The ThinkPad X31, Linux, and Why I Keep an Ancient Computer Running.

    This isn't a typecast. This isn't about fountain pens, or typewriters, or vintage tech. But it's about a special device that I've had the pleasure of owning for the past four years, a ten-year-old computer that's entered its new life.
    After a few weeks of waiting and experimentation, I finally have found a permanent (for the short term, at least) setup for my old faithful laptop, the venerable IBM ThinkPad X31.
    I first got this PC around 2010, I think, but at that point it ran Windows XP, and at over 2 minutes to boot, it had definitely seen better days. Once booted, it would run extremely sluggishly; considering its 512MB of RAM combined with a slow 4200RPM HDD and an old Pentium M at 1.4GHz, this was no surprise. Nevertheless, I kept it around but used it seldom.
    As my dad got it from a friend of his at work, I never truly considered it MY computer until the end of my junior year of high school, when I, in typical last-minute panic, trekked to the local library and spent the entire day (9am-4pm) banging out the final exam paper for AP English Language and Composition, a film analysis of The Godfather. My
companion through all this? Not a public library desktop with a typical mushy Dell keyboard, but this tank of a laptop, my ThinkPad X31.
    Around that time (summer 2011) I started getting interested in Linux, a free, open-source operating system kernel upon which various operating systems are built, known as "Linux distros," or distributions. Each Linux distro has its own strengths and characteristics, and as such different distros came to be known colloquially as different "flavors" of Linux.
    I initially chose a distro based upon Debian, a lightweight (~700MB) one called Crunchbang (styled as #!). You'll remember that from my previous post about this computer. I totally formatted the hard drive, ditching Windows forever on this computer for the first time, and learned the basics of Linux: the sudo command, allowing administrator
access for normal users; apt-get, which allows one to download programs from so-called "repositories" maintained by users of the OS; and of course the tight integration of the command-line interface with the GUI (graphical user interface).
    As the school year started up again, this time my senior year of high school, my X31 sort of took a backseat to the more pressing matters of the time, including marching band, jazz band, and Band Board, as well as German and all my other AP classes. I experimented with other distributions of Linux during the summer of 2012, the highlights of which
were Fedora (based on Red Hat, a commercial distribution) and Ubuntu (based on Debian).
    I didn't bring this computer with me for my first year of college, knowing that I would spend way too much time messing with it and not enough studying, not to mention that marching band took up most of my time anyway. So this computer took a backseat until the summer, once again.
    It was during this time that the hard drive mysteriously gave up the ghost, because when I went to boot the computer back up in the summer of 2013, I got the dreaded "Operating System Not Found" upon boot. Concluding that, after multiple failed installations crashing at "Installing to Hard Drive" (or some such status), the hard drive was shot, I thought about alternatives to keep this computer running.
    Thus began a quest to figure out some way to keep the computer running, without a hard drive. Booting up from a flash drive, I tried various super-lightweight distros of Linux, namely PuppyOS, DSL (Damn Small Linux), and Slitaz, all with varying degrees of failure. The 39-hour all-nighter, the only one I've ever pulled, was spent wrestling with the
problem of getting a persistent system running completely off of my flash drive. As I had never invested time in learning the basics of Linux, the real nuts and bolts of why the system works the way it does, I was completely lost, and finally gave up on it as my second year of college began.
    This summer I decided to do something different: actually get a hard drive for this PC. As it is an older computer, it uses an old format of hard drive, IDE, whereas modern computers use SATA hard drives. Given this, the only place I could find one for a reasonable price was Amazon, where I picked up a 60GB 5400RPM Samsung drive for about $20. A worthwhile investment to keep this thing running a bit longer. After experimenting with the latest version of Crunchbang, I decided to finally really learn what Linux is all about. A good first step, I found, would be to install a different kind of operating system: Arch.
    Arch Linux has a completely different philosophy from the traditional, fully prepacked distro like Debian, Ubuntu, or Crunchbang; it only comes with the absolute basics needed to boot into a command-line operating system. A desktop environment (the familiar "windows" of a GUI), additional users apart from "root" (the administrator), and other
"extras" are entirely optional, and allow for a streamlined, personalized operating system.
    And after configuring the Wi-Fi card, installing a light desktop environment (XFCE 4), and getting a LaTeX (typesetting language) compiler (gummi), scanner software (xsane) and a word processor (AbiWord), this computer is almost ready for the big-time.
    Though I have a powerhouse Windows 8.1 laptop (Lenovo IdeaPad Y410p with 8GB RAM, an Intel i7 processor @ 2.4 GHz, and a 2GB NVidia GeForce GT750M graphics card), the keyboard on this X31 is without equal. The resistance on each key is greater than I've ever felt on any keyboard (save typewriters, of course), and combined with the excellent linear travel creates the best computer keyboard I've ever used. It's no wonder, as IBM's typewriter heritage reaches back more than 70 years!
    Even when this computer was released, it was considered a paragon of build quality. Considering the decline in quality and standards over the years, it's no surprise that this is also the most heavy-duty of all laptops I own. (I've got a couple of computers, an older Dell laptop as well as a Chromebook and the IdeaPad I talked about above.)
    I also feel pretty good about keeping this semi-antique around, rather than sending it to the landfill where no one will be able to enjoy its awesome keyboard.
    I intend to use it mainly to type up lab reports and various other documents for my upcoming heavy MechE lab classes, and to support its full utility I ordered a brand-new (third-party) battery to bump its wireless time from a measly 45-60 minutes on the original battery to a whopping FOUR hours! (I know it's not much, but in a review from 2003
it's noted as having 4:28 of battery life, which isn't far off. Not too bad considering the original battery isn't available new anymore.) An additional gigabyte of RAM (PC2700 200-pin SODIMM) is in the mail, and should allow me to view videos at frame rates higher than the 20 or so I seem to be getting now.
    Even though, so far, I've probably invested more in the computer than it's "worth" (~$60), for me it's about the intangibles, the fun, in keeping the thing going and enjoying the 4:3 screen, desktop-like keyboard, tank-like build quality, and heritage of the IBM ThinkPad X31.


  1. Hi Vikram,

    May I know where did you buy or order this third party battery and how much does it cost. Thanks!

    1. I got it on Amazon for about $30 USD.