ThinkPad X1 Carbon (34602SG) – First impressions

It’s been a while since I had any interesting tech that I was actually able to write about. Today, that changed with the arrival of the brand-new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. For the international audience, I will write this and maybe a few follow-up articles in English as opposed to German.

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Specs wise, it’s pretty standard with the 3rd gen Core i5 3427U processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD. The Ericsson WWAN card is included, the USB 10/100 Mbit/s Ethernet adapter is not. I’ll have to check if and when I can expect delivery of that. I did not order from Lenovo directly, so I will have to go through my dealer for that. Anyway, enough has been written about the specs and parts in other places.

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Because I haven’t seen any other shots of a final system board, I included my own. As you can see, the RAM is soldered to the board. Opened up, more than half the system is taken up by its battery. Just to make clear: This was “just for fun”, there were no build issues whatsoever with my model that would have necessitated opening up the system. As far as build quality is concerned, this machine easily beats any one of the older ThinkPad models I owned or worked with. For the record: X21, T42p, T60p, T61, T400, T400s, T500, T410, T510, T420, X220, T430. Yes, I know that’s a lot but I spent quite a while in recent years supporting a fleet of ThinkPads for my last employer.

The X1 Carbon has probably the stiffest base I’ve ever experienced on a laptop. There’s less give than I have in my 11” MacBook Air (2011) which is impressive, considering the X1 has a much larger chassis that could bend. Lenovo did change the color finish on the bezel and palm rest surrounding the keyboard. It is now much closer to the soft-touch finish normally found on the display cover. Oddly enough, I prefer its texture and softness to that of the new all-glass touchpad. Now, the latter is a big improvement to the touchpads found previously on ThinkPads (even the newer ones that started to be introduced with T400s). Its somehow not quite as smooth as you would expect from a glass touchpad – something of a problem for me as I have dry skin and I noticed it had something of a sandpaper effect on my fingertips. For those who absolutely have to use a touchpad: The ones build by Apple are still the top of the crop. This being a ThinkPad however, there’s still the good-old TrackPoint and it hasn’t changed a bit.

The LCD screen is of the TN persuasion and it’s a pretty good one. Colors are vivid and the contrasts are excellent to my eyes. Other people have noted the LCD grid. The effect indeed is noticeable if you have really good vision and you’re looking at a mostly white screen (e.g. MS Word). I mostly just noticed it because I read about it and looked for it. In regular use with what I’d call an ergonomic distance between your eyes and the screen it’s much harder to see, certainly if you don’t have perfect eyesight like me. The resolution is still spot on, 1600 by 900 on a 14” screen is the sweet spot for me. It’s enough to enable some multitasking on the road while keeping the machine portable. For serious work I still recommend a 24” or larger external screen.

I can’t say I spent too much time with the stock Windows installation. It’s not as bad as other PCs I’ve seen (HP, Sony) but it’s probably not worth keeping if you are the least bit technical and know how to install Windows and drivers. It’s a long shot from the Microsoft signature builds. Anyway, I wasn’t going to have Windows 7 on this machine anyway and progressed to installing Windows 8 Professional RTM on it:

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Here’s a couple of pointers that might help you avoid some of the stumbling blocks I met:

  • If you’re going to install Windows 8 on this machine, put the setup files on a USB stick formatted with FAT32 (UEFI won’t boot the installer off NTFS).
  • Download all the drivers for the X1 Carbon from the Lenovo Beta site here except for Video and WWAN. Install these drivers first!
  • Now download the SCCM driver bundle for Windows 7 here. Also download the Intel Smart Connect drivers here. Unpack and point device manager to these folders to install drivers for all the remaining unrecognized devices.
  • Don’t install beta Intel HD graphics drivers, use the update drivers function in device manager and have Windows pull new drivers off Windows Update
  • The Windows built-in driver for the Intel 6205 WLAN card has a wrong default setting: It doesn’t have 802.11n mode enabled. If you don’t enable that in device properties, you will likely only see 54Mbit/s connections. Newer drivers from Intel aren’t available yet but should be out along with drivers for Intel Wireless Display by October 26th. Wireless antenna performance is great though, as I have come to expect from a ThinkPad. Full signal on the 5GHz band where my Mac struggles to keep a connection.
  • I didn’t manage to get the WWAN card to work using the beta driver for Windows 8, the Windows 7 driver however worked perfectly.

Some general early impressions about system performance and such:

  • It’s very quick to boot and shut down running Windows 8. Resume from stand-by is nearly instantaneous.
  • Battery runtime for me seems to be around 5 hours right now with the power profile set to balanced, the display at around half its maximum brightness, WLAN and WWAN enabled. This includes time when the system was still syncing data from my SkyDrive and Exchange mailbox in Outlook, indexing and me installing all the little tools I like to have at the ready. Given that we’re still very early as far as driver support for Windows 8 goes (and that I believe Lenovo’s Power Manager still has some extra tricks that are not yet available), I’m pretty happy with that. Recharging the battery using rapid charge takes care of remaining worries.
  • As a touch typist and die-hard ThinkPad enthusiast, the new keyboard is easy to get used to. I still miss the 7th-row key placements and keys like “pause” but it’s something you get used to pretty quickly. Key feel and responsiveness is nice and key travel is better than any other Ultrabook (or Macbook) I’ve tried before. I especially like how the keyboard on the X1 Carbon is a part of the bezel. It’s a much cleaner and nicer visual look which I found distracting on the T430.
  • You might want to keep credit cards away from the bottom left corner of the base. That’s where you find the magnet keeping the lid closed.

That’s it for my early thoughts. The X1 Carbon for me is the perfect workhorse computer right now. I don’t need computationally intensive applications on a daily basis (that’s what servers and desktops are for!) and I appreciate the portability. I’ll probably buy a second power supply and I’m seriously considering the USB 3.0 dock.

Otherwise this computer is what I always thought the Macbook Air should have been: Black, no-nonsense, non-glare, non-shiny, all serious, with a great keyboard and a little red dot right smack-dab in the middle where it belongs.

-Jan

Netgear ReadyNAS PRO

For the last couple of months, I have been part of the betatest for the Netgear ReadyNAS PRO Business Edition. As the product has been released, I can now tell my story.

First of all, some history:

I’ve been a user of the PRO’s predecessor, the ReadyNAS NV+ for almost 3 years now. Its primary use has been that of a file and media streaming server. I have also had another NV+ in use as part of my employers server infrastructure, where it also works as a file server for archive and storage.
There were a couple of things that made me choose the ReadyNAS NV+ over its competition, but mostly I was convinced by reviews such as this, along with user feedback in forums and comments. For the most part, I can truthfully say I have been very happy with the NV+, as it has been rock-solid. There were no crashes or problems and configuration – at least for my usage scenario – has been dead simple.
There was only one minor gripe: Once you have a couple TBs of data, or your job includes moving hundreds of gigs of data on a regular basis, network throughput really comes to the foreground. With the NV+, under most if not all real-world applications, throughput maxed out around 30MB/s. This might not sound all that bad, considering most people still use 100Mbit networking, which tops out at around 12MB/s – but Gigabit Ethernet can move 120+MB/s and I’m an impatient fellow.

Along comes the ReadyNAS PRO, which is in most user regards an evolutionary step over the NV+:

  • 6 hot-plug drive bays instead of 4
  • two Gigabit Ethernet ports (with support for teaming and failover) instead of one
  • x86 architecture instead of SPARC
  • support for RAID6
  • support for X-RAID2 (more on that later)

Everything else, from a user perspective is pretty much the same:

  • The ReadyNAS Pro uses the same interface (FrontView)
  • it supports the same file protocols (SMB/CIFS, AFP, NFS, FTP(S), HTTP(S))
  • it supports the same streaming media solutions (UPnP AV, iTunes, SqueezeCenter, Home Media Streaming Server)
  • DHCP, WINS, Printer Sharing
  • Active Directory support
  • UPS support

So why choose the PRO over its much cheaper predecessor, the NV+? One word: Performance!

The ReadyNAS PRO is by far the fastest networking device I’ve seen yet. To be honest, I have no idea how fast it really is, and from my experience during the beta phase, no-one else really knows either.
Why is that, you ask? Well, it turns out that no-one within the group of testers had a client available that could serve data at faster than gigabit speeds. I was in fact planning on using IEEE 802.3ad to hook up a much faster server as well as the PRO to my network – but incompatibilities with my network hardware kept me from testing it. I’m still trying to track down some Cisco hardware to have another go at this but for the time being, I will refer you to the official testing data from Netgear, which I can personally tell you to be true.

In use, the limiting factor for me has been my client computer (a ThinkPad T61 with a 200GB 7.200rpm Hitachi HDD), where I’m regularly seeing transfer rates between 50-60MB/s – a huge improvement over the NV+ which gave me 30MB/s only on a good day (I had some issues with data fragmentation as the NV+ was nearly constantly filled to max capacity…). On a side note: If you use Vista, *don’t* have any kind of media files or players open because that just murders network throughput (more on this issue here).

So what else is there to say:
The one factor that lead me to the ReadyNAS line of products was its proprietary X-RAID technology. Let me explain about this for a short while:
RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks. This means that a disk failure will not lead to you losing data. There are basically three types of RAID terminology you need to know about:

  • RAID 1: Mirroring – best for two disks, you loose 50% of your gross capacity
  • RAID 5: Striping – starting with three disks, parity information is spread so that any one disk failure will not lead to data loss
  • RAID 6: Striping with “hot spare” – starting with four disks, parity information is spread so that and *two* disk failure will not lead to data loss

There are also other kinds of RAID you can use like RAID 10, 50 or 60 but I won’t go into those as they don’t really apply for a NAS box. Back to the topic though: Typically, once you’ve decided on one version of RAID for your setup, you cannot go back. You cannot upgrade to larger disks, you cannot change much of anything whatsoever. That is, unless you have X-RAID:
The ReadyNAS has this trick up its sleeve which allows you to go from one disk to two (when it sets up a mirrored RAID 1 volume), then three (converting the RAID 0 to a RAID 5), up to 4 (with the PRO 6) disks. During the latter stages, all the NAS does is to expand the volume and restripe the parity information so it is evenly spread among disks. Netgear calls this horizontal expansion.
Once you hit the maximum amount of disks you could put into your box, there was only one way to upgrade to even higher capacity: Swap out each disk one-by-one for a larger capacity model, wait for resync, and once all the disks have been swapped, wait for the volume expansion to take place. With the ReadyNAS PRO, X-RAID2 is adding a new trick: vertical expansion. The moment your drive swaping allows for a redundant setup of two larger capacity disks, the NAS will expand the volume to include whatever new diskspace is available in a redundant setup. What’s that mean? Here’s an example:

Say you have 4 500GB hdds already in place and you need even more space, adding two 1TB drives would usually have lead to an additional 1TB of space – because in a RAID5 volume, all disks can only as much to the volume as the smallest disk in the array. With X-RAID2, the ReadyNAS PRO detects that there are two drives with an unused capacity of 500GB each, which it then uses to extend the volume by another 500GB, which are in a mirrored setting. Neat.

Then again, who cares? In reality, most people will probably populate the NAS with all the disks they plan to put in it from the start and never think about it again until something breaks or they run out of space. Only then does this feature become important. What’s it good for then? Peace of mind!

I have pretty much summed up most I had to say, except for one thing: It’s quiet. Really quiet. Netgear did a great job designing the hardware for this thing as all my disks have been at below 40°C and I’ve had this thing on my desk without the fans feeling annoying.

To sum it up: If you’re looking for a fast, stable and userfriendly device to store your data, the ReadyNAS PRO will be the best choice currently on the market. It may be more expensive than its competition – but ease of use and maturity do count for something, most certainly in a business environment. Finally, a five year warranty along with the stellar support from the ReadyNAS team over at www.readynas.com/forum should put your mind at ease… it’s certainly convinced me.

-Jan Olbrecht

My acknowledgements and thanks go to the ReadyNAS PRO beta tester group and the Jedi Council over at the ReadyNAS Forum.