Laptops, Linux, Restore CD's and Why I'll Never, Ever Buy a ThinkPad Again
Last updated: 6/27/2002; 8:50:42 AM
 
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Laptops, Linux, Restore CD's and Why I'll Never, Ever Buy a ThinkPad Again

Disclaimer: I don’t want this to seem as whining.  It’s just an interesting commentary on the state of our PC’s now (IMHO), options to Windows and the things that can lead to a platform shift. 

I tell you – 22 + years of using PC based hardware and I’ve NEVER had an experience like the past month – machines down, hard drives crashing, OS failures, etc.  If it’s bad and it involves computers I’ve probably had it in the last month.  As I said to someone via IM last night:

fuzzygroup: It’s just been like an anvil was dropped on me
fuzzygroup: and then a piano.
fuzzygroup: lately it’s been big rocks
sekaup: sounds fun.  or not.
fuzzygroup: but that’s ok.  Builds Character.

But… It’s ok.  I feel like I now have attained a state of “ Zen and the Loss of Data”.  I’m pretty much backed up at all times which is always good.  I’m better than ever at data recovery and disaster recovery (never bad) and even losing a hard drive doesn’t bother me. 

As of this morning I now have a Linux laptop, NOT a windows laptop.  The way I got to Linux was bizarre and involved a failure on the part of both IBM and Microsoft.  So here are some thoughts on ThinkPads and why I’ll never go back as well as how I got to Linux:

  1. Love the hardware.  Small, light, cool, stylish.
  2. Unreliable at the hard drive level.  On 2 thinkpads I am now on my 4th hard drive.  My 1st ThinkPad’s PCMCIA slots just died as if by magic.  And a USB network adaptor basically sucks.
  3. When my last hard drive died the first time, I figured it was just a random thing and reinstalled from scratch.  When it failed again, literally 5 minutes before a client demo, I figured “Hmmmm.  Probably a bad idea to use that drive again”.  A quick trip to the wonderful, wonderful folks at www.cablesonline.com got me a replacement drive.
  4. IBM’s own web site recommends a 30 gig drive as the replacement for the original 20 gig drive.  So that’s what I got.
  5. I installed it, did the recovery CD and all was goodness, sunshine and happiness.  I felt as if I was about to stroll the elysian fields of wireless notebook computing again.
  6. Of course the 1st thing you do is install your software and data.  I began that less than pleasant task and felt cool.
  7. BANG!  BOOM!  “Out of Disc Space!”.  “Bizarre” I thought.  It’s a 30 gig drive. 
  8. Actually, no.  According to Windows it’s now a 2 gig drive.
  9. Ah… BIOS needs to be updated.  And I know that this means that I’m pretty much hosed again – I’ll have to redo the Restore CD and then reinstall software and such.  Wonderful. NOT.
  10. So a few days go by and then I have the time to flash the BIOS and then update the other required things like the core drivers
  11. So I’m all ready to run the Restore CD.   It goes through the process – but doesn’t actually restore anything.  It looks like it does it but the machine still boots into Windows 2K with a 2 gig partition.
  12. After trying 2 x more, it finally dawns on me that the issue has to be the new drive.  I.e. the restore CD doesn’t know what to do with the 30 gig drive.
  13. I think about the prospect of calling IBM support, waiting for a new restore CD (if one is even available).  Or the option of going to the store and buying a new copy of XP.  I absolutely refuse to buy a new copy of XP.  I’m an MSDN member, I paid my $1,000, and I have about 1,000 CDs from Microsoft including a full edition of XP – but not a bootable CD (at least to my knowledge).  This means that the best I could do would be to revert to some other MS OS, upgrade it to XP and then spent N hours/days combing IBM’s web site for the different hardware drivers (Laptops are funky with respect to drivers).  I’ve done this before and it always borders on nightmarish at best.
  14. I happened to burn a CD of Lycoris / Redmond Linux about 2 sundays ago just really on a whim.  I figured “The machine’s toast anyway” so why not blow away the hard drive and just see how it installs at least.
  15. Guess what?  Flawless.  Bloody well flawless.  In about 1/2 hour it installed perfectly (although it didn’t find my sound card) and it did find my drive, all 30 gigs of it.  It’s about as easy a Linux distribution as I’ve found.

So here’s what I found really bad about all this:

  1. Well the whole process.  Still bad things happen and everyone has a string of bad luck at times.  It’s not that big a deal honestly – I didn’t lose more than a few K of data at most, no one died, no one was injured and I didn’t even get all that angry.  In the grand scheme this is really not all that bad.
  2. IBM recommending something as  a replacement without commenting that it was NOT supported by the restore CD.  I will admit though that I was in a rush and I could have missed it.  When you need a new hard drive and you’re in a hurry this does happen.
  3. The Restore CD was definitely a problem.  It should have looked at the drive and figured out that it was a different size than supported.  At least a warning would have been nice.
  4. The real problem was this: IBM / Microsoft DOESN’T SHIP THE CDs FOR WHAT YOU PAID FOR.  With my laptop I paid for a Windows 2K license.  I don’t have the CDs for it and now, when I need them most, I’m hosed.  If this was a budget laptop I could accept it but when I bought it, IBM had just released it and it was top of the line.  I look at this as buying a Mercedes and getting a 2 cylinder lawnmower engine under the hood.  Sure there may well be an option to call / write IBM and get the CDs after I buy the Laptop but this puts the burden on the customer NOT the vendor.  I gave them the $$$ – why didn’t they give me what I paid for?

NOTE : One of the really appealing things about an iBook as an alternative is that Apple seems to understand that CDs may suck but they are necessary.  It’s that whole complete user experience that Apple understands and Microsoft doesn’t seem to get.

Conclusion

So – Net Result – I have an extended business trip to Europe (Italy / Venice) in 2 weeks and I don’t even know if I’ll have a machine that I’m really comfortable with.  The next step is, of course, to figure out exactly what I need to do with a latop and map that matrix onto a Linux laptop and see if it works for me or if I need to really go back to Windows.  I use *nix on the server side daily so running it on my laptop isn’t such a big deal.

I’ll definitely never, ever, ever buy a ThinkPad again.  Dell perhaps.  ThinkPad?  Nope.  It wouldn’t surprise me if IBM has fixed this problem but thrice (actually four but fourice sounds bad) burned, never again.  I would point out to people the following things:

  • Desktop Linux really does work.  Lycoris had as easy an install as Windows setup.  It even let me play Solitaire while it was installing.  How cool is that?
  • The windowing interface on Linux can be gorgeous – I have transparency and 24 bit color and I didn’t do anything to get them.  it was automatic. 
  • Downloading a Linux distribution isn’t a big deal if you have a cable modem.  I did it in about 2 hours and even burned a 3 disc set.
  • I’m not certain that I’ll stick with Lycoris.  It’s cool, don’t get me wrong, but www.gentoo.org looks to make installing stuff much easier than the classical RedHat RPM model (which basically sucks rocks).
  • Linux hardware detection, traditionally an absolute bear, is actually a lot better than you think.  Yes my sound card wasn’t detected but I’ve had this with Windows quite often as well.  And this was a laptop which is always funky.
  • There are real options out there.  Yes you will work at it but it really is viable.  I wouldn’t give my Mom Linux but I would give her OS X.
 
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