Monday, December 27, 2010

I got a new computer for Christmas! Sorta...

About a year ago, I bought myself a Lenovo ThinkPad (T500). Because I had been working at Google from 2005-2009 and my work laptop was sufficient for surfing the Web while at home, my last personal laptop purchase was in 2004 when I bought an IBM ThinkPad (T42). I loved my ThinkPad, as I spent many hours of quality time with it implementing my Master's thesis at MIT.

Therefore, when it came time to buy a new machine in 2009, I decided to look at ThinkPads. Yes, I had heard that the quality of the ThinkPad had dropped considerably ever since Lenovo had taken things over from IBM. Yes, all my friends were developing on Macs, but I found them to be irritating to type on and my primary development applications (Google Chrome and Eclipse) felt slow on OS X. And yes, Windows has more than its share of annoyances. At the time, ThinkPads were shipping with Vista (arguably one of the worst Windows releases ever), but they came with a voucher for a free copy of Windows 7, which was reported to be a substantial improvement.

After weighing all of my options, I decided to save some cash and buck the trend of my contemporaries: I chose to be a PC instead of a Mac.

From the abysmal experience of making my online purchase of a Lenovo ThinkPad, I should have known that my experience with the machine itself would also be a disaster. The Lenovo web site was slow and failed to communicate what I was buying. I inadvertently bought a machine with a 32-bit processor (I still don't know why any new machine in the fall of 2009 would not be 64-bit), which could not take advantage of the 4GB of RAM that I paid for. (Searching online forums, I do not appear to be the only one who has made this mistake.) Further, it took two to three weeks to get my laptop. If I had decided to buy a Mac, I could have just walked to the Apple store and had one in my hot little hands that day.

Then there was Vista. Vista makes me angry. Sometimes when my laptop goes to sleep, it also turns off the wireless radio and fails to turn it back on when the machine wakes up. Sometimes the physical buttons to control the volume of the laptop fail to communicate with Vista. (Being unable to control the volume of your computer can be an embarrassing experience.) Sometimes the built-in video camera works, sometimes it doesn't, but either way, rebooting (the go-to solution for any Windows user) is an unreliable fix for the problem. The DVD drive is also finicky, as it inexplicably pops open from time to time. Overall, this is a horrible experience.

But hey, what about that Windows 7 voucher? Apparently you had to redeem it by calling Lenovo customer support after Windows 7 was officially released, which was several weeks after I got my ThinkPad. "Call Lenovo" sat near the bottom of my to-do list for months (who is eager to call customer support?), so by the time I made time to call Lenovo, they told me that my voucher had expired. I complained and they said they would speak to someone and contact me with a response, but they never did.

After all of this, I was incredibly unhappy with my ThinkPad. I wanted to try to put Linux on it, but I had a number of speaking engagements coming up where I was going to present from my laptop, so it did not seem prudent to wipe my machine before embarking on a series of talks. Though even after my speaking series was over, it was hard to find the time to sit down and install Linux. I had never done it by myself before, and I wanted to take the time to read up on it so I could understand what I was doing and have a backup plan in case I was unsuccessful and needed to revert back.

This year, on Christmas Day, I decided to just go for it and install Ubuntu on my ThinkPad. I copied the .iso onto a USB stick, wedged it in the side of my ThinkPad, and rebooted. I hit F1 to change the bootloader to run off the USB stick and made it to the Ubuntu installation screen. I spent a bit of time playing with options to repartition my hard disk so that I could preserve Vista and my files in case I needed to get them back (for me, this has always been the most confusing part when trying to step through a Linux installation), but I got fed up and decided that all of my important data was in the cloud (which includes Mercurial and SVN repos on other machines) and that I had no desire to go back to Vista anyway, so I decided to dedicate the entire hard disk to Ubuntu and abandon Vista forever.

When I decided to blow away my operating system, I knew that it would likely be a rash decision that I would pay for later, but so far, it has been FREAKING AWESOME! The physical volume buttons on the ThinkPad just work. The Google Talk plugin for Linux also just works. And instead of the dual, competing gaudy wireless managers in Vista (one provided by Windows and the other provided by Lenovo), there is now a single, simple icon/dropdown interface in the toolbar to select a wireless network, just like on OS X.

Using my laptop is now enjoyable again. It feels like I got a brand new machine, so even though I didn't manage to get the new computer that I really wanted for Christmas, this certainly seems like the next best thing.

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