In the past three years I've been using a second generation netbook with a somewhat slow Intel Atom N270 processor while traveling and commuting, which I do a lot. With Ubuntu Linux on it the experience was actually quite good but the hardware still had its limits. The user interface wasn't quite as snappy as on a full notebook and watching videos even at sub-HD resolution was far from perfect. So my hope over those years was to one day update to a faster machine without compromising on the 10 inch size of the netbook, as I use it a lot on planes, trains and in other size constrained spaces where every centimeter counts.
But netbooks remained in that low end category with few performance improvements over time. Then, some time ago, Lenovo launched the Thinkpad X121e, an 11.6 inch sub-notebook in several variants. Most of them include netbook processors such as Intel's Atom or AMD's E-series so I didn't see much improvement there. But one model has an Intel i3 processor and once I found a reliable source that would sell me one (thanks Sebastian for the tip!) it was time to get one and hope Ubuntu would install on it without having too much trouble with the hardware.
The version of the Thinkpad X121e I bought includes the following:
- Intel i3 processor
- 4 GB of RAM
- 320 GB hard drive
- A gigabit Ethernet port
- an Intel N-1000 802.11n Wi-Fi chip (2.4 GHz only)
- 3 USB ports
- a built in webcam
- SD-card slot
- Intel graphics, screen resolution 1366×68 (16:9)
- VGA and HDMI out
- A combined in/out headset jack.
- No operating system included (good, as I want to use it with Ubuntu anyway so I don't have to pay for Windows which I don't want to use anyway).
Not bad for a price €446 including taxes and an additional 4 GB RAM card which, by the way, I did not install because I don't even know what to do with 4 GB RAM in my daily work, as even if I have all my applications open simultaneously, little more than 700-800 MB of RAM is used.
Installing Ubuntu 12.04 was as painless as could possibly be imagined. All hardware was recognized automatically, Wi-Fi, Ethernet, screen resolution, web cam, SD-card slot, everything. Amazing! Also suspend/resume works without any tweaks and function keys to control brightness and the volume of the speakers work flawlessly. Also the headset jack is recognized and speakers are disabled when used. No extra drivers that needed to be installed it just worked. Amazing!
Of course where there is light there is also some shadow. I have to admit I am still not fully happy with Unity. I like the launcher bar on the left of the screen as that makes good use of the 16:9 resolution. But apps that are not adapted to it have a hard time. Some examples: I like to have a copy of Firefox and Thunderbird running from my home directory as I can update them whenever security fixes become available without waiting for Ubuntu to catch up a couple of days later. Unfortunately they don't integrate into the launcher very well as I have two Firefox and two Thunderbird icons now, one for starting the application and one to manage the running instances. Also, launcher icons for Windows Applications that I run in Ubuntu via Wine are not yet integrated nicely into the launcher on the left. Instead of the program icons I can just see the default 'spring launcher' icons. And finally, the menu bar being included in the status bar that is always at the top of the screen drove me crazy so I uninstalled that feature after a while so the menus would go back to the application windows.
Performance wise, the i3 might be an entry level notebook and desktop processor but compared to my previous Atom processor it runs like crazy. HD video on Youtube is no problem anymore, web browsing is just as fast as one could possibly wish for and the GUI is very snappy now.
The compromise for all of this is an additional 2cm of length of X121e compared to my netbook, while width and height are pretty much the same. From my perspective, a very good compromise indeed!