Reviving an (almost) ten-year-old laptop with Linux


Updated: December 18, 2013

Here we are. Today, I will attempt to bring to life a ThinkPad T42, a machine launched back in 2004, almost a full decade before this very date. You have seen this box used before. It featured in a variety of Dedoimedo reviews, including all kinds of openSUSE, Ubuntu and PCLinuxOS release, and many others.

Now, it's sat dormant on a shelf for almost a year and a half, collecting nothing but proverbial and physical dust, waiting for this moment. So we shall see what can be done with a laptop that is considered old and obsolete by modern standards. In fact, some might say, why bother? And my answer is, because I choose when to call it a day, not when the modern fashion does. Avanti.

Teaser

Note: Image, courtesy of Lenovo.com.

More about our candidate

The laptop comes with a Centrino processor, 1.5GB of RAM, which probably means this review will fly without any sweat, a 4,200rpm hard disk, and a decent 15" 1400x1050px display. You also get a DVD/CD-RW tray, Wireless G, and two USB ports. For its size, the laptop is quite heavy, and feels robust.

Indeed, it has led a very active life, being used by no less than three different people, for all kinds of gritty tasks, including numerous presentations and demos in classrooms full of nerds, showcasing how Linux does magic on olden hardware. The only fault it's had was that the original hard disk died in 2008 and had to be replaced with a new one. Other than that, no problems. Really engineered with style. Still bears the IBM logo, before the sale to Lenovo. Oh, I'm a moron, and I forgot to take a photo, and now I've left the laptop in a drawer at my workplace, so I owe you that one.

Power on!

After eighteen months of silence, T42 started with just a bit of burnt dust smell coming from the fan, and some noise that vanished after a few seconds. The system seemed to hang at the BIOS menu for a while, but then it recovered, telling me the system time and date was wrong. The CMOS battery must have bled dry. After I fixed this little thing, the laptop booted normally.

Currently, it runs a dual-boot setup with Lucid Lynx and PCLinuxOS 2010, and if you check the original review, you will see it was completed on this very laptop, and that its ATI card managed to cope perfectly well with the best of KDE effects, including spinning the cube majestically. Ah, nostalgia. Right? Or are you that insensitive?

Nice 2

Compiz 2

But what's next?

Indeed, what operating system should I choose? Well, I asked you this, and you mailed me a bunch of suggestions. Some of you recommended Slackware or derivatives, but I thought these might be too geeky. I pondered Xubuntu and Lubuntu myself.

CentOS was another suggestion, and it's damn tempting. Either that, or Stella, which is equally kickass. But for most people, finding some of the third party content may be tricky. And I may yet do it, but I decided to keep this lovely RedHat clone aside for a while. We can always do a sequel if needed. Debian? Well, I don't feel like hunting for codecs and firmware, so perhaps no.

Eventually, I decided to stick with Xubuntu, because it has shown such awesome results on my eeePC netbook. It's boring perhaps, I know, but you get the best of all worlds. Speed, stability, availability of software, and if you encounter problems, it is so much easier to solve them. Then, the recent string of Xubuntu successes is another great reason to remain true and loyal to its lineage. So there we go. First attempt. Xubuntu 13.10, and 32-bit no less. I have not downloaded a 32-bit distribution in a while now.

First attempt, failure

As it turns out, Xubuntu 12.04 is the last of the family shipping with a non-PAE kernel. True, you can hack your way around, but from the official stand point, the vendor does not intend to support ancient processors beyond 2017. Maybe it does stand to reason, but it meant my Salamander boot attempt was a no-go. Download 12.04.3, try again.

Second attempt

With the new LTS download, it went well. Took a while to get to the desktop, but it worked fine. You can notice the non-transparent icon background, but we know how to pimp those things. Anyhow, all the peripherals work, all of the hardware was properly detected and initialized. The battery took a long while charging, and I thought it was dead, but no, after a while, the LED indicator turned from critical orange to green, and it slowly topped off, almost ten years worth of aging nine cells of chemicals, and still going strong.

Live desktop

Removed the existing distros, created a new setup and waited. The installation was surprisingly quick. Only about 25 minutes in total, which shows this olden box still has a lot of juice left.

Old partitions

New layout

After the installation

You have it all really. You can even multitask pretty damn well, within reason, the only limitation on the single-core socket being some performance degradation, as well as a higher CPU utilization than you would expect. But you have modern tools, modern browsers, even GIMP works fine, and things run quite smoothly, all in all.

Desktop

Apps

Flash works fine

Hell, you can even run Steam if you want to!

Steam

Resource usage

Any rendering of graphical apps, even on a lean desktop environment like Xfce will cause the CPU to work relatively hard. In my case, with memory consumption of about 270MB neat, there's a lot of programs you can load before hitting swap, but the CPU hovered around 10-15% even with a single active window open, which means roughly 25-30% activity on average for a typical 3-4 programs and alike, more if you consume media.

System usage

Top command

So what did not work well?

A few things. Very few really. If you go for video playback above 720p, included, you will get very choppy results, but this kind of stands to reason. But if you limit yourself to a non-multimedia usage model or restrict your fun to older videos with a smaller resolution, then things should be perfectly fine. Most standard, CD-size videos work quite reasonably. Oh, the DVD is still fine. The little laser thingie still functions, believe it or not.

The catch

Now, the real problem is that with the hardware approaching its tenth anniversary, you are sort of apprehensive that something may go wrong any minute. Statistically, it should not, because it has survived everything so far, so it's probably going to die when transistors melt or capacitors blow up. Still, not something for mission-critical tasks.

However, as a secondary or tertiary device? Most definitely yes. In fact, an excellent choice, especially for people whom computing is not the the defining quality in life. Some people need just a bit of Web and email, maybe some IM with family and alike, then sure, go ahead. Finally, a sort of a proof this is an olden box:

HW info

Now, this begs a philosophical question. Should you invest in a 2,000-dollar laptop once every decade, or buy five very low-end to average ones for 400 dollars every two years? Or maybe opt for a tablet now and then? If you opt for the latter, you never get the premium quality for the first three or four years, but you do enjoy the modern tech margin over the decade. However, having a robust and reliable tool that you can pass down to other users is also an important, redeeming quality. Tough question really.

If you do not need high-end solutions, EVER, then there's no reason for you to buy top-end laptops like this titanium monster. Back in its day, it was the pimp of the hood. And for people who needed the best, it offered the best. Still works pretty damn well.

If you do, then I guess you will invest, and probably live with the extra cost of replacing expensive devices more often, or maybe slightly suffering the technological degradation in their more advanced years. Something like that.

BTW, from the vendor's perspective, is having such great products a good business model? Creating something that just works and works and needs no replacement save indulgence and maybe some small advancement in the Web stuff and media streaming? In fact, the only real bottleneck slash let down here is the graphics card. If you could update it only one or two generations, this laptop beats most if not all netbooks. You can plug in an SSD too, probably. If not, then 5,400rpm or 7,200rpm disks are a certainty. And for most people, the processor will never be the weakest link. So hardly a relic.

Conclusion

T42 is an amazing laptop. Still works fine when so many other machines have bitten the dust. It's not the fastest or the prettiest or the lightest in weight, but it is almost unbreakable, and the quality is stellar. Ten years!

I've come to believe that ThinkPads are among the best laptops out there, if you want something that will serve you for at least half a decade or longer, and if you don't mind paying the extra buck. Quite a few extra bucks really. My father had an X40, and it worked splendidly for some seven years, with just 512MB RAM, 40GB disk and Windows XP. Who knows, I might try to revive this thing, too. It's waiting for me.

Anyhow, our task is done. T42 is a beautiful, indestructible laptop, and there's nothing that can stop it. As far as Linux goes, you can land a state-of-the-art distribution right there, and enjoy an aging machine with all the modern apps and security updates for many years to come. With the LTS support for Pangolin spanning into 2017, this means a good four years of fun left still. Bloody great. Xubuntu, keeping it all together, wrapped nicely with a solid dose of modern, stylish and fast. Job well done. I hope you liked this.

Cheers.

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