Sep 122007

I’ve had my new ThinkPad X61 tablet with Windows Vista for 2 months now, having used it while traveling and prepping for business school. My thoughts.

The X61 Tablet:

I want to love this, and I almost do. Almost. The tablet functionality is great. The handwriting recognition is as close to perfect as I could expect. The system is well-thought out in terms of switching, power, functionality while in tablet mode, and it’s completely intuitive. There are a boatload of reviews online which talk in in far greater detail about each and every option which I’m not going to try to re-do here, so I’m only going to touch on things that are great, niggles, or outright annoy me.

I love the manual switch for the wireless. It hasn’t thrown Vista into any spinning fits of insanity like some of the other functionality.

The pen is flawless, intuitive, and the “pen flicks” is a really cool feature.

Switching to tablet is well thought-out. It’s easy to figure out and everyone I’ve shown it to was using the handwriting in minutes with good accuracy. There’s also IBM’s shock protection thingy which parks the hard drive heads when it feels like it’s being shaken. This was FAR too sensitive as shipped but easy to adjust the sensitivity level.

As a geek, I feel like I should figure out whose fault this is, but as an up-and-coming MBA student, I’m really annoyed by the Vista/Tablet integration. Switching to (or from) tablet mode results in about a 10% chance of the system just going haywire, often involving a reset. In all cases, I have to let the thing sit for a couple of minutes after I do it to let it figure out where it is– as though I’ve just banged it on the head and it’s got to figure out what it’s doing. I don’t really care whose fault it is, from some perspective I feel like I just bought the most expensive, top of the line laptop at $3000 and it just doesn’t work.

Speaking of cheap: Dear IBM: If someone buys a $3000 laptop from you with a DVD burner, please for god’s sake give them some DVD burning software. It’s $80 retail and just a bad experience. I’m getting sort of tired of paying top dollar for stuff that’s about 98% finished. I don’t even mind installing it myself. I’ve been advocating and buying ThinkPads since the days of the 760EL– almost ten years now. I’ve probably (as an IT manager) been responsible for the purchase of several hundred of your laptops, not to even count the P-series dollars and IBM Global Services dollars. We’re talking significant 7 figures. Don’t cheap out on me now. (I know it’s Lenovo now, though it still says “IBM” on my support page and my laptop).

The docking station docking/undocking is flawless and works and I couldn’t really ask for much more. You push the button, it docks and undocks. yay.

Windows Vista:

I’m having a fairly large love/hate relationship with Vista at the moment. I’ve got Vista Business on this which has almost everything– I have the upgrade to Vista Ultimate which I’m somewhat tempted by although I’m a little afraid to actually do the upgrade given Microsoft’s track record with upgrades and my experience so far with Vista. I do have some backup DVDs which might help me out of a pickle.

Interface: The interface is great. I love the mini windows when doing alt-tab switching. I love a number of the little shortcuts– like in the top bar of Windows Explorer, where it’s suddenly so easy to get around, in a smart, intuitive way. I love the start->search functionality. Windows Desktop Search seems to work really well. However, despite having a 3.4 as my “windows experience” score, the system is simply unusable with all the stuff turned on. It became usable (though looking much like XP) after I went in and disabled all the Aero bells and whistles. I don’t know if the hardware (this is a “thin and light” laptop after all) isn’t up to it or what, but I don’t think that they’re doing anything specifically difficult.

Even after disabling all the bells and whistles in the interface, it’s still better than XP. A lot of things have just become really intuitive, though there are still way too many (though fewer than before) clicks to get to a restart/shutdown/hibernate/sleep prompt.

Stability: In a word, this system is unstable. Explorer crashes quite a lot. Suspend/resume is iffy. Switching to tablet (above) makes it crash. Acrobat Reader is really unstable, to the point where if I suspend/resume I have to make sure that I have no Acrobat Reader windows open or the system will crash, hang, etc.

Performance: Here again we’re totally unacceptable. If I were to put on my developer’s hat I’d say “memory leak”. The system, after running for a while, hangs for a bit. It’s still extremely disk-intensive– for what, I don’t know– so make sure, if you’re getting Vista, that you spring for the fastest disks with the most cache onboard. Also get a lot of RAM. But even with 2GB of RAM and a Core2 Duo Vista will crawl.

Overall: I like the way it’s going, but it feels more like a final beta than an actual product. The old adage “wait for SP1” still applies, sadly. I’d say that XP is probably a 7/10, OSX is probably an 8/10, and Vista I’d put at about 6.8/10. If they could get the stability and performance issues sorted out I’d probably put it closer to a 7.9.

(Why didn’t I get a MacBook? I wanted, but was willing to live without, the tablet functionality. I do hate hate hate TouchPads. The little joystick thing on the ThinkPads (though not really anyone else’s) work really well for me. That’s still something of a niggle. Ultimately it came down to Apple’s inability to put out a laptop that weighs less than 5 pounds. I’ll go on record as saying that I’d pay probably $400 (on top of the Microsoft tax) to Apple if they’d give me a DVD of OSX that I could run on my ThinkPad. That would be perfect (plus having the 3 buttons on my ThinkPad would work well with the X server I could run on OSX).

(Why not Linux? I love linux. I’ve been using it for 14 years now, since before the release of the 1.0 kernel. It works really well. It also doesn’t talk to SharePoint, it doesn’t really talk to Exchange, and it doesn’t sync with my BlackBerry. And got tired of reinventing the wheel every time I wanted to do something. I do run it in a VM when I need to do some types of things. And on this server. But it doesn’t serve my needs. I continue to consider running the operations of future companies on it but it’s still not quite there for the desktop. And after 10 years working as a Unix admin I’m a little burned out and ready for stuff to just work. Ideally with the reliability of my old 32 cpu P-series box. Hey, IBM: P-series laptops anytime?)

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