IBM ThinkPad T40


Next in my ongoing quest for an outstanding Linux laptop, we have the IBM ThinkPad T40. One of the last IBM ThinkPads, the T4x series is well-known for their build quality and Linuxability. I originally purchased a Lenovo ThinkPad T60 at work with the thought of eventually running Linux on it but decided to go back a revision to the T40 after fighting repeatedly with Sleep, Suspend and the horrible ATI X1300 video card that it uses.

The machine was an off-lease laptop purchased through a local retailer for $560CDN. The machine originally sold for upwards of $2500CDN. At the time of writing, similar machines can be found on eBay for about $500CDN plus shipping. Having used many Linux laptops, both older and newer, it is my opinion that this machine is one of the better bets.

Let's see how well the ThinkPad T40 works for me...


The ThinkPad T40 is a Pentium M-based machine. My specific model is a 2373 with the following specifications:
As you can see, this is by no means a lacking PC. The system, while not a dual-core CPU, is very fast. I've tested all hardware except for S-Video out and the software modem under Linux (Ubuntu Dapper and Edgy.) All of the above hardware works well, the machine reliably suspends to RAM.

This ThinkPad is certainly not my first. My wife has been using this line of laptops for about four years now and I have owned and managed about three generations of ThinkPads in that time. The build quality of each revisions seems to actually improve, though all were extremely well engineered for their respective times. Like the PowerBook, this laptop is very solidly built with a high-quality keyboard with no Windows keys, both a trackpad and a nib, and the brilliantly-executed ThinkPad light.

After using laptops of such quality for a while, I find myself thumbing my nose at lower-end options such as Acers, Compaqs or even some Toshibas. Yes, those laptops are cheaper and/or offer more options for the dollar, but a well-built, high-quality laptop is a joy to use well after the novelty of the purchase has worn off. I would rather own an off-lease ThinkPad than a brand new, dual-core Acer. Period.

The last three generations of T series ThinkPads that I've used, T23s, T40s and T60s, have all seen ports drop off. The T23 has a serial, S-Video and parallel port, the T40 drops the serial and the T60 drops both parallel and S-Video. In my opinion, the T60 has gone a little too far in the port reduction category. This might have been acceptable if Lenovo had added FireWire, a glaring omission in my opinion, but they did not. These reductions have certainly happened to both cut costs and allow for better thermal management, needed with hotter processors like the Core Duo.

The ThinkPad T40 (and T41, 42 and 43) seem to strike the perfect balance of ports. With USB 2.0, video out and parallel, you can plug into pretty much anything: Old printers, TVs, projectors, you name it. While I occasionally miss the second core of the T60 when running VMWare, the Pentium M processor is certainly quite fast. Certainly a step up from a Pentium 4 or G4 processor.

The video card in this laptop is an ATI Radeon 9000. This is probably one of the better cards to have on a laptop under Linux. While I can't stand ATI's software, their hardware always impresses me. Thankfully, this card has good Open Source Linux drivers, so OpenGL/DRI works as well with this machine as it does with the Intel Mini I use at work. The video card probably can't handle the latest 3D games, but it's been more than adequate for playing DVDs and and of the OpenGL Linux games that I own. I haven't tried Quake 4, but I doubt it will be pretty given that the X1300 in the T60 wasn't able to handle it with anything other than lowest graphics settings. However, if, in 2007, you're thinking of buying a laptop released in 2003, gaming likely isn't your primary concern.

Daily Use

This machine was purchased primarily to be a solid Linux laptop for me to test/work with. In this regard, it's pretty much perfect. While still not as seamless as the PowerBook under Mac OSX, Ubuntu Edgy (6.10) works perfectly on this machine, though the details took a bit of doing. One strangeness was that between suspending to RAM, the ethernet devices (wired and wireless) would be loaded and unloaded. Suddenly, the wifi would come back as eth1, eth2 or eth0 at what seemed to be random. I've sidestepped this problem by dropping Ubuntu/Debian's standard way of dealing with NICs and replacing it with NetworkManager. NetworkManager "Just Works" and has mostly alleviated that concern.

This ThinkPad should get up to seven hours of battery life depending on the battery. Unfortunately, being off-lease, I had to take what I got and the laptop battery seems a slightly damaged. It only displayed 1:20 of battery life and as I write this, the battery has been "dead" to Linux for about 30minutes. We shall see. I expect to get at least 3 hours from a decent battery.

As mentioned, Suspend To RAM works well under Edgy, though I did follow a couple of tips linked below, the most important of which was to disable/uninstall powernowd and move to using the speedstep centrino kernel modules. It's working well now. This is in great contrast to the T60, which seems to have nearly endless problems mostly surrounding ATI's fglrx drivers. Until there are solid OSS drivers, I wouldn't trust the fglrx drivers and would avoid buying a new ThinkPad with an ATI card. Thankfully, some models can be ordered with an Intel GMA950. In any event, the power management for the T40 in Ubuntu seems to work very well.

The laptop is also quite cool and runs virtually silently most of the time. When running CPU or disk intensive tasks, one can hear a small fan turn on. Overall, it runs at least as cool and quite as my 12" G4 PowerBook under Mac OSX. This is no small feet for Linux and an Intel laptop, I commend both Canonical and IBM.

This machine features a 1024x768 display. This is a drop from the T60's native 1400x1050, though it was intentional. While the higher resolution looks great, I find 1024x768 strains my eyes much less on the 14" display. Perhaps this is a sign that I'm aging, but I'd say that 1024x768 is the right mode for anything smaller than a 15" display.

The laptop weighs just over five pounds. This is an ideal weight for the machine. Any more becomes a chore to carry, any less tends to come at the expense of either build quality or features such as the optical drive. IBM/Lenovo make an X-series ThinkPad that weighs about four pounds but needs a much larger and heavier dock for using the optical drive. On the topic of optical drives, I wish more companies would follow Apple's lead and use slot-loading drives. They are much quieter and, in my experience, more reliable. Such is life. As is the case with most ThinkPads, the optical drive is easily removed and can be replaced with either an extra battery or an additional hard drive.

Wrapping up

The IBM ThinkPad T40 is a fantastic Linux laptop. Suspend works, 3D works, it has working WiFi and USB 2.0 and is a good size and weight with a fantastic keyboard lacking those annoying Windows keys. In Ubuntu Edgy, even the special keys work as expected. The laptop is very solidly built and would offer years of excellent performance yet. These machines were widely used in business, so finding off-lease ThinkPads for a good price is relatively easy. if you're looking for a modern, well supported and inexpensive Linux laptop, look no further.