The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

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Windows

Really Digging the Lenovo X300

Posted by Deliverator on 14th December 2009

I was at a Cameras West in Bellevue searching in vain for the cable accessory kit for a Canon D10 when I spotted a real steal of a deal sitting unnoticed on a high shelf behind the counter hiding amongst a crop of netbooks, a new in box Lenovo Thinkpad X300 for a mere $800. This laptop was selling for ~$3000 a year and a half ago. While this notebook has been replaced in the lineup by the moderately updated X301, the X300 is still one of the best constructed, no compromise ultra-portables around. The specs of my unit are as follows:

-Core 2 Duo L7100 at 1.2 GHZ
-2 GB DDR2-667
-60 GB 1.8″ Samsung SSD
-1440×900 13.3″ display
-DVD Burner
-Wifi, Bluetooth
-3x USB ports, VGA, Gig Ethernet
-3 cell battery

My unit came with XP Pro installed, which I promptly ditched for Windows 7 64bit. Lenovo has official drivers for Windows 7 on the X300 and their complete gamut of system utilities available for download from their website, but most of the hardware is supported out of the box or via a quick Windows Update, so most of the Lenovo downloads are unnecessary. I also upgraded the ram to 4 GB, which only required the addition of a single SO-DIMM. The two ram slots are behind a thoughtfully provided access door which makes upgrading a breeze. The two ram slots make it possible to upgrade to as much as 8 GB, although 4 GB modules are currently hideously expensive. Two of them will cost you about $370!

What I likes:
-Heavy duty Thinkpad “brick” construction, yet only 3 pounds. This includes things such as rigid internal metal frame, keyboard spill tray/drain holes, metal block hinges, latching screen, etc. This thing just oozes quality construction that few other laptop makers even come close to matching.
-The typically brilliant full sized Thinkpad keyboard we have all come to know and love.
-This thing has both a track stick and a trackpad. Some of Lenovo’s newer, cheaper ultraportables only have the trackstick.
-The Thinklight on the X300 does a much better job of illuminating the keyboard than the one found on my Thinkpad Z61m.
-Did I mention this thing is only three pounds?!?!
-The USB ports are separated from each other by enough space to plug in bulky adapters without blocking anything, something overlooked in a lot of laptop designs.
-The fingerprint reader does a much better and quicker job of reading my fingerprints and logging me in than the one on my Z61m
-The system feels very snappy in all the tasks I have thrown at it. I’ve read a few reviews that have balked at the mere 1.2 GHZ, but this 1.2 GHZ Core 2 feels a lot snappier than the 1.8 GHZ Core Duo in my Z61m. For the type of tasks I do on the run, the processing power in this machine more than satisfies me. I have my Core i7 desktop at home for games, etc…
-The SSD in this machine provides faster transfer rates and lower seek times than any conventional laptop HDD I’ve used. I will probably replace it with a Lenovo X18-m or similar TRIM supporting SSD once they get cheaper, which will make this system even snappier.
-From the ever so slightly rubberized feel of the casing to the silky feel of the keys, this machine just begs to be touched. Thinkpad’s black on black color scheme might get lost in all the flashy neon and metal trim you see on other laptops these days, but for me it is understate, classic minimalism at its best. This is one sexy beast imo.
-The relatively full complement of ports and optical drive mean this is one ultra-light you can actually do meaningful work on.
-The screen is pretty much the perfect resolution for the size and has a beautiful LED backlight. Way brighter and nicer looking the my Z61m.
-I can use it in my laptop and there are barely any warm, much less hot spots.
-The keyboard is absolutely rigid. I can type on it at speed with no slop whatsoever.

Not so much:
-The X300 doesn’t have the now standard x-in-1 media reader, which is disappointing as I intend to use this for culling photos on trips. It also doesn’t have an ExpressCard slot, so I can’t add a card reader or much of anything else by anything other than USB. I’m considering switching to micro-SDHC in my cameras and carrying one of those so-tiny-they-are-barely-there readers on my keychain, so that I don’t have one more easily lost adapter/cable/widget in my daily carry bag.
-The 3 cell battery that the unit came with only gives 2-3 hours of useful work. I will definitely be picking up the 6 cell battery and possibly the 3 cell bay battery which can be easily swapped with the DVD drive to give me a closer to a full workday’s use without needing to plug in. This is really a necessity for me as I am often times bouncing around town seeing clients with little to no opportunity to plug in for any length of time, save for the possibility of recharging in my car.

I really love the X300 and hope I get as many years of active use from it as from my Z61M, which is still chugging along in Thinkpad style despite all my abuse.

Addendum:

I have since picked up the 6 cell extended length battery and 3 cell “bay” battery which replaces the optical drive. In doing so, I encountered the first of what I consider real faults in the X300 design.

Swapping the optical drive for the bay battery is fairly easy, but not convenient in the field. Unlike the “Ultrabay” system found on most Thinkpads, swapping in/out the optical drive/battery requires the removal of a screw. The optical drive is itself quite fragile and really needs a hard shell case of its own if you plan on carrying it with you in a bag. I feel like a hard plastic carrying case to hold the battery/optical drive and tiny screwdriver should have been included in the price of the battery.

Additionally, the X300 drains power from the bay battery first instead of from the main battery. In my opinion, the bay battery should have been the “reserve” battery, as it is not hot swappable. If the drain order had been reverse, one could drain the main battery and still be able to swap in a charged one without needing to stop working, shut down the computer, swap the battery and reboot. If you are a long haul air traveler, you get the importance of this feature.

Posted in Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff, Windows | No Comments »

Core i7 Upgrade

Posted by Deliverator on 27th March 2009

I finally decided to bite the bullet and do a significant upgrade on my main computer. It has been over two years since the system’s last processing power upgrade. At that time, I did a drop in upgrade of the processor from a AMD X2 3800+ to a dual core Opteron clocked at 2.6 ghz and upgraded the video card to a Nvidia 8800GTX with 768 MB. The Opteron wasn’t performance competitive with the Intel Core 2 processors available even then, but I was looking to avoid a motherboard swap and OS reinstall at all costs. These days, Intel’s Core i7 processors have the performance market neatly wrapped up and AMD is only nominally competitive on a price/performance bases with Intel’s lower end quad offerings. I usually buy a few offerings back from the bleeding edge to spare my wallet, but felt the need for a little more future proofing this time around.

The last time around I purchased a motherboard, AMD’s socket 939 was a mature platform and socket AM2 boards were just coming onto the market. If I had went with an AM2 board, it is possible I could have upgraded with yet another drop in processor upgrade without having to swap boards. To me, both AM2 and Intel’s LGA 775 sockets are on their last legs and I just wasn’t interested in upgrading to something with no future this time around.

Currently, the cost of putting together a Core i7 isn’t really in the processor. The lower end 920 processor is only around $300. The cost really comes from the lack of availability of cheap motherboard and ram options. DDR 3 ram currently commands a price premium over DDR 2 ram and motherboards tend to be of the “Deluxe” variety.

Anyways, I picked up a Core i7 920 retail boxed processor, an MSI X58 motherboard and 6 GB of Kingston DDR 3 ram and went to work nuking my system. This time around I went with Vista 64 to support the additional ram. 32 bit operating systems unfortunately limit one to a little over 3 GB of addressable memory, so that wasn’t really an option in this case. I may actually upgrade to 12 GB when the price on DDR 3 drops a bit. The motherboard has 6 available slots and I’ve only used 3 of them.

Performance increases from the upgrade have been quite remarkable, especially in 64 bit enabled applications. Working with large images in Lightroom is now a fluid joy and I am able to sprint through work flows that previously took me 2-3 times as long. Since the upgrade, I’ve noticed that a lot of tasks which were previously processor or ram limited are now hardly straining the proc, but are instead constrained by disk IO. My guess is an upgrade to a SSD is next on my list.

I’ve seen mind blowing performance increases in video encoding, file compression / archiving and not least of all in my priorities, games. Upgrading to a Core i7 over cheaper available options in today’s economy is a tough decision, but I am very happy with the results and hope to remain so over a longer time horizon.

Posted in General, Operating Systems, Tech Stuff, Windows | No Comments »

PING! You Are Dead!

Posted by Deliverator on 18th January 2008

This last patch Tuesday, Microsoft released a patch for what many are calling the worst security vulnerability ever in the (dubious) history of Windows. Microsoft has released information on the vulnerability in the form of Microsoft Security Bulletin MS08-001. Happy New Year to us all! What a way in ring in 2008! In short, the vulnerability is in Microsoft’s TCP/IP stack and relates to the handling of IGMP packets. TCP/IP is the basic networking protocol for the internet and most corporate and home networks. All recent, commonly used versions of Windows including XP and Vista are affected by this vulnerability such that simply receiving a specially crafted packet could lead to a system being compromised and taken over for assorted nefarious purposes. Windows 2000 is affected as well, but only to the extent that such a packet causes the TCP/IP stack to crash and the system would need to be rebooted before it is able to communicate with the network again. While Microsoft has shipped Windows with a software firewall turned on by default since XP SP2, because this attack is against TCP/IP itself and not simply some service hiding behind the firewall, the Windows firewall provides no protection whatsoever. Hiding behind a hardware firewall/NAT router will protect you, but only from packets inbound from the internet, not from already compromised computers behind the firewall. Using an unpatched machine on a public network such as a coffee shop, library, etc. would be an extremely bad idea, not that it has been a great idea for a long time. And that is part of the point, a vulnerability like this doesn’t just magically go away after a patch is released. This is one shit storm that isn’t going to blow over for a LONG LONG time.

Posted in Operating Systems, Rants and Raves, Security, Tech Stuff, Windows | No Comments »

I LOATHE Bluetooth Dongles!

Posted by Deliverator on 13th March 2007

My relationship with Bluetooth technologies over the years has been a rather stormy one. Despite having been in development for many years now and having gone through several fairly major revisions, Bluetooth as a standard still suffers from performance, security and compatibility concerns. One of my biggest pet peaves though is the “dreaded dongle.”

Although I haven’t written about it here, it is probably no secret to anyone who knows me that I recently purchased a Lenovo Thinkpad. To be precise, I purchased a model Z61m sub-model 9450a36. For whatever reason, perhaps Windows Vista support, Lenovo chose to not ship this z61m with integrated bluetooth, which is odd to me, given that every other z61m seems to list it as standard hardware. Most of my geek friends gave me the advice of “just use a dongle,” which I absolutely refuse to do for a variety of reasons.

Chief among these reasons is that dongles jut out from the side of the notebook, which makes it an easy target for an accident waiting to happen. A $10 bluetooth dongle impacting or entangling with something can kill not just the dongle, but also the laptop which costs 100 or more times as much, or can damage the USB port. I do enough laptop repair in my line of work to know that this is one of the more common physical maladies to befall laptops. Another issue with dongles is that they are small and easily lost, or require you to dig through your bag to find them every time you want to use it. About the only dongle I would consider using is the diminutive Mogo Dapter, which barely extends past the USB port and has a rounded profile to minimize the chance of entanglement. This is basically a dongle that is designed to be left in all the time. Unfortunately, like so many wonderful James Bond inspired gadgets, this one is vapor, at least until the stated release date in June. Like with so many gadgets, I will believe it when I can buy it.

I spent some time researching internal options. It looks like I should be able to buy the internal module used by the other z61m models, but I am unsure of its compatibility and the install procedure is rather involved. For whatever reason, Lenovo places the bluetooth/modem daughtercard inside the screen assembly (perhaps to provide better rf propogation). Lenovo thankfully publishes a rather exhaustive service guide, so I am confident I could do the 11 major step procedure, but I wish there were a simpler solution. The z61m features two internal mini-pci express slots (yet, express, not just mini-pci). Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of hardware available for these slots just yet, and even if there were, Lenovo seems to have followed in IBM’s footsteps when they purchased IBM’s PC business, in that they lock down what devices you can install in internal slots to ones on an approved whitelist of device-ids. The solutions to the whitelist problem (short of saying screw you Lenovo and buying another brand of notebook) are not too appetizing. One can set a certain bit in the CMOS using a program called no-1802.com (named after the error message that inserting a non-whitelisted card produces), hex edit the bios and reflash, while keeping ones fingers crossed, or burn a new eprom for the device that you wish to insert, with a spoofed device-id (one which is on the nanny list). These prospects were a little too unappetizing, so I continued to look for solutions.

My nifty new z61m includes a nifty new ExpressCard 54 slot. ExpressCard is the new standard which is designed to replace Cardbus/PCMCIA as the solution for end user hardware expansion on notebooks. There are video cards, advanced docking port replicators, USB cards, Firewire cards, Sata cards, network adapters, WiFi adapters, sound cards, tv tuners, flash card readers and a host of other oddball devices available for expresscard already, but not a single Bluetooth adapter. Not only that, but the ExpressCard consortium could not provide me with any evidence that one is evening being developed. An ExpressCard Bluetooth adapter seems like a no brainer for me, given that ExpressCard actually offers a direct connection to the USB 2.0 bus. One should be able to scrape the circuitry from a Bluetooth dongle and slap it into an ExpressCard and call it good. Come on you creative Taiwanese manufacturers of Gizmos!

I may have found a solution to Dongle Hell in the form of a PCMCIA Bluetooth 2.0 adapter from Zoom, who a long time ago used to be Hayes, one of the better modem manufacturers back in the day. The antenna barely extends beyond the card slot, so this one shouldn’t present much if any clipping or entanglement hazard. The only PCMCIA compatible card with a lower profile, of which I am aware, is from Socket, which is actually a type II CF card which does not extend beyond the boundary of a type II CF memory card. It was designed for insertion in internal PDA slots which do not allow for extruding things like antennas. I have used one of the socket cards for a few years on my Jornada 720 and Netbook Pro. Unfortunately, Socket actually charges you extra if you want drivers for Windows. Their driver support only extends to Win XP and is by all reports rather buggy. the Zoom PCMCIA adapter, otoh is the first PCMCIA adapter, of which I am aware, to have published Vista drivers. I am unsure of whose bluetooth stack they are using, but they do list support for a wide variety of advanced Bluetooth profiles. While a lot of USB Bluetooth dongles are plug and pray supported under Vista, almost all of them are just supported by the rather minimal Microsoft stack, which is yet another strike against dongles. Anyways, I ordered one up on eBay and it should arrive in another day or two. I’ll give you a heads up if this product is a workable solution for Dongle Hell.

UPDATE The Zoom PCMCIA adapter arrived and works well in Vista. I downloaded the most recent drivers from their website, installed them, popped the card in and five minutes later was using my cell phone’s edge connection. The bluetooth stack is from Toshiba and thus far I much prefer it to the Widcomm or Bluesoleil stacks which I have used in the past. My only complaint against it is that the antenna nub which extends slightly beyond the card slot is made of purple semi-transparent plastic, which imo clashes a little with my Thinkpad’s blacker-than-though aesthetic.

Posted in Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff, Windows, Wireless | 7 Comments »