Thursday, 18 February 2016

Linux Mint on a Thinkpad X60s

A 12" ThinkPad X60s with a 15" MacBook Pro for scale.

Imagine being without sunlight for two years. It sounds horrible, but that is the reality for people who live in Britain. Two years ago, on a whim, I tried out Linux Mint on a ThinkPad X60. It worked! Surprisingly, it worked. It worked surprisingly well.

Now in 2016 the X60 is long-gone, but I've always had a soft spot for that generation of ThinkPad. They're small, they're still functional as basic netbooks, and they're very cheap on eBay. When an X60s fell into my hands for almost nothing I decided to see what it was like.

X60s, with an s on the end. It was the s-for-slimline model, with a slimline case and a low-voltage Core Duo. It's part of a family of six laptops, consisting of the original X60 and X60s from 2006, the upgraded X61 and X61s from 2007, and the X60T and X61T laptop tablets. The X-models all had 12", 1024x768, 4:3 screens, although the tablets had an optional 1400x1050 panel which, frustratingly, wasn't available with the laptops.

My X60s has seen better days. The case is a magnesium frame clad in plastic - I'm not sure if it's fibreglass or carbon fibre reinforced plastic. It has a matte finish. The body doesn't flex, and the screen stays at whatever angle you set, even if you hold the machine upside-down and jiggle it back and forth.
IBM sold the ThinkPad range to Lenovo in 2005, but for a very short time Lenovo was allowed to use the IBM name. Shown here is a 2006 X60s and a 2007 X61.

The standard X60 was one of the first post-IBM ThinkPads. Lenovo essentially stuck a 32-bit Core Duo into the Pentium M-powered ThinkPad X41, added SATA, and tweaked the case a bit. It was launched in the distant past of 2006. The reviewers loved it. It was expensive, but that didn't matter in 2006 because everybody had lots of money. It seems to have sold like hot cakes, judging by the plethora of used models that appeared on eBay a few years ago. A combination of economic malaise and the general competence of the Core Duo meant that IT replacement cycles slowed right down, and the X60 models had a long life (Lenovo continued making new batteries until 2011).

Lenovo's next model was the X61, which was launched in 2007. The X61 had a 64-bit Core II Duo, although back in those days 64-bit computing was still very novel, and the X6X machines came pre-installed with 32-bit Windows XP Pro or Vista Business. The s-models had low-voltage processors that used slightly less battery power than the standard CPUs but more importantly they generated less heat, which meant that Lenovo could use a thinner heatsink.

Heat was one of the X60/61's big problems, particularly with the X61 models. Heat and noise, because the firmware tends to blow the fan all the time. The right palmrest in particular gets very hot because of the wi-fi card, which is crammed into the case. Lenovo put a second fan into the X61 but the problem persisted, and for this reason I often use one of those nano USB wi-fi adapters with my X61.

The X60s has a warm palmrest but the rear of the machine remains relatively cool. I had long assumed that the s-models were physically identical to the standard X60/X61, but they're slightly different. They were available with a lightweight screen, but more obviously the bottom is flat, like Gwyneth Paltrow's bottom:

On the right, an X61, on the left an X60s. Laptops used to look like this, with screws and panels. Nowadays they are sealed units with smooth, blemish-free bottoms, like Gwyneth Paltrow's bottom.
Nine years ago this pair would have left you without much change from three thousand pounds; almost a decade of depreciation has wiped away almost all of their value. As of 2016 they're an eccentric choice, because used X200s are only slightly more expensive. The X200 added a widescreen, 1280x800 display and a faster range of Core II Duos.

The two models pictured above are fitted with their respective slimline batteries. The X60s/61s has a wider battery socket - it can use X60 batteries, but you have to screw a plastic spacer onto the end. The X60/61 can't use X60s/61s batteries, and neither of them can use X60T/61T tablet batteries, so be careful which ones you buy. The X60, X60s, X61, and X61s are all compatible with the X6 ultrabase; the tablets used a different unit.

On a technical level the later X61s has three big advantages over the X60s, apart from the slightly faster CPU. It has a 64-bit Core II Duo which is about 15% faster at the same clock speed, plus a SATA II bus - you have to install an unofficial BIOS modification, but it works fine - and an 8gb memory limit, which is ample for a subnotebook. The X60s on the other hand has a hard 4gb memory limit, of which only 3gb is usable, and a SATA I interface.

The Core Duo is only 32-bit. I mention this because my original plan was to hackintosh my X60s into a Hackintosh, but modern versions of OS X are 64-bit only, and sadly the tutorials that show how to hackintosh ThinkPads with older versions of OS X have rotted away - their support files have evaporated from the internet. Linux Mint still has 32-bit support, although Google Chrome on Linux is about to become 64-bit only, leaving the 32-bit version a dead duck. Windows is also 32-bit friendly, but the cost of a Windows licence is greater than the X60s.

On an economical level the X60-era machines are not quite novelty antiques, although they are heading there. With an SSD and some extra memory they run Office or LibreOffice, Chrome etc as well or better than any smartphone, and with an infinitely better keyboard. For a lark I wrote this review of Jane Horrocks' If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me with my X60s whilst on the train, and I had no problem with it. The hardware is tough and easy to work on, and the parts are mostly still available. In the UK machines with a hard drive and genuine Windows licenses fetch £50-60-70 or so depending on condition, stripped machines slightly less. Compared to a modern laptop they're way out of date; I prefer to compare them with something like a Raspberry Pi. You get an x86-compatible machine with CPU performance on a par with a modest ARM-powered smartphone plus a keyboard, a screen, and a uninterruptible power supply for the same price as a Raspberry Pi plus the accessories.

My X60s was dirt cheap because it came without a hard drive. By coincidence I had a Toshiba Q300 120gb SSD lying around, so I decided to use that. Why was it lying around? I was going to install it in my MacBook as a second drive, but MacBooks are finicky about what goes in the DVD bay, and although my MacBook tolerates a HDD in that slot it refuses to use an SSD even if I ask nicely.

The Q300 was launched last year to general critical indifference; the drive is apparently unexceptional, and Toshiba sold it at a higher price than the competition, so why bother with it? Toshiba subsequently slashed the price, and at the £30 I paid for it the Q300 suddenly makes more sense. It's cheap, it works, it makes a very high-pitched whining sound, Linux does not wreck it. The X60s' SATA I bus limits its speed potential but there are other benefits over a cheap HDD; it's smaller, noticeably lighter, and has no moving parts. In the future people will look back with horror at the thought of laptops having spinning hard disc drives.

At this point I took lots of photographs of the installation process, all of which I purposefully deleted as an artistic statement. Did you know that pigeons see at a higher frame rate than human beings? Imagine showing a pigeon your new gaming rig; the pigeon would laugh at you. "My child", he would say, "eighty-five frames a second turns your tiny human mind ON but I can't stand it. Your gaming rig is inadequate. You fail it."

And with that the pigeon would fly away. Off the top of my head the installation process took all of eight minutes. The only tweaking I did was optional, and involved speeding up the TrackPoint (see below) and making the wi-fi light stay on instead of blinking constantly, because it was (literally) giving me a headache. You can reprogram people's brains by pulsing bright light into their eyes, very quickly, and I often wonder what would happen if the sun had a wobble and started flickering very quickly, or if a small but partially opaque cloud of dust passed between the Earth and the Sun. Would it affect our minds? Is it already affecting our minds? Scroll up to the picture of the SSD - the screw hole is off-centre. That affects my mind. It produces an effect. This is how you remember the difference between those two words.

Famously Mike Tyson kept pigeons. He kept pigeons even before he was Mike Tyson. When a thug killed one of his pigeons he vowed that no-one would ever kill his pigeons ever again, and with an iron will he became Mike Tyson. From that point onwards his pigeons slept safe in their beds at night.

The pigeons paid him back; whilst training to become Mike Tyson he taught his pigeons to throw punches at him. At first he couldn't block them, because the pigeons were so much faster, but over time he learned to overclock his mind until he saw the world at a pigeon's furious pace. Only when he could block their punches did he step into the ring, and the rest is history. Tyson is nowadays stereotyped as a big slow punching machine, but he was in fact extremely fast. Without pigeons he would have been nothing.

Imagine that I am installing Linux Mint.

I settled on Linux Mint because it has worked in the past, it worked on my 600X, I like the name, and it is a favourite of Bulgarian crooks, who are a discerning lot. But before leaping in I tried out Android-x86, a port of Android for the x86 platform. From a live USB it worked, badly; it didn't install properly to the hard drive and I wasn't minded to put any effort into it because I just couldn't be bothered. Android was originally developed for keyboard-equipped smartphones but that was long ago. It is intended to run a single, full-screen, touch-enabled applet, and on a laptop it's an odd fit. At this point I would include some of the screenshots I took, but I can't because I deleted them.

I then tried Debian, which I have read about. It is the hardcore Linux for hardcore Linux nerds who live in the real world. NASA uses it on their ThinkPads so it must be good. It is Linux with a text-mode installer and a pile of old-fashioned-but-stable packages. Debian has a conservative design philosophy and is often tricky to get working properly on modern hardware, but that's not a problem with an X60s. Does it make sense as a toy OS on a laptop? Not really. It's aimed at enterprise users; the kind of people who set up their machine in a secure location and then remove the keyboard and monitor and leave it running for years thereafter, administered via a terminal.

I used the single-CD-but-on-a-USB-stick stable version, which loads a basic system and then grabs the rest from the internet. It installed, but only after a bit of bother with sources.list. (When I tried to run apt-get Debian asked me to insert the CD that I didn't have, which can be circumvented by editing sources.list. I'm accustomed to using sudo for this kind of thing, but the basic installation of Debian doesn't have sudo, and of course sudo apt-get sudo doesn't work.) It's a trivial thing but it made me question the wisdom of proceeding; I just don't have time to learn a new set of habits. Still, Debian worked, it connected to the internet, it downloaded and installed packages etc, it is perfectly feasible as a desktop OS, it just feels wrong. Ultimately Debian reminded me of why I have never bonded with Linux. Outside of certain very narrow contexts - within which Debian is undoubtedly fantastic - Debian is Linux for people who enjoy tinkering with Linux so that they can install Linux, and that doesn't appeal to me. I want to use Linux to do something else.

Eighteen months after writing this blog post I tried Android-x86 again, version 4.4-r5. From a live USB stick it worked, although I noticed that the animated screensaver was very slow. Unfortunately the stock browser crashed whenever I touched the location bar. Via the Google search bar I could load the BBC's home page, but again it crashed. I'll try again in a few years.

It also seems to be the distribution of the stereotypical Linux-Nerd-with-an-elderly-relative. You know the type. They have set up Debian for one of their elderly relatives in order to save them from Windows, which in the story is presented as the only alternative. Now the elderly relative has a computer running Debian, and they are happy as lambs. This story pops up again and again. It's supposed to illustrate the ease with which even an old person can use Linux, but it just gives the impression that Linux nerds enjoy having power over elderly people. I imagine the same nerds flying into a screaming rage if the elderly relative asks to use iTunes or play games or turn off the password prompt. And the story is so widespread I often wonder if the elderly relatives are just fictional, whether this is a story that has been given to Linux nerds to put out. What is their goal?

Debian was founded by a man called Ian Murdock, who named it after himself and his wife Debra, who must have been flattered. They subsequently divorced. Ian left the Debian project although he continued to be a leading Linux nerd. This led to an odd situation where in 2006 he was forbidden from using the Debian name for his Debian Core Consortium project, despite the fact that half of the name was his actual name. That must have stung.

Ian died at the end of 2015. After being approached by police in the street whilst drunk he appears to have handled the situation badly; in his final Tweets he came across as one of those "don't you know who I am" types, irritated that despite making $1.4m dollars in his final year on Earth - he mentioned that in one of his tweets - the police had the temerity to arrest him instead of a poor person. Then he killed himself, and so Debian continues without either of the people it is named after. The lesson is that if you are a leading expert in a hermetically-sealed subculture, you are still just a nobody as far as the outside world is concerned. Enough of Debian.

Later ThinkPads - two generations hence - dropped the fantastic keyboard in favour of a calculator-style chiclet model. As you can see, the X60s' FN and CTRL keys are swapped, and of course there's no trackpad, but otherwise the keyboard is excellent. The keys feel smooth, they don't wobble, they have just the right amount of travel, the font is legible etc.

I used Mint 17 with XFCE, which installed without a hitch. In one respect it was better than Windows - it detected and set up the X60s' middle mouse button, which acts as a scrollwheel. You hold it down and nudge the TrackPoint back and forth to scroll. Windows does this, but the behaviour feels better with Mint, more intuitive. After a bit of tinkering I got the ThinkPoint to behave just right, and beyond that I didn't need to do any tinkering.

I don't care about the operating system. I just want it to get out of the way and run the applications I want. I bought an Android phone specifically for mapping application OsmAnd and some other things, and I bought a MacBook Pro specifically for top music sequencer Logic. Linux-on-the-desktop fans seem to assume that people will flock to Linux just for the fun of running Linux, which isn't going to happen.
Here the X60s runs long-dead-but-still-functional universe simulator Celestia (slowly, but it works), plus the ultimate home computer killer app - the world wide web. The X60s has built-in 802.11g wi-fi. With wi-fi and the screen dimmed slightly it runs for an hour and a half, which isn't bad for an old battery.

The X60s is of course very old. Nine years old. Twenty years ago nine years was an eternity in computing terms, but recently computer years have started to align with normal human years. Crysis is nine years old, but feels far more modern today than Doom did in 2002, if you get my drift. NB the X60s cannot run Crysis.

In its day the low-voltage 1.8ghz Core Duo in the X60s was state-of-the-art. Each core was on a par with one of the later Pentium 4 CPUs, with a fraction of the Pentium 4's power consumption and heat output, and the Core Duo had two cores. In the early 2000s there was a race for speed, and Intel didn't care much about low power consumption or efficiency; but the rise of mobile changed all that, and nine years later the X60s is still roughly as powerful as a cheap modern Windows tablet, at least when it comes to number-crunching. Modern Windows tablets are however much better mobile devices. They run for three times as long in a package roughly the same depth as the X60s' lid.

Here with a Linx 10, one of a breed of compact x86 tablets that emerged in late 2014.

Furthermore the Linx 10 in the picture above has a decent graphics chip that can run mid-late 2000s games, whereas the Intel GMA950 in the X60s was unimpressive even when it was new. In terms of basic functionality the X60s' only real advantage is the mass of ports and the keyboard, although it is a very nice keyboard.

The X60s' 1024x768 screen feels more spacious than it is because it has a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it's still only 1024x768. It's also dimmer and less contrasty than a modern screen. The X60s has three USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, an SD card slot, a PCMCIA/Cardbus slot, and Firewire 400, which makes it one of the few PC laptops with a Firewire port. The X6 ultrabase is widely available on eBay (Lenovo made loads of them) and adds parallel and serial ports plus a bay for a second hard drive, a CD/DVD writer, or a tiny extra battery. There was also a very rare "slice" battery that plugged into the bottom of the X60s.

What of the other Linux distributions? Shortly before installing Mint on an X60 I tried several other modern distributions on a much older ThinkPad 600X. A 500mhz Pentium III with half a gigabyte of memory. A few of the distributions even worked, Mint among them. At the time I concluded that Linux distributions are much of a muchness; my assumption is that if Linux Mint installs and works on a relatively modern X60s, the rest of the Ubuntu family should work as well. I haven't tried FreeBSD, but this chap did and got it working, in 2006! Puppy Linux of course works on everything, including the human brain, and I know this because I've tested it.

Is there a reason for all these distributions any more? As the world transitions away from the misguided old white male desktop hegemony to a trans-positive, zero-waste, multiethnic cloud-enabled mobile era, the desktop versions of Linux are fighting for slices of an ever-diminishing poke, which is a type of Hawaiian fish salad. I don't want to write pie because pies are too reminiscent of the misguided old white heteronormative male hegemony. Slices of an ever-diminishing loaf made with ancient grains. Furthermore even the most basic x86 tablets sold in the local supermarket are good enough, so there's much less reason for the lightweight Linux distributions to persist.

It is a perverse world we live in. The first thing I ever spent more than £1,000 on was a computer, and it was painful to spend that money but necessary for my job; that was a long time ago and I have not spent £1,000 on a computer ever since, or even half that. It's as if the world economy has concentrated on bringing the price of computers down to the exclusion of all else, and so while the economy collapses and the Middle East is engulfed in war and periodically there is a virus scare - currently Zika - we in the misguided old white male hetero-hegemony have no shortage of cheap internet machines. What will stop us?