IBM ThinkPad X41 Tablet Impressions

Much to my surprise, my Tablet PC arrived on Tuesday. I had a long weekend out-of-town, had been very busy at work, and I spent a lot of free time just fussing around with the Tablet PC... so I have not been spending a lot of cycles with new blog entries, feedback, or comments. Well, time to catch up. 🙂 But first, I have to get the Table PC impressions out of my system.

Overall, I am very happy with the IBM X41. Even though it loses out to the Toshiba on style and is not the thinnest/lightest ultraportable, it is close enough and definitely wins on the functional side of the equation.

Dissecting System Restoration

Of course, I have already gone through and reinstalled the laptop completely from scratch, after I ran through the pre-configured OOBE stuff. I like having a lean OS and knowing exactly what I put onto the system... which is definitely not what was shipped to me. But, I humored Lenovo/IBM and tried out their pre-loaded applications... and decided that I did not want nor need any of them. I then determined the minimal set of drivers from IBM that would allow the various hardware buttons/Fn-keys that I wanted to function and located their drivers... and away I went to the OS reinstallation.

I have to say that IBM's approach to system restoration is convenient but has its own advantages and drawbacks. Unlike Dell, who basically hands you all the physical CDs so that you can install a la carte, IBM chooses to store the data of those CDs on a 4GB hidden WINPE partition at the end of your hard drive, accessible whenever you press the blue "Access IBM" key during system startup, and wraps a simple application on top of it to restore/wipe your system back to factory condition.

The nice thing about this approach is that the whole process of restoring the laptop can be automated. After re-imaging the Windows XP Tablet PC OS onto the system partition, IBM also copies and launches a series of batch files that automate the entire process of driver installation, application installation, etc, as well as invoke SYSPREP at the end to re-seal the installation for a proper OOBE. Needless to say, I hijacked into this entire automation process as soon as I saw it start up and dissected it all, so I ended up re-customizing the IBM factory restoration process by picking the exact software that I wanted to install (remember, that is why I played around with the system that first time, to figure out the drivers that I needed...) and then letting the rest of the automation process go ahead and do it for me. Now that I have done this once, I know exactly what files need to be altered so that future restorations to IBM "factory condition" will actually be what I customized. 🙂

Of course, the bad thing about this approach is that if the HARDDRIVE is the item that is defective, you are toast. If I understand IBM's logic correctly (hey, I admit I am weird; I read product documentation...), they are basically saying that catestrophic hard drive failure accounts for only 5% of data loss cases while the 95% case comes from software misconfiguration or human error, so they are willing to make that 95% easily recoverable with backup software and "factory restoration" automation and living with the 5% as requiring a new hard drive and Restoration CD. I guess I can agree with that logic, though my prior laptop service experience was exactly replacing a hard drive, so I would have been screwed under the IBM line of thought. I guess the jury is still out on this one.

Form Factor

The fact that the laptop is a convertable Tablet makes me notice a couple of things about form factor. For example, the X41 is definitely very "top heavy". If you do not have the extended battery pack or do not have the battery pack attached the the system, as you tilt the LCD past 90 degrees you will notice the entire laptop just tilt up and pivot. Clearly, the LCD is heaftier than the rest of the laptop combined... making it "top heavy". I definitely have to worry about this laptop accidentally tipping over given the right circumstances. This is not the case for most laptops, and even for the Dell X200 it is clear that the system base is heavier than the LCD. But, I wager that the LCD of a convertable Tablet has to be heaftier and better braced since it has to stand up to the rigors of the convertable/rotation. There is no way that the Dell X200/X1 construction materials would have stood up to torsion more than a couple of turns. So, I guess you win some, lose some.

I also like the fact that the power plug is heavier duty on the IBM and attaches better to the system. From the beginning, the Dell power plug concerned me because it did not attach firmly onto the system base at all - any slight drag and the plug will detach - which is no good at all. This IBM will definitely work well as a tethered laptop in my living room in a few years. Yes, I am already thinking down the line. 😉

The famous IBM keyboard, though not the classic clackity XT model, offers good resistance and decent layout... though I have to gripe about the shrunken keys along the right side - the backspace, backslash, and enter keys are all a bit shorter than I would like. Especially the backspace key, where I have to find it exactly or else I find the side of the laptop. And the Escape key is definitely not where most keyboards put it - it is actually ABOVE the Fn keys instead of alongside them. So, I end up hitting F1 a whole lot... which annoys me a great deal because I am usually trying to cancel away something quickly and instead, I hit F1 and get the help system engaged. Oh well, that's what key switchers are for...

The final nice touch I notice on the X41 Tablet is the LCD lock/latch. After you rotate the LCD and fold it on top of the keyboard, the lock/latch is obviously protruding alongside the LCD surface, very much able to snag your left sleeve or other objects and just break off... but wait, there is a nice design feature here. You can actually just push IN the lock/latch such that it switches duty and now nicely secures the flipped LCD surface to the system base. I think that it is an elegant solution to the convertable latch problem.

The Software

What can I say? Standard fare for Windows XP Tablet PC. The two major built-in applications I found that utilize the Tablet form factor are Windows Journal and MSN/Windows Messenger. Unfortunately, for any recipient to handle "ink", they need to install some additional software (for example, you have to install Windows Journal in order to be able to view "ink" messages in Messenger, and those messages are NOT archived in message History...).

However, Windows Journal did blow me away after I installed the built-in Asian Language pack (so that I can browse the Chinese websites natively), when I found that it can actually do handwriting recognition of written Chinese ideographs. Sure, recognition of Roman characters have long been standard fare, but Chinese/Japanese/Korean ideographs? And Windows Journal is basically "free"? Amazing stuff these days.


Comments (5)

  1. chrishillman says:

    I have a Fujitsu T3010D, which is getting old. I considered requesting the IBM for a refresh, but settled on installing 2GB of RAM instead.

    I wish more OEMs would include CDs, but Tablet was not supposed to be shipped via CD (at least according to the original marketing info MS passed out at its release).

    One must-have is the Wacom driver for tablet, without it Flash and other programs had no pressure sensitivity.

  2. Tony says:

    I have a IBM X41 tablet pc and the system partion had some errors so the OS crashed. Do you know of a way to activate the hidden partion to reload the image onto the HD. IBM said I had to purchase the CDs from them so I am trying to find an cheaper solution.

  3. David Wang says:

    Tony – When you press the blue "Access IBM" button during powerup, the laptop will boot into the hidden OEM System partition which allows you to re-image the visible user partition with Windows XP Tablet Edition.

    In other words, there is no need to "activate" the hidden partition because it is easily accessible to reload the OEM image back onto the user partition.

    It is not clear to me what exactly has errors on it – the user partition, the OEM partition, or the whole hard drive in general is damaged.

    – If the user partition is damaged, using the OEM partition you can restore the user partition (though losing all user data that is not backed up)

    – If the OEM partition is damaged, that will not "crash" the OS because it is not involved in OS bootup.

    – If the whole hard drive is damaged somehow, then you should get it replaced under warranty.

    Personally, I place IBM responsible for providing me a HDD with a OEM partition while under warranty because as a part of the system price I purchased a license to Windows XP Table Edition that I am otherwise denied access to. Now, on a functional system, the XP Tablet CD is present on the user partition so you can recreate yourself a bootable CD to install XP Tablet as needed. Thus, it is totally your choice as to how actively you take control of your own destiny.


  4. David Wang says:

    After years of using plain TiVo Series 2 (and being pretty satisfied with it), I decided to try…

  5. Ross B says:

    If you check IBM’s site they will give you instructions on how to make your own set of backup CD’s to restore your system. I did it with my X41 and it took about 2 hours and 7 CD’s but now I’ve got a set of Restore CD’s i my HD ever fails.

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