Retro-Review of Used Lenovo ThinkPad X230 Sourced from eBay

IMG_20180716_141139

I’ve wanted an IBM ThinkPad since I first saw my boss’ at Netlink in the fall of 1998. But, while I’ve been invested in PCs over the years tangentially, I reserved Macs as my primary desktop or laptop computing platform, which combined with the premium price on IBM and then Lenovo ThinkPads kept me in the Apple premium category. Put another way, I could afford one but not both.

Apple, as I’ve confided with friends, is diverging from my computing interests and needs. While design has been an important part of Apple’s DNA since the Apple II (arguably even earlier if we consider Woz’s design aesthetics for the Apple I motherboard layout), its increasing emphasis on fashion and accessorization and seeming less technological investment and innovation in its desktop and laptop computers have soured my allegiance to the company and its computers.

So, I thought about how to try out a different kind of PC laptop–one that I had wanted but could not afford when it was originally released–and make an investment in extending the life of what some folks might consider an obsolete or recyclable computer.

Within this framework, I wanted a laptop to take the place of the MacBook Pro that I had sold on eBay awhile back while the resell value was still high before rumored price reductions as product refreshes roll in. It needed to be relatively lightweight and have a small footprint. Also, it needed to have good battery life. And of course, it needed to run the software that I use on my home-built desktop PC.

Eventually, I decided to purchase a very well taken care of Lenovo ThinkPad X230 for $190.00. Originally released in 2012 for a lot more than what I paid for it, this ThinkPad model features an Intel Core i5 3320M Ivy Bridge CPU running at 2.6GHz with 2 cores and supporting 4 threads. It has 8GB DDR3 RAM and a 180 GB SSD. In addition to built-in WiFi, it has an ethernet port, 3 USB 3.0 connectors, an SD Card reader, VGA and Display port connectors, and a removable battery.

From a user interface perspective, it has a chiclet keyboard which responds well to typing quickly. Its touchpad leaves a little to be desired in terms of responding to some gestures like scrolling, but its red pointing nub and paddle-style mouse buttons at the top of the touchpad are exquisite. It includes some feature buttons like a speaker mute button next to volume keys above the function key row, and on the left side there is a radio on/off switch for the WiFi and Bluetooth.

Initially, I tried out the ThinkPad X230 with Ubuntu, and everything seemed to work out of the box (though, I added TLP for advanced power management). However, I switched back to Windows 10 Professional with a full nuke-and-pave installation, because I have some software that is far easier to run natively in Windows instead of through Wine or virtualization in Linux.

In Windows 10 Professional, the ThinkPad X230 meets all of my productivity needs. I use LibreOffice for most things, but I also rely on Google Docs in Chrome for some tasks (like inventorying the City Tech Science Fiction Collection). The WiFi works well even at City Tech, which has one of the most cantankerous wireless networks I’ve encountered. At home, I use it on my lap to browse while watching TV.

The X230 is snappy and quick despite its age. Of course, the SSD and ample RAM support increased input/output for the older CPU. Chrome, LibreOffice, and Windows Explorer respond without hesitation. It easily plays downloaded Solo: A Star Wars Story 1080p trailers in VLC, too.

With the included 6 cell 45N1022 battery, it runs for several hours (this is a used battery, so its capacity might be lower than one that is brand new). I purchased a 9 cell 45N1175 battery, which I’m testing out now. With the 6 cell battery, it is just shy of 3 pounds, and with the 9 cell battery is a little over 3 pounds. I’m hoping that between the two of them that I can get plenty of work done on the go without being tethered to a power outlet.

Future tests include running World of Warcraft and watching full length movies. The display’s viewing angles could be better, but I’m willing to accept them as they are as I can adjust the brightness and display gamma easily using keyboard shortcuts and the Intel Display Adapter software to minimize its poorer display quality as compared to the latest HiDPI displays available now.

I’m tickled to use the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 as my main laptop. Now, I can say that I’m a proud ThinkPad owner instead of a zealous Apple user.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve included more photos of the X230.

If you’re considering a new computer, I would, based on this and my other vintage computing experiences, suggest that you consider trading up for a used or refurbished machine. Getting a used computer keeps that computer out of a landfill or being destroyed for its rare metals, and it might be an opportunity to try out a computer that you might have missed on its first time around.

 

A Note on Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown

Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (1992) is a book that I should have read back when it was first published. In fact, I’m rather let down with myself that I did not know about this book back it was published at the same time that I was beginning high school and transitioning from an Amiga user to a PC/DOS enthusiast (if you can imagine such an animal).

Sterling’s journalistic account of the Hacker Crackdown of 1990 and its immediate aftermath is as enlightening as it is enjoyable to read. He chronicles the passage of the BellSouth E911 document, the targeting of the Legion of Doom, the criminal case against the publisher of Phrack magazine, the  hentanglement of Steve Jackson Games (creator of GURPS Cyberpunk), and the launch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Sterling had my attention from the get-go, but I was really jazzed when he writes about FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center) and my hometown, Brunswick, GA. He visited FLETC to speak with Carlton Fitzpatrick about computer crime.

Around that same time, I was delivering auto parts to the FLETC repair shop. I was out there at least every few days–virtually free to roam the facility in my Toyota pickup truck emblazoned with “Ellis Auto Parts” on its sides. Sterling might have been touring the facility when I was dropping off distributor points or a new starter.

Also, around that  time, I was learning about DOS, Windows 3.1, and PC gaming. I had a Commodore Amiga 2000, but I was the only person besides my cousins who owned an Amiga. Of course the Amiga was a more advanced and capable computer than most IBM-compatibles, but I knew many more people with PCs and PC software. So, for a time, I indulged a hobby in PC computers (at least until I discovered the Apple Macintosh SE/30 and the computing universe that represented in Mrs. Ragland’s drafting class).

Had I read this book back then, who knows what I might have done? I imagine myself taking a detour on one of my delivery missions to the auto shop–and its interior office walls emblazoned with centerfold girls–to drop in to meet Mr. Fitzpatrick. A detour taken while driving and learning a little bit more about computers and computer security could have taken my life on its own detour from where it is now.

Had I seen computers and networks as an end in themselves–more than I did building, optimizing, and fixing them–my life would have been detoured.

As it happens, my life detoured in other, unexpected, and interesting ways. At the time, I was focused on learning about plasma physics, and in my off time, the physics of consciousness. I wound up at Georgia Tech, but I quickly learned that I was better at writing about science than doing it full time. During that time, I fell in love with science fiction–especially the New Wave and cyberpunk. I studied how to make art with new media online with HTML and Adobe Flash, and for performance with video production. I worked with James Warbington on two 48-Hour Film Festivals, and I made DVDs for Poetry at Tech (Georgia Tech).

It is own weird way, the detour comes back around so that I study the relationship between computers and the human brain, science fiction and computers, and writing pedagogy and digital media.

While things have worked out remarkably well for me despite the weird turns on my life’s road, I still consider the “what ifs,” and sometimes, I try out the “what ifs” by incorporating the “what ifs” into my daily practices. One way besides creating what I tentatively call City Tech’s Retrocomputing Lab in my humble 64 sq. ft. of office space, I decided to take my enthusiasm with computers into the Linux realm. I’ve used different distros in the past on separate partitions or in virtual machines, but this time I wanted to go all-in–perhaps after getting riled up from reading Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown, which isn’t a story about Linux, but it is in large part about the margins and despite Linux’s successes, it is still on the margins when it comes to the personal computer desktop.

To follow through on this, I took Uber rides back and forth from Microcenter in Brooklyn (my first Uber rides–necessitated by the heat more than the distance–when the weather’s nice, I enjoy walking to Microcenter from where I live). I had discovered they had a Dell XPS 12 marked down from about $1000 to $450. I purchased one, created a backup of the Windows 8 installer (yes, it had Windows 8, not 8.1 installed), and nuked-and-paved it with Ubutu 14.04 LTS Trusty Tahr (now that I’ve fixed my cursor jumping problem initially encountered by simply turning off touchpad taps/clicks, I might venture into one of the newer versions).

Of course, I am no more a hacker than I am a neurosurgeon (this latter point, my dissertation director Mack Hassler enjoyed reminding me of despite the subject matter of my neuroscience-focused literary dissertation), but I enjoy exploring, learning, and playing. Occasionally, I do hack things together. I make things–albeit, usually simple things put together with Deckmate screws and duct tape–and I would like to make things using the computer in ways that I have not really done before. Sure, I’ve taken programming classes before, but I created what I was told to make instead of what I wanted to make. This was a lack of imagination and inspiration on my part, and I do not want to continue making that mistake. So, here we go!

Retrocomputing at City Tech: Vintage Computers Organized on New Shelves

My Retrocomputing Office Space
My Retrocomputing Office Space

Thanks to City Tech’s Stanley Kaplan, I now have a substantial new collection of early personal computers including IBM PCs, Radio Shack TRS-80s, a Commodore PET, Texas Instruments TI-99s, ATARI 800, and a number of other computers and peripherals in my office in Namm 520. Some of the smaller items are locked in my filing cabinet, but as you can see from the photos included in this post, I have the larger items arranged around my desk and on a new set of Edsal steel shelves that I purchased on Amazon.com. Now, I have to make some additional room for a large, removable magnetic disk from a TRIAD Computer System (c. late-1970s~early-1980s, the drive that reads this disk was about the size of a washing machine) and an Apple Macintosh Centris 650, which I shipped to myself from Brunswick when I recently visited my parents. In the coming months, I will catalog these machines, see what works, and plan how to use them (research, pedagogy, and exhibits). If you have older computers, disks, or user manuals and would like to donate them for use in my research and teaching, please drop me a line at dynamicsubspace at gmail dot com.

IMG_0337
Radio Shack Color Computer 3s, Zenith Data System, Odyssey, TRS-80, and PET Printer.
IMG_0338
TRS-80, Texas Instruments TI-99s, and Toshiba Laptop.
IMG_0339
Victor Computer and TRS-80.
IMG_0340
Commodore 64s, TRS-80, and Various Floppy Disk Drives.
IMG_0341
IBM PC, IBM PCxt, Kaypro, and AT&T Desktop.
IMG_0342
ATARI 800 and Compaq Portable PC sans case.
IMG_0343
Pentium 233 MHz PC, i7 PC, i7 Dell (office standard issue), and Commodore PET.

Retrocomputing Lab Page Launch

DSC01810-bw-TITLE2

Over the weekend, I launched a new page under the “Research” menu on DynamicSubspace.net for my Retrocomputing Lab.

I use the Retrocomputing Lab’s hardware and software resources in my continuing research on human-computer interaction, human-computer experiences, and human-computer co-influence. So far, its primary focus is on the shift from the pre-Internet, early-1990s to the post-Internet, late-1990s and early-2000s.

During that time, technological and cultural production seems to accelerate. Imagine all of the stories yet to be recovered from that time. How do we untangling of the long shadow of that time from the innovations and disruptions of the present passing into future?

The computer hardware includes Macs and PCs. There are laptops and desktops. There are different add-on cards and peripherals to enhance and change experiences. There are 3.5″ floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and DVDs. There are many different kinds of software ranging from games to interactive encyclopedias to operating systems to word processors. There are different motherboards that can be swapped out in various computer cases (AT and ATX). The machines can be temperamental, but each configuration reveals its own indelible soul (for lack of a better word, but it is a word that I quite like in this context).

My research focuses on reading on screens, depictions of electronic-facilitated reading, and the cognitive effects of reading on screens (of course, there are a multitude of screens and interfaces–a worthy complication) as opposed to other forms of non-digital media (and their multitude).

The Retrocomputing Lab continues to grow and new research possibilities abound. If you are interested in collaborating on a project with Retrocomputing Lab resources, drop me a line at jason dot ellis at lmc dot gatech dot edu.

Learn about Machine Learning and IBM’s Jeopardy Challenger Watson on NOVA

This morning after breakfast, I was fooling around with the PBS app for iPad and found the recent NOVA program “Smartest Machine on Earth.” Originally aired on Feb 9, 2011, it is about IBM’s latest computer wunderkind and Jeopard-playing computer named Watson. Ultimately, the machine-learning enabled computer system created by IBM engineers and computer scientists beat Jeopardy’s best human players Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. I saw some of the three games on TV, and it was an interesting experience to watch a computer compete in the kind of reasoning game that Jeopardy is. If you want to learn more about how Watson works and thinks and what IBM is planning with the technology developed to make him competitive, you can watch the episode of NOVA through the PBS iPad app, or online here: NOVA | Smartest Machine on Earth.

PS: Contribute to your local PBS station.