Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lenovo E420, Ubuntu + Windows 7

I grew tired of running my WP7 developer tools and Ubuntu inside VMs and decided I would start looking for a dedicated Windows machine. After my iMac died, I had to cut my usual six months of looking down to about ninety days. I wanted something that had a great keyboard and would seamlessly run Windows 7 and Ubuntu 11.04 side by side.

After some looking around I found the Lenovo E420 on Amazon for $499.99, provided by Tiger Direct. The specs on the machine were exactly what I was looking for, something running on fairly low wattage, great keyboard and cheap. I was reasonably concerned about dual booting Ubuntu and Windows 7 on it, even though everything should have led me to conclude that a Lenovo would work like a champ.

The only one that seems to have more Linux certified laptops than Lenovo was Dell. I did spend a fair amount of time on the Dell website, and found lots of machines with the right specs, but horrible keyboards and design otherwise. I decided at length to go with the Lenovo even though I'd read about people having problems with the wireless.

It arrived promptly. I was amazed at how light it is, even for a 14" laptop, it's very easy on the arms. I was surprised when I opened the box and pulled the laptop out. It clicked on and worked in every respect on the Windows side from the moment I booted it up. As I suspected from the pictures and reviews, the keyboard was excellent, even better than my MacBook Pro.

After I loaded Ubuntu 11.04 and updated it via ethernet cable, everything worked perfectly, except the wireless. Here's what I had to do:

I opened Terminal in Ubuntu and typed:

sudo gedit etc/modprobe.d/blacklist.conf

This opened the file in gedit. I scrolled to the bottom and added this:

blacklist acer_wmi

I saved the file and rebooted. Went ahead and peaked in the bios to see if there was a wifi switch built in. Someone on one of the forums recommended I turn that stuff off. It, of course, gacked my wireless abilities and I had to go back and turn them on. In the aftermath, the wireless popped on and everything worked in Ubuntu.

Disclaimer: I'm not a Linux guy and found that fix on the Ubuntu forums. That said, I would strongly recommend you avoid buying anything with the intent to run Linux if you're squeamish about getting into Terminal to fix things. As a writer I like Ubuntu for the customizable workspace and text editors, and use Gimp (image editor) every once in a while.

My experience with the laptop since has been pleasant. It's clunky and likes to PC-speaker-beep whenever you unplug things, the sort of fun and irreverent stuff you don't get from a Mac. There were other surprises as well.

The Good:

This thing never gets hot. Even running a pretty graphically intense game for a couple of hours, it barely even gets warm except near the vents. No heat comes through the bottom to your legs or through the keyboard to your hands.

The Keyboard is, of course, awesome, something Lenovo is known for. The only way to improve it were to make it backlit. Trackpad and old style pointer are the good you'd expect as well. Two-finger scrolling and such works just fine in both Ubuntu and Windows.

Battery life is decent for a 6 cell, particularly considering what I paid for it.

This thing is, for the most part, tough. All the ports are tight with no wiggle, no flex anywhere save a few places that don't really matter. It's very light in spite of feeling very durable.

For $500, it performs surprisingly well as a gaming machine. I don't have to have my games set to the highest settings to be satisfied though. It runs World of Warcraft at 30FPS with default settings at "Good" like a champ.

The Bad:

The screen has a terrible viewing arc. You need to be looking at it straight on otherwise it's washed out. The colors are very muted as well. A multimedia machine this is not.

The optical drive feels extremely flimsy. I wouldn't go using it as a caddy for your 20 oz. coffee mug, it'd snap right off.

No Bluetooth.

Other Stuff:

The speakers aren't bad. Better than I thought they would be for five hundred bucks.

The Lenovo bloatware isn't too obtrusive. I haven't removed anything except Norton Anti-virus because everything else hasn't gotten in my way yet.

Plenty of ports for what I do, and decently placed on the laptop.

For $500, I couldn't find anything that had the combination of features this device possessed.

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