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Russell Coker: Is a Thinkpad Still Like a Rolls-Royce

6 November, 2016 - 12:45

For a long time the Thinkpad has been widely regarded as the “Rolls-Royce of laptops”. Since 2003 one could argue that Rolls-Royce is no longer the Rolls-Royce of cars [1]. The way that IBM sold the Think business unit to Lenovo and the way that Lenovo is producing both Thinkpads and cheaper Ideapads is somewhat similar to the way the Rolls-Royce trademark and car company were separately sold to companies that are known for making cheaper cars.

Sam Varghese has written about his experience with Thinkpads and how he thinks it’s no longer the Rolls-Royce of laptops [2]. Sam makes some reasonable points to support this claim (one of which only applies to touchpad users – not people like me who prefer the Trackpoint), but I think that the real issue is whether it’s desirable to have a laptop that could be compared to a Rolls-Royce nowadays.


The Rolls-Royce car company is known for great reliability and support as well as features that other cars lack (mostly luxury features). The Thinkpad marque (both before and after it was sold to Lenovo) was also known for great support. You could take a Thinkpad to any service center anywhere in the world and if the serial number indicated that it was within the warranty period it would be repaired without any need for paperwork. The Thinkpad service centers never had any issue with repairing a Thinkpad that lacked a hard drive just as long as the problem could be demonstrated. It was also possible to purchase an extended support contract at any time which covered all repairs including motherboard replacement. I know that not everyone had as good an experience as I had with Thinkpad support, but I’ve been using them since 1998 without problems – which is more than I can say for most hardware.

Do we really need great reliability from laptops nowadays? When I first got a laptop hardly anyone I knew owned one. Nowadays laptops are common. Having a copy of important documents on a USB stick is often a good substitute for a reliable laptop, when you are in an environment where most people own laptops it’s usually not difficult to find someone who will let you use theirs for a while. I think that there is a place for a laptop with RAID-1 and ECC RAM, it’s a little known fact that Thinkpads have a long history of supporting the replacement of a CD/DVD drive with a second hard drive (I don’t know if this is still supported) but AFAIK they have never supported ECC RAM.

My first Thinkpad cost $3,800. In modern money that would be something like $7,000 or more. For that price you really want something that’s well supported to protect the valuable asset. Sam complains about his new Thinkpad costing more than $1000 and needing to be replaced after 2.5 years. Mobile phones start at about $600 for the more desirable models (IE anything that runs Pokemon Go) and the new Google Pixel phones range from $1079 to $1,419. Phones aren’t really expected to be used for more than 2.5 years. Phones are usually impractical to service in any way so for most of the people who read my blog (who tend to buy the more expensive hardware) they are pretty much a disposable item costing $600+. I previously wrote about a failed Nexus 5 and the financial calculations for self-insuring an expensive phone [3]. I think there’s no way that a company can provide extended support/warranty while making a profit and offering a deal that’s good value to customers who can afford to self-insure. The same applies for the $499 Lenovo Ideapad 310 and other cheaper Lenovo products. Thinkpads (the higher end of the Lenovo laptop range) are slightly more expensive than the most expensive phones but they also offer more potential for the user to service them.


My first Thinkpad was quite underpowered when compared to desktop PCs, it had 32M of RAM and could only be expanded to 96M at a time when desktop PCs could be expanded to 128M easily and 256M with some expense. It had a 800*600 display when my desktop display was 1280*1024 (37% of the pixels). Nowadays laptops usually start at about 8G of RAM (with a small minority that have 4G) and laptop displays start at about 1366*768 resolution (51% of the pixels in a FullHD display). That compares well to desktop systems and also is capable of running most things well. My current Thinkpad is a T420 with 8G of RAM and a 1600*900 display (69% of FullHD), it would be nice to have higher resolution but this works well and it was going cheap when I needed a new laptop.

Modern Thinkpads don’t have some of the significant features that older ones had. The legendary Butterfly Keyboard is long gone, killed by the wide displays that economies of scale and 16:9 movies have forced upon us. It’s been a long time since Thinkpads had some of the highest resolution displays and since anyone really cared about it (you only need pixels to be small enough that you can’t see them).

For me one of the noteworthy features of the Thinkpads has been the great keyboard. Mechanical keys that feel like a desktop keyboard. It seems that most Thinkpads are getting the rubbery keyboard design made popular by Apple. I guess this is due to engineering factors in designing thin laptops and the fact that most users don’t care.

Matthew Garrett has blogged about the issue of Thinkpad storage configured as “RAID mode” without any option to disable it [4]. This is an annoyance (which incidentally has been worked around) and there are probably other annoyances like it. Designing hardware and an OS are both complex tasks. The interaction between Windows and the hardware is difficult to get right from both sides and the people who design the hardware often don’t think much about Linux support. It has always been this way, the early Thinkpads had no Linux support for special IBM features (like fan control) and support for ISA-PnP was patchy. It is disappointing that Lenovo doesn’t put a little extra effort into making sure that Linux works well on their hardware and this might be a reason for considering another brand.

Service Life

I bought my curent Thinkpad T420 in October 2013 [5] It’s more than 3 years old and has no problems even though I bought it refurbished with a reduced warranty. This is probably the longest I’ve had a Thinkpad working well, which seems to be a data point against the case that modern Thinkpads aren’t as good.

I bought a T61 in February 2010 [6], it started working again (after mysteriously not working for a month in late 2013) and apart from the battery lasting 5 minutes and a CPU cooling problem it still works well. If that Thinkpad had cost $3,800 then I would have got it repaired, but as it cost $796 (plus the cost of a RAM upgrade) and a better one was available for $300 it wasn’t worth repairing.

In the period 1998 to 2010 I bought a 385XD, a 600E, a T21, a T43, and a T61 [6]. During that time I upgraded laptops 4 times in 12 years (I don’t have good records of when I bought each one). So my average Thinkpad has lasted 3 years. The first 2 were replaced to get better performance, the 3rd was replaced when an employer assigned me a Thinkpad (and sold it to be when I left), and 4 and 5 were replaced due to hardware problems that could not be fixed economically given the low cost of replacement.


Thinkpads possibly don’t have the benefits over other brands that they used to have. But in terms of providing value for the users it seems that they are much better than they used to be. Until I wrote this post I didn’t realise that I’ve broken a personal record for owning a laptop. It just keeps working and I hadn’t even bothered looking into the issue. For some devices I track how long I’ve owned them while thinking “can I justify replacing it yet”, but the T420 just does everything I want. The battery still lasts 2+ hours which is a new record too, with every other Thinkpad I’ve owned the battery life has dropped to well under an hour within a year of purchase.

If I replaced this Thinkpad T420 now it will have cost me less than $100 per year (or $140 per year including the new SSD I installed this year), that’s about 3 times better than any previous laptop! I wouldn’t feel bad about replacing it as I’ve definitely got great value for money from it. But I won’t replace it as it’s doing everything I want.

I’ve just realised that by every measure (price, reliability, and ability to run all software I want to run) I’ve got the best Thinkpad I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s not like a Rolls-Royce, but I’d much rather drive a 2016 Tesla than a 1980 Rolls-Royce anyway.

Related posts:

  1. Thinkpad T420 I’ve owned a Thinkpad T61 since February 2010 [1]. In...
  2. PC prices drop again! A few weeks ago Dell advertised new laptops for $849AU,...
  3. I Just Bought a new Thinkpad and the Lenovo Web Site Sucks I’ve just bought a Thinkpad T61 at auction for $AU796....

Russ Allbery: podlators 4.09

6 November, 2016 - 04:28

This package contains the Pod::Man and Pod::Text formatters for Perl.

This is a bug-fix release that fixes a long-standing problem with Pod::Text on EBCDIC systems. The code to handle non-breaking spaces and soft hyphens hard-coded the ASCII code points and deleted the open bracket character on EBCDIC systems.

The fix here adopts the same fix that was done in Pod::Simple (but with backward compatibility to older versions of Pod::Simple).

I also made a bit more progress on modernizing the test suite. All of the Pod::Man tests now use a modern coding style, and most of them have been moved to separate snippets, which makes it easier to look at the intended input and output and to create new tests.

You can get the latest version from the podlators distribution page.

Steinar H. Gunderson: Multithreaded OpenGL

6 November, 2016 - 03:11

Multithreading continues to be hard (although the alternatives are not really a lot better). While debugging a user issue in Nageru, I found and fixed a few races (mostly harmless in practice, though) in my own code, but also two issues that I filed patches for in Mesa. But that's not enough, it seems; there are still issues that are too subtle for me to figure out on-the-fly. But at least with those patches, I can use interlaced video sources in Nageru on Intel GPUs without segfaulting pretty much immediately. My laptop's GPU isn't fast enough to actually run the YADIF interlacer realtime in 1080p60, though, but it's nice at least not take the program down. (These things are super-sensitive to timing, of course, which is probably why I didn't see them when developing the feature a year or so ago.)

As usual, NVIDIA's proprietary drivers seem to be near-flawless in this regard. I'm starting to think maybe it's about massive amounts of QA resources.

Russ Allbery: Review: The Just City

6 November, 2016 - 01:32

Review: The Just City, by Jo Walton

Series: Thessaly #1 Publisher: Tor Copyright: 2014 Printing: January 2015 ISBN: 0-7653-3266-3 Format: Hardcover Pages: 368

The premise for The Just City is easy to state: The time-traveling goddess Athene (Athena) decides to organize and aid an attempt to create the society described in Plato's Republic. She chooses Thera (modern Santorini) before the eruption, as a safe place where this experiment wouldn't alter history. The elders of the city are seeded by people throughout history who at some point prayed to Athene, wanting to live in the Republic. The children of the age of ten that Plato suggested starting with are purchased as slaves from various points in history and transported by Athene to the island.

Apollo, shaken and confused by Daphne wanting to turn into a tree rather than sleep with him, finds out about this experiment as Athene tries to explain the concept of consent to him. He decides that becoming human for a while might help him learn about volition and equal significance, and that this is the perfect location. He's one of the three viewpoint characters. The others are two women: one (Maia) from Victorian times who prayed to Athene in a moment of longing for the tentative sexual equality of the Republic and was recruited as one of the elders, and another (Simmea) who is bought as a slave and becomes one of the children.

I should admit up-front that I've never read Plato's Republic, or indeed much of Plato at all, just small bits for classes. The elders (and of course the gods) all have, and are attempting to stick quite closely to Plato's outline of the ideal city. The children haven't, though, so the book is quite readable for people like me who only remember a few vague aspects of Plato's vision from school. The reader learns the principles alongside Simmea.

One of Walton's strengths is taking a science fiction concept, putting real people into it, and letting the quotidian mingle with the fantastic. Simmea is my favorite character here: her journey to the city is deeply traumatic, but the opportunity she gets there is incredible and unforeseen, and she comes to love the city while still understanding, and arguing about, its possible flaws. Maia is nearly as successful; Walton does a good job with committee debates and discussions, avoids coming down too heavily on the drama, and shows a believable picture of people with very different backgrounds and beliefs coming together to flesh out the outlines of something they all agree with, or at least want to try.

I found Apollo less engaging as a character, partly because I never quite understood his motives or his weird failure to understand the principles of consent. Walton doesn't portray him as either hopelessly arrogant or hopelessly narcissistic, which would have been easy outs, but in avoiding those two obvious explanations for his failures of empathy, I felt like she left him with an odd and unexplained hole in his personality. He's a weirdly passive half-character for much of the book, although he does develop a bit more towards the end (which was probably the point).

Half the fun of this book is working out what the Republic would be like in practice, and what breakdowns and compromises would happen as soon as you put real people in it. Athene obviously has to do a bit of cheating to make a utopia invented as an intellectual exercise work out in practice, plus a bit more for comfort (electricity and indoor plumbing, for instance). The most substantial cheat is robots to replace slaves and do quite a bit that slaves couldn't. Birth control (something Plato obviously never would have thought of) is another notable cheat; it's postulated to be an ancient method since lost, but even if that existed, there's no way it would be this reliable. But otherwise, the society mostly works, and Walton shows enough of the arguing and mechanics to make that believable, while still avoiding infodumps and boring descriptions. It's neatly done, although I'm still a bit dubious that the elders from later eras would have put up with the primitive conditions with this little complaint.

The novel needs a plot, of course, and that's the other half of the fun. I can't talk about this in any detail without spoiling the book, since the plot only kicks in about halfway through once the setup and character introductions are complete. That makes it hard to explain why I found this a bit less successful, although parts of it are brilliant.

What worked for me is the growth of Simmea and her friends as students and philosophers, the arguments and discussions (and their growing enthusiasm for argument and discussion), and the way Greek mythology is woven subtly and undramatically into the story. It really does feel like sitting in on ancient Greek philosophical arguments and experiments, and by that measure Walton has succeeded admirably in her goal.

What didn't work for me was the driving conflict of the story, once it's introduced. I can't describe it without spoilers, but it's an old trope in science fiction and one with little scientific basis. It may seem weird to argue that point in a book with time-traveling Greek gods, a literal Lethe, and a Greek idea of souls, but those are mythological background material. The SF trope is something about which I have personal expertise and which simply doesn't work that way, and I had a harder time getting past that than alternate metaphysical properties. It threw me out of the book a bit. I see why Walton chose the conflict she did, but I felt like she could have gotten to the same place in the plot, admittedly with more difficulty, by using some of the more dubious aspects of Plato's long-term plan plus some other obstacles that were already built into the world. This more direct approach added a bit of SF-style analysis of the unknown that seemed weirdly at odds with the rest of the story (even if the delight of one of the characters is endearing).

That complaint aside, I really enjoyed reading this book. Apollo didn't entirely work for me, but all of the other characters are excellent, and Walton keeps the story moving at a comfortable clip. Given the amount of description required, particularly for an audience that may not have read the Republic, a lesser writer could have easily slipped into the infodump trap. Walton never does.

Fair warning, though: The Just City does end on a cliffhanger, and is in no way a standalone novel. You will probably want to have the sequel on hand.

Followed by The Philosopher Kings.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Russ Allbery: Fall haul post

6 November, 2016 - 01:20

It's been a while since I've done one of these.

danah boyd — It's Complicated (non-fiction)
Jeffrey A. Carver — Eternity's End (sff)
Becky Chambers — A Closed and Common Orbit (sff)
Stephen Deas — The Adamantine Palace (sff)
Robert Heinlein — The Green Hills of Earth / The Menace from Earth (sff)
Robert Heinlein — Revolt in 2100 / Methuselah's Children (sff)
Marjorie M. Liu — The Iron Hunt (sff)
Larry Niven — The Ringworld Engineers (sff)
Don Norman — The Design of Everyday Things (non-fiction)
Kurt Vonnegut — Slaughterhouse-Five (sff)
Jo Walton — Necessity (sff)
Eileen Wilks — Tempting Danger (sff)

I picked up some extra used books since I was placing a book order to pick up Necessity anyway, and fleshed out my early Heinlein novels mostly out of curiousity. I've already reviewed The Design of Everyday Things, which I got from the work book club.


5 November, 2016 - 20:47

Two Everett citizens were killed and a score wounded, several seriously, this afternoon when the steamer Verona drew up to the City dock and attempted to land its crowd of almost 200 I. W. W. Sheriff McRae tried to parley with them. A shot was fired from the boat at the sheriff and a general battle followed. The Verona backed away from the wharf and returned to Seattle. On arrival there the I.W.W. crowd was arrested, five were found to be dead and about 30 wounded.


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