Hands On with Thinkpad X200s and Debian Squeeze

I have recently been evaluating small laptops, and wound up purchasing the Thinkpad X200s. It arrived a few days ago, so here are some first impressions.

The Hardware

The X200s is, in a word, awesome. It is light and portable, built solidly, and very fast. With the 6-cell battery, it feels light. The 9-cell makes it physically bigger and heavier, but even so, it is still a light unit even then. The fans run only rarely, and battery life looks to be towards the upper range of what I was expecting, so I am pleased with that.

The screen is a very high-DPI one, and quite bright. However, it is also one of the only drawbacks: its vertical viewing angle is quite poor compared to most other screens I’ve used recently, meaning I’m frequently adjusting it to get the best angle relative to my head.

The keyboard is a pleasant change after having using the Eee 901 for so long. I hadn’t realized just how much of a pleasant change it would be.

I was concerned about the lack of a touchpad, but it appears that the touchpoint device is a lot better than it was on the Thinkpads I used a few years back. I miss a touchpad, but not very much, and far less than I thought I would.

Debian Squeeze

Of course, one of the first things I did with it was to wipe off Windows 7 and install Debian. Now a word about Debian. I rarely do fresh installs. I normally tar up my machine and move it over to new hardware when needed, and upgrade the software over time. However, I wanted to make this a 64-bit install and had no suitable image to move over. I decided to try the default Gnome install in squeeze since I hadn’t tried Gnome in awhile and was about due to give it a shot.

I was very impressed. Squeeze will make an awesome desktop OS. Everything worked perfectly out of the box. It suspended and resumed. X came up in full resolution without me having to do anything. Ethernet worked, and I was helpfully invited to supply the non-free firmware for the wifi on a USB stick during install time. Hardware brightness and volume keys work. The docking station is fully compatible with Linux. Sound works. The hardware “lock screen” key even works. Bluetooth works out of the box. It is a well-integrated, extremely fast, and smooth setup.

Cups is installed out of the box by default, and accepts network printer broadcasts by default too. So I snapped in an Ethernet cable, and when I went to print a few minutes later, I just could. It didn’t even strike me as special until later. Yes, that’s right — I plugged it into the network and, with absolutely zero action on my part, could print to all the printers at work or at home.

The update-manager that Gnome uses by default (I wonder if Debian’s KDE installs yet use one? I have never seen one in KDE) is a wonderful work of simplicity compared to Windows 7’s madness. You click the update icon, click the button to start updating, and 30 seconds later get a message that 45 updates have been installed. With no ominous “reboot now” message. This is no surprise to me as a long-time Debian developer, but I just wanted to highlight it here. I think I should file a wishlist bug on update-manager asking them to improve the wording in the box to say “There is no need to reboot your computer” :-)

I still have my gripes about Gnome. It only lets me choose some pre-defined settings for screensaver timeouts, for instance. I still feel that KDE gives me more control. But Gnome seems to be better integrated with the entire system, faster, and less buggy. This difference is especially acute at login time. This laptop logs me in far faster than my Core 2 Quad machine at home running KDE (from sid) does.

So, of course, my next task is to integrate xmonad with Gnome. Should be fun.

Now, a final word on why I wrote this. None of these components have been a surprise really to me (aside from the completeness of the hardware support for this laptop). But what I want to bust is the myth that somehow Debian is difficult to use on the desktop. It isn’t. This setup was easier by far than the Windows 7 install I did on a different machine recently. Although it has less eye candy than Windows 7, it exudes solidity, performance, power, and yes, ease of use in every way.

23 thoughts on “Hands On with Thinkpad X200s and Debian Squeeze

  1. The x200s is what I replaced my many x40s with. I tried multiple other laptops (including an x60s and x61s); they all sucked. The x200s was the only one that made me happy.

  2. It’s estimating 7 hours on the 6-cell and a bit more on the 9 with wifi on and display a bit down from max brightness. I haven’t tried to completely discharge it yet. I can get power draw in the neighborhood of 7-8W pretty easily: dimming the display a bit more, shutting off BT. I have done no tweaking besides the default yet.

  3. Interesting. Then there’s definitely something wrong with Ubuntu (or the way I installed it) on X200s. I will have to try Debian on it when I get a free day and find a place with sufficient bandwidth.

  4. Let me get a bit more specific, after looking at it a bit more:

    My battery is now at 80% on the 6-cell, and gnome-power-manager is estimating 4.5 hours left. That means about 5.6 hours on a full charge. I think the 7-hour estimate was a bit optimistic as I had just unplugged it.

    This is with BT on, display mostly bright, wifi on, no SATA power-saving tweaks or anything. But again, with more tweaks, I can get it down farther.

    thinkwiki has some tips on saving power as well as reports of power consumption at min brightness that you might wish to compare to.

    The 9-cell of course has better life, but it adds some weight and size to the unit and I prefer not to use it unless I must.

  5. XMonad with Gnome is great! It’s what I use on my X40. I wonder if an X200s is what I should replace my X40 with. I’m thinking of springing for a new laptop after I graduate in June.

  6. John, which screen did you get? The high res one, I hope. Also what kind of SSD is it? I think the Intel X25-M is still the best bet.

    I also have an X40 that I’ve been thinking of upgrading to an X200s, but the X200s is a little wider and may not fit in my waist pack the same way. So I’m also looking into the X100e which is smaller, on the idea that it’s a secondary machine anyway.

  7. Forgot to ask–which wifi card do you have? I thought some of them didn’t need proprietary firmware.

  8. Hear, hear!

    I recently picked up an off-lease Thinkpad T43, and decided to give Debian a shot after having used Ubuntu for a couple other laptop installs of late.

    I was extremely pleased by the process. I have long been part of the group that was reasonable comfortable with the notion of Debian being “not completely trivial” to install. I rather enjoyed the “Clueless users are bad for debian” essay! :-)

    The T43 install went exceedingly cleanly, and every bit of hardware that I’ve tried has worked fine. I initially had some pains with sound – discovered that the buttons to control the speaker worked eminently well. (I had been accustomed to fighting with alsamixergui in the past.)

    I wound up having to do a reinstall because I picked some evidently horrible filesystem choices (some of the MD / logical volume stuff that’s really pointless on a laptop), and upgraded it to the point of not working, but an hour of installation work later, all was happy again.

    Ubuntu’s “fabled” for being easy to install, but Debian’s installation process has improved enough that there really seems to be some “fable” (as in “entertaining, but false tale”) to the “ease” of Ubuntu.

    My worst problem was really that some of the T43 instructions hiding out there predate some of the modern kernel work, and suggested much tougher Wifi configuration efforts than “modern Linux” actually mandates. Can’t complain too much about things being *easier* than documented!

  9. I thought I was doing a default install when I just hit [enter] at the d-i boot prompt or choose gui-install from the installer menu.
    Third times a charm? After reading your post and re-installing Lenny on a Toshiba 1200-S212, I wondered if I’d found the boot option you used… I was asked “3 iirc” questions. Than “everything” (including things I’d never had installed before) installed…
    Plus I had the volitile repo added as well, another first for me….
    I’m continually amazed by Debian info I thought I knew, only to find out I really didn’t know as well as I imagined..
    Is a mere “Thank You” sufficient here?

  10. Hi John, this is very helpful. Can you confirm that the high-res screen is indeed matte? Lenovo doesn’t mention it anywhere in their X200s spec sheet.

    I routinely get 5.5 hours of battery from the 9-cell in my X61 Tablet, so I would expect to get considerably more in the X200s. At least 7 hours I would think.

  11. Hi, how did you perform the debian squeeze install? Did you use a usb dvd external unit or a usb stick image? if so, where did you get that image?

    Thanks.

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