Rethinking The Sub-$500 Linux Laptop – A Buyer’s Guide

By Jim March

Feel free to re-print intact and create later updates as long as attribution remains.  I’m going to try and update it every six months myself.

Here’s the short form:

About four years ago HP, Dell, Toshiba and IBM/Lenovo used to make big, tough, massively expensive laptops known as “portable workstations”.  Prices started at $2500ish and went up sharply from there.  Their CPU power was just about on par with modern “consumer grade” laptops, their video cards ranged from “decent” to “wow, that’s still a gamer-class card!” and their screens and resolutions were just unreal – 1400x1050 was considered low end, while build quality was just Rolls Royce.  They’re now coming in off of corporate leasing programs and are BY FAR the best deal you can score in a laptop today – for as little as $300, less than $500 even once you upgrade the hard disk as the old “flaw” in these things was hard disk capacity.  Prices are artificially low because Win7 drivers aren’t available for the video cards and a few other key parts – Linux doesn’t have that problem!  I’m writing this as a buyer’s guide to the more common models and variants with a particular eye to Linux compatibility including notes on how to get the ATI video cards of that era working under modern distros.  And sure, there’s some lemons among these and I think I can give you enough info to dodge them.

I’m writing this as a service to the Linux community after doing a lot of research for my own machine.  After doing all that, it turns out I’m going to be getting something along these lines donated by a corporate CEO as help for some political activism I’m into.  Short form: I investigate bad election procedures and am involved right now in a project to check out the voting machines and procedures in Maricopa County AZ.  We’re going to litigate a lot of the issues found in this report and as of this date the case is filed:  http://tinyurl.com/maricopalawsuit 


If you find this article on Linux laptop options useful, please consider kicking in $10 or $20 or whatever to the Arizona Election Project:

For now, please donate by emailing Jim March.


HOW TO USE THIS DOCUMENT:

Look at the data on specific machines, then you’ll find the “how to buy” guide.  I’ll show you what a typical modern “consumer grade” system looks like in comparison, then we study what each of the various parts can do in the lists for CPUs, video cards and the like following that.  Finally, I’ve tossed in some notes on repair and maintenance at the end.

SPECIFIC MACHINES:

Now for the fun part :).  Start here, then read up on notes for specific parts, particularly the CPUs, video cards and screens.

IBM/Lenovo T60: Along with the T60P, probably the toughest full-size laptop ever made.  Huge 9-cell batteries are easy to get and fairly cheap.  Most had dual PCMCIA and Expresscard-54 slots for serious port expansion, a feature I highly recommend looking for.  Most had either ATI X1300 or X1400 video cards, with a few having Intel 945/950.  Screen resolution and size varied a lot too.  Most of the 14.1” screens were either 1400x1050 (not half bad!) but some were the sucky 1024x768.  The best screen by far was a 15.4” beast called the “Flexview” at 1600x1200, but there are other cool variants of 15.1” and 15.4” worth owning such as 1680x1050.  Case is magnesium, reputation for durability is legendary.  Other stuff: if you want, you can get these cheap trays that replace the DVD-RW drive with a second SATA hard disk!  (Under $20 on Ebay.)  The main hard disk in there is SATA, it’ll be between 60 and 100megs  and will probably need replacing as much for it’s age as anything else.  This puppy can drive dual 500gig SATA drives no problem at all and probably bigger.  Most use T2x00 CPUs and the memory maxes out at 3gig, one of it’s only drawbacks and really, not much of a problem for most people.  All had Bluetooth support.  More info: http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Category:T60   (As with everything else, check the exact CPU part number, video card make/model and screen resolution, see if each meets your needs – they will vary within each model family!  Notes on parts are lower down – keep reading to avoid pitfalls.)  Some of the 14.1” screens and 15” screens were only 1024x768 resolution, and in that case usually had Intel GMA945/950 type video cards.  Some of the 14.1” screens were respectable 1400x1050.  Also: any system with a 14.1” screen is physically overall smaller than the 15” or above screen models.

IBM/Lenovo T60P: Same as the T60 but with a better video card available as an option – the “ATI Mobility FireGL V5200” (x1600) or sometimes the V5250/X1700 which might be a bit trickier.  Some variants had the true 64bit T7200 or better CPU, with memory maxing out at 4gig.  http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Category:T60p   Here’s the good news: the WORST T60p made is still very respectable – T2400 CPU, ATI 5200/x1600 video card, 14.1” 1400x1050 screen.  A lot of the Ebay systems worth about $300-$350ish with very sketchy details as to what’s in it.  In that case, the T60p is still a worthwhile choice because even the lowest-spec are worth that and much more in my opinion.  (As with everything else, check the exact CPU part number, video card make/model and screen resolution, see if each meets your needs – they will vary within each model family!  Notes on parts are lower down – keep reading to avoid pitfalls.) 

Caution: some sources claim that the 1600x1200 screens are somewhat delicate and have a tendency to fade in brightness over time.  Be cautious.  That said, there are people swapping in an enormous 2048x1536(!!!) screen on the T60/T60p models with 15” screens.  See also:
http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Installing_a_QXGA_display_in_a_R/T60_or_61
http://forum.thinkpads.com/viewtopic.php?f=29&t=77733 – read that whole thread before you even think about this particular insanity :).  You’ll also note that there’s a massive “modder” community behind these Thinkpads, with some people combining parts from multiple models into “Frankenpads”.

Thinkpad T61 and T61p had decent NVidia cards.  If you want to go that route, cool.  I recommend avoiding NVidia but these are otherwise sweet machines.  See my notes on Nvidia cards of this era under “parts”.

IBM/Lenovo Z61P: basically similar to the T60P except “cranked up to 11” - screen size went up to 1900x1200(!) but still only 15.4” overall.  All other specs roughly similar to the best T60p: ATI 5200/x1600 video card, T7x00 series CPU.  Some other variants of Z61 (something other than “p” on the end) are junk, Intel video, etc.

IBM/Lenovo Z61m: Broadly similar to the T60 – some had Intel 945/950 video, others had ATI x1300 or x1400 video.  Some of the CPUs used lacked either virtualization (T5500) or were “core solo” CPUs.  http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Category:Z61m

Lenovo T400: An interesting early widescreen, 1440x900 or 1280x800.  This is the newest machine I’m listing but enough seem available on Ebay for the $550ish range that I’m mentioning it.  Some variants had dual internal video cards, one an Intel 4500 and one ATI 3470.  You can’t switch-on-the-fly in Linux but you can go into the BIOS settings, set one as dominant and boot that way and either card will work once set to dominant.  To ID which ones have dual cards, check this website for the specific sub-model-numbers: http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Category:T400  (As with everything else, check the exact CPU part number, video card make/model and screen resolution, see if each meets your needs – they will vary within each model family!  Notes on parts are lower down – keep reading to avoid pitfalls.)

HP Compaq nc8430: Basically the Thinkpad T60’s competitor.  Similar specs, many had screens as large as 1680 x 1050, ATI x1600 video cards, etc.  Some screens were only 1280x800, avoid unless you’re looking for slightly longer battery life.  All that I’ve seen could take up to 4gig RAM, all have SATA hard disks.  Slot is PCMCIA/Cardbus only (no Expresscard slot), and weirdly enough it was the last laptop ever made with a built-in standard RS-232 serial port.  Also has Firewire/400.  Has provisions for a second battery underneath that acts as a tilt-up stand and gives massive battery life; without it, it’s relatively skinny.  Case is magnesium.  Other than the lack of Expresscard, a damn good machine.  See also: http://www.notebookreview.com/default.asp?newsID=3080   (As with everything else, check the exact CPU part number, video card make/model and screen resolution, see if each meets your needs – they will vary within each model family!  Notes on parts are lower down – keep reading to avoid pitfalls.)

HP NW8440: similar to the NC8430, slightly better specs, no serial port.  Good machine.  As with all others, check for the exact CPU, video card and screen resolution.  (As with everything else, check the exact CPU part number, video card make/model and screen resolution, see if each meets your needs – they will vary within each model family!  Notes on parts are lower down – keep reading to avoid pitfalls.)

HP NX9420: similar to the NC8430 but with a 17” screen.  I’m seeing several specimens on Ebay right now with a good T7400 CPU, ATI x1600 graphics, 1680x1050 17” screen, 1gig RAM (very expandable to 4gig) and a 100gig hard disk for $400 “buy it now”.  That’s a damn good deal.  If I scored that, I’d take the 250gig drive out of my current el-cheapo Dell, put the 100gig in that as a spare, buy another gig of RAM for $50 and I’d be rollin’.  At least some shipped with a T2400/T2500 family CPU too, but still usually had ATI x1600 graphics.  As with other HP/Compaqs of the era, they tend to have PCMCIA/Cardbus but not Expresscard, which is not that big a deal really.  (As with everything else, check the exact CPU part number, video card make/model and screen resolution, see if each meets your needs – they will vary within each model family!  Notes on parts are lower down – keep reading to avoid pitfalls.)

HP WARNING!!!  Some or all of this era HP/Compaq major desktops have a flaw: the main heat exhaust point is underneath rather than to the rear or one side.  This means that they can’t be used as real “laptops” because it’ll be a race between your leg burning up or the system.  On an actual desk they’re usually fine so long as there are either the original rubber feet or something else propping them up on a desk just a bit to allow enough heat loss.  In a few cases users report desk materials that absorb heat at that point and reflect too much back up; some folks have successfully used a sheet of glass for example under the laptop to avoid that problem.  An under-unit cooling fan is generally NOT necessary unless you really want to use it as a “laptop”.  If you use laptops on an actual desk and don’t travel that much, these should be fine.

Dell Lattitude D820:  Sigh.  This is a good machine.  Problem is, Dell was doing custom configurations.  So it can be a stone-cold bitch figuring out what the specs are of any particular system.  IF you can get the service tag number, you can enter it into Dell’s support page under “download drivers” and see what kinds of drivers it says you need – from there that might tell you a lot about specs such as the video card.  But you can’t learn, for example, the screen resolution, exact CPU part number or several other details this way.  Bummer.  Upshot is, there’s some damn good deals here and this was more of an industrial-strength design than most Dells, but figuring out exactly what you’re getting in an Ebay or similar transaction may be more of a nuisance than it’s worth.

Dell M90: This amazing beast sports a 17” screen with up to 1920x1200 screen resolution(!) and six USB ports(!!!).  It’s the B-52 of laptops - “thin and light” just wasn’t in the vocabulary when they thought this monster up.  ALL of them have NVidia-based dedicated video cards ranging from respectable to “holy crap, it’s still near top of the line”.  Tempting, if you’re going to go with NVidia and frequent portability isn’t an issue.  (As with everything else, check the exact CPU part number, video card make/model and screen resolution, see if each meets your needs – they will vary within each model family!  Notes on parts are lower down – keep reading to avoid pitfalls.)

Toshiba Tecra M5/M7/M9: These were respectable machines, but as far as I can tell Toshiba was a major NVidia shop at the time.  Typical specs for an M5 for example are: T2500 CPU, NVidia Quadro NVS 110M video card, 14” 1400x1050 screen, 2gigs RAM, 80gig HD for $300 “buy it now” on Ebay which is, overall, a damn good deal.  But unless you know more about the NVidia situation than I do...  (As with everything else, check the exact CPU part number, video card make/model and screen resolution, see if each meets your needs – they will vary within each model family!  Notes on parts are lower down – keep reading to avoid pitfalls.)

So what would I get?  To my mind, the very best of these is the IBM T60P, T7x00 series CPU, takes up to 4gig RAM, ATI 5200 or 5250 video card, 1600x1200 “Flexview” screen, dual PCMCIA and Expresscard slots.  That’s the ultimate.  BUT, the T60P variants based on the T2x00 processors can often be had cheaper because they’re not 64bit CPUs (yet they CAN do hardware virtualization – see CPU notes!) and they’re limited to 3gig RAM.  But think about it: a 3gig system with a video card doing it’s own dedicated RAM means none of your 3gigs are eaten by the video card as is going to happen with ALL modern “consumer grade” systems – sometimes up over a gig.  So which really has more RAM?  Among the IBM/Lenovo models, the T60/T60p/T61/T61p have the best parts availability, the Z series the worst.  The Dell build quality in this period’s Latitude series was pretty good, parts availability rocks...but buying them now is annoying when you try and figure out what a system for sale has unless the seller is particularly good about listing details – most aren’t.  The HPs probably had the lowest build quality among these but really, they still beat the hell out of modern consumer grade.  All things considered, including bulk, battery power and toughness, the 14.1” variant (1400x1050 screen) Thinkpad T60P is probably the best balanced and easiest to find in the sub-$350 category, most with 2gigs RAM already installed – and will take the same monster 9-cell batteries as it’s larger 15” sibling.

BUYING ONE:

You’re either going to be dealing with a private party on Ebay, a general reseller of laptops on Ebay or best yet, some company that takes in corporate off-lease systems, refurbs ‘em and turns ‘em around cheap – often with the hard disk wiped or completely gone.

In all cases, if you’re having a hard time finding exact specs, look for the “specific product code”.  For example, if somebody is selling a:

Thinkpad T61 (7661)

...you can then google for:

Thinkpad T61 7661

...and you’ll likely find an extinct marketing page that gives you the specs: in this particular case, the total pile of junk Intel X3100 (aka “965” wouldn’t-wish-it-on-my-worst-enemy) video card and a 1280x800 screen.

This applies to HPs and IBMs – but not Dells, too much customization.  You’ll find some HPs and IBMs that were “custom to order” (CTO) for large corporations – in that case, you have to get individualized specs.

Now you’re ready to hit Ebay and know what the hell you’re doing :).

Some of the corporate off-lease resellers you’ll find on Ebay have their own separate sales pages too – that can work out well.

WARNING: if they don’t list key specs, and they tell you after questioning them via Ebay that they can’t be bothered to look up things like the video card type, screen resolution, CPU model or the like, they’re not running an auction at all: they’re basically running a lottery in which you hope you get a good one.  Don’t play that game.  Discount PC as listed above does this.  If you look carefully, when they DO have a good one they list the quality parts it has.  Buyer beware.  One way to avoid problems: the lowest-grade T60P is still worth around $300 easy.

ANOTHER WARNING: some will say “doesn’t have power adapter”.  That’s not necessarily a problem, as a lot of these moron companies just lose ‘em when they store the rigs.  But whatever you do, buy a real made-by-that-company original “brick”, not a cheap knockoff.  Seriously.  Same with batteries – be very careful to buy only reputable batteries...the cheap ones are a fire hazard.

Many of the best deals involve “hard disk wiped for security reasons” or even “hard disk outright gone and run through a shredder”.  In the latter case you’ll usually need the hard disk “carrier” piece and sometimes the plastic cover – the reseller will usually be up-front about what’s missing and those parts tend to be pretty available, esp. the carriers.  Worst case packing tape will do for a cover until you can find one – you do want to cover the hole for airflow management purposes.

YET ANOTHER WARNING: there are weirdos on Ebay selling individual parts at insanely inflated prices, possibly hoping somebody will assume that they’re getting the whole computer.  The worst I saw was a $5 power plug selling for over a grand “buy it now”.  If you see anything like that, for power adapters and batteries most commonly, note down the seller and don’t do business with ‘em.  (Could be a “sell bot” of some sort gone wonky versus an outright scammer.)

Happy hunting!

MODERN REFERENCE MACHINES:

Let’s figure out what we’re going to compare these monsters to.  As of this writing, I found the best deal available in a $500 laptop:

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16834157296&cm_sp=NotebookDeal-_-34-157-296-_-08072010

It’s actually $550 with a $50 mail-in rebate, so I’m stretching the price barrier.  Let’s look at specs:

* AMD Turion II Dual-Core P520 2.3G – per Passmark/CPUBench comes in at 1,459:
http://www.cpubenchmark.net/mid_range_cpus.html and has both 64bit support and hardware virtualization (what AMD calls “AMD-x” and Intel calls the “VT extension” or “VT-x”).

* 4gigs RAM

* 320gig HD

* ATI 4250 video card, which doesn’t have it’s own memory (probably among the fastest cards available without it’s own dedicated memory).  The “Notebookcheck” website calls this a low-grade “class 3” video card: http://www.notebookcheck.net/ATI-Radeon-HD-4250.29664.0.html

* Very limited ports – VGA, HDMI, SD card slot, 3 USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet.  NO Firewire, NO PCMCIA, NO Expresscard.

* 1366x768 screen.

* Windows 7 (whoopie)

At Best Buy you can find something based on the Intel “Celeron 900” CPU for $330 as of this writing:

http://www.bestbuy.com/site/Toshiba+-+Satellite+Laptop+/+Intel%26%23174%3B+Celeron%26%23174%3B+Processor+/+15.6%22+Display+/+2GB+Memory+/+250GB+Hard+Drive+-+Black/9988402.p?id=1218205766215&skuId=9988402

* 2gigs RAM

* 250gig HD

* Intel GMA 4500m integrated video card – what Notebookcheck calls a “low grade class 3” but really sucks worse than that – can’t play even World of Warcraft fr’instance: http://www.notebookcheck.net/Intel-Graphics-Media-Accelerator-GMA-4500M.20379.0.html

* 1366x768 screen.

* Ports situation is even worse – only 2 USB ports.

* Intel Celeron 900 is a single-core CPU, raw power per CPUBenchmarks is only 762 and per Intel’s spec sheet, while it can do 64bit code it does NOT have hardware virtualization: http://ark.intel.com/Product.aspx?id=41498

Another turd of a CPU found in modern “budget” CPUs is the “Pentium Dual-Core” series like the  T4400: http://ark.intel.com/Product.aspx?id=40739 – even when they’re fairly quick per the CPUBench site such as a 1,529 at CPUBench http://www.cpubenchmark.net/mid_range_cpus.html they lack hardware virtualization support.

Understanding The Parts – 2006-Vintage CPUs:

Let’s back up a sec regarding “hardware virtualization” and “64bit”.  Of the two, Intel has been pushing 64bit as the more important technology.  But for Linux users, I would argue it’s the other way around: we need hardware virtualization FAR more than we need 64bit CPU support. 

64Bit-compiled flavors of Linux exist of course but the speed boost is usually not that extreme.  Memory usage for the same apps goes up with 64bit, and right now there’s still some key code that works better in 32bit – particularly Adobe Flash but others too.  For the next three years at least, 32bit is going to be either dominant or still completely practical.

Hardware virtualization on the other hand is absolutely vital if you want to test other types of Linux in a virtual machine (such as checking out pre-release code or using an older code base for a particular app) or even more commonly, running Windows XP as a virtual machine if you’ve got a Windows app you have to run at least once in a while.  If you don’t have hardware virtualization, there’s only one virtual machine manager app you can run: the Sun/Oracle VirtualBox app, and it’s not completely stable.  You can’t pick any other virtual machine manager – and running Vbox without hardware virtualization (which VBox supports if you have it) completely sucks in terms of speed, overheating the system, excess memory overhead and the like.  Odds are you’re going to need virtualization at some point and when you do, hardware support for it in the CPU will be a Godsend.

Vintage 2006-era, Intel ruled the roost in mobile CPUs.  There are no AMD chips I can recommend.

The top variants you’ll find are:

* Intel Core Duo T2400/T2500/T2600: these respectably fast CPUs hovered around 2gHz, the exact speed of the T2500 variant, the others being slightly slower and faster respectively.  These are not 64bit capable, which actually has one benefit: you can mix and match memory module sizes in your (usually) two available DDR2-667 sockets.  You can buy a system that has a 1gig module, add a 2gig module and get a running 3gig system.  And if one module craps out, OK, run with just one while testing or in a pinch.  These CPUs do have hardware virtualization support.  While I would prefer something with both hardware virt and 64bit, I would not necessarily turn down one of these.  Here’s the Intel specs on the T2400 – the others are the same ‘cept for speed: http://ark.intel.com/Product.aspx?id=27235

The series are listed in the “mid-to-low chart” at CPUBench: http://www.cpubenchmark.net/midlow_range_cpus.html with 986 for the T2600 while the others aren’t far behind.

Variants of these that end in “50” as the last two digits may be lesser quality – check specifically each CPU variant to make sure it has 64bit support and/or hardware virtualization if you need either, and look it up at the CPUBench site to get an idea as to overall performance.  But remember: something with a strong video card and just a bit underpowered CPU (that otherwise meets your needs) will often give you a better overall experience than something with a stronger CPU and junk video card.

* Intel Core 2 Duo T5250/T5400/T5500/T5550: AVOID – has 64bit support but lacks the VT hardware virtualization extensions: http://ark.intel.com/Product.aspx?id=27253

* Intel Core 2 Duo T5600: Good chip, has both VT and 64bit: http://ark.intel.com/Product.aspx?id=27254 – pulls 1,000 at CPUBench: http://www.cpubenchmark.net/mid_range_cpus.html

* Intel Core 2 Duo T7100 through T7600: all are good, all have both 64bit and VT, they pull between 1,000 and 1,322 per CPUBench: http://www.cpubenchmark.net/mid_range_cpus.html

For anything else: it’s easy to google “intel” with the CPU code such as “U7200” or whatever and Intel’s spec sheet page (at ark.intel.com) will be one of the first hits.  You can also check relative raw horsepower at the CPUBench pages – note how they’re split between the various “speed ranges”.  For God’s sake check both the raw speed at the CPUBench site and the features for that chip at Intel’s site – look for 64bit compatibility if you need that, and I strongly recommend avoiding anything without hardware virtualization.

NOTE: So how much speed do you need?  Look, raw CPU power isn’t the whole story.  I’ve been running the last two years on a two-year-old Dell “consumer grade” Inspiron 1525.  It has an Intel “Pentium Dual Core” T2370, with a CPUBench rating of 888, no VT extension and a really lousy Intel 965/X3100 video chipset which is a bit faster than the 945 but nowhere near as stable, and 2gigs RAM.  Yet at least with some tuning it’s able to run Hulu full-screen.  For most “home user” needs it’s actually plenty.  Intel and AMD are both shipping CPUs right now with even less horsepower, such as the “Atom” and “NEO” series.  The only time my CPU falls flat on it’s face is when I’m doing virtualization; for me, even something like the T2500 or the like would be a major upgrade from where I’m at now and the T7400 or T7600 would do just great – esp. coupled with a decent video card, which makes at least as much of a real-world difference as the CPU.

Understanding The Parts -  Video Cards - 2006 Vintage:

Intel: the 945 was their “best” at the time, and while it’s extremely stable in Linux (way better than the 965/X3100) and can even do moderate Compiz stuff, it’s pretty seriously underpowered.  Still, for modest needs it’s not that bad and interestingly, Intel is still shipping it for some “Netbooks”.  It beats the pants off the GMA500 travesty.

ATI: The X1xxx series driver support in Linux via ATI’s proprietary driver has been dropped.  That’s OK, because before they did that, ATI released a ton of info to the open source community on how these cards work.  Which has paid off: the open source “Radeon” drivers work great in Ubuntu Lucid, although you may have to either turn off or tweak KMS (Kernel Mode Setting).  No biggie.  See also these pages: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/RadeonDriver https://wiki.ubuntu.com/X/KernelModeSetting

Their X1300 was at the low end with only 64megs of dedicated RAM and the rest (up to a total of 256megs) out of system memory, it’s actually not half bad.  It will run about the same speed as the latest Intel 4500 series “business only, no games” cards in terms of video playback.

The X1400 is a low-grade gaming-class card.  Not at all bad for non-gaming purposes.  Systems with this card and a screen resolution of 1400x1050 (usually a Thinkpad T60) often sell for less than $300 and would make a non-gamer very happy.

The X1600 is the big boy – despite it’s age it’s STILL a decent gaming-class workhorse worthy of respect: http://www.notebookcheck.net/ATI-Mobility-Radeon-X1600.2163.0.html

It gets better: if we compare with the 4250 “modern” video card on our better modern reference system, the X1600 has it beat cold: http://www.notebookcheck.net/Computer-Games-on-Laptop-Graphic-Cards.13849.0.html – to use this page properly, check off two cards, or just a few, and hit the “restrict” button towards the top.  Scroll sideways and note how some games work on the X1600 that fail completely on the 4250.  This card is also known as the “ATI Mobility FireGL V5200” except that the latter has slight tweaks to support a more stable Windows driver meant for CAD work.  In Linux the open-source drivers will treat a V5200 as an X1600 with no glitches.

The X1700 is alleged to be slightly glitchy in Linux at present.  It was a rare card to start with, but there’s also an equivalent “ATI Mobility FireGL V5250” (similar situation as with the X1600 above) found on some IBM T60Ps.  I would bet some tweaking and hacking (not to mention googling) would get it working but if you’re considering something with these cards, do some research first and if you’re a relatively newbie Penguiner you might want to be cautious.  Worst case it’ll probably be sorted out by Maverick and/or the 2.6.35 kernel ATI/Radeon improvements (which I’m running now under Lucid).

WHAT IF I RUN INTO TROUBLE WITH DRIVERS/COMPIZ/ETC?  First, don’t panic :).  Second, there’s a plan “B”.  The fully working open-source drivers for the vintage Radeons is there in Lucid, but it’s new as of Karmic and is still being seriously improved.  At the time of this writing there’s sometimes some tuning/tweaking needed.  If you get in over your head, load Hardy (Ubuntu 8.04 Long Term Release) and use the proprietary ATI drivers from that period.  Hold with that until Ubuntu Maverick 10.10 is a month old and stabilized and try that...kernel 2.6.35 will be in Maverick and has a number of support improvements for the Radeon driver as will the updates to Xorg stuff, Mesa, etc.  The reason you can’t use the Hardy-era ATI proprietary driver is that it won’t work with the newest Karmic-or-later Xorg/Mesa/Compiz parts.  The situation is rapidly improving and while this may seem slightly annoying, I remain convinced that the NVidia situation is much riskier.

GAMING NOTE: these cards will work great for Linux games as long as they have enough power for the particular game.  However, if you’re going to run Windows games either in dual-boot real Windows or via Wine/Crossover, the ATI cards above only support DirectX version 9c and below!  They can’t do DirectX-10.  If a particular game needs that, you’re hosed, m’kay?  This is a non-issue in native Linux games.

ATI 3470: This is a respectable card, just a hair slower than the X1600, but in some ways more modern in that it has DirectX-10.1 support.  It’s found in some IBM T400s (see notes on that model to ID the ones that have it) and with some searching you can find those around $500-550ish.  This card is supported with both open-source and proprietary drivers right now – expect proprietary driver support to end soon.

NVidia: I’m going to take a stand here and say outright, avoid on any 2006-era machine.  It’s true that their proprietary Linux drivers still work as of this writing, however we don’t know how long that’ll last – and with NVidia remaining very tight-lipped about how even their older cards work, the state of their open-source drivers purely sucks.  Some may disagree and I’ll point out some notable Nvidia-based systems.  I COULD BE WRONG ON THIS!  There are efforts under way to reverse-engineer NVidia’s proprietary drivers to build open-source drivers.  But this is a much nastier process than working with ATI’s fully published specs for the same era of cards.  If you want to jump in with NVidia, do your homework on the progress of the particular card/chipset on the system you’re interested in!  If you are going to do NVidia, here’s a list of the cards supported by the current closed-source driver from NVidia: https://launchpad.net/ubuntu/lucid/i386/nvidia-glx-185/185.18.36-0ubuntu9  and here’s some notes on the open-source “Nouveau” driver and how well it works with each card variant: https://wiki.ubuntu.com/X/Testing/NouveauEvaluation

Understanding The Parts -  General notes:

WARNING: almost all these machines have motherboard chipsets labeled “945” - this is not necessarily the same as the video card being an Intel GMA945 or GMA950.  You might see “945” listed in the motherboard spec somewhere, but also see an ATI or NVidia card.  This is normal but confusing.

On LCD screens:

Most of these vintage beasts have “square-screens”, 4:3 aspect ratio, which in many ways is actually good for really working on a computer.  True, video playback won’t fill the whole screen, but if that’s all you do, go buy a TV and Bluray player.  The reason LCD manufacturers love “widescreen” formats is that a “15.6” diagonal widescreen looks like a “better spec” than a 15.4” squarescreen – but it’s the latter that offers a hell of a lot more screen real estate.

The other thing you’ll quickly encounter is incredible resolution – 1600x1200 isn’t the biggest you’ll see!  Windows users actually used to complain about it, because Windows couldn’t really adjust it’s on-screen fonts to the ridiculous dots-per-inch counts you get.  But in most Linux desktop managers, every single font element is fully adjustable – we can make these bad boys sing!  In Gnome go to System>Preferences>Appearance and in the “Fonts” tab, go to town, make on-screen fonts as big as you want and Gnome will adapt around your settings.  Don’t forget the “details” button there and set the “dots per inch” to what you have.

NOTE: The Radeon and Intel drivers will support widescreen resolutions if you hook up an external widescreen LCD, even if the internal screen isn’t widescreen.

Hard disks: ALL of the systems described here should have SATA internal drives.  Upgrading to at least 320gig or 500gig internal hard disks should be easy.  SSDs are probably possible too, but no guarantees the BIOS support will be quite right...do some research before going there.  In some cases (esp. the IBM/Lenovos) you can get hard disk carriers that replace the DVD drive to allow a double-internal-drive setup.  Many people are switching to USB flash memory over DVDs anyways so this is worth considering.

WiFi: these systems will have “G-class” WiFi cards and almost always have Bluetooth as well.  If you need N-Class WiFi support you can either swap out the internal card (except on Thinkpads where the BIOS generally blocks that) or use either a USB, PCMCIA or Expresscard WiFi add-on.  If you upgrade via a slot or USB to N-class, consider leaving the G-class card in with the WiFi portion’s module disabled, because that same G-class card is likely your bluetooth adapter.   See the WiFi note under repair below for info on swapping to N-class.

Everything else (Bluetooth, PCMCIA/Expresscard, etc) should work just fine – the open-source community has had 4+ years to sort out support for all those parts.

While PCMCIA is phased out and Expresscard support is fading, there are still a lot of very damned interesting things you can get in both formats, such as Firewire 800, USB 3.0 in both PCMCIA and Expresscard are shipping now, ditto WiMax, E-SATA, MIDI, all kinds of stuff for robotics control and other geeky stuff.

REPAIR NOTES:

IBM’s complete repair manual for the T60 and T60p (all screen sizes and types!) is online and free:
http://download.lenovo.com/ibmdl/pub/pc/pccbbs/mobiles_pdf/42t7844_04.pdf

These critters (all brands and models discussed) were not built as disposable.  They’re relatively easy to take apart and fix.  And of the off-lease machines, a certain percent come back broken and get parted out.  The pieces most likely to break are:

* The power adapters (“bricks”), the easiest part to swap;

* LCD display unit – you can generally find one used in good shape for under $150;

* Backlight unit for LCD – if the display goes dead dark, try shining a flashlight with it booted up and you may see that the display is actually there.  In that case, what’s blown is the backlight and that’s a much cheaper item, almost always less than $40.

* Motherboard – most of those run about $150ish, usually doesn’t include the CPU (which hardly ever breaks in a laptop) but does include the video card.

* Bad memory can be tested with any Ubuntu desktop startup CD by picking the memtest option.  Probably worth doing with any of these things.  They’ll come with 1 or 2 gigs of DDR2-667 memory most likely, and that stuff isn’t that expensive and not at all hard to get.  If I paid $300 for a 1gig system and the memory turned out to be junk, I’d just shrug and swap it rather than do any hassles regarding a return.

* WiFi modules: most will be mini-PCI-express form factor, in a hatch either under the keyboard or more commonly accessed from underneath the system.  On anything except an IBM or Lenovo, you can swap out the installed module with something else but be careful because your Bluetooth circuit is probably on that card too.  A lot of them used Intel G-class WiFi modules that aren’t bad at all and have good open-source support.  With the exception of IBM/Lenovos, you can swap out to an N-class module if you like, boosting range.  If you do that, take the two antenna leads off the G-class adapter and plug them into the two OUTER antenna plugs on the N-class adapter, leaving the center plug on the N-adapter blank.  This will give you a hybrid: N-class range but G-class speeds.  If you want N-class speed for some reason (usually large file transfers or video streaming with another machine on your local network), you’ll need to buy and install in somewhat hacked fashion a 3rd antenna for the middle N-adapter plug.  This won’t be that hard, but you will have to string a new wire all the way through the system, out the back (like maybe a heat vent port or new hole you drill) and velcroed onto the back of the lid or something.  Most people don’t bother as there isn’t a consumer ISP anywhere in the world that will deliver the Internet at speeds past what wireless “G” can do.  What else...ah.  If you want to share an internet connection via a cellular modem, tethered cellphone or the like across WiFi, you might want to swap to a different WiFi adapter that can do “promiscuous mode” - the Atheros devices (both G and N) have a good rep for this.  My current piece of junk Dell has the Broadcom G adapter swapped for an Atheros G adapter for this reason.  Again: the IBM/Lenovo firmware will block this unless somebody’s hacked past that problem, others shouldn’t care what WiFi adapter is in there.    (“Technically” the FCC certification on the machine as a whole is no good once you do this but in practice, there’s no problem.)  On an IBM/Lenovo, just disable or remove the stock WiFi card and run a PCMCIA, Expresscard or USB WiFi adapter if you want to upgrade.

Radio Shack has micro-bit screwdriver sets containing the small phillips, torx, hex and other specialty bits needed to dismantle these laptops for about $20.  Highly recommended.  Doing your own repairs on this class of machine is generally quite easy if you follow basic anti-static procedures.  A cheap piece of thin stripped wire wrapped one end around your wrist and the other on the metal of any plumbing pipe in the house qualifies even if the house is so old it doesn’t have 3-prong plugs.  Look for tear-down instructions for your laptop online and get to it.

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