Review of the Lenovo Thinkpad SL300 Laptop

The Lenovo Thinkpad SL300 is bulkier and 0.3 lbs heavier than the Sony Vaio SR and the Asus F6 (two other 13.3in laptops that I considered buying), but the SL300 has better specs for a cheaper price. When the screen is open, you will notice that it is very tall, so the SL300 isn’t good for meetings where you want to take notes but still be able to look at other people around the table. There is a lot of wasted space above and below the screen. I was surprised to see that the SL300 is almost an inch taller than my old Compaq Presario v2410 with a 14.1in screen. There is no reason for the SL300 to need so much space since it’s LED backlight doesn’t need a bulky power inverter like a conventional CCFL backlight. If you need a sleek and small machine, you should avoid the SL300.Thinkpads have a reputation for being staid and stolid machines which project an image of reliability and dependability–the perfect image for corporate drones. I could care less about image and style in a computer, but I do care deeply about reliability, functionality, and solid engineering, and Thinkpads have a good reputation by those marks.

More importantly, Thinkpads are designed to be fixable. Their parts are listed online and an ordinary consumer can order replacement parts at a reasonable price. Most people regard computers as cheap throw-away devices, but as an environmentalist, I grow alarmed whenever I see all the planned obsolescence notebooks being cranked out by the five Tiawanese companies which design and fabricate 91% of the world’s notebooks. In their first year of life, laptops are 3 times more likely to fail as desktop PCs in their first year and almost 2 twice as likely in their 4th year.

Average Annualized Failure Rates for Desktop and Notebook PCs (Percent)

Systems Purchased in 2005-2006

Systems Purchased in 2003-2004

Desktops

Year 1

5

7

Year 4

*12

15

Notebooks

Year 1

15

20

Year 4

*22

28

* Projected
Source: Gartner Dataquest (June 2006)

Lenovo subcontracts the fabrication of its Ideapads and netbooks to Quanta, and alThis is not to say that Lenovo doesn’t subcontract to Tiawanese companies to fabricate their laptops, but

Lenovo has some of the best rated customer services and their warranty service is rated top-notch. Lenovo is the only computer vender in the world that truly offers world-wide warranty service on their products, with a customer representative in almost every country. If your computer breaks anywhere in the world, you can get it fixed by Lenovo.

The good thing about the bulky design of that SL300 is that it feels very sturdy. Unlike my Compaq Presario, this laptop has very little flex anywhere. The solid nature of the SL300 is reassuring since I plan to lug mine around the Andes. The magnetic screen fastener makes the SL300 a joy to open, since there is no key to press to release a latch. The steel hinges on the SL300 feel solid and the screen opens without any creaks and extends all the way back, so you can almost lay the screen flat, which is useful because you will not want to look down at the screen from a vertical angle, because the screen colors invert. The horizontal viewing angles, however, are pretty good. The LED backlighting is very bright–so bright that I had to turn the brightness down a bit because it is too intense when inside. I haven’t tried the laptop outside but I suspect that the screen will be readable in the sunlight when the LED light is at full brightness, although the glare-type screen will probably cause reflections.

The bumper pads on the bottom of the laptop are big and don’t look like they will pop off. The speakers are decent for a 13.3 laptop–slightly better quality sound than my Compaq Presario v2410’s speakers. The female VGA connector has metal nuts for the male VGA connector to screw into. Many laptops don’t include these nuts and the VGA connector can come loose, which is embarrassing when doing a presentation with a projector.

The angled ends of the SL300 make it look thinner and sleeker, but detract from its usability, since you can’t see the ports when plugging in peripherals and cables. I found that I had to pick up the laptop and hold it at an angle to plug in anything. The only benefit to the angled ends of the SL300 is the fact that the angled edges of the SL300 are more comfortable to carry around when the clamshell lid is closed. The edges of the laptop don’t bit into your palm, as with a squared edge. According to _, the SL300 was designed by the Lenovo Thinkpad team, unlike the Lenovo 3000 series which was designed by an outside EDM, like the majority of the laptops in the world. I would suggest having an angled edge on the front of the laptop, where it only interferes with the The angled edges also interfere with large USB devices. The two USB on the right side of the SL300 have enough clearance around them that you should be able to plug in most USB devices (Flash memory, music players, etc), but the 3rd USB on the left hand side has very little clearance around it. If you use an external harddrive which requires two USB ports, you will fill up the two USB ports on the right side and be left with the unusable port on the left side. When pressing in the CD/DVD holder you will need to press in the center and not on the edge, otherwise the CD/DVD often doesn’t engage, and pops back out of the laptop. (I suspect that the Lenovo engineers noticed this problem since they added a ridged square in the center of the CD/DVD bezel to indicate where to press in the CD/DVD. theThe CD/DVD burner wiggles when extended but doesn’t feel like it would break very easily and it doesn’t have a large lip which can catch on objects.

I never use the trac pointer because it is harder on my wrists which are susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome. The SL400 and SL500 models have a good Synaptics touchpads, but the SL300 has a crappy Alps touchpad. It’s buttons are ok, but the pointer lags. Uninstalling the Alps driver and using the default Windows controller reduces the lag, but then you loose scrolling and any special configuration functions.

When my SL300 arrived, the space key had popped off its housing and it kept popping off after I tried to press it back on its housing. I sent the laptop back to Lenovo to be serviced. The repair service is very quick and they answered the phone immediately, so I didn’t have to listen to any elevator music. The day after I called Lenovo, UPS delivered a box for me to send my laptop to the repair center in Kentucky. The computer came back 4 days later with a replaced keyboard.

Unfortunately, the keyboard still had problems. The shift key sometimes sticks and the Q and space keys don’t always register, when I press them. I called up Lenovo and told the service representative that I wanted to send the computer back for a refund since the keyboard was defective. She told me that she would have to get authorization from her manager, who wasn’t available during the weekend. She emailed Monday afternoon to tell me I could get a full refund on the computer, but I would first have to buy another computer from Lenovo and then they would let me send the SL300 back for a full refund. Seeing how it would be impossible to get a full refund, I decided to send the SL300 back to be serviced again to see if they would fix the keyboard the second time around. So now I am waiting to see whether it will come back with a fixed keyboard. Lenovo Thinkpad SL300 – worst keyboard. Keys require a get deal of force to depress with too much resistance and keys are klacky. The large keys (Shift, Enter, Space, Backspace) are especially klacky–If you just tap lightly on them, without depressing them, they make a clack which sounds like two loose plastic pieces banging together. This happens on the left side of the Enter key, the right side of the backspace key, the right side of the right shift key, the left side of the spacebar. (The left shift key seems to be fine.)

Even if the keyboard did work correctly I would still not like it. The keys require more force to press and are clacky. The larger keys like Shift, Enter and the Spacebar are especially loud and really bother me in a quiet room. This is not the laptop for quiet libraries and hushed offices. I have noticed that my carpal tunnel is starting to act up and I suspect that the cause is the force of typing on the keyboard. The space key only has one sensor underneath it, rather than two like most keypads. This means that the space key registers best when you press in the center, but doesn’t always register when you press it on the right or left edge of the key. My old i series Thinkpad, which I bought back in 1999, had a much better keyboard and other people report that the T series is also much better.

Before I sent the SL300 back to be serviced, I figured that I might as well play with the machine before I wiped the harddrive. I installed Ubuntu 8.10 64bit. GNU/Linux installs OK, although there are a couple annoyances. (See the threads at forums.lenovo.com and forumsubuntu.com about the SL300 with Ubuntu Linux. )

There is now an open source driver available for the wireless card, but it requires some special steps to download it and set it up. The default GNOME battery meter doesn’t show the battery charge correctly, although the little battery application which you can add to the GNOME panel does display the battery charge correctly, as does powertop. The computer hibernates and suspends correctly, which is a big plus. Some people report that they have to unload the wireless module before suspending, and then reload it after resuming. I haven’t found this to be a problem.

Skype is tricky to set up in 64bit Linux since it is a 32bit program, but I followed some instructions to do it. Unfortunately I couldn’t get Skype to record my voice because PulseAudio was blocking it for some reason. I found that issuing “pkill pulseaudio” before starting Skype fixed the problem. At this point I should have written a script to kill PulseAudio everytime I wanted to start Skype, but instead I made the fateful decision to simply uninstall PulseAudio from my system. I couldn’t see that it served any useful purpose, so I eliminated it. Well, that proved to be a very bad idea, because the next time I booted Ubuntu and tried to log in, I was unable to enter X Windows. I tried booting up in single-user mode. I was able to get into the system, but I couldn’t figure out how to reinstall PulseAudio and all its dependencies correctly. It should have been a simple “apt-get install pulseaudio” but it didn’t put back all the essential files which I had removed. In the end I had to reinstall Ubuntu all over again.

The special buttons on the left hand side of the keyboard (mute, volume up and down, HelpCenter) are not recognized. I ran xev to see what numbers are assigned to the keys and X Windows showed me that they have no numbers. Clearly the SL series is nothing like the T and R thinkpad series, whose special keys are recognized. Probably a different kernel module needs to be created for the thinkpad SL.

The screen brightness setting is reversed in Linux, so setting the screen to maximum brightness actually sets it to maximum darkness and vice versa. I thought that the problem was the mapping of the brightness up and down function keys, so I reversed them with xmodmap, but I found that the keys are mapped correctly. If I set to maximum brightness in the configuration file, the screen displayed maximum dimness. Since I wanted the brightness to be 80% I set it to 20% in the configuration file–it is an easy way to work around the problem. I wish I knew how to write Linux drivers so I could help fix this silly problem.

The crappy Alps touchpad also gave me fits since it required 3 strokes to move the point from one side of the screen to another. To make it usable under Linux, I installed gsynaptics. In order to use gsynaptics with the new version of x.org which no longer puts all the configuration information in xorg.conf, I needed to add the line:

<merge key=”input.x11_options.SHMConfig” type=”string”>On</merge>

to the file /usr/share/hal/fdi/policy/20thirdparty/11-x11-synaptics.fdi and reboot the computer (restarting X Windows won’t do it). Once SHMConfig was turned on, I was able to increase the horizontal and vertical acceleration of the touchpad, so the pointer would move all the way across the screen with one fast stroke. I wish that I could figure out how to get the mouse to cover more screen real estate even without using acceleration, but I couldn’t see any setting for that in gsynaptics.

My other problem was getting the touchpad to turn off while I was typing, so the pointer wouldn’t jump around when I accidentally brushed the touchpad. For some reason I couldn’t get the command “syndaemon -i 1 -d” to turn off the touchpad when I was typing. For some reason syndaemon gives me an error message about SHMConfig not being enabled when it clearly is. The problem probably lies in the new version of X.org which doesn’t keep all the configuration in xorg.conf anymore.

Clearly the SL300 is not the best machine for Linux, but I am convinced that it can be made to work with a little perseverance. Hopefully the keyboard will get fixed so I can start using the SL300. The machine has some good features, but its keyboard and touchpad do not live up to the Thinkpad reputation. Rather than buying a Thinkpad SL300, I would recommend the Asus 6F or the new Asus N20 instead.

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