What makes Lenovo laptops ideal for running Linux? That’s a question I found myself asking, and I figured it would make for an interesting research project. I’ve owned a Thinkpad for close to nine months now, but I still know relatively little about these amazing machines. So I figured I should take some time to fill in those gaps in my knowledge, and this post will be a documentation of some of that effort.
Exhibit 1: Linux certification
One interesting thing I learned in my research is that Lenovo laptops are actually certified for running Linux. Although none of them come with a Linux distro pre-installed, Lenovo does compatibility-test their laptops under three major distros: Ubuntu, Red Hat, and SuSE. This ensures that all the standard Linux drivers will be supported, at least to the extent that a laptop will be usable for common applications under Linux.
The first machine I ever ran Linux on was an HP Pavilion laptop. I ran first Knoppix and then Debian GNU/Linux (Lenny). A lot of things didn’t work. Hardware drivers were missing, full-screen animation was either incredibly slow or incredibly choppy, and there was a weird problem where if you closed the lid and put the computer to sleep, the display would have splotches of light green pixels when you reactivated it. Some of it I’m sure was simply due to Debian’s shitty driver support, since I think Debian is one of those distros that tries to have only open source drivers. But it’s pretty clear that the fact that HP laptops are only designed with Windows in mind was a major factor as well. Lenovo tailors their laptops to be compatible with both Windows and Linux.
Exhibit 2: Interchangeable parts
Moving away from Linux now and focusing on the hardware aspect. I can’t overstate how much easier my life has become now that I no longer have to spend hundreds of dollars on proprietary replacement parts for my Macbook. Not to mention service charges, because Apple laptops are designed in such a way that it’s next to impossible to take them apart unless you’re a technician specifically trained for that brand. Macbook charger broke? Guess what, it’s gonna cost about $100 to replace it, because Apple uses their own form factor that they’ve patented so you can only get it from them. Thinkpad charger broke? A measly $20 to replace, if that.
And then there’s the issue of the battery. Whereas Apple and probably a lot of other hardware manufacturers now design their laptops with non-removable batteries, Lenovo’s batteries are easy snap-out, snap-in. Which kinda becomes important when you consider that lithium ion batteries can only be recharged a certain number of times before they die permanently.
But that’s not what makes Lenovo laptops specifically good for hackers. I want to focus on how computer enthusiasts and tinkerers in particular can benefit from using Lenovo’s hardware. It turns out Lenovo is one of the best suppliers of field-replaceable units (FRUs). These are components that can be easily snapped in and out of their sockets without any additional screwing/unscrewing or soldering/desoldering. And if you want to figure out what part you need, there’s a convenient searchable parts database accessible through Lenovo’s website. This is because Lenovo laptops are designed to be taken apart and reassembled by the owner. They are built with techies in mind.
Exhibit 3: No Silicon Valley botnet
Provided you’re not actually living in Russia or China, probably the biggest threat to your privacy is the American surveillance community – the CIA, NSA, and all the corporations that put spyware and backdoors on their devices. Besides, I don’t recall the Kremlin building a massive fleet of sniper drones to summarily execute political opponents for no reason. But even discounting the whole CIA drone thing (because it’s really not important here), the simple fact of the matter is, if you’re a black hat hacker, cyber-anarchist, hacktivist, etc., the Chinese are probably the last thing you need to worry about. They don’t even arrest people in their own country for black hat hacking. What makes you think they’re going to arrest you?
Lenovo is a Chinese company, which means it’s governed by Chinese laws and customs, not those of the West. And the Chinese as a general rule don’t give a fuck about what you do on the Internet. They’re the ones you can trust to not censor you just for having a different opinion. They’re the ones you can at least sort of trust to not backdoor your hardware. And even if they do put in a backdoor, what do you think they’re going to do with your data? They literally don’t care about you. As long as it’s not your credit card number they’re harvesting, you’re probably good. Besides, 90% of these scares about Chinese backdoors are just manufactured by the US government as a means of convincing people to use US-backdoored hardware. Remember the Juniper router controversy? If you don’t, look it up. You’ll never fall for the American intelligence community’s bullshit lies again. Just remember that they have a vested interest in keeping you vulnerable and insecure.
Exhibit 4: Ports Galore
My T410 has four USB-A ports, a power port, audio jack, SATA port, FireWire, VGA, DisplayPort, and an Ethernet port. Compare this to your typical modern Macbook, which has a grand total of two ports, both Thunderbolt.
In my opinion, ports are not just unnecessary clutter. They represent options. Combining these options allows me to set up a pretty spiffy rig with dual monitors (one connected to my VGA, the other to the DisplayPort), an external mechanical keyboard, wireless keyboards and mice, connected through USB dongles, a high-fidelity speaker, and an assortment of mass storage drives. I can also connect in other devices through the Ethernet port to set up my own wired network (see the Ethernet island post). More ports means more possibilities and more power.
Exhibit 5: Some miscellaneous cool features
The Thinkpad folds all the way back. I don’t know why, but I was pretty psyched when I discovered this. Good for when you have to clean the screen. And also, if you really wanted to you could probably mount it on a wall and use it like one of those wall terminals in Star Trek.
The retro beeping noises the Thinkpad makes deserve a mention here. Makes me feel like I’m living in a 90’s hacker film.
The little red nipple on the keyboard is neat, though I never use it unless my trackpad inexplicably stops working (which happens more often than I’d like to admit). It provides some novelty, so I thought I’d mention it here.