Well, it took a little while, but as of yesterday I am fully back on the Linux on the Desktop bandwagon. I’m not sitting with the cool kids in the Ubuntu section of said bus, residing up front with the slightly geekier Gentoo crowd (though I came within minutes of defection – more on that in a bit), but it feels good to be back on the platform of my choice. The best news is that while I’ve been on Linux for a couple of years now, I’ve never had a platform quite like this one. The x60s is, without question, the finest piece of laptop hardware I’ve ever owned. It’s just ridiculous. That’s not a particularly revealing statement because it’s also the most recent piece of laptop hardware I’ve owned, but even acknowledging its recent vintage it’s a fine piece of machinery. Let’s explore why that is, along with some of the trials and tribulations of getting over to desktop Linux, in yet another Q&A.
Q: Ok, for the sake of disclosure, where did you get the laptop?
A: As mentioned previously, the laptop has been donated to me by Lenovo for testing purposes. Their only request has been that I blog the effort, which I’m doing here. They’ll get a little bit more for their efforts, as I’ll be taking some of my notes and building a Gentoo installation page over at Thinkwiki.org, but I’m free to write whatever I choose about the machine (and it’s not all good – just mostly).
Q: How was the packaging? What’s the out of the box experience like on the machine?
A: Well, it’s both good and bad. The bad is simple: Lenovo, like most manufacturers this side of Apple, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the actual packaging that the machine is delivered in. While Apple’s laptops are delivered in sleek boxes that are subtley and artfully shaded, as you can see from the pictures the x60s comes in a typically uninspiring brown box.
Once you get the machine up and running, however, the experience is quite good – and there are some interesting choices for you.
Q: Choices such as…?
A: Whether or not to activate the Google Desktop. Lenovo is shipping these machines with the Google Desktop and Google Toolbar preinstalled and ready for activation, which I thought was interesting. Also, you can choose to activate a Verizon EV-DO subscription, as this particular piece of hardware comes with a Sierra Wireless EV-DO card embedded. Things like that.
Q: What makes it such a fine machine, in your view?
A: This is my third X-series machine (x23, x40, and now x60s) so I’m obviously a fan of these things. They may not be the sexiest machines around – ok they’re definitely not – but they are lightweight, relatively powerful and can take a beating. I still get a lot of questions about my x40 when I’m at airports, coffee shops and the like. The thing weighs under four pounds, has a 100 GB hard drive, built-in Bluetooth, EV-DO and wifi, and – best of all – a dual core processor. What’s not to like?
Q: What’s so great about the dual core processor?
A: I have to admit that I was similarly underwhelmed when I heard folks talking up their dual core machines. It’s easy to see the value of SMP machines for server applications, but I couldn’t see obvious benefits from a desktop perspective. What can I say? No one ever said I was the sharpest tack in the box. When you run Gentoo as I do, you end up compiling a lot of software. And just trust me on this: compiling on a dual core machine is an entirely different experience. The first time I set the box to compiling a new kernel I turned away to another machine and happened to glance back maybe 45 seconds later, only to find that the process had completed. It was so much faster than I anticipated that at first I thought it must have kicked out on error, but no – it’s just really, really fast.
Machines like the x60s are beginning to convince me that folks like Tim Bray are spot on when they point to concurrency as one of the more important application development considerations over the next few years. Desktops a couple of years from now are going to like today’s multi-processor workstations; it’ll be interesting to see how client side developers leverage that.
Q: Speaking of Gentoo, how should I put this: why Gentoo?
A: Well, before I answer that I should admit that I came within about 15 minutes of saying screw it and cutting over to Ubuntu. Unlike SuSE and Ubuntu, which install on the x60s pretty much seamlessly, Gentoo had a number of small but significant issues with the hardware on board – issues that stalled me and the Gentoo community helping me out – for most of the week. I’ll be documenting all of these on the aformentioned Thinkwiki.org page, but suffice it to say that when I was unable to X configured on the train ride down to Boston Wednesday afternoon, I began contemplating a future that did not involve Gentoo. Once I arrived home in Denver, I initiated a bittorrent download of the Ubuntu Dapper bits and it was when they were about 15 minutes away from completion that I tried using a generic vesa driver and X was up and running. The Ubuntu folks almost had me this time, and they keep getting closer and closer. One of these days I think they will pick me off – maybe once Edgy arrives.
Q: But that doesn’t answer the question: why Gentoo?
A: I tried to explain this to Alex when we grabbed lunch yesterday, but I’m not sure I was all that convincing. Here’s what I told him: there are people who like to show up at car dealerships and buy new cars that simply do what they’re expected to do. And then there are the people that like to build the cars themselves, from scratch. Why? Just because, or because they can. Or maybe because they’re crazy. While I lack the skills to do that when it comes to cars, I’m slightly more capable on the technical side. Gentoo gives me the ability to tweak every little aspect of my machine and build it to my precise specifications from scratch. It takes longer – a lot longer in this case – but the end product, in my view, is worth it. Your mileage may vary, of course.
I don’t recommend the Gentoo approach to everyone – Ubuntu is my general recommendation at the current time – but if you’re the type of person that likes to build and tinker, Gentoo’s a good choice.
Q: Within Gentoo, what desktop are you running?
A: GNOME. I don’t mind KDE, and it’s arguably the better looking of the two most popular environments, but I’m a GNOME guy at this point. It’s not perfect, but is closest to what I’m expecting – with the exception of spatial navigation (every click on a folder opens a new window). I really wish they wouldn’t make that the default, as it drives me crazy.
Q: So what works and what doesn’t? How’s the “just works” factor for the machine?
A: Well, it should be noted that there is no “just works” in Gentoo, because by definition you build everything from scratch, but I’ll try and answer the question generally. Probably because it’s a newer piece of hardware, the out-of-the-box support for the x60s is slightly worse than it was for my x40, but I’ve got pretty much everything working except for the EV-DO card (I haven’t bothered with the modem, as I can’t remember the last time I actually used one). And if Thinkwiki.org is to be believed, it’s possible to get that going as well. I have not yet gotten around to suspend/hibernate – which SuSE and Ubuntu handle out of the box, please note – but from the looks of it the effort there should relatively trivial. This post, in fact, is actually coming to you over the installed wireless (thanks to madwifi.org for the drivers).
Plug and play with devices via HAL is working like a charm; bishop detects, mounts and opens both my external Maxtor drive and my Nikon digital camera.
I’ve seen scattered reports of some flakiness with the hardware – high pitched whines when on battery, for example – but so far I’ve experienced none of that. While it’s taken me a little while to get around some of the aforementioned difficulties, everything that I’ve built and configured appropriately seems to do its job.
If you’re really interested in the actual compatibility and what drivers I used to build the individual components, I’ll be posting all of that to the Thinkwiki.org install page. But the short answer is that most of what I need from a laptop, I’ve got built and installed. Which I could not have done, I should mention, without the help and support of the always impressive Gentoo community.
Q: Can you give an example of that kind of support?
A: Sure. See the thread here, as an indication of the kind of support you can expect. The first time I tried to actually boot into Linux, I got a kernel panic. For those of you that aren’t Linux admins, that’s what we in the business term “not good.” On Tuesday at 10:57 AM I posted the problem to the above thread, following up with my kernel config and lspci output  to assist anyone wishing to help with their diagnostic efforts. At 2:14 PM, a user name Dryre from Beaumont, TX asked me to enable CONFIG_SCSI_SATA_AHCI in my kernel. Problem solved.
Q: Any notable frustrations or problems?
A: The power supply, for one. Unlike all of my other Thinkpads, the x60s uses a different adapter on its power supply. That means that if I want to bring both of my machines somewhere – like out here to CO, for example – I’ve got to bring two separate power supplies because they’re not compatible. I’m sure there’s a logical reason for the transition to the new type of power adapter, but it’s not ideal for those of us with multiple Thinkpad power supplied for home and work. If you’re upgrading to an x60s, understand that you won’t be able to use your old adapters with your new machine.
Q: Where are you in your migration efforts?
A: I’m still in the process of recovering the data from my corrupted partition, but I’ve downloaded my mail and work directories from rsync.net. Evolution, unfortunately, refused to load or recognize the data from my previous instance, so I have to figure out what’s going on there. All in all, I’d say I’m about 50% of the way there: I’ve got most of the applications I need, I just don’t have all of my data migrated (though Google Browser Sync is making at least my browser history portable).
Q: What do you think Lenovo could do to better support users like you that want to run Linux?
A: There’s been a lot of press about Lenovo and its support or lackthereof for Linux in recent months – see CRN here or News.com here. While I will not presume to speak for or on behalf of Lenovo in this context, as a user of desktop Linux I’ve been encouraged by Lenovo’s willingness to have a dialogue on the subject. Particularly when that dialogue results in me getting new hardware.
But in all seriousness, based on the conversations that we’ve had and the fact that I’ve been given this machine for testing I’m relatively convinced that Lenovo does perceive in Linux an opportunity – and just as importantly, they’re willing to listen. What they’ll do with that remains to be seen, but I think a very nice start would be by assessing – via the community, if possible – the degree of Linux support for the various devices and peripherals, and delivering around that. It’s no secret that some hardware makers are serious about providing Linux drivers for their hardware (e.g. Intel), and some are much less so (e.g. ATI & Nvidia). It’d be nice to see a hardware manufacturer take that into account, centralize and make transparent the level of support available, then design a model or models accordingly. There’s a lot more that could be done, and we’re pushing in some other areas and trying to make certain conversations happen, but that’d be a great start.
Q: What’s next for the x60s?
A: Suspend, definitely. That’s a critical piece of functionality in my usage. Following that I’ll probably try and finish getting my data off the other machine and onto this one, as well strong-arming Evolution into recognizing my backed up data. Once the data’s in place, I’ll probably set Beagle loose for indexing and desktop search. Longer term I’ll need to see about doing DUN over Bluetooth for my Cingular phone – and possibly even getting the EV-DO card up and running for travel connectivity. I’ll probably look into my graphics situation as well, first determining whether running the generic vesa drivers will impact my ability to run either AIGLX or xGL, and if so what I might be able to do about that. But that’s long term; the short term focus is about recovering my data and making sure that the x60s has all of the information I need.
Q: Any other thoughts or comments?
A: Just to thank Lenovo for the donation. They’ve got a fine piece of equipment in the x60s, and I’m going to do the best I can to put it through its paces.
 By the way, you can pipe the output of lspci into a text file via grep and a > file.txt. Probably obvious to many of you, but I didn’t know you could do that.