The Nerdbook – Part 2: First Impressions of the ThinkPad X121e

In part 1 of “The Nerdbook”, I described why I needed a netbook, how I went to choose one, and which I chose. That part ended with the thing being ordered from computeruniverse.net. In this part, I’ll let you look over my shoulder as I have a first look at my ThinkPad X121e.

With the thing ordered on December 22nd, it arrived promptly on December 24th. Kudos here both to the store and to DHL for doing that, but then, it’s their job one might say. It’s however noteworthy that it was the case that, according to recent customer reports for some web stores, delievery took extremely long as some kind of wicked business tactic. So for all I had to do with computeruniverse: good prices, proper website, prompt delievery – mission accomplished.

The package for the ThinkPad consists of the computer itself, the battery, a power supply with cables, and a small leaflet which mainly tells you how to connect battery and power supply, what the main buttons on the computer are, and that you may obtain additional info in the manual on the computer (which, obviously, is not available here, as the computer is shipped without any software) or via the Lenovo website.

How does it look?

The X121e considerably moves away from the traditional ThinkPad design which was all centered around the concept of the right angle. It’s more of that smooth affair of today’s competitors, even more so. What has remained is the charcoal colour and the ThinkPad logo in the lower right corner of the lid.

No surprises for the general layout, either: following today’s standard, the battery is sitting on the rear (hence no connectors there), the connectors are on the left side (front to back) headphones, LAN, USB, HDMI (yes, it got one) and VGA, and on the right side card reader (good for SD, MMC, MS and MS Pro), 2xUSB and power.

Opening the computer, you get a typical keyboard layout (with the function key row doubling for additional functions such as screen brightness, turning off WLAN, media player etc.) and, for additional input, a TrackPoint and an UltraNav touch pad with advanced features, both also in typical ThinkPad layout.

The keyboard, which was one of my hard requirements, convinced me from the start. Unlike other designs, the keys here a set slightly apart (so it more resembles a proper desktop computer keyboard) and has a recognizable action.

If there was any critizism, it’s that the lid does not lock in place. Now this has been accepted as standard procedure for many contemporary notebooks (cost savings?), but as I was to find out that the sensor detecting if the lid is open or not is rather sensitive, it sometimes happens that when picking up the computer, it will jump out of suspend (if configured to do so).

Apart from that, it really moves into the nitpicking territory: the cable leading from the PSU to the power socket could have been slightly slimmer and also use a flat connector instead of the German Schuko one – which would not only slightly reduce size, but also help you on trips abroad. Note to self: get cable!

Getting it to run

The following section deals with installing different OSes on this machine. For this reason, it will also cover some of the hazzles of e.g. installing XP on an AHCI-equipped machine from an USB stick, which is not a problem specific to the X121e, but of this choice of installation media and harddisk controller architecture in general.

Excursion: OS selection

I did already mention that this computer doesn’t come with any software, so there was no taking it for a spin before some serious installation. My choices for OS were set on an old Windows XP and some Linux. For the XP, I decided for the 32bit Professional variant. While the Professional is really your choice (and can be had cheaply today, if you still get it), my choice for 32bit, in lieu of the 4GB of RAM expandable to 8, had to do with the fact that for XP, driver support for the 64bit variant (which, incidentially, has not so much to do with the normal XP than with Server 2003) has always been lacking. Not having any other computer with a 32bit XP in use anymore but still using some legacy hardware, the decision was made.

As for the Linux, discussions with my friend @frl_sm1lla – an avid Ubuntu user herself – led to a suggestion of Debian due to it being the root for Ubuntu for which she had some expertise. As accessing NTFS partitions from Linux is a breeze today, but not the other way round (or have you easy access to an ext4 from legacy XP?), it was clear to dedicate more harddisk space to the (NTFS) XP partition than to the (ext4) Linux one. Counting in a Linux swap partition, the partitions were planned as 200GB for XP, 8GB for swap and the rest for the Linux root.

Now XP and NT has always been (and I don’t know if there has been a change for newer Windows versions) something what you might call a jealous, chauvinist bitch: if you happen to install XP on a computer which already contains another non-Windows OS, XP will modify the MBR/boot loader structure in a way that XP and any other Windows versions will run, but only those. Linux, on the other hand, has always lived with being a second choice to Windows on typical consumer x86 setups, and copes with that wonderfully. So if installing both XP and Linux on a machine from scratch, the usual order is XP first, Linux second.

Installing XP

People familiar with XP installation will remember that XP will install seamlessly from a CD/DVD medium, unless you have a non-PATA harddisk, in which case you need a floppy disk drive natively supported by the BIOS (a SCSI FDD connected to a host adapter natively supported by XP does also work). It’s relatively easy to use installation over network (if you have a DOS-based network driver stack for your network adapter), but everything else does not work fine.

So step number one was to somehow make it install from an USB stick, as the X121e, like all computers of that size, does not contain an optical drive.

I found this (German) article on the myeee blog very helpful. If you don’t like to learn German, typically some computer magazines have similar instructions. Key in this process is, next to the original copy of the XP medium, the tool WinSetupfromUSB which is covered here.

A word of caution: the thing is obviously programmed for people who know what to do. The tool is neither self-explanatory, nor will it work without some quirks. I personally found the automatic detection of the USB medium a little cumbersome, as it might lead in some situations to misleading error messages. Nevertheless, after some work, the stick was ready and I was ready to go.

Booting the stick up from the X121e worked fine, however the XP installation routine simply told me that there was no medium to install to and that it might need additional mass storage drivers from floppy disk. I knew that from my XP installations on several RAID-equipped machines, so the next step was to look in the computer’s BIOS setup for relevant options. Turns out that right on the first option page, you need to set the “SATA” option to “Compatible”, meaning it behaves like a PATA drive from its interface. Doing that resulted in the XP installation to detect the harddisk, and to install properly and seamlessly as expected.

What I also learned during the various reboots of the XP installation is that on this machine, it’s wise to either not connect a LAN cable (which for this installation you don’t need, anyway), or to disable booting from LAN in the BIOS (which, by default, is enabled). The reason is that this computer allows for booting from (wired) LAN, and for this will try to obtain an IP from your DHCP on every startup, then check for LAN boot options – which takes time. Now having a boot from LAN functionality is typically considered spiffy for some applications (the diskless workstation/client scenario), but why anyone would want to use (and consequently, an OEM would include) boot from LAN for a netbook is beyond me (but might very well come from using the same mainboard for diskless media center applications).

The next step is usually to install all of the hardware-specific drivers (which was not so bad because the plain XP recognized the touchpad as a mouse right from the start). Fortunately, Lenovo provides all of the necessary drivers on their support site. Their choice of OSes includes every kind of Windows, plus some rather odd Unix choices: while the discontinued Caldera and oddities like HP-UX are included, standards such as Debian and Fedora are not on the list – and even for the supported Linuxes like RedHat, the choice is limited to a SSD driver. Oh well, more fun later on…

Also worth of notice is that you must go to the driver download page directly from the link above or their main site, not jump in directly via a google search result. Otherwise, you may select your fifty-odd files for download, only to get the message that you don’t have anything selected when you want to download. Apart from that, I ended up with some fifty-odd downloads, all of them EXEs, which would then just unpack and trigger installation.

Installing those drivers and applications (like all of that ThinkVantage stuff) then worked rather straightforwardly, so some time later, the entire system was running fine and with all hardware options functional.

But then of course, I wanted that AHCI suppport, which I couldn’t just turn on in the BIOS, or otherwise XP would not boot. Help came in form of the readme of the SATA drivers, which, neatly hidden away in the back section of the document, describes how you can switch an existing installation to AHCI without using a floppy disk drive. Mainly it’s executing a cmd script, rebooting the computer, turning on AHCI, and then using hardware detection to install the drivers – and interestingly, it works.

All in all, with the exception of the USB media preparation and the tricky installation of the AHCI drivers (both of which is not the computer’s fault, but XP’s), a very straightforward affair which left the computer in a perfectly running state right away, with all the config options including power management, webcam and such enabled without a quirk. Fine!

This is usually the point in time where to look for the ability to do realtime audio, I run the DPC latency checker. I have dealt with the topic of audio latency at large in another article, the short version: the DPC latency today is the main limiting factor for the minimum audio interface latency obtainable from the computer’s side. It shows how long the computer (in a combination of hardware and software) takes to react to the calls from the audio interface – and if that time is too long, you have to set your interface latency respectively higher. As a rule of thumb, you say that <500us is fine, 500-1000us is ok and >1000us is not nice.

Firing it up plain and simple, a base level around 200us was often interrupted by high spikes in the 3000 to 16000us region. Turning of WLAN (often a remedy) helped insofar as the spikes were more seldom, but didn’t vanish completely. Fortunately, a test by notebookcheck.com (albeit for the Core-i3-variant, so comparisons to be made with caution) had found the same results, but also found that disabling the Lenovo power management AND WLAN cured the problem. Quickly checking, I could confirm those result with a maximum DPC of 247us once, then not when I tried it the next time. So while I’m confident that this computer will work for audio editing or recording, I don’t know yet for realtime applications.

At that point, I also installed drivers for my trusted Marian UCON CX, an audio interface which I got at a factory sale via ebay for ’round €100 (after some time earlier, I had decided against getting it to the original price of €450). I still stick with it: this is a good interface, its only shortcoming being that Marian does not offer any drivers safe for XP 32bit ones, and doesn’t even offer those on their site anymore.

After some basic software installations (Chrome, Thunderbird for internet stuff, LibreOffice for office stuff, Wavelab and Cubase for audio stuff), I decided to call it a success and move on.

Installing Linux

As mentioned before, I had opted for a Debian installation and a 64bit one at that. Preparing an installation medium was a breeze, and the installation process was running in no time – until a specific time:

After the installation routine had partitioned the harddisk, rewritten the master boot record and whatnot, it suddenly found that it couldn’t install the grub boot loader. Trying the lilo alternative (and, already pissed off, ignoring the “do you really want to use lilo?” comments) didn’t work either. So no Linux for now. What had worked, however, was to leave the system in an unuseable state: due to the fact that Debian had essentially ruined my old boot setup before deciding that it didn’t want to install a new one gave me the “no OS installed” message when booting the system.

It was time now for one of those ugly parts of computer life, the XP recovery console – which I could boot from that XP installation USB stick. The Microsoft support article is overwritten with “for advanced users”, so I hoped I was one. I first used DISKPART to delete all but the Windows partition (careful! check the output of the MAP command so you don’t accidentally erase something on your USB stick). The thing somehow worked with the commands FIXMBR (careful! you first need to find out the device name via the MAP command and then specify that as a command line argument, otherwise it will just fix your USB stick’s MBR and fail doing so), followed by FIXBOOT (usually with the “C:” drive letter).

Fortunately, the XP was up and running again, but that left me with the need to decide on another Linux distribution. My own Linux experience is rather dated (meaning: more than 10 years old) and was with a SuSE distribution. In the meantime, I had sometimes thought about giving Fedora a spin, but never gotten through to more than burning a live DVD, starting it, and confirming that somehow I could get it to run a driver for the Promise RAID in my old computer. So I tried Fedora.

As I later discovered, the live image I got wasn’t a 64bit one – but apart from that, everything went smoothly. Not only did it not ruin my XP installation, it also worked right from the start (and contrary to the debian attempt, also worked with all my network adapters, and with AHCI). Swapping the GNOME desktop for a LXDE running under LXDM required some editing of configuration files (if only with the help of some excellent articles on If Not True Then False – thanks!) but also worked right away. Couldn’t get an MP3 codec installed so far, but apart from that…fine. One quirk, however, is things related to power management: hibernate does almost never work, suspend does sometimes work, and so on.

Trying to get me a fedora 64bit image and booting that failed: it simply produced some incomprehensible (for me) error messages while booting up. Ah, well…

Actually doing something with it

After those installation thingies, I decided to actually do some netbook nerd stuff with it, without any systematic approach for some time. Some bullets, in no specific fashion:

  • using the webcam and the integrated audio for a google hangout worked just fine, and didn’t tax the CPU very much.
  • they keyboard really works fine. I found that out e.g. by writing this here post.
  • portability is very ok. It fits in any of the typical carrying bags a man would have (which means: not in a handbag, but in any case of rucksack, document bag etc.). The weight, while being slightly over that what you’d want to carry in your hand for a long time, is also ok.
  • battery works fine. On a non-systematic attempt of watching a video for two hours, followed by basic surfing in a low-power configuration for several hours, I wasn’t even below 40% capacity. And it also recharges fast.
  • the speakers…well, you wouldn’t want to enjoy my music with it. No bottom end at all (but that’s hardly a surprise, given the laws of physics).
  • the “i”s of the ThinkPad logo on the lid and next to the keyboard are LEDs. They light when it’s on, and blink when it’s in standby.
  • when carrying the thing around, make sure to properly grip it. If the lid opens just a hint, then the computer will leave standby (if it is configured to do so).
  • those touchpads have come a long way. About as complex as learning to master all of the contemporary techniques for playing an electric bass guitar.
  • the fan is not annoyingly loud, but clearly audible. Keep your energy load under control if that isn’t acceptable.

A summary

All in all, I believe I made the right choice. The computer does everything I wanted it for in the way I wanted it for. While the XP installation worked fine from the start (or rather, after heaving dealt with the quirks of the installation process), the same can’t be said for Linux so far. I will still be searching for a 64bit distribution which brings the necessary drivers…or I have to go into self-compile mode like decades ago. Ah well…

That’s it for part 2 so far. Stay tuned for a part 3 – which will come after I’ve done a proper Linux 64bit install, and after I’ve gained more experience with it (and maybe also tried some actual audio work with it).

 

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6 thoughts on “The Nerdbook – Part 2: First Impressions of the ThinkPad X121e

  1. I am having audio stuttering problems that cause a spike in latency on my new 121e and causing audio to distort/stutter. When removing Power Manager the spikes are less frequent however disabling a WLAN did not remove the minor few that remain. This is a new laptop and I am not sure whether a clean install could help OR whether I should send this back…any advice would be greatly appreciated

  2. Hi Scott,

    unfortunately, I can’t say that I have dealt with that topic more than described in the original article, so I’m not that much help here. From what you describe, you found the spikes using the DPC Latency Checker or a similar tool.

    One thing I wasn’t specific in the article is that by “turn of WLAN”, I mean “turn off all wireless stuff” (i.e. also bluetooth). Another thing I found in the Lenovo support forums is that for the various drivers and ThinkVantage support software, the order in which you install is sometimes key. As a result of not doing this properly, I’m currently stuck with the Fn+F5 key combo not working (and have so far procastinated on the new install).

    It’s also interesting what kind of audio latency you’re aiming for: something in the below-1us-to-3us range might very well not be possible with that computer at all. Furthermore, what is your target use case and what audio hardware are you using here? If you’re not targeting a realtime application (i.e. nothing with live audio processing), then setting the audio interface’s latency to its maximum value would be possible – and if at that setting, the problem still exists, then it most probably doesn’t have to do with any latency issues and something else is at fault – which may very well be the hardware.

    Apart from that, from how you describe the problem, the hardware being at fault seems unlikely to me. Perhaps the most simple solution (if you’re somewhat knowledgeable in that domain) would be to use a Live Linux installation (possibly a Fedora, if you’re comfortable with that) and try to check latency there.

  3. An alternative tool for WinsetupFromUSB would be WinToFlash. I tried nearly the same as you (installing XP on a X121) and I couldn’t manage it to make my USB stick bootable with WinsetupFromUSB. With WinToFlash it was no problem at all.

    Sadly I read your blog _after_ my successfull installation of XP. I could have spent hours of search for the right method of getting rid of the PIO mode of the internal hard disk (solution was as you wrote switching the whole system to AHCI mode.)

    Thorsten

    1. Thanks, Thorsten, for that input. The recommendation of WinToFlash, while I didn’t try it myself, might come in handy for other readers. And btw, if you find an easy fix if somehow the Fn+F5 functionality doesn’t work anymore, please let me know ;)

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