virtual box of win7 fulfilling what I need ( so far ).

    I want to hear if you had any success in using the mini display port?

    the best

  17. Hi Jakob!

    I've just today managed to take a picture of the machine, so I'll finally post about the machine soon ^_^

    * mini display port: never tried it. Don't have anything I could connect to it as far as I know. The analog VGA port works fine though.

    * How did you install Win 7? Did you use the licence you got with the computer? Do you have any pointers for doing this - it'd be useful to have occasionally, I thought, but I have no experience at all on how to do it in practice.

    * Any problem with once-a-day freezing? If you do, installing the 3.4 version kernel will fix it. There was a kernel update just a few days ago that might have fixed it, though I haven't tried it yet myself.

  18. Hi Jan

    First of all,
    The laptop got very hot after the installation. so I went into the bios and changed graphics from NVIDIA to Integrated. (I tried Discrete, but I never reached the logon window of ubuntu .. )

    Now the laptop remains the same temperature level as it had with the Windows installation it came with.

    I hope the bumblebee can help here, enabling graphics card, without burning of the laptop :)
    I will look into this later. For now everything works.

    I know virtual box comes with some tools to copy the content of one virtual disk into another file. I did this on my old thinkpad, when my installation was on a fixed size .vdi file that turned out to be too small. No clue if this will work from a partition to a .vdi file.

    My Uni provided the win7 iso file. So I decided to do the installation from scratch.

    My ubuntu is 64bit and so is the vbox and the win7 iso.
    in order to install win7 in 64 bit, it was necessary to enable visualization under the tab "Security" in the bios

    I created a fixed size .vdi file for windows 7 64 bit of 50 GB
    In Vbox settings -> motherboards I set 4096 MB ram as base memory and enabled IO APIC

    Under Display--> Video I enabled 2D and 3D acceleration and set videomemory to 256MB (which appears to be max)

    under Storage, I clicked my virtual disk (.vdi which is listed under SATA controller) And enabled Solid State Drive.

    Then Booted my win7 iso file, did the installation
    Installed Guest additions.

    downloaded the Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.1.18-78361.vbox-extpack and installed it in order to gain USB support in windows.

    I havent had issues with once-a-day freezing ... But I used the OEM win 7 for the first couple of weeks, so the ubuntu installation is still young :)


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