Thursday, February 02, 2012

Thinkpad 420s review

In the last three years my primary machines have run OS X, Linux, Windows, OS X, and now Windows again, in that order. The observant reader may note, "That's a lot of machines in three years." It is, but I also changed jobs twice in that time frame, so that's part of it. Another part is that I'm a bit rough with laptops; the two mac machines broke badly enough that AppleCare told me they weren't going to help. The Dell and Lenovo machines, though, outlasted my use of them. For this most recent machine, I had several requirements and several nice-to-haves, some of which were in tension. Requirements:
  • Able to drive a 30" external monitor
  • At least 8GB of RAM
  • At least 1440x900 native resolution
Nice to have:
  • Smaller than my 15" macbook pro, which is too large to use comfortably in coach on an airplane
  • Larger screen than my wife's 13.3" mbp
  • A "real" cpu, not the underclocked ones in the Macbook Airs
  • A graphics card that can do justice to Starcraft II
I wasn't picky about my operating system. Linux is by far the best experience for software development, but support for multiple monitors is still dicey, which is bad when you're relying on it to give presentations on unfamiliar projectors. OS X is superficially unix-y but lack of package management means in practice it's not really any better than Windows. Windows is ... Windows, although I'm pretty fond of the new-in-Windows-7 window management keyboard shortcuts. But fundamentally I spend 99% of my time in an IDE, a web browser, hipchat, and IRC, all of which are cross-platform. MSYS gives me about as much of the unix experience on Windows, as I got on OS X. (And ninite gives me more of a package manager than I had on OS X--granted, that isn't saying much.)
I ended up buying a 14" Thinkpad 420s. I think the S stands for "slim," and it is. My 15" mbp looks and weighs like a ton of bricks next to it, even after I swapped out the Thinkpad's dvd drive for the supplementary battery module, which weighs a little more. The Thinkpad's legendary keyboard lives up to its reputation, and I'm a huge fan of the trackpoint living right there on the home row of the keyboard, for when keyboard shortcuts aren't easily available. The cooling is excellent without the fans ever getting loud.
For the most part, I'm extremely happy with the hardware. There are two exceptions:
  • The built-in microphone is terrible. Almost without exception, people have trouble hearing me over Skype. Adding insult to injury, there is no mic input. I thought at first the headphone jack was a phone-style out-plus-in jack, but no. I'll have to get a USB mic.
  • Optimus doesn't work in one important respect: in optimus mode it won't drive my 30" monitor at full resolution; it picks something weird like 2048x1560 instead. Lenovo said they were going to fix this but hasn't, yet. To drive this monitor correctly I have to lock it to discrete graphics in the bios. In discrete mode it gets about 2h 45m battery life even with the CPU downclocked and the display dim. So when I travel, I reboot to integrated graphics.
The main alternative I considered was the Sony Vaio Z. Ironically, I ended up going with the Thinkpad mostly because Vaio reviewers consistently called out how terrible its built-in speakers were... so I ended up with a system with a terrible mic instead.
On the software side, I'm more than happy with Windows, especially after the Steam holiday sale. I hadn't realized how many fantastic indie games are available these days. (Most recently, I highly recommend Bastion.)
The one fly in my soup is that I'd anticipated being able to run OS X in a VM for the sake of Keynote. Neither Google Docs presentations, Open/Libre Office Impress, or Powerpoint are adequate replacements. Unfortunately, the Core Image (?) APIs used by Keynote don't work under virtualization, so for now I'm still using my old mbp to create presentations, and taking them on the road with me as pdf.