Lenovo Launches Linux Laptop and Leaves Lots of Questions

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Probably the first thing anyone wants to know about Lenovo’s Linux portable system is, “Does it actually work”? The short answer is yes, everything important works.

Lenovo sent us a ThinkPad T61 for evaluation, which by the way is an excellent system in its own right, and it came with Novell’s SUSE Enterprise Linux Desktop 10 (often referred to SLED 10) pre-installed.

Right off the bat we found that that the fingerprint reader, the USB ports, the integrated wireless (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), the sound card, the networking and so on all were well-supported and work as expected. That is no small task considering how fickle Linux drivers can be and how much of Lenovo’s ThinkPad technology is proprietary.

That level of integration proves to be a major milestone for a hardware vendor launching a Linux system. One has come to expect that the primary features of a Lenovo ThinkPad will work as expected when using either Windows Vista or Windows XP, both of which fully support the unit and Lenovo’s add-on management and driver software. So in theory, for a Linux-based ThinkPad to be successful, one should expect an equivalent or superior user experience when compared with a Windows-based unit.

But, before we pour any accolades on the Lenovo-Novell creation, some deeper investigation is merited. While all of the major features are well-supported, there is a laundry list of caveats that must be considered. First off, when we booted the system, we were offered three choices in the boot menu:

  1. XEN – SUSE Linux 10.1-
  2.  SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 SP1 10.1-0
  3.  SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 SP1 10.1-0 (FailSafe)

Seeing that XEN was preinstalled got our interest. What a great idea—deliver the system with virtualization already in place. Our amazement at such an insightful idea quickly waned once we tried to use the XEN boot option and were rewarded with an Error 15: File Not Found.  We tried to resolve the problem using instructions from SUSE, a control panel installer and a few other tricks, but we came up empty.

The other two boot options worked fine, so we tested the system using the second boot option that launched SLED 10, which loaded quickly—much faster than Vista would load on the same system.

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After the initial boot and logon, we were faced with a clean, well-organized desktop, but one element caught our eye right away—a text document called ThinkPad Readme.txt. We launched it and found that the document’s first line was “Limitations, Workarounds and How To’s for SLED10.” We did not like the sound of that “limitations” element. After all, isn’t Linux supposed to be about overcoming limitations?

The first part of the document covered “features not supported.” Some of those features are:

  • ThinkVantage Active Protection System.
  •  ThinkVantage Access Connections for SUSE Linux
  •  ThinkPad Configuration for SUSE Linux
  •  ThinkPad Power Manager for SUSE Linux
  •  Wireless WAN Adapter
  •  ThinkVantage Button
  • (Intel Graphics System) DVI Output

From our point of view, Lenovo was not off to a good start. The company announced back in August that Linux would be available on some of its notebook systems by the end of last year. But the launch of the Linux-powered notebooks didn’t occur until this year; surely that should have been enough time to get those features working. Nothing upsets customers more than purchasing an item and then not being able to use all the features they paid for, so VARs beware.

Those irritations aside, the unit performed well and SLED 10 did offer a good user experience. Before passing judgment on the Lenovo-SLED 10 marriage, one has to remember that both Lenovo and Novell have taken the level of Linux integration to a higher plane than anyone else, especially more so than an end user trying to self-install a Linux distribution on almost any notebook computer.

We have gone the manual Linux install route on many, many PCs and notebook computers, and although we are not trying to make any excuses for Lenovo, our experiences with those manual installs were much more tedious and time-consuming (especially for driver configuration) than the experience offered by the Lenovo SLED 10 system.

That said, users still may be put off by some of the inconsistencies, feature losses and other issues that are inherent in the Lenovo system, and if Lenovo does want to make Linux a viable alternative to Windows Vista (or even XP), then extra care should be taken to improve the user experience.

Once we are able to iron out some of these problems with Lenovo, we will follow up with more information and perhaps a better impression of the system. For now, VARs may want to consider holding off on Lenovo’s Linux-based notebooks.


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