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Travels with ThinkPads: T20, T30, T40, X31, Centrino: should you do mobile business IBM style?

I'M PERPETUALLY IN SEARCH of the perfect laptop. Perhaps my adventures will help you find the right set of features and mobility.

IBM ThinkPad T30 vs. T20

I've been using IBM ThinkPads for years, usually two at a time. In recent years I've used a ThinkPad T20 and in recent months a ThinkPad T30. Why two laptops? I need to keep working even when one breaks down.

While IBM would note T Series differences, for my purposes the two model-Ts are equivalent: same size, same keyboard, same screen, same accessories. One difference: The T30 has a Mobile Intel Pentium 4-M, which improves battery life over the T20's Pentium III. While laptop makers often push faster processor speed, what helps me most is more memory; my ThinkPads all have 512MB. (Since I bought my T20, IBM has evolved it to the very similar current model T23.)

IBM's support of ThinkPads has two strong points, frequent software updates and fast warranty repairs. It also has two weak points, online forums and telephone help. IBM's discussion forums can yield advice from IBM techs, but mostly I see ThinkPad users chatting and complaining among themselves.

Getting satisfaction from IBM telephone support depends on luck, and I rarely get lucky. When I called about lockups of a new IBM CD-RW drive in a T20, IBM support said they'd never seen the drive and couldn't help. A call to report Centrino Wi-Fi connection problems yielded advice to test my hard drive and possibly get a new one!

A nice feature for Windows 2000 and XP users is IBM Access ThinkPad software that hooks directly to an IBM Web site, locates updated drivers, utilities and firmware, then downloads and installs them.

However, it's annoying that even IBM's newest ThinkPad software misinterprets the working area of a Microsoft Windows screen. Windows lets users resize and/or reposition the "Start bar" program menu. Putting it at the top of the screen dramatically speeds up pointer movement between programs and menus, which reduces hand fatigue and improves user productivity. Top-of-the-screen is where Apple Macintosh and other multi-tasking software put it; companies that value ergonomics make it the standard position for Windows installations. (Some say Microsoft moved the program menu to the bottom of Windows 95 due to a complaint from Apple, then made it movable to allow users to revert to the best position.) IBM's software doesn't recognize a resized/ repositioned Start bar, so it gets stuck underneath. The same problem exists with the dialer software for AT&T Global Network, a system originally owned by IBM.

Perhaps the most valuable benefits of IBM ThinkPad support are a three-year warranty and quick repair by air-freight. Over the years, I've sent many ThinkPads back to IBM for repair, sometimes when brand new, but usually when about two years old. Fortunately, many ThinkPads (including the T Series) are covered for three years. For machines with a one-year warranty I recommend buying the optional three-year coverage. Otherwise, the cost of repairing a laptop can exceed its value.

For instance, the video on a ThinkPad A21m failed right after the one-year warranty expired. Repairing the problem compared unfavorably with buying a new laptop, so it's been a desktop machine for a year, always plugged into a monitor. And just today its hard drive failed several times. With a three-year warranty the A21m's display long-ago would have been fixed, and today IBM would be ship ping me a new hard drive. (But we wouldn't be totally happy; both our A21m machines turned out to be unreliable.)

The ThinkPad T30 has two features not available in my T20, one good, one debatable. I like the T30's internal Wi-Fi system because there's no clunky card protruding from the PCMCIA slot. The antenna is built into the ThinkPad's display frame and gives solid coverage. The shortcoming of a built-in component is upgrading. The internal Wi-Fi radio is an Intel High Rate Wireless LAN Mini-PCI Adapter with Modem II, an 802.11 b system. To move to faster 802.11g, I'll have to buy a replacement radio from IBM, if one becomes available, or disable the internal system, give up on the built-in antenna, and insert a PCMCIA card.

The debatable T30 feature is the optional touchpad. ThinkPads have always had the best pointing device, the IBM-invented TrackPoint. Resembling an eraser head just above the B key, the TrackPoint lets me move the "mouse" pointer with either index finger (handy in itself), and without removing my hands from the keyboard--a huge benefit. The TrackPoint is also precise; I do software programming, image editing and other demanding tasks with less frustration and wasted movements than when I use a clumsy mouse. In fact, I can't recommend any laptop that doesn't have a TrackPoint. Fortunately, IBM licenses other companies so you'll find a TrackPoint on business-oriented laptops from Dell, HP/Compaq, Sony, Toshiba, and others.

TrackPoint is so good that I wonder why IBM added a touchpad to the T30. I tried it for a few days but didn't discover a single "mouse" task I couldn't do better with the TrackPoint. I tried activating both at once, to use whichever seemed best for the moment, but I kept bumping the touchpad with "oops" results. Fortunately, I can reconfigure the T30's touchpad to do other tasks, and switch it on/off, via a handy Start bar icon. I suppose some people find a TrackPoint hard to use, but is a mouse or touchpad easier to master? I say, work with a TrackPoint for a couple of days and you'll never go back.

Another avoidable weakness is Microsoft Windows XP. One reason to standardize on a laptop brand and model family is the ability to swap parts around as needed. Many times I've moved hard drives between ThinkPads so users can keep working while machines are sent away for repair. I've also cloned drives when users get new machines or need larger or more reliable drives. These are common procedures in a business environment.

But, allegedly to avoid pirating of Windows XP, Microsoft locks each copy to the computer's physical configuration. Certain hardware changes can cause XP to deactivate itself, and only Microsoft can turn it back on. Imagine the fun of having a dead computer while trying to convince a Microsoft clerk that you aren't a crook (and knowing that true software pirates long-ago cracked the XP activation system). Fortunately, IBM offers many ThinkPads with customer-trusting Windows 2000 Professional.

All-in-all, the IBM ThinkPad T30 is a solid business laptop, I'm using it to write this article while on the road.

IBM ThinkPad T40

The T40 is a T20/T30 on a diet, reduced from 1.4 to just 1 inch thick, and about a pound lighter. The T40 builds on the T Series strengths, providing a wonderful keyboard, excellent 14-inch display, fast modem, internal 10/100 or even 1000 Mbps Ethernet, optional internal 802.11b or 802.11a/b radio, DVD/CD, or CD-RW optical drive, an optional touchpad, USB 2.0 ports, and more, in a slimmer, lighter chassis. Even the power adapter has shrunk.

One change is important if you have multiple ThinkPads. Instead of having the common ThinkPad Ultrabay to hold an optical drive, extra battery, or other accessory, the T40 introduces the thinner Ultrabay Slim, which can't use Ultrabay devices.

The T40 is also slimmer because of its battery position. Echoing a design you might know from Sony camcorders, the T40's battery slips into the computer's rear panel, allowing different sizes, therefore power capacities. The standard battery fits flush with the rear panel, but an optional longer-life battery protrudes from the rear by less than an inch. This battery makes a T40 a tad larger and heavier, but IBM claims it provides 7.5 hours of use. With the extended battery, toting a T40 feels about like a T30 or T20, but I do less moving of furniture in search of a power outlet.

One reason the T40 runs longer than prior models is the new battery-friendly Intel Pentium M processor. It is sometimes confusingly referred to as Centrino, which actually describes a machine that uses a particular Intel three-chip set that includes this processor. Don't confuse the new processor with the earlier Mobile Intel Pentium 4-M that's also commonly used in laptops. When comparing machines, take great care to determine the exact processor names and specs; don't just look for M or Mobile. And consider whether you really want a Centrino (see below).

I love the T40. I wouldn't dump an earlier T Series unless longer mobile power is essential and carrying a spare battery is unacceptable; but when I'm ready, a T40 is on my short list.

IBM ThinkPad X31

If your mobile lifestyle requires that you and your laptop never part (that's me!), check out the IBM ThinkPad X31. Smaller and lighter than a "regular" laptop, it lets you do computer-style work that's impossible on a PDA or smartphone. My new X31 packs a lot of power, with a slightly-shrunken but otherwise standard IBM ThinkPad keyboard with TrackPoint, 1024x768 resolution on a 12.1-inch screen, 40GB drive, 512MB of RAM, Pentium M processor, 10/100 Ethernet, internal 802.11b radio and antenna, USB 2.0 ports, IEEE1394 port, 4Mbps infrared port, Compact Flash card slot, PCMCIA slot, and audio/video ports and features. If you need to use a true PC anyplace, anytime, this might be the perfect portable.

I also have the optional but clumsy extended battery. When snapped onto the bottom of the X31 it makes the computer unstable on a flat surface. IBM kludged a fix by giving the battery a flip down stand that I find awkward to lock/unlock--not the right solution for a use-anywhere laptop. Why can't the battery itself have a wider, flat bottom so the stand isn't needed?

In the first two weeks with the X31 I've already experienced several crashes. Some occurred unobserved, but I twice watched Windows XP blow up while IBM Lotus Notes software was replicating data with a remote IBM Lotus Domino server. I use Lotus Notes on other ThinkPads with no trouble. So what's up?

Caveat emptor

Intel has acknowledged a problem using a virtual private network (VPN) with Centrino Wi-Fi, a common business situation. Lotus Notes and Domino communicate via a VPN-like "tunnel" across the Internet. I don't know if this is what Intel means by VPN, but I can't live without IBM Lotus Notes, so if anything gets eliminated it will be the Centrino-based IBM ThinkPad. Or maybe the cause was unused Boingo VPN software, which I removed just in case. But the real solution must come from Intel, who hasn't said if or when it will fix the VPN problem on existing Centrino machines.

I'm unhappy with how Centrino Wi-Fi, Windows XP, and IBM Access Connections software interact. For instance, the Wi-Fi software keeps saying the radio is off and won't find access points, even after I force a connection using manual steps. Live connections suddenly get dropped. Grrrrr ... For updates on what I discover, and how eXciting the X31 really is, monitor the online version of this article at http://advisor.com/doc/12591.

I'm trying to be fair, but rye had bad experiences with Intel Wi-Fi gear. We bought some Intel 2011 access points that failed, as did warranty replacements. Our Intel 2011 laptop cards don't work with other access points.

When I cranked up two Centrino-based IBM ThinkPads (T40 and X31), their Intel Centrino 2100 Wi-Fi radios could not "see" a nearby Intel 2011B access point, though they quickly connected to an old D-Link access point way down the hall. A painfully complex firmware upgrade got the 2011B to work.

In contrast, we also use other brands of Wi-Fi gear that work reliably and cost less. (One old D-Link access point is shakey, but others are OK.) In fact, my quick fix to get the new Centrino laptops online was to try using a Belkin Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router as a LAN access point; it worked right out of the box. I won't be rushing to buy another laptop that uses Intel Centrino Wi-Fi.

Balancing this are good Intel Wi-Fi experiences. My ThinkPad T30 has a non-Centrino Intel Wi-Fi radio that works fine with every brand of access point I've encountered. And the Intel 2011B and earlier 2011 access points, while user-unfriendly, provide better radio coverage than other units we've tried.

Another laptop caution is the display resolution. You can change a typical desktop CRT monitor to a wide range of useful resolutions. However, a laptop's LCD screen has exactly one fixed resolution, a locked in pixel structure. You might be able to set the video to different modes, but you won't like how it looks. With the 14.1-inch display on many IBM T Series, I find 1024x768 pixels to be just right. However, some ThinkPads have a 14.1-inch screen with 1400x1050. But putting 37 percent more pixels on the same size screen shrinks everything to 73 percent--too small for me.

To me, IBM makes odd assumptions about what business users need. I wanted a ThinkPad with the largest hard drive but it was offered only with the 1400x1050 display, as if storing more data somehow improves my eyesight. IBM tends to bundle its "max" specs as if they belong together--drive size, screen resolution, processor speed, memory, network speed, Wi-Fi speed, security--making it difficult to buy a ThinkPad optimized for business needs.

What are your laptop adventures, discoveries and questions? Drop me a note at HawkTrek@Advisor.com.
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Title Annotation:HawkTrek
Author:Hawkins, John L.
Publication:Mobile Business Advisor
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
Words:2265
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