The IBM X41 as a Lightweight Linux Laptop

Go on, go around these gadget sites and read all that talk about netbooks and what not. Acer Aspire One this, MSI that, Dell Mini 9 this, Asus that. It feels like the second coming of laptops in this netbook revolution. But truth is, even back in 1999 you could find super-lightweight laptops in the market (for the right price). This 2005-released IBM Thinkpad X41 laptop that sent us, a well-known shop for computer parts, is one of the best Linux-compatible laptops you can buy today for cheap.

The X41 is small and light, weighing around 2.7 lbs with the 4-cell battery it came with. It uses a 1.50 GHz Pentium M processor with the Intel 915GM chipset. Other specs include: Intel PRO wifi chipset (fully supported by Linux out of the box), Intel graphics card, a 12.1″ XGA TFT screen, 512 MB RAM (Geeks sent us a 1 GB RAM upgrade too, reaching the overall RAM of 1.5 GB), fingerprint reader, a 1.8″ 60GB drive at 4200RPM. It features a modem port, an ethernet port, headphone/line-out, external microphone, infrared, expansion bus for IBM laptops, VGA-out, 1 PCMCIA slot, 1 SD slot, two generic USB 2.0 ports, and 1 IBM “USB” port (not compatible with most gadgets).

The funny thing is, the page did not mention it, but the laptop actually had Bluetooth in it! I didn’t know that either, until my husband unscrewed the back panel to install the new RAM stick and he noticed the modem/bluetooth card in there. He said “there’s also Bluetooth there”, and I must say, I didn’t believe him at first as “lspci -v” didn’t find any Bluetooth hardware earlier when I ran the command, and the Bluetooth/modem card was originally optional. After playing around to change the wireless state (Fn+F5), lo and behold, Bluetooth was there, and was fully supported by Ubuntu! I have a bit of a fetish when it comes to Bluetooth (I own almost a dozen of wireless stereo A2DP/AVRCP Bluetooth headsets), so this was a big surprise for me.

The laptop feels great in the lap. Not hot, and very lightweight. I have gone through a number of 8″ to 10″ screen netbooks and I must say that while they are even more lightweight, they are very difficult to type on, and the ones that come with an SSD drive instead of an HDD one, they are very slow (my SSD Acer Aspire One is very slow with Ubuntu for example). But this IBM laptop feels so much better when trying to type, has some good vertical resolution (and not useless resolutions like 800×480 or 1024×600 where many app windows don’t fit vertically), and it’s fast, fast, fast!

Truth is, even if I have a bunch of new netbooks, I am still using as my primary laptop at home my 6 year old 12″ Powerbook G4 867 Mhz, and I felt that what I needed a similarly-sized laptop rather than a netbook to replace it. This IBM X41 is it, and at a price lower than $250, and 1.8 lbs lighter. The CPU speed is miles ahead of that of my Powerbook’s (playing back Flash videos online at a good speed is impossible with my Powerbook), and also faster than my netbooks’ Celeron or Atom CPUs. I have estimated that the CPU speed is close to a 2.6 Ghz or 2.8 Ghz of a desktop Pentium 4 architecture, which is more than enough to browse the internet, write a document, email, and play some (simpler) games.

The unit I received is refurbished, and there was one problem with it: the battery’s data line. The battery works fine, it goes through its full 2 hours of battery life, but if you start shaking the laptop a bit, it starts beeping. The laptop *thinks* that the battery is getting removed and re-inserted, while it’s not. The power does not go off during these beeps, it’s just some harmless bad information about the state of the battery’s connection being transmitted. I don’t know if the data line is bad on the battery side or the laptop itself, but for my almost-stationary usage of it in front of the TV it doesn’t really matter much. It can be a problem though if people walk from room to room all the time with the laptop fully ON as it can be annoying to hear these beeps every so often. And of course, this only happens on the unit I received, it doesn’t mean that yours will have the same problem.

The laptop came pre-installed with Ubuntu 8.04 (1.5 GB swap file was setup as a file instead of a partition), and all hardware parts worked perfectly except the 56k modem (requires third party proprietary driver), and the fingerprint reader (also works, but requires some user intervention to set it up). I must say that Ubuntu is flying on this laptop and I am very happy with its performance and stability. Especially when it comes to the Bluetooth and Wifi stability — I had no bad surprises. At home we even paired the X41’s Bluetooth with my husband’s three Android phones (he’s working for Google’s Android, hence the quantity), and my own iPhone successfully, among other devices.

If netbooks are too small for your fatty fingers (hey, I am not judging, my fingers are fat too!), and you just need a “hybrid” between a full-on heavy laptop and a lightweight netbook, this model comes at a great price and offers great compatibility with Linux. The fact that it’s a 4 years old model has no impact at all in the abilities it offers, as at least myself, I find it still very modern in terms of speed and hardware features. My good friend Vince was raving about that laptop when he bought one a few years ago, but unfortunately he was twitting at deaf ears at the time. I’ve now learn my lesson…

Can’t wait for Ubuntu 9.04 to be released next month and upgrade!

Rating: 9/10


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