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IBM ThinkPad A31p and the T30

Review The Mobile 3-D Workstation
Tue Aug 13 2002, 10:30
THE IBM THINKPAD seems to be like Mercedes-Benz of the notebook world - it is squarish, boxy, yet stylish, "cool" and expensive, and basically didn't change it's external design much for the past 10 years. Yes, it continues to roll off the shelves like mad...

Let's take a quick look at two new Pentium4M-based ThinkPads - one a mobile 3-D workstation for engineers or architects, scientists, the other a slim, thin entry.

The mobile workstation is a fairly new notebook class (only IBM, Fujitsu and Dell have offerings up to now), basically a souped-up high-end notebook combining the fastest mobile CPU and large (up to 1 GB) fast memory with the newest 3-D OpenGL-capable portable graphics chip like Nvidia Quadro4 Go or ATI FireGL Mobility. They also have top enclosure and keyboard quality, aiming at high-end users.

Here we took a look at what is definitely the current leader of the pack: IBM ThinkPad A31p, a large, heavy (33 x 27 x 4.6 cm, 3.5 kg full weight) system, overbuilt like the Empire State Building. The black casing in the usual ThinkPad style contains a 1.8 GHz Pentium4-M system with the Intel 845M DDR chipset, 256 MB to 1 GB PC2100 DDR-SDRAM, removable GB HD, and ATI FireGL Mobility 7800 64 MB 3-D graphics running a 15" crisp, sharp UXGA 1600x1200 display at 16 million colours.

The set I tested has 256 MB RAM and 58 GB (60 GB quoted capacity) HD, together with a DVD-CDRW combo drive and a 1.44 MB floppy for the second storage bay (of course, a 240 MB superfloppy or even second battery are a more sensible choice).

A31p also has almost all interfaces you could think of: FireWire, Infrared, 56K modem, Fast Ethernet, even Bluetooth - all built-in without the need for extra cards. With all this stuff, if set to performance settings, the battery can't last too long: the declared run is 2 hours, and we measured about 1 hour 42 minutes on pure battery if you boot the system and leave it idle. So, the second battery is my choice for the spare bay right now...

I tested the notebook workstation in several benchmarks using AC Power mode, including:

Bapco SysMark 2002, where it scored 215 for Internet, 100 for Office, and 147 aggregate.
MadOnion PCMark 2002, where it reached CPU 4164 and memory 3954 result 3DMark 2001SE, at 1600x1200 resolution with triple buffer, reaching 2538

These numbers are pretty comparable to a high-end desktop 1.8 GHz Pentium 4 PC, without any fallback due to the notebook design. We also tested the system in AutoCAD 2002 to confirm whether the 3D functionality worked without the extra visualisation applets, and the 3-D manipulation speed for the high-rise architectural models I use was near real-time as long until I used a large 115-storey tower model (over 120,000 polygons) at which occasional slowdown could be noticed.

For this machine, I'd like to see the improvements in two key areas: the accompanying 3-D viewing utilites for key apps like AutoCAD 2002 (or replacing the ATI with Nvidia Quadro 4 which does much better job there), and creating a slim, thin offshoot for users longing for something slim, thin and light - I didn't mean a supermodel girl. [Ed: really.] And there it is...

Stinkpad T30The new ThinkPad T30, their latest "thin and light" notebook offerings. It comes in the usual black casing, and the first thing you notice is the UltraNav dual cursor navigation - both trackpoint and touchpad (finally!), and runs on either a 1.6 or 1.8 GHz Pentium4-M. There is the usual 256 to 1024 MB of DDR-SDRAM, a 40 GB IDE HD, and either DVD-ROM or combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive for those in need of recording their data on the road.

At 304x250x36.6 mm, and 2.2 kg, the machine really is thin and light for a full-feature ThinkPad. However, it is still slightly heavier than its still-new predecessor, the T23, and we couldn't have the 1400x1050 version of the 14.1 inch LCD display from the T23 (only the 1024x768 display was available for test). The keyboard is very decent for a high-end notebook, but not as comfortable as the one on the big A31p - of course, size does matter in this case.

The machine has respectable, but not the best, 3-D graphics - the ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 is not bad, but its 16 MB DDR video RAM configuration is somewhat disadvantaged, at least in 3-D games and CAD software, versus the competitors which would put 32 MB on a system of similar class. But again, you couldn't really run 3DStudioMax on a 1024x768 XGA display - at least 1400x1050 should be the level. I did try AutoCAD 2002 with some Singapore & Kuala Lumpur city models (without textures, but lotsa floors in their tall, tall skyscrapers) and it was snappy real-time OpenGL 3-D.

Speedwise, due to the short time and the fact it is a preproduction system, I didn't go for detailed benchmarks, but overall the system speed is similar to a 1.6 GHz SDRAM-based i845-chipset desktop PC. More interesting is that the Office XP Pro didn't feel faster at all than on a say 1.2 GHz PentiumIII-M notebook. It means that, to really feel faster than the PIII, the P4 has to go for 1.8 GHz and beyond - simply, in many apps, it still does less work per clock cycle than the PIII.

One funny thing: there is a half-inch smooth, soft, nipple-like rubber thingie on the bottom of this sample I tested. I'm not sure what it is for, but being a "shy guy", I dare not ask IBM why :-).

In summary, T30 is one good looking system - there are all the new bells and whistles, like 802.11b wireless, Ultrabay Plus, dual navigation etc.

However, in the "thin and light" class, IBM still has a lot of work to do:

better display (1400x1050 or even 1600x1200), stronger 3-D graphics , and of course faster CPUs (that one will come anyway now that P4M-2 GHz is out). Finally, as usual with IBM, the price will need to be more attractive. µ


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