First Thoughts: IBM ThinkPad T42 with Biometric Security (pics)

by Reads (12,484)

IBM can unjokingly claim that its middle name is “Business”, and that’s what they’re all about when it comes to security.  The latest ThinkPad T42 refresh features biometric security that is squarely aimed at business buyers. Fingerprint security eliminates the problem of forgotten passwords yet enforces and provides the security of unique user identification.  Following are my first thoughts and pictures of the latest 15.0″ screen IBM ThinkPad T42 notebook.

ThinkPad T42 15.0″ Screen notebook on the left, ThinkPad T40 14.1″ notebook to the right (view larger image)

Design

The ThinkPad brand has been built over many years now and it’s truly a success story for IBM.  The ThinkPad brand stands for high-quality, solidly built notebooks that are rugged in their matte black look, yet sleek and professional at the same time.  Usability is second-to-none with the ThinkPad line and consumer oriented bells and whistles such as multicard readers or widescreen LCDs are shunned in favor of things such as adding keyboard lights, biometric security readers, hard-drive shock protection or other things that generally add to the usability, durability and security of a notebook.

The latest T42 refresh, and for the specific 2372L1U model # that I have, the tradition of building on security features comes in the form of adding a fingerprint reader that allows a user to swipe their finger to gain access to the T42.  The fingerprint security can be substituted for a Windows logon and for machine Power-up (meaning that you can prevent your machine from even booting to Windows logon if a user fails to authenticate via finger scanning after the power button is pushed).

Above view, T42 15.0″ screen notebook on the left, 14.1″ T40 on the right (view larger image)

Aside from the new fingerprint reader feature we find that the design is the same as ever with the T4X series.  This summer IBM introduced the 15.0″ screen to its  T series lineup, previously only a 14.1″ had been available, and the model I have includes this larger screen with an XGA resolution.  SXGA and UXGA 15.0″ screens are available as options, but are more expensive and require video cards with more memory.  The hard-edged form and matte black look is of course in place.  A full-size keyboard that is absolutely the most usable of any laptop on the market is unchanged.  The TrackPoint navigation featuring a pointing stick, touchpad and multiple mouse buttons lets you choose your favorite way to navigate the cursor on the screen.  I’m a huge fan of the pointing stick, commonly referred to as “that little red nub in the keyboard” by those that don’t know a better name — personally I think IBM should start calling it that in their marketing material — it’s a much more fun name than “pointing stick”.

The ThinkPad T42 15.0″ is on the left and noticeably thicker than my ThinkPad T40 pictured on the right (view larger image)

Biometric Security

The fingerprint reader is unobtrusive in nature and won’t be noticed unless you know to look (view larger image)

Since this is my first thoughts take and I’m saving the nitty gritty details of a full review for later, I’ll only cover this newest finger scan security feature in-depth for now.

The first question to answer is why is IBM even introducing this technology?  According to Big Blue, the fingerprint reader provides a convenient means for authenticating to a Windows system and eliminates the need for users to remember multiple passwords and thereby reduces the number of calls to support for forgotten passwords…Fingerprint technology provides the security of unique user identification, and the integrated design means no inconvenient external devices are needed.  So now the tech department can sit idle since they’ll have no users calling to complain of being locked out of their computers due to forgotten passwords.  The finance guys might view that as a way to reduce headcount in the IT department, yet another blow to U.S. tech workers!

Moving away from the rational factor and onto the usability factor, the biggest concern I had with the biometric security add-on was that it would be a pain to get things setup.  This is not the case though.  The first time you start using the T42 with biometric security you’ll get the following screen that prompts you to “enroll” at least two fingers for the ability to scan and use as your Windows logon.

As soon as you start using the T42 a wizard pops-up to guide you through setting up biometric security (view larger image)

You can pick any two fingers of your ten to enroll, I like the fact they used badly sketched hands in the diagrams, keeps it real you know (view larger image)

You have to do three successful finger swipes, using the same finger, over the reader and then the software will record your fingerprint and converge the three successful swipe images (view larger image)

Once you’ve successfully enrolled two fingers you will be prompted by the software as to whether you’d like to now use finger swipes to logon to Windows.  In addition to substituting a fingerswipe for Windows logon you can also use the fingerscan for what IBM calls “Power Up” security.  This means that when you turn your computer on it will sit and wait for you to scan your finger before it will even start to boot.  So for the ultimate security use both the Power Up and Windows logon passwords/fingerscan.

Actually using the finger reader is really easy.  Just slide the end of your finger over the reader, and if it does not read right the software will actually coach you to move your finger to the right or left.  It does take a little bit of training to use the reader properly, you can move your finger too fast or too slow and you do need to line the finger up right, but I’ve found after logging on three times I can basically get the read right in one or two tries.

Although biometric security sounds really secure, it’s not necessarily more secure than a good password.  There is a just slightly less than .5% chance that some random person could authenticate as you using their own finger.  One thing I haven’t figured out is if you can add double security protection by requiring a finger swipe to access the logon screen where you can then type-in your password.  Right now it seems to me like it’s either type-in password to login to Windows functionality or fingerswipe to login to Windows functionality — you can’t enable both.

Full Review to Come

Well, there’s obviously a ton more to cover on the ThinkPad T42.  But I just got the notebook today and I’ll need a couple of weeks use at least to garner a full impression.  So check back often so you don’t miss when the full review gets posted!

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