T480 Linux Review and How I Compromised on the Wrong Values

As anyone in my proximity knows by now, I bought a new laptop. I’m kind of excited about it since it’s been a year, which is a long stretch for me (I have a problem I know), since I bought a laptop. To put some context on this review I think a little back story is in order.

If you don’t care about the backstory and just want the review, here is a handy link

Backstory

So for about 14 years I’ve been Linux user. For the first 8 I was a part time, read: dual booting, desktop Linux user. For the last 6 I was full time Linux on the desktop / laptop. That is until last year.

Last year I moved to New York City from Cincinnati to work for MongoDB. Ironically, while this was a dream come true in that I would now get paid to work on Open Source it came with some challenges. Chiefly that I would be downsizing. In Cincinnati I owned a house and had kind of let my tech gear start to expand. Downsizing wasn’t that big of a deal since I’ve always been just this side of minimalist however, that didn’t stop me from “tech-ing” out my house a little bit.

By the time I was ready to move I had more than a few computers and peripherals. I was rocking a System76 gazelle laptop and a custom build gaming PC. The gaming PC was a bonafide Linux steam machine with GPU pass through for a few Windows games that didn’t run great on Wine. There was no way I was lugging this thing around NYC.

The hardest part was I only had a month to make a move, which meant I couldn’t exactly jaunt off to NYC to go apartment hunting AND try to sell / rent my house and all the stuff in it.

My solution to this problem was to do AirBnB for two months and live out of my backpack. This accomplished some tangential goals for me like seeing how minimalist I can live, the answer is absurdly minimalist though I don’t live that small now, but really it put some interesting constraints on my move.

I love System76 as a company and their mission, however I’ll be honest their laptops leave a lot to be desired. Most of their laptops are ok in the keyboard department, but always have next to no battery life. Additionally they’re kind of heavy and that can be a real downer when you’re literally carrying all your possessions every day.

This meant for my new mobile lifestyle I needed something light, preferably thin, and with good battery. It would also need a good CPU for compiling, a decent amount of RAM, and, most importantly if I didn’t want to give up gaming, a dedicated GPU.

The Search for the Perfect Linux Laptop

All of my Linux loving, or using, readers at this point will be saying “good luck”. Because as I discovered it’s impossible to hit all of those markers on Linux. You can get a machine with decent battery life but you compromise on power, as soon as you get one with a GPU you add a ton of weight and a complicated manual enable/disable process or sacrifice battery.

At the risk of giving away the conclusion, the search for a “MacBook Pro”-esque Linux laptop is such a common theme in the community that it’s something of a meme. It would frequently feature as a topic of discussion on Linux Unplugged always with the same result of “it’s not possible”.

The Compromise

As the target move date drew closer I decided in the last week that I would compromise on my Free Software values and buy a MacBook Pro. A lot of developers loved them, the mid-2017 hardware refresh had just happened and people seemed generally positive after the refresh. It was the only Unix-like OS and machine combo that would hit all of my criteria above and still be able to play games. I felt like it wouldn’t be so bad since MacOS would be just a boot loader for my real OS of choice: Emacs

So I went down to Best Buy with my friend Justin and bought a MacBook Pro for the small price of my soul.

This wasn’t my first rodeo with a MacBook since I had been using one at my previous job for some time, but it was my first time with the touch bar. That’s where my issues really started. The touch bar was immediately less functional to me than a keyboard. My hands have some, as yet undiagnosed, problem that causes pain in my finger joints. This problem was irritated greatly by pressing the touch bar for ESC or function keys and so I learned to quit using it all together.

After a year of using a, for me, strictly less functional keyboard along with performance issues started to make me regret my decision. I frankly felt I had become less principled by supporting one of the most proprietary companies in the industry. Even more so since Microsoft is all in on Open Source.

Now a year later I’ve made the reverse compromise of giving up PC gaming, at least intense PC gaming, to run a GNU boot loader for Emacs.

Review

So now we get to the actual review.

Why the T480

One thing I wish reviews, especially those by real humans and not companies like CNET, would do is talk about why they bought the machine they bought. First let’s talk about what I wanted out of my laptop:

  • A better than butterfly keyboard with actual function keys. Read: any non-MacBook keyboard.
  • 16GB minimum but 32GB RAM preferred for VMs. I once had to do s390x emulation for a work project, don’t ask me why, and blew up the RAM on my MacBook doing it.
  • i5 dual core or better CPU
  • Good battery life (5+ hours of actual use)

So what are my options for a Linux laptop?

  1. System76
  2. Dell XPS Developer Edition
  3. Thinkpads
  4. Other smaller Linux vendors

Options #1 and #4 suffered from the same problem, bad previous experience. I’ve owned both a Gazelle, as previously mentioned, and a Lemur from System76. I was always impressed with their screens and seamless Linux experience. However, I was always disappointed with their battery life, never wowed by their keyboards, and frustrated with their touch pads more often than not. Given that System76, the biggest Linux only vendor by far, failed to make a laptop that I loved I figured no other smaller vendor had that ability. For example, buying an out of date Thinkpad from ThinkPenguin doesn’t sound better than buying a new Thinkpad and fussing with it my self.

Option #2 failed for me for two reasons. My friend Wes had owned an XPS 13 which he didn’t give a great word of mouth review on to me. Additionally, I had used it a few times and found it to be merely ok. His reports on battery life put it on the low end of my target goal, 5 hours almost to the dot, but more like 4:45 or less. The second reason is just how damn hard it is to find on Dell’s website. I spent a solid 30 minutes just trying to find it and see my customization options. Then I clicked on the wrong one and get kicked back out to Windows only options. Maybe I’m an idiot, likely to be true and unrelated, but I felt that if I had to work that hard just to find a laptop with Linux on it I didn’t think Dell was really “all in” on Linux laptops so it turned me off. If I’m going to buy a machine I need to wipe I’m going to get a Thinkpad since they’re always widely used by the Linux community and I’ve had nothing but great experiences.

So that leaves us with Option #3. If we’re looking at current generation Thinkpads that means we’ve got 3 real options, I’m excluding E series and other workstation laptops:

  • T480
  • T480s
  • X1 Carbon 6th generation

Starting from the bottom the X1 Carbon fails the RAM test. It’s got good battery life and CPU but it only has 16GB of soldered on RAM. Which does technically pass the minimum but looking at the other two options we can do better.

The T480s supports up to 24GB of RAM. It also gets major points for being really light and thin while not making any sacrifices like soldered on RAM. However, what compromise you do make is in the battery. The battery is 57whr which is respectable but it doesn’t have the bridge battery system, i.e., not hot swappable.

The T480 supports 32GB RAM, OH YEAH. Additionally it has multiple external battery options that let you choose the best battery for your use case. I bought it with the default battery configuration of 24whr + 24whr. I get about 3–4 hours of real usage.

But this is where the T480 shines in comparison and why I chose it in the end. I’m going to upgrade to a 72whr external battery to get even better battery life, and for that matter I can upgrade any piece of this thing should I want to. The T480 is a 10 year machine because I can keep upgrading everything around it.

Linux Support

I run Fedora as my Linux distro of choice. I haven’t really tried any other Linux distros but if Fedora works, and it does with a small caveat, without RPMFusion then it’s hard to imagine any other distros having issues.

The only caveat I’ve run into is that closing the lid doesn’t always sleep the computer. This seems to be firmware related I’m not sure. Installing the acpid package did help and it works more often now. However, it’s still not perfect when certain daemons are running. I can’t tell if this is an Electron or Snap problem since it mostly happens with Slack open which for me is a snap and electron app.

Otherwise everything works great out of the box including USB-C peripherals I was using with my MacBook as a docking station. 1gig Ethernet, HDMI, 2 USB-A and USB-C charging all worked through this dock no issues or fiddling required.

Keyboard

The keyboard is amazing. If you’re looking for the best keyboard this is the laptop for you. The T480s and X1 Carbon both have nice keyboards but this is a superb keyboard. I literally can’t praise it enough. I prefer it to my mechanical keyboard.

Battery

So briefly mentioned above with the default configuration I get between 3 and 4 hours of actual usage. I haven’t tested the 72whr battery yet but it’s effectively doubling the available watt hours so I would imagine I’ll get 6–8 hours.

The batteries being hot swappable means I get an effective 2–3 additional hours if I so choose.

Just for reference actual usage for me means multiple Emacs instances, multiple web browsers, a terminal, and python or some compilation task.

Speed

This thing is FAST. I’m not going to give you a Phoronix style benchmark data sheet instead I can say from feel alone compared to my MacBook Pro this is at least double the speed. Every action feels instantaneous, even things like the terminal are noticeably faster. I did some, very unscientific, user testing where I asked my girlfriend to use the MacBook and this machine twice each for similiar tasks: Web Browsing, Editing Text, and building some software in the Terminal. She reported a noticeable speed improvement as well, so I’d like to think I’m not crazy here but it’s possible that I poisoned the well.

Since this isn’t a data driven blog necessarily I’ll let you take that review for what it’s worth. For reference, The hardware configuration that I got was:

Screen

The screen is the weakest part of this laptop. Some reviews I read reported issues with brightness but I haven’t noticed those. I can tell you it gets nowhere near as bright as MacBook but it’s never an issue for me. If you’re used to a full brightness MacBook screen, which I didn’t do, then you’ll probably be disappointed. However if you were like me and run your MacBook in the 30% — 75% range depending on lighting situation then this screen is fine.

I got the 1080p FHD Touchscreen display. I didn’t actually want a touch screen but because I hate buying stuff online I made a compromise on the screen to buy it at store in hand at Microcenter. The touch screen is matte and looking at the other 1080p model they had there looks similar to the regular FHD screen.

Issues

I have few to no issues with this laptop, or at least surprising issues. I knew what I was getting and have even been pleasantly surprised by things like the webcam and mic quality. Here are the things I would note for people considering this laptop:

  • It’s bigger than a “normal” laptop these days.

For me I was looking for something that was bigger and, as a result, easily serviceable. Everyone, mostly MacBook and X1 Carbon users, who has looked at it or held it has noted that it’s not a monster like the Thinkpads of yore.

My recommendation here is, if you can, go hold one before you buy.

  • With size comes weight and with options comes more weight.

While I wouldn’t call this laptop heavy, compared to a MacBook Pro or similarly light laptop you FEEL the difference. Make no mistake this isn’t an ultrabook by any stretch of the imagination. I have taken this laptop to multiple conferences where I carried it with me the entire time and never had a problem.

It’s worth noting that if you get the 72whr battery it adds about 1 pound to this laptop.

MacBooks still have the best touch pads. I don’t find myself noticing that often since I’m a heavy keyboard user but occasionally things like two finger scrolling don’t “just work.” I’m not really sure if this is a touch pad driver, palm detection, or kernel problem but whatever the reason is it can be a bit annoying.

Verdict

If you’re the kind of person looking for a Linux laptop I would strongly recommend this one. With the great hardware and thunderbolt 3 ports you can easily adapt this machine to any use case. Even gaming is possible using an eGPU, if you’re so inclined.

Like with all Linux laptops you’re still making some trade offs, in this case you’re trading off some lightness for serviceability. If you’re willing to make that same trade off then you should buy.


Originally published at gist.github.com.

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