Who needs a Threadripper system?
I had some foresight before I retired from the workplace and built a very nice Threadripper system for my daily computer usage in retirement. It is a beautiful system that runs very nicely with the development version of Slackware Linux and has never failed me. But, Gentle Reader, it can be a little 'over the top' for some of my more mundane computer tasks and I confess that the Corsair Obsidian 500D mid-tower case is not exactly portable, and the entire system sits right out in the middle of the house. Difficult when visitors and grandchildren are here and difficult when my wife is having a wild Zoom meeting with her knitting buddies in the same room! On this page I document my search and eventual purchase of a computer that has enabled me to escape from both grandchildren and crazy knitters while still having a great experience with ease of use and great convenience.
Finding a Laptop...
I decided on a laptop rather than one of those ghastly closed-system 'tablets' and this laptop had to cost about AU$400. I have had a previous great experience with this budget when I bought a Latitude D520 for this price and completed an entire Bachelor of Arts degree using it. After a few forays onto eBay and some consultations with my Linux colleagues I settled on a ThinkPad T460, a slighly aged system that according to all reports has aged well with not only minimal problems but also outstanding Linux support.
Variations on a theme...
However there were some choices to make however as the T460 comes in three different flavours, all released in early 2016:
- ThinkPad T460: This iteration of the T460 came with a choice of CPUs from the i3-6100U to the i7-6600U, all solid Intel chips with 2 cores and 4 threads. On board graphics for the most part and a choice of SSD or mechanical drive for storage. It comes with a choice of batteries and the battery itself is removable. RAM can be a maximum of 32GB. Decent WLAN and Bluetooth comes with the machine. This type of machine was easily available on eBay for about AU$400 with standard specs of i5-6300U | 8GB RAM | 256GB SSD. There was a premium in the i7 CPUs and more RAM and these machines were not as easy to source on eBAY.
- ThinkPad T460s: This iteration of the T460 features a slighly sleeker form factor, in particular because it has eschewed the external battery. There is a choice of three CPUs: i5-6200U, i5-6300U or i6-6600U, all solid Intel chips with 2 cores 4 threads. Same Intel graphics as the T460 and only SSD drives for storage, no mechanical drive is offered. Battery is a big thing, as I have mentioned, and is accessible only by removing the back plate. Also I note that the RAM was soldered to the motherboard which must be a space saving thing? This machine is the most common T460 available on eBay for about AU$440 with the usual configuration being i5-6300U | 8GB RAM | 256GB SSD. There was a premium on the i7 CPUs and more RAM and these machines were not as easy to source on eBAY.
- ThinPad 460p: This is the most highly kitted out version of the ThinkPad T460 and has a choice of 4 CPUs from the i5-6300HQ to the i7-6820HQ, all solid Intel chips with 4 cores and 4-8 threads. Graphics come from an upgraded Intel chip (530 instead of 520) and some versions with an NVidia GeForce 940MX. Only SSDs for storage with no mechanical drives offered. RAM has a maximum of 32GB and this is placed in 2 sockets, not soldered to the motherboard. Altogether a more refined and more powerful version of the T460! These machines were quite rare on eBay when I looked and there were some ludicrous prices: I saw one for just under AU$500 but on looking today I could not find a T460p at all.
So I have given a summary of the important specifications of the three different versions of the ThinkPad T460 but the links will take you to the pdfs which show the full specifications...
So with these figures in front of me and a steady resolution not to consult the Internet for any more opinions on the T460 I had a careful think about my options. And this process of consideration was surprisingly easy!
The first elimination was the ThinkPad T460p and I confess, Gentle Reader, that my objections to this fine machine were almost purely academic as it is a machine that seems to be in very short supply on the second hand market! For my purposes I really did not need to spend probably AU$100 to get a few more cores and threads, the heavy lifting will almost always be done on my Threadripper build after all. As well I am pretty sure that more processing power in a laptop of this age would inevitably mean more heat and less battery life. So, scratch the ThinkPad T460p.
The ThinkPad T460s is the version of the T460 that is most commonly sold second hand but I had two reasonably solid objections to this model. First was that the battery only came as an internal fitting and I believe that this was a design choice to make the laptop a little sleeker. My preference always is to have easy access to and 'external' battery with an easy ability to remove and replace. Second was the fact that the RAM is soldered to the motherboard. Now I am not planning on doing a lot of upgrading on this little laptop but I don't like my choices being limited by manufacturing choices! And I guess, Gentle Reader, that these two undesirable features (and a few others) add about AU$40-$50 to the final price. So, scratch the ThinkPad T460s.
And so this left me with the original ThinkPad T460 and I purchased one from eBay for a total price (including postage) of AU$420. It came with an Intel i5 6300U CPU, kitted out with 8GB RAM and has a 240GB SSD, specifications that are more than enough for my purposes. Like most of this line it has a WiFi / BT card, webcam and a couple of USB 3.0 ports. It came with a genuine Lenovo battery, although the battery is the 3 cell 23.5Wh version not the heavier 6 cell 72Wh version. I see that the bigger battery (non-genuine) can be purchased for about AU$60 so if I ever want to upgrade anything this would be a worthy purchase. Genuine Lenovo 6 cell battery is AU$113. Bear in mind as well that my model came with two batteries, one internal and one external.
The computer came through the post well packed and seemed to be physically in pretty good condition. There were a couple of small permanent scuff marks on the case but the keyboard was clean as was the screen. And so with my purchase done it was time to come to grips with the laptop and get a decent operating system installed and running.
The laptop came installed with Windows 10 and my plan was always to remove Windows and then install Slackware; I run this on my Threadripper system and I am very much at home with it. I add a few points here on the installation itself with the caveat that the installation itself was pretty standard:
The first thing I did before installing anything was to have a good long look at the BIOS, using the F1 key on bootup. The BIOS on this computer was R06ET47W (1.21) Y-M-D 2016-11-30 and after a quick hunt around on the Lenovo site I updated this to R06ET69W (1.43) Y-M-D 2020-01-18. I confess, Gentle Reader, that I booted into the installed Windows 10 to use a nice 'SCT Flash Utility for Lenovo' rather than tussle with flashing the BIOS with Linux tools. Don't judge me! (I note on closer inspection that Lenovo has a nice iso of the update that can be 'burnt' to USB so I will have a closer look at this soon enough...) Then I made the following alterations in the newly updated BIOS:
- Secure Boot: This was disabled to allow Slackware Linux to be installed and used. Main --> Security --> Secure Boot. I have a special dislike for Secure Boot as it is a hardware restriction on my ability to use a computer as I see fit, imposed by a company that I have no interest in engaging with. Sigh...
- Legacy Boot: I set this as I prefer the old ways although of course Slackware Linux can manage with UEFI these days. The sequence here is Main --> Startup --> Legacy Boot. I selected the option for Legacy Boot only although there is an option in there to allow both.
- OS Optimised Defaults: This option seems to be some sort of meta option that sets a variety of options suitable for Windows OS. It can be found in Restart --> Load Setup Defaults --> OS Optimised Defaults and I disabled this option without investigating in great depth. My suspicion is that this option will set a raft of settings such as Secure Boot, UEFI boot etc that I am not planning on using anyway.
- Virtualization: I have no plans to start using Virtual Machines on this laptop, my Threadripper computer has the resources for that. However while I was elbow deep in the BIOS settings I decided to enable the relevant hardware support, just in case. Main --> Security --> Virtualization.
- Graphics RAM: By default the BIOS allows 256MB RAM for the display but there is an option to use 512MB, which I selected. Main --> Config --> Display --> Total Graphics Memory. I am not sure how useful this is and I suspect it carves this memory from the system installed RAM. Nevertheless I decided to set it while I was in the BIOS.
There were a few other interesting items in the BIOS which I simply noted rather than fiddled with. I saw a 'Pre-installed OS License' key in there for Windows which I thought was a pretty cool idea. I also saw a BIOS setting for remapping the rather odd Fn key settings that come printed on the keyboard itself, but I left these as is. Save then reboot and if all is well I will have no further need to access this BIOS for the life of this laptop.
Partitioning and Installation...
I had gleaned from the BIOS the very useful information that the F12 key opened up the boot menu and so I booted the computer from a USB key with the installation ISO for the 64bit version of the newly released Slackware 15.0. As I have mentioned before the installation was pretty standard and I only have a few general points to make:
- Partitioning: I confess that my approach to partitioning has always been a little primitive and for this laptop I made it extra primitive by using fdisk to simply create one main partition and a swap partition. So: 'o' to create a new DOS partition table, 'n' to create a 222.5G partition that is set bootable with 'a', then 'n' to create a swap partition with the remaining space (1.1G) which is changed to swap with 't' and then 'w' to write. For all other choices given by fdisk I went with the defaults. Easy! Normally I use cfdisk, Gentle Reader, but it did not want to convert the GPT label to DOS so I had to man up a little and use fdisk instead.
- Installation: I was initially waiting for PV to release Slackware 15.0 but that process is still dragging on interminably so I made an iso from the Slackware -current tree of September 13th 2021 and installed from this. This is officially RC1 so it is close to the release version and I will now simply have to keep it updated from the Slackware tree until 15.0 is official and then jump of the upgrade train. As is always required I made a full installation from the USB.
- Final tweaks: I set KDE as the default destop for the T460 and this is a huge change from my customary Fluxbox. But KDE does almost everything I need with a minimal amount of user intervention so perfect for a computer that I do not really want to fiddle with too much. And it looks very nice I will have to admit! Apart from this choice I then spent a little more time to set a decent Bash prompt, set a little script to clear /tmp on shutdown, set the SMP kernel rather than the huge kernel and finally search out some nice wallpaper. And for this little laptop that is it.
This whole procedure only took about an hour and went without a hitch. I confess, Gentle Reader, that it has been a while since I have actually installed Slackware from scratch as my usual practice is to follow the rolling development model of Slackware -current. But with all of that done it is now time to start actually using this nice little laptop!
I am still coming to grips with my usage of this very nice laptop with some aspects of usage already in train and other aspects still being planned. But what is reasonably definitive I give below:
- Zoom: Try escaping Zoom in the time of Covid! So the first usage that this laptop has had was in the many Zoom meetings I have been unable to avoid. Nice to be able to hide away in a quiet room for these meetings and the T460 runs the Zoom client with absolutely no issues; the little webcam works fine and microphone gives absolutely no trouble. So no more setup required for this usage and there is a nice SlackBuild for Zoom that is almost always kept up to date.
- Networking: I needed to establish some basic networking with my Threadripper build so I headed to my RT-AC86U router to give the T460 a fixed IP address while still using DHCP, because I am too lazy to setup proper fixed IP addresses! With this done my investment in KDE was a wise one as it then enabled me to set up networking with my Threadripper build in about 5 minutes. Rather than using my old friend scp in a Terminal window I set up an sftp connection in the Dolphin File Manager and this has allowed a really easy subsequent connection as well as lightning fast transfer speeds using a simple drag and drop within a split window. Who would have thought a Gui could be so useful...
- Scripted downloads: A third usage is one that I have not yet set is to use the T460 for my weekly download of the amazing radio broadcast For the God who sings. It would make much more sense to set this on a small, low powered laptop than leaving my Threadripper system running all night to capture the stream. I will then have to also investigate the Bluetooth setup on the T460 as well so I can easily transfer the audio to my Android phone. So a little work ahead.
So those are the three primary areas I am working on at the moment with this laptop, but I have longer term plans to spend some time investigating the nice radio player 'Soma' on this machine as well as installing Geany and spending some quiet hours renovating this web site. In fact any computer project that does not really need Threadripper power or perhaps simply needs a slightly quieter location for concentration will be relegated to this T460. Many, many possibilities!
And so I return to this laptop after some time of usage and, Gentle Reader, I have been very happy with it! The plan was to not update the hardware in any shape or form but I feel that it is not really my computer until I have taken a screwdriver to it. Which I confess is why I mostly confine my computer activities to full desktop systems, they are much more forgiving of an errant screwdriver. So this little section will be devoted to the few times where I update the hardware:
- Some tools: My tools for working on a desktop computer are a little primitive, comprising a nice screwdriver and a strong right arm. But for laptop work in general I picked up a nice iFixit toolkit, the Pro Tech Toolkit. I am hoping that this nice tool kit will give me a bit of an edge with the smaller screws and tight plastic tabs of the laptop world.
- A new keyboard: The keys on the keyboard at the top right corner of this T460 had a habit of sticking in a particularly annoying way so after a period of attemping to conservatively remediate the issue I decided to have a go at replacing the keyboard itself. Perhaps foolishly I bought an 'authentic' Lenovo keyboard and paid a hefty premium for this authenticity. Replacement went pretty smoothly although the old keyboard lost some keys on removal and the little rubber keyboard stops below the external battery were too degraded to take out cleanly. But after a few sweaty minutes wangling the last plastic tabs of the new keyboard all is now well and the new keyboard makes the T460 a pleasure to use. Now to track down some replacement rubber stoppers, part number 00HM041 if anybody can find where to source these?
Nothing much more planned for the hardware side of the T460 although if I bump into a bigger kit of RAM I would perhaps look at upgrading to 16GB, there are two slots and access looks not too bad. As a bonus I get to have a proper look at the internals at the front and perhaps clean things up a little. And then I should really leave it as it is as the plan was to make this a very utilitarian machine...
And in conclusion...
So that finishes my thoughts on purchasing and setting up a laptop that is intended to supplement my computer needs which for the most part are met by my Threadripper system. As well to demonstrate that you don't really always need to latest, the fastest and the most glamorous computer. Please feel free to contact me with any errors of fact that you have found on this page, any errors of opinion will probably remain uncorrected. In the meantime I am having a great time exploring the world of computers and Linux, what about you?