Ubuntu Linux on Thinkpad T61

Ubuntu LinuxI’ve been unimpressed with Windows Vista on my new Thinkpad T61 so I decided to give Ubuntu Linux a try, despite the fact that there are a few programs I would be missing (Slysoft AnyDVD HD for DVD decryption, TiVo Desktop for extracting files from TiVo HDs, Philips Pronto Edit for updating my Pronto, etc.)

I pre-read this excellent wiki article atThinkWiki.com. As the article mentioned, I did have problems with a blank screen when the CD booted, but the optional Safe Graphics boot option solved that. The installation was very easy. For the first time in the 20 or so times I’ve installed Linux, I wasn’t worried about accidentally partition my hard drive incorrectly and deleting my existing Windows installation. The wizard took care of resizing existing and creating new partitions automatically.

Unfortunately, I ran into to way too many problems to use Ubuntu 7.10 on a daily basis. Some of these may be resolvable, but not without a lot of work. Truthfully, I don’t care to devote that much time to it. Here are the issues that are making me stick to Windows Vista:

  • The wireless will not connect. I’m using a Linksys WRT54G router with the Linux-based DD-WRT firmware the the plain old WEP encryption. I can see the wireless network, but I can’t connect to it. There is no error message and indication how to resolve it. I connected via a wired network and downloaded all the updates, but it still wouldn’t connect.
  • If I reboot without powering off, the sound card “sticks” and repeats the first 2 seconds of any sound, over and over and over, until I shutdown.
  • The sound card continually “chatters” in the background. It sounds like muted Morse Code, perhaps caused by some type of driver interference. Muting the speakers makes no difference. It doesn’t do this in Windows.
  • The display brightness can’t be adjusted once the nVidia drivers were loaded. I can’t use the advanced Compiz desktop without these drivers, so I’m missing out on a feature either way. There is a work-around to adjust brightness from a terminal window, but I’d really just rather use the hot keys.
  • Tapping the upper right corner of the touchpad caused Ubuntu to switch to a different desktop. But I couldn’t consistently pick the right or left desktop; it was random selection. Worst of all, it happened accidentally far too often. I’m guessing this would be a very easy setting to find, but there were too many other issues at this point for me to look into it.
  • The Ubuntu boot menu gave me two identically-named options for Windows Vista. The first turned out to be the automated recovery partition and didn’t really have anything to do with booting Windows. I know it’s easy to edit the config file, but it would have been nice if this were correct from the beginning.

In the end, I’m beginning to feel like this is the best laptop hardware I’ve ever owned but I’m still is in search of a great operating system. The default Windows Vista Home Basic is OK, but I still have a couple of programs that need XP. And there is still the temporary freeze and “chuck-chuck” sound from the hard drive every 30 or so minutes. But still, it’s much better than the Ubuntu install.

To be honest, I’m starting to regret not going for a MacBook Pro. It could dual-boot to Windows when necessary, and I’d be able to run OS X the rest of the time. The purchase would have cost about $800 more, and that is a large price difference to justify, but I think I’d be more pleased with the overall experience.

Update (26-Feb-2008): I’ve spent more time messing with Ubuntu and am much more pleased with it than I was initially.

  • Wireless Works: I was able to get the wireless working flawlessly, no script or configuration required. My problem was due to confusion with the Ubuntu network protocol naming (WEP Passkey vs. WEP HEX, etc.) Too bad it doesn’t auto-detect the network type and then try the password you enter to figure out phasskey vs. hex vs. decimal. But at least I finally figured out what was needed and got it working.
  • Screen Brightness works: Following the thinkwiki article, I installed ENVY (after multiple unavailable package problems were resolved) and got the latest nVidia drivers, which allows screen brightness to be adjusted.
  • Sound Problems Disappeared: The sound problems went away after a few reboots / updates. I don’t know what the deal was. I had to switch the default volume control (in the upper nav bar) to control the speaker volume instead of the microphone volume, per the think wiki article.
  • System Dock: I installed the AWN (Avant Window Navigator) dock and highly recommend it.
  • Touchpad Config & App Launcher: The advanced touchpad configuration tool QSynaptics and keyboard application launcher Gnome Do are two other must-haves.
  • Unresolved: I installed Skype (after adding the skype repository) but it will not detect sound from the internal or an external microphone. I can make calls and hear people, but they can’t hear me. I worked on this for an hour and gave up.
  • Unresolved: Going into sleep mode or hibernate mode causes bad things to happen. It might resume the first time, but never the second time. I have to hold the power button down and reboot. Power management is terrible.
  • Unresolved: There is no native AccurateRip compatible CD ripping software; dbPowerAmp Music Converter for Windows has no equal. There is no DVD ripping software that nears the reliability (every DVD protection scheme) and functionality (re-authoring) of AnyDVD and CloneDVD.
  • Conclusion: If you have the time, you can get a pretty OS install from Ubuntu. But it’s going to take time and I’d rather spend it other ways. Vista Basic is horrible. I’m going to switch to either Vista Ultimate or XP as both do more of what I need with less effort. In the end, I think a Mac hardware and OS is still the best option: great hardware, great software, less time messing with stuff, but at a higher monetary cost.
Written by in: Reviews | Tags: , , , , | Last updated on: 2007-November-20 |

23 Comments »

  • I’ve actually been pretty pleased with Ubuntu Gutsy on my T-61 with the X3100 and Intel 4965 wireless. I ran Debian Etch for a while then upgraded a couple of weeks ago ago to Ubuntu. I experience the sound chattering under XP, but not under Linux. Wireless (with WPA) have worked great within the default desktop enviornment. I always disabled touchpads on Thinkpads within the BIOS. Compiz caused problems with a lot of apps so I turned tha toff. I get temporary drive freezes less now (and mostly just with crappy Windows software under VMWare) if SATA AHCI is enabled. Basically, it all depends on how bad you want to run Linux and/or OSX. I was pretty disappointed with Linux on my black MacBook so my wife got the MacBook and I got the T-61 and am much happier with it. Yeah not a pretty/cool but as a workstation replacement, it can’t be beat — since OSX still doesn’t have a decent version of VMWare.

  • Tim Pearson says:

    I’m just about to install ubuntu as well and also have Pronto, have a look at this… http://giantlaser.com/tonto/?x=about

  • Carlton Bale says:

    Matthew: Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll give it another try. I don’t have the Intel wireless card but rather the “ThinkPad Wireless Card”, for which which Ubuntu loaded proprietary drivers from Atheros as I recall. Having no wireless is very frustrating.

    Tim: The Tonto software is great if you have an older Pronto remote that uses CCF files. The new Pronto Pro remotes (released in 2003) and even newer Pronto Professional remotes use different file formats, so Tonto won’t work with them. Too bad the developer dropped the project, but it’s hard chasing the ever-changing formats Philips uses.

  • KurtH says:

    I’m in the same boat as you, young child, T61…. no time for messing around with Linux. I recently loaded Vista SP1 (pre release) and its seemed to take care of some issues I had. Linux changes too much over the years for consumers in my opinion. WIndows apps from 10 years ago for the most part run on the modern OS. Every year it seems a different linux flavor is the flavor of the day. There is no free lunch….OPen Source will never totally replace Closed Source (windows, MAC OS). We all have to make money doing something right? If they give away the OS, then they’ll get us on the charges for software or support. Kinda like Printers….. So, my proposition is for MS to fix Vista in SP1 or I go back to XP SP2. Maybe someday Linux will consolidate and we’ll get real competition to Windows/Macos Just my 2 cents.

  • Garron says:

    Well I have a T61 with the Intel Wireless and Nvidia Graphics with Soundmax integrated HD Audio. First thing I did when I got the machine was delete the recovery partition and Vista and proceed to install XP and Ubuntu. XP was a bit of a hassle and the official XP driver for the Vista memory boost thing just hides it from the XP device manager ;) But the power states work and this is an essential for me – I have to be able to hibernate.

    Ubuntu was surprising (7.10 final release no updates). Everything worked first time, sound, audio, display, bluetooth, memory card reader etc. But no hibernation (I could get suspend to RAM working) and no accelerated graphics (as per your post). Pity, because its always the power stuff that gives me hassles (my old R40 works perfectly). They’ll get there with the next release I’m sure.

    So right now I’m happy with XP. Great machine though, I’m very happy with it.

  • Brent Castle says:

    Carlton: Did you have a chance to try an external monitor with t61/ubuntu? Did it work? Which drivers/graphics card, if it did?

    Cheers
    Brent

  • Tim Pearson says:

    Hello Carlton,
    Sorry to be still harking on about Pronto but it’s my only issue of concern after I install ubuntu to a new drive I’m about to put in my Compaq laptop. I just don’t want Windows, what with all my gadgets and toys I spend enough time PDAing, PRONTOing, TELESCOPing and many other ing’s and sick of waiting for the operating system to update every 2 minutes and watching my wife get more angry with my, as she puts it, ‘Daft Fascinations’. As I’m sure you would know more on this subject I thought I’d ask have you tried ‘VMWare Server’ with ProntoEdit, I know there may be hardware recognition problems.

  • Carlton Bale says:

    Tim: I haven’t tired it, but I’ve heard that Pronto Pro Edit will work with VMware. Usually, the issues are with USB 2.0 devices, but I think the Pronto software and the Pronto USB connection both work fine inside a Windows XP VMware instance.

  • Asdf says:

    Funny, I get sound chattering in Windows XP as well. I don’t know how to fix it; I thought it was the harddrive so I called Lenovo support in Atlanta and they send a replacement harddrive (still haven’t done the replacement myself, though). I guess its not the hard drive chattering then?

  • Carlton Bale says:

    No, it’s definitely not the hard drive on mine. I’m not sure what happened, but the chattering went away. Be sure that the line-in and microphone inputs are muted; that can cause a similar problem.

  • Eric Pulvino says:

    Carlton, I have to politely disagree with your conclusions. I have a T61 with the nvidia graphics and the same default mobo audio, with the intel wireless card– I’m currently running ubuntu Gutsy 7.10 and Windows XP Black. All of my stuff worked almost out of the box or with a little config. Wireless just worked with no problems, once I set up the scripts for my network ( I had never done any scripting before) I was set… it’s SOOOO much easier to connect to wireless networks than any other OS now. I just pop into the terminal type in “sudo wireless rpi” and it connects to my school wireless including loading up and connecting to the Cisco VPN client on campus.

    I was a linux novice before I moved over to linux on this machine. The learning curve is the only thing that can pose a problem. All you have to do is be committed for about 2 weeks and once you get over the hump everything is smooth sailing. To get the brightness controls working you have to install the ENVY tool which (having read the thinkwiki article) I’m amazed you didn’t do… it literally consisted of running an installation file and the problem was rectified, at that point with the video drivers loaded you can then just install the compiz-fusion features pretty easily by just apt-getting a few compiz menus and plugins. With compiz running it makes the whole thing worthwhile as far as flashy-ness and usability.

    I have no sound problems whatsoever but I still switched my sound drivers as suggested in the thinkwiki article… did you try switching the sound card drivers? That site really was a huge help for T61 users, I even have my fingerprint reader working! Also there’s a niftly little plugin for pidgin/gaim thinkpads with the LED light on the top that makes it blink whenever you get an instant message, I LOVE THIS FEATURE because most of the time I don’t pay too much attention to my conversations, but now with that light blinking I never miss them. The plugin was called Pidgin-blinklight if you’re interested.

    I guess I was just shocked you gave up so soon. I was a novice but everything was spelled out to a T in the thinkwiki article, with their help EVERYTHING just worked and now I’m happy as a clam with ubuntu as my primary OS. As for SUSE you’re going to be hard-pressed to find another operating system with as much support as ubuntu has but I wish you the best of luck! In the meantime I’m going to revolve my compiz cube until my head falls off.

  • RF says:

    I am going to have to disagree with your disagreement, Eric :)

    I just bought a T61 with the ThinkPad 11a/b/g Wi-Fi wireless card, the NVidia 140M, etc. I followed that same Thinkwiki article, and despite following it as best I could, there’s still a lot to do.

    Do you mind posting your wireless script? I had managed to get my card to connect to my Linksys WRT54G router once – but when I rebooted, it stopped working and nothing I tried would work after that (I am on my old laptop that I bought the T61 to replace; I stumbled on this article trying to figure out how to make the wireless work!) I have to say that Windows XP is much easier in that regard; just click on the network and type in the WPA password and it works.

    I can’t seem to find the NVidia driver panel that the article talks about to enable dual monitors. When I did manage to figure out how to turn on the dual monitor setup, suddenly, my screen resolution went from 1650×1080 down to 1400×900 and nothing I could do would reset the resolution. In XP, I just open up the display properties and tell it to enable the second monitor and everything works.

    Ubuntu is really neat, and I am going to try to stick it out because the bundled Windows Vista Basic was so awful. But it is really, really frustrating coming from XP where everything works pretty flawlessly once you download the drivers.

  • Carlton Bale says:

    Update (26-Feb-2008): I’ve spent more time messing with Ubuntu and am much more pleased with it than I was initially.

    • Wireless Works: I was able to get the wireless working flawlessly, no script or configuration required. My problem was due to confusion with the Ubuntu network protocol naming (WEP Passkey vs. WEP HEX, etc.) Too bad it doesn’t auto-detect the network type and then try the password you enter to figure out phasskey vs. hex vs. decimal. But at least I finally figured out what was needed and got it working.
    • Screen Brightness works: Following the thinkwiki article, I installed ENVY (after multiple unavailable package problems were resolved) and got the latest nVidia drivers, which allows screen brightness to be adjusted.
    • Sound Problems Disappeared: The sound problems went away after a few reboots / updates. I don’t know what the deal was. I had to switch the default volume control (in the upper nav bar) to control the speaker volume instead of the microphone volume, per the think wiki article.
    • System Dock: I installed the AWN (Avant Window Navigator) dock and highly recommend it.
    • Touchpad Config & App Launcher: The advanced touchpad configuration tool and keyboard application launcher are two other must-haves.
    • Unresolved: I installed Skype (after adding the skype repository) but it will not detect sound from the internal or an external microphone. I can make calls and hear people, but they can’t hear me. I worked on this for an hour and gave up.
    • Unresolved: Going into sleep mode or hibernate mode causes bad things to happen. It might resume the first time, but never the second time. I have to hold the power button down and reboot. Power management is terrible.
    • Unresolved: There is no native AccurateRip compatible CD ripping software; dbPowerAmp Music Converter for Windows has no equal. There is no DVD ripping software that nears the reliability (every DVD protection scheme) and functionality (re-authoring) of AnyDVD and CloneDVD.
    • Conclusion: If you have the time, you can get a pretty OS install from Ubuntu. But it’s going to take time and I’d rather spend it other ways. Vista Basic is horrible. I’m going to switch to either Vista Ultimate or XP as both do more of what I need with less effort. In the end, I think a Mac hardware and OS is still the best option: great hardware, great software, less time messing with stuff, but at a higher monetary cost.
  • Eric Pulvino says:

    There were a few programs I just couldn’t find great replacements for (like the office ’07 suite or Adobe CS3 or modeling softwares like Solidworks and Autodesk Inventor) so I just made a virtual copy of Windows XP Black on my primary partition with use of the program called VirtualBox. If you go to their website there’s a debian package that you can download to install it. If you decide to apt-get it instead the only version that’s in the repositories is the open source edition (OSE) which has certain functionality like USB disabled. I recommend grabbing the edition off of their website. With the use of VirtualBox I’m truly Windows-free. I love VirtualBox because it allows me to continue to use those few Windows-ONLY programs that I have left. It’s also rock solid and has great support and did I mention it’s free? I’m sure this might offer you a solution to your CloneDVD and ANYDVD software issues however DVDshrink has always worked well for me in the past. Nowadays, I just rip ISO’s and store the iso’s in digital form on a file server in my basement. I find it easier than managing all the disks because you don’t always have to worry about them getting scratched, or taking up space on your laptop hard drive. I just use NFS to mount the directory with another little script and I’ve got full seemless access to all of my iso’s and other large files that are on my fileserver in the basement. Discovering NFS was another HUGE thing for me that has completely changed how I think of storage and home computing. Might be worth a look!

  • Del R says:

    I am going to install Ubuntu today. I wonder however if I will be able to get the extras working. Has anyone had problems with the following:
    – The hard drive active protection service
    – the battery maintenance services – (battery deterioration may occur if battery is constantly charged at 100%)
    – ability to scroll up and down using the trackpad
    – I like the System Update software from Lenovo – I have seen quite a few bios updates. I wonder if I would be able to run those in Linux (since they are .exes…)

    Thank you for your help!

  • Per says:

    You can scroll up and down using the trackpad

  • Dag Rende says:

    Its getting better and better with Ubuntu 8.04 on my T61. Look at my website about how I did it. The most important is how suspend/resume can be fixed even with restricted nvidia driver.

    Regards,
    Dag

  • Mohnish says:

    Hi,

    For Skype voice input problem, double click volume icon, go to “Recording Tab” and unmute the capture control. Increase the capture control to amplify the recording. That’s it. Done!
    Further about your missing favorite applications, Ubuntu had many which are professional, intuitive and stable. You’ll immediately fall in love with them. Mu suggestion, don’t we disheartened, keep trying Ubuntu for a month. After that you’ll love the choice you made.

  • Steve says:

    Let’s say you have Windows XP running in a virtual machine on Ubuntu via either VMWare or VirtualBox. Can you then use dbPowerAmp and AccurateRip to rip CDs from Windows XP virtual machine?

    • Carlton Bale says:

      I’m not positive, but I don’t think this is possible through a VM. Programs like this (dbPowerAmp w/Accurate Rip, Slysoft AnyDVD) need direct hardware access. In the past, I tried AnyDVD and it was extremely slow and didn’t function properly.

      If they did work properly in a VM, I’d be much more likely to switch to a Mac or possibly Linux, but they are required programs for me, so I don’t.

  • Eric Pulvino says:

    Virtualbox allows for direct hardware access via a checkbox called Enable Passthrough under the CD/DVD settings of the VM. Once enabled you can rip and even burn cd/dvd’s just like you normally would in the VM. A very handy tool.

  • Eric Pulvino says:

    I was just going back over this article and looking at my previous responses from several years ago and couldn’t believe I flamed you as hard as I did. I worked in tech support back then… call it repressed rage. Anyways the newest version of Ubuntu 9.04 has been delicious for the T61. Every single one of the hardware related issues, sound, video, screen brightness, wireless, sleep/hibernate you had originally mentioned has been resolved. They all work right out of the box now.
    It’s been amazing for me as a constant Ubuntu user to literally see the OS evolve with each new release during my four years of use. This article being direct evidence of that evolution. Plus they keep speeding up the boot time with every release, and it’s only going to get better, my machine boots from powered-off in 30 seconds flat. If you were ever thinking of giving Ubuntu another look, now might be the time.

  • Leif Harmsen says:

    Agreed. I usually advise less than tech savvy clients to get a Mac, especially if they’re high on money and low on time. I’m an Ubuntu dude – and with every update it gets more user friendly – I can see the day when it will eclipse Mac for simplicity and ease of use without a zillion unasked for features and the proprietary hampster-wheel of expensive add-ons that Mac is becoming famous for. Once Ubuntu works it works the best – and I was lucky with my last Laptop, an HP Pavilion, everything worked perfectly from the start. No fishing for drivers etc., nothing command line, no nonsense.

    Windows is firmly legacy now – nobody in their right mind would start with anything Microsoft today – Windows is a pile of patched together debris still trying to pass itself off as a viable operating system. The rest of the world, Mac included, has well beyond with Unix or unix based OS.

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