Yes, its yet another one of my reviews of an out-of-date laptop computer, this time, the IBM ThinkPad 600E from approximately 1999. I usually buy a batch of Toshiba or IBM laptops at the beginning of each summer, clean them up and max-out the ram, then resell them in August for the back-to-school rush. I also tend to always keep one for my own use. This year I didn't anticipate keeping one as I already had what I considered the perfect pair of laptop computers for my use. That pair is an IBM ThinkPad T23 purchased new in May, and a Toshiba Portege 3480CT. This pair was perfect because the IBM, as a full-sized laptop weighing only 5lbs makes a perfect general purpose machine for me, replacing a desktop at home and fulfilling both my computing and entertainment needs when I travel, which is frequently. The Portege, at 3.4lbs and under an inch thick made a perfect work and school computer, where I really don't need a 14" display or a DVD/CDRW combo drive.
Recommend this product?
I had used a Toshiba Portege for the work/school role for the better part of four years, and always enjoyed most aspects of them. Complaints were few, mostly related to smallish screens and cramped keyboards, but the big one was always the need to carry an external floppy drive to share notes with my classmates. Infrared would be great, only many students computers either dont have IR, or it is incompatible with my own. Incompatible IR is a problem facing almost every brand of laptop, when used with almost every other brand. Toshibas tend to share files well with Toshibas, IBMs with IBMs, but rarely do the lines cross, which is strage for something that is supposed to be industry-standard. I'm not sure about other brands as I wont use anything that has a touchpad (yes, Im an eraserhead fan), so that rules out almost everything else on the market, including the new Toshiba models.
When I was playing with this summer's crop of used laptops, I found myself enjoying three aspects of the ThinkPad 600E, and ultimately sold my Portege to a classmate and kept a 600E for my work/school use. Those three aspects are an excellent 13.3" TFT display, an even better keyboard than my T23 with exactly the same layout (this is important when switching back and forth), and finally, the ability to shove a floppy drive into the case in place of the CD-ROM that it came with. There are other benefits as well, as having a bootable optical drive makes installing the OS a piece of cake, and of course it is a corporate-class ThinkPad, so its built like a tank. Build quality is, I hate to admit, considerably better than my T23, making this by far the most exquisitely assembled and finished laptop Ive ever had the pleasure to own.
The case is of an extremely high-grade plastic that simply feels expensive. If you read my review of the T23, you will note that I lamented on a decline in material quality in switching from an older T20. Well, even that T20, which I considered flawless in assembly and clearly superior to anything I had owned before, pales in comparison to this 600E. The T20 and even the current T40 are terrific computers made of quality materials (T22 seems to have been a low-point in IBM casings for their corporate-class, though still far better than consumer-grade), but the 600E is simply at another level. The casing, while still made of (admittedly high-quality) plastics, is coated with a rubber-like paint that adds a certain luxury to the finish, as well as resistance to minor hits. This same material covers the top and bottom covers, resulting in a laptop computer that feels more like a piece of military equipment than some disposable electronic toy. Even at five-years-old, the hinges are solid and the casing FLAWLESS, making this machine look and feel brand new. I sold four ThinkPad 600 and 600E laptops (only difference is processor speeds and graphics chipset) and each and every one of them was the same, leading me to believe that these models simply hold up well to everyday use.
So how is it in operation? Well, mine is a 300MHz Pentium II with 224MB of RAM and a 5GB hard drive which will soon be replaced by a 20GB hard drive. The 24X CD ROM drive is up for auction on eBay, which is where I obtained both the floppy drive and the 8X DVD/CDRW combo drive. DVD on a Pentium II, you may ask? Actually, with the latest PowerDVD 4.0 (XP) movie playback is a bit choppy, but downgrading to my older version 2.5 of the program results in video playback almost as good as on my 1.2GHz Pentium 3 T23, which is to say, very good indeed. Extremely visually intense scenes can pixelate a bit and there are occasional, but very minor stutters, however it is far better than the playback was on my first DVD-enabled laptop, which was a 450MHz Pentium III Toshiba Satellite with a supposedly better video chipset.
DVD playback is only one aspect of laptop performance, but it was a very cutting-edge measure of performance back when the 600E was new. Part of the credit goes to the fast 8X Sony combo drive, which clearly eclipses the 2X drives that were sold with high-spec 600Es. 224MB of RAM also helps, as undoubtedly do the PowerDVD software (year 2000 version) and Windows 2000 operating system. Of course, that the 600E was built using high quality components without any design bottlenecks at the motherboard level means that an almost 5-year-old 300MHz Pentium II laptop performs far better than one might expect it to in today's context. No, you won't be playing Unreal Tournament 3D on a 600E, but you can surf the web in all its year 2003 graphic/animated/musical glory, watch DVD movies at very acceptable quality and burn CDs of your favorite music or manipulate images from your digital camera without exceeding the limits of the hardware.
The key, of course, is choosing the right software. As described above with PowerDVD, using the latest version resulted in choppier playback, and the software maker is not to blame. The newest PowerDVD is a better program than the old version that I use on my 600E, with more features, and on a fast-enough machine (Cyberlink lists a Pentium II 350 as the absolute minimum) it has better playback with more control over the movie. On the old machine, the old version makes sense as when it was released, 700MHz was about the fastest processor for desktop computers, while a 300MHz Pentium II was only about two years old, and still a very common machine. To release a DVD app in the year 2000 that wouldn't run well on a PII 300 would alienate customers, and so features were reduced to create a smaller, faster program. It works the same with every other app, and even the operating system itself. Windows 98 is positively blazing in its speed on a 600E (though too unstable a system for my needs), while Windows XP can run well, but really wants more processing power to render all of its fancy graphics and power all of its background protections. Windows 2000 is a happy medium, booting up a bit slowly, but providing a very responsive computer once booted-up. Hibernation and full ACPI power management mate well with the 600E, which is modern enough to take advantage of both of these features, while the W2K OS is as robust as XP, and thus, suitable for a work or school laptop where reliability are every bit as important as features.
I round out my 600E's software load with the very latest patches to Internet Explorer 6 and Office 2000 Professional. Office XP would run fine, but I find that office suite annoying in two key areas, it prevents machine shutdown without MANUALLY closing all Office apps, and it handles the Outlook.PST file (email, contact and calendar database) in a much clumsier manner than the older versions. I also prefer Microsoft's 2000 system and Offices software because they didn't have the draconian application procedure I've come to despise in XP. My T23 runs Windows XP because that is what it shipped with and it works well, but when I buy another computer, I just install my fully licensed copy of Windows 2000 without having to explain to a Microsoft representative that I've sold one computer and bought another.
So how does using the 600E for work and school compare to the T23 and the Portege 3480? Well, compared to the T23 there really is almost no difference. Sure, the newer machine is faster and has a one inch larger screen, but for what I do at work and school, which is to say, surf the web, exchange email and of course, take class notes in Word, the two are functionally identical. Both machines have display resolution of 1024X768, which for my 36-year-old eyes, is very comfortable on both the 14.1 and 13.3 inch TFT panels. The T23 is better for working outdoors, as its more modern display somehow defeats the sunlight a bit better, but the 600E is a quarter of a pound lighter, so I call it a toss-up. The T23 has a slightly better control layout, with the power button above the keyboard instead of on the side where it may (difficult to do) be accidentally engaged, and its optical drive door on the right side instead of the front, where I'm not accustomed to looking for it. The 600E balances this with a sturdier feel that makes me worry less about carrying it around (its 5-year-old computer (price helps here too), and a springier keyboard that improves my typing speed over the already outstanding T23 keyboard. I don't even really notice the smaller screen, unless someone sitting next to me is using a T-series ThinkPad with a 14.1 inch. Of course the lack of a built-in NIC card is a disadvantage, which I've compensated for by installing a Xircom RealPort card, effectively changing the two PCMCIA slots into a built-in RJ-45 Ethernet port. As configured, there simply is no loss of function or even feel in using the 600E while out for the work/school day.
Compared to the 3480 it is a much bigger difference, as machines like the Portege, IBM's X-series and the Sony Vaio Superslim force the user into many compromises. Ultralights are wonderful machines, and I'll probably switch back to one next summer after I graduate and no longer want to be bothered with a computer bag (a 3lb ultralight slips very well into a briefcase), but for now, the balance between weight and function has swung a bit in the direction of function. I do miss the 3480CT every time I hoist the 5lb 600E, even though in final carry configuration they weigh about the same (add almost 1lb for the floppy and the two machines are close in travel weight). Where the 600E is a step-down is in work area, as it takes up about an extra inch in every dimension on the desk when in use, and is almost twice as thick (still a below-average 1.3 inches). Actually, if I was to go back to carrying a Portege, it would probably be the 1999-model 3110CT, which gives up many features to the 3480, but is smaller and lighter still, and still runs Windows 2000 well.
So what does a nice ThinkPad 600E cost in 2003? Well, mine was a real bargain at $200 including shipping. At that price it had a CD and 5GB drive with 96MB of ram. This would be entirely sufficient for its intended use except that when I travel with the Army Reserve (a bit rougher than normal use) I prefer not to bring my good T23 with me, so a few upgrades were in order. It also made sense to upgrade as my job frequently involves a lot of downtime, and being able to pop-in a DVD movie on my work/school machine is a real plus. The DVD/CDRW combo drive set me back $160 (brand new), add another $40 for a 128MB ram module and $30 for the floppy drive. Finally, add another $65 for a 20GB Hitachi hard drive (again, brand new) and the Xircom NIC card was another $20. Total cost including shipping for everything was $515.
Of course, the $200 configuration I initially ordered would be fine for many students, and in normal use (note-taking, web browsing), would provide every bit as nice of a computing experience. Even at $515, however, the value is extremely high. Any $800 brand-new laptop will be faster and have a larger screen and hard drive, while $1000 will buy one with an even larger screen, the same combo-drive and wireless networking, it won't buy anything near the level of quality you get with a clean, used IBM 600E. Compared to the latest $3500 ThinkPad T40, my 600E handles basic productivity tasks just as well, is every bit as comfortable to work on (the T40 keyboard is much better than the T2x series, and up there with the 600-series). While the 600E predates built-in wireless (my T23 even lacks this feature), it is easily added with a cheap PC card. I used to have a wireless network in my house (didn't really use it so I sold the access point), and at that time I used a pair of 3Com network cards in my Portege, one an X-Jack Ethernet card and the other an X-Jack WiFi card. This was about the same as built-in networking and wireless, and would work every bit as well in a 600E as the built-in ports and antenna of the T40. That X-Jack WiFi card is in my T23 now, but if I was to travel with the 600E, it would likely come along for the ride.
In the end, the 600E could easily serve as my only computer, and it actually makes me regret my purchase of the T23 despite the good deal I got on it ($1200 brand new). Yes, the T23 is much faster at processor-intensive tasks, but the truth is, I really don't do many processor intensive tasks. I occasionally rip CDs to MP3s or encode MPEG movies from home videos, and especially the video encoding would take forever on a PII 300, but other than that, watching DVD movies is the most taxing regular task I perform on a laptop, and the 600E is up to that task. Finally, a $515 machine is just a lot easier to carry around than even a $1200 machine, as one's worries tend to be directly related to the cost of the item.
That there is even a comparison says much about IBMs design integrity. Look at any ThinkPad since the line was introduced over a decade ago, and you will see that most of the styling elements have remained largely unchanged. Sure, screens have grown, casings have thinned and functions added, however the basic ThinkPad look remains the same, all black, high quality, with the red eraserhead pointing device between the G, H and B keys. The 600E is close enough to the T23 that only the power button and the controls for screen brightness differ. The T23 has a much better set of hardware buttons including mute for the sound, while the 600E relies on FN-softkey combinations, however the 600E has a mechanical slider for screen brightness compared to the T23s FN-softkey controls call it a toss-up in the control department. The 600E also places its speakers on the wristrest, which can muffle sound if you are working while listening to music, while the T23 places its speakers in an unusual location firing down from the front of the case, reflecting sound off of your desk or table, but muffling it if you use the computer on your lap. Neither machines built-in speakers will have you and dancing, but both are adequate for watching a movie in a motel room without plugging in externals or headphones.
As you can tell, I am very fond of the IBM ThinkPad 600E, and can recommend it highly. Perhaps the ThinkPad 570 with its base station makes a better machine for my uses, but that machine, to keep weight down to 4lbs, wasn't built with the same rubberized coating and super-solid feel of the 600-series. The mixture of performance, value and quality is simply outstanding.
Well, the T23 now belongs to my in-laws and I am using the 600E full-time. Of course, the reason I was willing to give them the newer machine was the fondness I have developed for the old one. Here's the details.
I put the fast 5400rpm 40GB hard drive (IBM TravelStar) from the T23 into the 600E and the 20GB Hitachi into the T23, and lo-and-behold, the speed boost was more dramatic than I excepted. I have since put Windows XP Professional on it and so long as most of the eye candy is disabled, this 300MHz PII isn't noticeably slower than the 1200MHz PIII in the T23. The computer boots quickly, folders and windows open immediately, and programs are responsive so long as I don't have too many open at a time (4 or 5 is fine, 8 or 9 gets sluggish).
DVD playback is even better now as I've added a hardware MPEG decoder (Margi DVD-To-Go), which necessitated switching from the Xircom card to a 3Com X-Jack ethernet card (to free up a PCMCIA slot for the decoder).
CDs burn quickly, DVDs play smoothly, and the power management REALLY WORKS, giving me the same 3 hours per charge that I got on the T23. In short, this 1999 model ThinkPad satisfies all of my needs. In fact, I just ordered a second one to keep a a spare. The second is actually not the "E" model, but just a plane ThinkPad 600 with "only" a 233MHz PII, but with the same disk image should perform just fine, even for DVD playback. I'll review it as soon as I've used it a while.
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Amount Paid (US$): 515
Operating System: Windows
Processor: Intel Pentium II
Processor speed: 201-300
Screen Size: 13 inches
Internal Storage: CD-RW and DVD
Hard Drive (GB): 13-20