Rather than rushing out to buy the latest and greatest netbook, perhaps we should all take a look back at what came before.
It goes without saying that I'm a netbook fan. I've always preferred small laptops to desktop replacements. I've owned a half dozen different netbooks, from the EeePC to the HP Mini-Note 2133, the Dell Mini 12 and the HP Mini Mi with several more in between. All of these netbooks are now one to three years old. So, with a new generation now emerging, I've been looking into the latest offerings. To me, what defines a netbook is size, price and weight. The Dell Mini 12 pushed the genre, as does the latest generation of 11" screens in the 3 and a half pound range. This is certainly a far cry from the original 7" 800x480 2lb EeePC.
The newest netbook to catch my interest was the new $550 Lenovo ThinkPad X100e. I've always been a ThinkPad fan and the X100e looks like a winner. However, I'm not so sure that the AMD Neo CPU, with it's associated battery life and heat, is such a good idea. Also, Lenovo has inexplicably omitted one of my favourite ThinkPad features: The ThinkPad light!
With this all in mind, I started trolling ebay. What did I find? A blast from the past that, to my mind, is a better netbook than the new X100e: The IBM ThinkPad X40.
Here are the specs:
I picked up a 1.2GHz model with 1GB of RAM and a 40GB HD on ebay for $160CDN shipping included. It came with the extended battery, no dock, and broken USB ports. The latter I remedied with a PCMCIA FireWire/USB card that I already owned, ultimately opting to replace the motherboard with a 1.4GHz model for an additional $70. To this I have also added the ThinkPad Dock ($50) for four more USB ports and optical/second HD, a 4-cell battery ($40), and a 16GB CF drive ($50) to replace the 40GB internal drive. All told, this puts the total expenditure at well under $400 for far more flexibility than one gets with the latest crop of netbooks.
I thought this first ThinkPad x40 was a deal but have more recently found another 1.4GHz model on eBay that was fully functional and shipped with the optional dock for $200CDN. In my opinion, while almost six years old, these little machines are terribly impressive and quite undervalued. I've been using one now for a couple of months and I must say that I'm terribly impressed with this machine. It's very responsive, gets up to 7 hours on a battery charge, and is, for my use, better in every conceivable way than the new ThinkPad X100e.
The ThinkPad X40 is one of the last ThinkPads released before Lenovo took over the brand. While Lenovo has certainly retained and refined the finer points of the legendary ThinkPad brand, to me the X40 marks the pinnacle of the original IBM ThinkPad. Even at six years old, the X40 is remarkably solid. It is also still a very modern design, with an emphasis on low-weight, thinness, and battery life at the expense of a bit of raw power.
The X40 is a ThinkPad through-and-through. This means that it is very tough, is easily taken apart and repaired, is thoughtfully designed, and has a brilliant keyboard with no windows key. The X40 eschews the trackpad in favour of the legendary red trackpoint.
The machine is virtually silent. If you replace the 1.8" PATA hard drive with either a CF card or and SSD, it is completely silent under low load. The CF/SSD also serves to cut down on heat, again leading to a quiet, cool machine. It's not completely silent like my HP Mini, but it's close.
As I understand it, the X40 is the smallest ThinkPad laptop ever produced and is noticeably smaller than the X60 and X200 that eventually replaced it. It's not as small as original netbooks, nor is it quite as small as the HP Mini, but it weighs the same as my 9" HP 2133 Mini-Note and is much faster. For comparison, it's about the same size as the current crop of 11" netbooks, including the ThinkPad X100e.
Unlike most modern netbooks, the X40 has both a 56k modem and gigabit network. This has been handy for work but likely won't be used much compared to the still-standard 802.11g wireless. Both X40s I've owned haven't had a Bluetooth module, though I've read that you can pick one up on eBay fairly easily.
With a 1.4GHz Pentium-M processor, the X40 is a solid performer. It's not a dual-core CPU but is noticeably faster than my aging iBook G4 running at 1.33GHz and my HP 2133 Mini Note. I'd even say that it is faster than my HP Mini with the 1.6GHz Atom CPU. The CPU isn't the fastest but is remarkably capable given the age of the machine. I haven't once found that it was uncomfortably slow for day-to-day tasks.
A weak point with the X40 is that it is coupled with a now ancient Intel 855 video adapter. This works perfectly with DRI and graphical effects up to Ubuntu 9.04. After that, the Intel driver breaks DRI and has many glitches. It was very frustrating to track Ubuntu 10.04 development on the X40, as at one point everything worked perfectly. Then, a version of the kernel was introduced that broke DRI, and eventually things were left in a state where the X40 doesn't even boot 10.04 release without adding kernel parameters that once again break DRI.
For the moment, I've reverted to running 8.04. No doubt I'll upgrade it to 10.04 again when there are better workarounds. Still, I will admit that it is a bit of a disappointment to watch the Ubuntu devs basically decide that this machine wasn't worth keeping compatible. I'm not used to seeing compatibility get worse over time with Linux.
The video situation is presumably similar in newer versions of Windows, though with a maximum of 1.5GB of RAM, I wouldn't want to run anything newer than XP on the X40.
Battery life is up to 7 hours on an 8-cell battery, closed to 2 to 2:30 on the much smaller and lighter 4-cell. This is the one that I tend to use all the time, as it keeps the machine under the magic 3lb line. This isn't great compared to the newest EeePCs but is comparable to the netbooks I own. Personally, I find 2 hours to be a good balance between battery life and weight. I'd rather not carry around the extra bulk if avoidable.
Another advantage of the X40 over the current crop of netbooks is expansion. Not only does the X40 still include standards like an SDHC port, it also has a PCMCIA port and an optional dock that is often included when purchased on eBay. Even if you decide to buy one later, a dock is about $50. This gives you a DVD/CD-RW drive in an Ultra Bay, more USB ports, Parallel, VGA, and other standard ports. I don't care for the dock while travelling but have found it quite handy at home, from time to time.
On top of this, because it is an older "obsolete" model, you can find replacement parts and optional extras for very reasonable prices. Power adapters are very inexpensive, a 4-cell battery ran me $20, a new motherboard was $70. These machines were used extensively by governments and businesses. As a result, eBay is littered with X40 parts and accessories at very reasonable prices.
Of course, a review of a six year-old laptop is a bit odd. I'm certainly not offering any new information on the X40, except perhaps that parts are now plentiful and affordable. Rather, the point of this review is to perhaps shed some light on what I feel is an under-appreciated machine. It turns out that there are a subset of X40 owners that jealously guard their machines in the same way that classic Saab owners still cling to their aging beauties. This is a good comparison. Yes, the X40 isn't new. Yes, newer models offer more power, but for less than the price of a low-end netbook, a bargain hunter can easily pick up what could be considered one of the original netbooks.
The IBM ThinkPad X40 is an interesting blast from the past. Six years in, it still warrants daily use. Like the now-classic 12" PowerBook G4, newer, faster models exist. Yet none fully recapture the original spirit of this classic machine.