The ThinkPad legacy
The ThinkPad is among the oldest extant laptop computer brands, and has long been known as a well-built, powerful, reliable, portable, and somewhat expensive notebook computer system. For years the T series has had a number of attractive options that most of its competitors lack: an extended (9-cell) battery, a more-than-capable port replicator, and a modular design that allows the most failure-prone and upgrade-sensitive parts (RAM, hard drive, optical drive) to be easily replaced without requiring a technician. If your ThinkPad can't do what you want it to, chances are there is something you can buy to bring it up to your standards.
There are now several ThinkPad models, but the T series is the most powerful and well-known. The T60 series is built even more solidly than the T40 and T20 series was, and is definitely a worthy replacement for previous T series models. Cosmetically the T61 is similar to all previous models -- black plastic lower bezel, indicator LEDs in the familiar place just right of center below the LCD, both a touchpad and a trackbutton for mouse pointer control, and a heavy-duty keyboard with the same basic key layout as in previous models. The LCD bezel is now made out of magnesium instead of plastic, which enhances durability, but other than that, at a glance it's difficult to tell the difference between the T61 and other T60 or T40 series systems.
This is the first ThinkPad T series model I've tested that does not have the IBM logo on it; this represents the end of the branding deal with IBM. Fortunately, the machine's quality seems to remain on the same level as previous IBM-branded generations.
Models and packages
The model I tested was the T61 7663-16U, though there are many different configurations therein, and many other models in the T61 line. There is also the T61p, which shares most of the major features of the T61 except the T61p has a more powerful (NVIDIA Quadro FX 570M 256MB) video card instead of the Intel GMA X3100 GM965 or 128MB NVIDIA Quadro NVS 140M of the standard T61. All other options are identical between the two models.
There are many different T61 models and sub-models, all with very slightly different configurations. The models that support SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 must be custom ordered over the phone -- you can't get them online through the Lenovo site.
Physical and electrical design
The LCD screen comes in two sizes: 14.1" (SXGA+, 1400x1050 max resolution) and 15.4" (WXGA, 1280x720, 1280×800, and 1280x768 resolution options for different aspect ratios). For this review I tested only the 14.1" model, which has the same physical dimensions as the ThinkPad T40 with the 14.1" screen, but the T61 offers superior resolution. It's bright and sharp -- so bright that it's hard for me to go back to older LCDs -- has a standard anti-glare coating, and I found no dead pixels.
The hard drive is SATA, which means that if necessary, you can easily take it out and connect it to a desktop machine without having to use uncommon adapters. It also offers a higher potential data transfer rate than parallel ATA (IDE) hard drives of the past. The ThinkPad T61 comes with a range of hard drive options, from 80 to 250GB. On the top end you have a choice between a 5400RPM and a 7200RPM edition. Though it may cost substantially more, there is a significant and noticeable difference between the rotational speeds in SATA drives. In other words, you definitely want the 7200RPM drive; consider it a "must-have" on any new laptop computer. There is also an extremely expensive option for a 64GB solid-state drive -- at more than $1000, it's more than the cost of the rest of the machine, though it would be substantially faster than a mechanical drive, and might use less electricity as well.
The optical drive is modular and can be removed without disassembling the machine; any ordinary user who has proper instructions should be able to remove the optical drive unit without professional assistance. This makes it very easy to upgrade or replace the drive in the future. There are two options: a dual-layer DVD writer, and a CDRW/DVD-ROM.
Integrated peripherals is where most laptop manufacturers cut corners and use cheap components that have poor quality drivers in Windows and no drivers at all for other operating systems. The big change between the T60 and T61 is the graphics -- The T61 uses either the Intel GMA X3100 GM965 or a 128MB NVIDIA Quadro NVS 140M. The sound is Intel High Definition Audio; though some versions of this chip have had problems lately, this one works very well in SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. The Bluetooth and infrared transmitters both work well in Linux as well. The wired network uses the standard e1000 kernel module, and the wireless is Intel IPW3945, which has been around for a while and is now fairly widely supported in both Linux and FreeBSD and OpenBSD.
The heart of the T61 is the Intel Core 2 Duo processor, with a choice of several performance levels, offering models from the T7250 on the low end up to the T9500 at the top. The Core 2 Duo is a 64-bit dual-core processor based on the popular and successful Core Duo, which has found huge success in laptop PCs and all kinds of modern Macintosh machines.
As for RAM, the system supports up to 4GB, though the 32-bit limitation applies if you are using a 32-bit OS (which the included operating system options are), so you won't get more than about 3.3GB out of 4GB. The RAM speed is DDR2-667, which is about as good as it gets as of this writing; many other Core 2 Duo systems still use slower but cheaper DDR2-400 or DDR2-533.
As has been standard in most ThinkPad models over the past few years, a white LED keyboard light at the top of the LCD screen allows you to more easily see the keyboard in low-light environments. It's easily turned on and off with a function key.
One of the most interesting features of the T61 is a physical switch that allows you to instantly turn off all radio transmitting devices in the system. Not only will this help to prolong battery life if you don't need to use the wireless LAN, Bluetooth, or the internal cellular modem if you have one, but it also makes your computer more airplane-friendly.
There is an integrated fingerprint reader on the right side of the machine, approximately where your palm would rest while typing. It's supposed to allow you to use a scan of your finger instead of passwords in various applications and such, but there did not appear to be any available preinstalled applications that could use it.
Lastly, the standard warranty is one year, which is unusually short considering the machine's quality and reputation. It's also a mail-in warranty, which is the worst kind. Mail-in service is an industry plague -- you lose all of your data when you mail it in, and there are frequent mistakes in shipping the wrong computers back to customers. If you like, you can extend the warranty for up to five years at an increased cost.
Putting the T61 to the test
The first thing I noticed with the ThinkPad T61 was that most of the special buttons and functions did not work in the preinstalled SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, though suspend to RAM and suspend to disk did work. The Windows keys on the keyboard were also non-functional.
|Lenovo ThinkPad T61: the Cadillac of laptop computers|
Speaking of the operating system, it was the 32-bit version of SLED 10, specifically version 10.1-0 SP1. As far as I know, the 64-bit edition was not available as a preinstall option, though I see no reason why it shouldn't work on this computer. The previous model -- T60 -- required the ThinkVantage utilities to properly manage the system, but they are neither required nor available for the T61.
The desktop experience in the ThinkPad edition of SLED 10 is outstanding. If you're totally clueless as to how to use SUSE Linux, you'll find a great asset in the extensive audio/video training program linked directly on the desktop. All of the necessary Web browser plugins are installed, configured, and ready to use, and all of the peripherals work properly with no configuration work necessary. The fingerprint reader even has its own utility in the SLED 10 control panel, though I did not find any application that could use the device.
Few products I've evaluated recently have been as enjoyable to use on a daily basis as the ThinkPad T61. The hardware itself was as solid, reliable, and speedy as it could possibly be. The fast hard drive and large amount of system memory combined with the excellent Core 2 Duo processor and Nvidia graphics chip made the system invincible in terms of desktop performance stress. There was no desktop task I could do that I felt I had to wait unreasonably long to complete, even when compared to high-performance desktop computers.
The wide screen means that you need funky display resolutions that distort a standard virtual terminal. If you stay in the graphical environment with the factory-configured resolution, you'll be fine; the view from the command line looks a little "squat" though.
Battery life was acceptable, but not as good as it was on the T60p that I tested a while back. With the T60p I could get about 3 hours out of the 6-cell battery and more than 5 hours on the 9-cell. The T61 I received for testing only came with a 9-cell battery, and it could go about 3 hours before it needed to be recharged.
As far as heat was concerned, even heavy usage in warmer-than-normal room temperature doesn't make any part of the ThinkPad T61 untouchable or uncomfortable. It'll definitely blow hot air out of the left rear vent, but the chassis itself never made me sweat when the machine was on my lap.
Conclusions and manufacturer recommendations
The ThinkPad T61 is basically as good as it gets when it comes to laptop computers. I like it so much I wish I could keep it; I would buy one myself, and certainly will when the time comes. Now that the price has come down to an affordable level, there is no excuse for not buying a ThinkPad T series laptop computer for reliable business and personal mobile computing.
Despite the superiority of the ThinkPad T61, there is still a little room for improvement. Here's what I'd like to see in future revisions:
- Make it easier to buy a ThinkPad with SLED 10. Right now you have to call Lenovo and order a ThinkPad T61 that is certified for Linux. You can't just buy one online. I wonder why this is.
- A better warranty. What's with the 1-year mail-in warranty? This should be 3 years onsite as a rule. Nothing degrades buyer confidence more than a lackluster warranty; it tells your customers that you don't think your product will last very long.
|Device support||One PCMCIA, one ExpressCard, three USB 2.0, one 15-pin SVGA, one 10/100/1000 Intel-based NIC, one RJ-11 analog modem line, audio in/out, one small formfactor FireWire, and audio in/out jacks. The T series ThinkPads no longer have a PS/2 connector.|
|Market||Engineers, Linux enthusiasts, business professionals|
|Price (retail)||U.S. $765 or more, depending on accessories, options, and service plans.|
|Previous version||ThinkPad T60|
|Product Web site||Click here|