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IBM ThinkPad T42p – Workstation Notebook Review

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £2538.00

Back in October last year I looked at a pre-production sample of the ThinkPad T42 with fingerprint scanner. The model I looked at was pretty close to a full retail sample, but I wasn’t allowed to benchmark or test the machine. Now I have a full retail version of the ThinkPad T42p in front of me, complete with fingerprint scanner. The T42p is the high-end, workstation model of the T42 range and as such, it doesn’t come cheap. That said, the T42p is also a quality product with a look and feel that most other notebooks can only aspire to.


Some notebook users criticise IBM for not moving with the times and keeping its all-black finish. Personally I disagree with this completely and feel that IBM has done the right thing by differentiating itself, instead of going down the “me too” route and turning all its notebooks silver. The matt black finish of the ThinkPad range carries the kind of image that true style aficionados will be able to appreciate – fashion comes and goes, but black will always be stylish.


After opening the tactile, but very tough titanium alloy lid, you find that almost the entire inside of the lid is populated with the 15in screen. Now, it’s a common trend at the moment for notebook screens to become larger and larger, but big isn’t always better. The first ThinkPad T42 that I reviewed also had a 15in screen, but the low desktop resolution of 1,024 x 768 made that large screen seem somewhat pointless. In fact, if I was going to have to put up with such a low resolution, I’d rather have a smaller screen and a consequently smaller notebook.


But IBM hasn’t made the same mistake with this T42p. This time the 15in TFT panel has been put to good use with a desktop resolution of 1,600 x 1,200. Having such a high desktop resolution makes working on a notebook, or even a desktop for that matter, a far more streamlined procedure. With so much more desktop real estate on offer, it’s easier to have multiple windows open simultaneously, making copying and pasting between documents the simplest of procedures. Of course there will be some notebook users out there who will complain that this resolution is too high, and it makes everything too small to see, but for me it’s the perfect working environment. There is a quick zoom option, if you want to make things larger temporarily – pressing the Fn key and the Spacebar will drop the resolution down to 800 x 600, while pressing it again will return things to the native 1,600 x 1,200.


But it’s not just the high resolution that makes this screen a good one, it’s also evenly lit across the whole surface and the viewing angle is very wide in both the vertical and horizontal planes. The latter feature makes the T42p ideal for presenting data or showing demos in meetings – with the latter likely to be a regular occurrence for a mobile graphics workstation such as this.


That brings me neatly onto the other half of the display equation, the graphics chipset. Like the ThinkPad T41p that I reviewed about a year ago, the T42p also sports the ATI Mobility Fire GL T2 workstation graphics chipset. What sets a workstation chipset apart from the standard graphics chipsets available is that it is certified for certain high-end graphical design packages. This means that if you want a notebook to run a CAD package, or a 3D rendering application, you’ll want one that has a graphics chipset certified by the software vendor. That way, when you run a preview of that complicated scene that you’ve been working on for days, you know that it will work.


A year ago, the Mobility Fire GL T2 chipset had the advantage of being based on the latest 3D chipset in ATI’s stable, so as well as being certified for all the major software packages, it was also a very fast 3D accelerator. However, things have moved on now, and from a performance point of view it’s probably time for IBM to update it’s workstation chipset. That said, with the Intel Sonoma platform released only a few weeks ago, I imagine that IBM has been holding off in order to make the jump to PCI Express graphics. So hopefully the next workstation ThinkPad will be sporting the newer Mobility Fire GL V5000 chip instead.

One thing that IBM ThinkPads are famous for is the quality of their keyboards, and every time I get my hands on a ThinkPad I’m amazed at just how good the input devices are. Typing on the T42p is an absolute joy, and I could happily use this notebook as my only PC and sit in front of it all day every day. No other notebook manufacturer has managed to emulate the feel of a ThinkPad keyboard – every single key feels individual and there isn’t the slightest hint of keyboard flex, no matter how hard or fast you’re typing. The keys are large and have a slight, tactile roughness to them, along with dishing that your fingertips just slide into.


The layout of the keyboard is also perfect, with the Shift, Caps, Tab, Return and Backspace keys all large and easy to hit at full speed. The cursor keys are dropped slightly from the main keyboard, and the casing has three cut-outs leading down to them, making it simple to slide your fingers into position without having to take you’re eyes off the screen.


Pointer manipulation is handled very well, with solutions to suit all users. My needs are well catered for with a TrackPoint nestling between the G,H and B keys. Again, the TrackPoints on ThinkPads seem to feel better than those on other notebooks, making it simple to manipulate windows and move your pointer around the screen. Beneath the Spacebar are three buttons – the left and right buttons emulate the left and right buttons on a mouse, while the centre button is a scroll lock. Holding the scroll lock button down allows you to scroll vertically through documents and web pages using the TrackPoint. However, if you prefer touchpads to TrackPoints, the T42p has one of those too. Directly below the TrackPoint buttons is a black touchpad with two selector buttons beneath it. Although I prefer TrackPoints, the touchpad on offer is definitely a good one – movement is smooth and accurate, and there’s none of the mysterious “pointer jumping” that plagues some devices.


The T42p is Centrino branded, so it comes as no surprise that there’s an Intel Pentium M CPU inside. This particular model has a 1.8GHz chip, backed up by 1GB of RAM – the spec definitely reinforces this machine’s workstation aspirations. What’s particularly impressive is that IBM has fitted a 1GB SODIMM inside the T42p, leaving the end user a free slot to increase the memory without having to discard any.


Storage is taken care of by a 60GB hard disk, which is capacious enough for most uses, but it wouldn’t hurt to have more storage considering the target market that the T42p is aimed at. Of course, if you want to free up some hard disk space, you can make use of the integrated DVD writer.


When it comes to connectivity, the T42p is pretty well endowed. Being a Centrino model, there’s an Intel Pro/Wireless 802.11b/g WiFi adapter inside, so you’ll be able to connect to your home and office wireless networks, or to the thousands of hotspots around the world. There’s also integrated Bluetooth, so you can connect to the Internet via your mobile phone as well.


There’s no hardware switch to activate and deactivate the wireless networking, but pressing Fn and F5 brings up a menu that allows you to turn Bluetooth on/off, WiFi on/off or both. It seems like IBM isn’t satisfied with standard toggle buttons like other notebook manufacturers – even pressing the Fn and F7 buttons to switch between internal and external screens, brings up a menu with multiple display settings and resolutions.

Looking around the chassis, you’ll find the DVD writer on the right, along with a D-SUB port. The front is Spartan apart from the IrDA port. On the left are two stacked Type II PC Card slots, microphone and headphone sockets, two USB 2.0 ports, an S-Video port, a modem socket and an Ethernet port. Again, true to the market segment that the T42p is addressing, there’s a Gigabit Ethernet controller inside – ideal for transferring huge files around your network. Strangely, IBM hasn’t made the T42p legacy free and at the rear is a parallel port, in case you have an old printer at home perhaps.


The one feature that I haven’t mentioned yet is the fingerprint scanner. The scanner is located below the cursor keys and is a swipe scanner as opposed to a touch scanner. The pre-installed software lets you enrol the finger of your choice, and replace all your system passwords with biometric security – this includes the BIOS password, so the notebook won’t even boot into Windows without a fingerprint match. Of course you can still choose to use a password as well as fingerprint security, and there is also a password failsafe if your finger isn’t recognised.


When I looked at the pre-production T42 with fingerprint scanner, I received a lot of email from readers stating that biometric security is too easily cracked. Obviously, no security method is impregnable, but what IBM is offering is an alternative to remembering multiple passwords.


There’s also the option to encrypt all the data on your hard disk, so that even if someone removes the hard drive from the notebook, they won’t be able to retrieve any data from it. All in all, it looks like all the security features have been carried over from the prototype model I looked at. For an in-depth look at the biometric and encryption security on offer, have a look at my earlier Biometric ThinkPad T42 Preview.


What I wasn’t able to do with the pre-production biometric T42 I looked at previously was run any benchmarks, but I managed to run a full test suite on this T42p. Performance wise the T42p turns in a pretty good SYSmark score of 222 overall, while the 3D performance is pretty much on a par with a notebook sporting the old ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 chipset, which is after all, what the Mobility Fire GL T2 is based on. Running Mobile Mark produced a battery life of three hours and 17 minutes – not the best I’ve seen, bit reasonable enough. No doubt this could be improved with an extended battery, as seen with the T41p.


The final point that needs to be covered is price and it comes as no surprise that the T42p doesn’t come cheap. Bizarrely I couldn’t find this exact spec on sale anywhere – the only T42p I could find with a 1.8GHz CPU only had 512MB of RAM, and all the models with 1GB of RAM only had a 1.7GHz processor. Consequently I will have to base this review on IBM’s retail pricing, which pitches the T42p at £2,538. That’s clearly a lot of money for a notebook, but then this is a mobile workstation.


I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t like the T42p, but the price does seem a little high considering that the workstation graphics chipset is getting pretty long in the tooth. There are faster chipsets available now and hopefully IBM will look to this new technology when it switches to a PCI Express platform.


”’Verdict”’


The IBM ThinkPad T42p is a fantastic notebook to use; the screen is superb and the keyboard is up to IBM’s usual high standards. Add to this the biometric security, the data encryption and IBM’s standard Rapid Restore and Recovery low level utilities. The price is high, but this notebook is aimed at high-end users that need a mobile workstation, but with this in mind I’d like to see the latest workstation graphics chipset and perhaps a larger hard drive.

(table:features)


Trusted Score


Score in detail

  • Performance 8
  • Value 7
  • Features 9

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