IBM ThinkPad R50 Review

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IBM released its new ThinkPad R50 series during the fall of 2003.  The R Series of notebooks from IBM used to parade as a budget class, that s no longer the case, the R Series is in fact quite close to the high-end T Series in performance and specs.  The ThinkPad R50 of course features IBM s easy to distinguish classic black case and with a 13 x 10.4 x 17 (W x D x H) dimension specs we see that it has grown slightly from the previous generation.  With a 15-inch XGA screen (14.1″ also available) and weighing a modest 6.6lbs, or 7.1lbs when combined with the AC adapter for travel weight, the ThinkPad R50 can serve as a good desktop replacement or as a reasonably mobile laptop if you re on the go.  The ThinkPad R50 is a diverse laptop, so let s dig into the details and see if it s worth your consideration for purchasing.

Pricing and Availability for ThinkPad R50

Depending on the configuration you choose for the R50 the price can vary anywhere between about $1450 for a base configuration to $3000 for a high-end configuration.  You can buy either direct from IBM or from various online retailers.  Click here to view the latest pricing and availability for the IBM ThinkPad R50.

ThinkPad R50 Review Unit Specifications

The ThinkPad R50 used in this review has the following configuration:
- Pentium M 1.4 GHz (Centrino processor)
- 512MB DDR333 RAM (CL2.5)
- 14.1″ 1024×768 XGA screen
- Radeon 7500 Mobility graphics card with 32MB RAM
- 5400 RPM 30 GB Hard Drive
- Built in 802.11b Wi-Fi

Design and Build

The R50 is a very nicely proportioned laptop, and strikes an ideal balance for mainstream laptops. The lines on it are very smooth, with a nice blend of chiseled edges and contours. Of course, it’s in the standard IBM matte black casing.

A 3/4 angle-view from above shows that the spacious keyboard and ThinkPad controls

It has the typical oversized “hood” on the outer edge of the screen. Love it or hate it, the beveling does serve a purpose to stiffen the cover. It does not provide any appreciable shading from glare, however. The latch on the screen is a twin-hook arrangement, but it only needs a single sliding switch to unlock it, and it can be easily opened with one hand. The hinges to open and close the screen are solid chunks of metal, and open with a smooth action.  Some laptops you ll find creak or feel cheap when you lift the screen , the R50 suffers no such issues.

The top surface of the R50 has a nice, rubberized feel that is quite easy to grip. The keyboard is full-size, and very tactile. It’s missing a Windows button, and it’s not for want of space. Credit it to typical IBM stubbornness. IBM lists the ThinkPad R50 s weight as 6.6lbs (2.5 kg), but it is actually lighter than my old Toshiba Satellite 3000, which was also supposed to be “2.5 kg”. The weight of the R50 is a comfortable one, and not burdensome in the least.

A view from above of the R50 shows the classic matte-black look and ThinkPad logo

In short, one look at this laptop will tell you why NASA only flies with ThinkPads. The build quality is phenomenal; you wouldn t expect less from a ThinkPad.

Right View: Ultrabay (shown with DVD-ROM drive) and VGA-out

Left View:  Connectors (from left): 2xUSB2.0, S-Video Out, Modem, Ethernet, Line-Out, Mic, PC Card Slot (1xType II) (Note: notice the empty space where a 4-pin IEEE1394 port is found on some models)

Front View of the ThinkPad R50

Rear View of the ThinkPad R50

Shortcomings

It s always best to get the bad news aside and focus on the good, so let me now talk about the only two failings I can think of with the R50:

1. The screen. It’s not bad. It’s actually somewhat better than the screen on the old Toshiba Satellite 3000 I have, but it’s not as nice as Sharp’s Actius screens, or Sony’s black LCDs.  The default settings are lacking in contrast and brightness, and it is easy to imagine the image would get washed out in glare. The vertical viewing angle is a bit small (about 20 degrees before color and contrast reversal start to happen), but the horizontal viewing angles are fine (about 130 degrees). It was clear this was meant as a no-nonsense business laptop, and not a multimedia machine. Having said that, the display is crisp and sharp for text and CAD work that I do.


2. No standard FireWire port, if you want fast data transfer from such things as Digital Video Cameras then you need this. It is true that some models come with IEEE1394 (FireWire), but mine did not. To compensate for this shortcoming in the R50 you ll have to purchase a FireWire PCMCIA card.

Usability

The R50 is a joy to use. The keys are wonderfully tactile, and the TrackPoint navigation stick with the new Soft Dome cap is very comfortable to navigate with. The buttons for the TrackPoint are likewise very well designed. The TrackPad does not fare quite as well. For some reason, it always feels a little too small, and the buttons are flush instead of raised, making them harder to click. The motion of the TrackPad is also not quite as satisfying as with the TrackPoint. However, the extra features of the TrackPad are quite convenient – scrolling areas for horizontal and vertical scrolling, and customizable hotspots are nice to have.  I ended up using the top left corner of the TrackPad to simulate the Windows key.

What amazed me most about the ThinkPad R50 in operation was the sheer silence. I could not hear the hard drive spinning against ambient noise in my home. Even more impressive, with the R50 on my lap, I could not feel the hard drive or the DVD-ROM spinning! While parked on my lap, the bottom surface of the R50 was never the slightest bit warm during normal usage. It did warm up a bit when running 100% CPU utilization with consecutive SiSoft Sandra tests (a benchmark application designed to push a PC to its processing limits to record performance), but other than that, it was always comfortably cool to the touch.

The speakers were also quite a bit nicer than I’d expected, especially for a business model laptop. Please realize that the ThinkPad R50 was not designed to be a music machine though, you ll need decent speakers to hook up via the headphone out jack to get really good sound.

Active Protection System

The much-hyped APS (Active Protection System) on the R50 and T41 is a feature that causes the ThinkPad to park the heads of the hard drives when the notebook senses it is falling. I doubt I’ll be testing how effective that is in an actual fall, at least not intentionally, anyway. In practice, I find the APS program is a little too sensitive, and I miss being able to set sensitivity settings in the software – you get a simple on/off, and another option for ignoring repetitive motions caused by such things as trains and buses. Still, it doesn’t cost me any trouble, and the day it saves my data might make it all worthwhile. In the meantime, I amaze and astound my friends with the 3D real-time position readout!

IBM Hard Drive Active Protection System monitors your notebook orientation and movement in real-time and parks the hard disk head in response to sudden movements

Battery Life

Battery life is another strong point of this laptop. I initially did not believe the 4 hr+ figures in reviews – however, after first getting the R50 I  performed 3.5 hours of heavy disk usage (installing about 5 Gig of apps, and a defrag) the R50 still had 30% of battery life left.   With regular usage (one or two 30-min divx episodes, Word, Excel, Matlab and IRC) and the WiFi turned on 60% of the time, I regularly get 4 hours’ battery life on the dot. If I have WiFi on 100% of the time, the battery life drops to 3hrs 40mins under the same conditions. My battery is the standard 6-cell 4400mAHr battery. Charge times with the computer on are 2hr30m from 0% to full.  With the R50 turned off the charge time is obviously faster, but it’s too hard to determine exactly when it’s fully charged since there s no battery meter you can see if the machine is off!

One great feature I should mention is the Battery Maximizer Utility.  This power management utility comes with more comprehensive options than the standard Windows Power Management. It shows the battery status and time remaining on the taskbar, and you can also choose pre-set power profiles, or create and modify your own. Each profile has different settings for AC and battery, and you can set standby times, hard disk and monitor shutdown, screen brightness and CPU speed (Very slow, Slow, Normal, Adaptive and Maximum). There’s a wizard that lets you choose more options, like automatically reducing LCD brightness when the battery drops below 30%. There is also a battery information page that tells you the current status of the battery, including its specs, health and cycle count, as well as linking you to a help file with tips about battery care and maintenance. This utility is a good supplement to the standard Windows Power Management (but not a replacement).

The ThinkPad’s battery maximizer utility makes it easy to configure your power settings

Processor and Overall System Performance

For those of you interested in a few processor performance numbers I ran synthetic benchmarks (using the SiSoft Sandra 2003 benchmarking application) with various power settings and in comparison with my desktop PC.  Higher numbers represent superior performance:

Thinkpad R50 High Battery Performance running on battery power
 Memory Bandwidth Int 1640 MB/s; FP 1790 MB/s
 CPU Arithmetic ALU 1971 MIPS; FPU 789 MFLOPS, SSE2 1167 MFLOPS
 CPU/Multimedia Int 3356 it/s; FP 3892 it/s

Thinkpad R50 High System Performance – AC (Performance under high batt settings were identical on AC)
 Memory Bandwidth Int 2104 MB/s; FP 2110 MB/s
 CPU Arithmetic ALU 4388 MIPS; FPU 1847 MFLOPS, SSE2 2706 MFLOPS
 CPU/Multimedia Int 7859 it/s; FP 9118 it/s

Desktop Athlon XP3200 424FSB Mem 2-2-3-7 (2.26 GHz), Radeon 9700Pro
 Memory Bandwidth Int 3231 MB/s; FP 3054 MB/s
 CPU Arithmetic ALU 8304 MIPS; FPU 3392 MFLOPS
 CPU/Multimedia Int 12203 it/s; FP 12869 it/s

The Centrino 1.4GHz chip is no slouch, but it’s not ready to go up against an overclocked Athlon. The memory performance in these benchmarks are quite interesting, the numbers are just slightly over the theoretical performance of DDR266 (2100 MB/s), yet shy of the DDR333 that IBM use (2700).  It seems that using DDR333 Ram instead of DDR266 Ram might have some minor benefit after all.

Stepping outside the benchmark numbers and focusing on my perceived performance of the ThinkPad R50 I find that a CAD program I often use, Catia v5r10 P1, is a little sluggish in battery mode, but definitely acceptable on AC.  Indeed, the CAD application ran almost as well on the R50 as it does on the P4 2.0 GHz systems we have at school.

Photoshop resizing and filters, a commonly used application that puts a system to the test, were likewise very fast – I credit this to the SSE and SSE2 optimizations that have been done with Photoshop (SSE and SSE2 are a type of instruction set used by certain Intel processors, if applications are written and optimized for SSE then they will run much faster). If the R50 was any slower running Photoshop than my Athlon powered Desktop PC, I couldn’t discern it in daily usage.

Windows startup is a little slow on the R50. It only takes 30 seconds to get to the logon screen, but once you login, it takes another agonizing minute before the hourglass cursor disappears. Hibernate times are very good, however, it takes 30 seconds to hibernate (on a 512 MB system), and only 15s to resume from hibernation. It is a good idea to make sure your hibernate file is not fragmented as this will ensure fast transition to hibernation mode.

Video Encoding Performance Showdown

Nothing puts a system to the test better than video encoding, so a shootout between my AthlonXP desktop computer and the Thinkpad R50 is a great way to illustrate the type of performance one can expect from this laptop:

These are the specs of the machines in the test:

IBM Thinkpad R50
 Centrino 1.4 GHz Processor
 512 MB DDR333 RAM (CL2.5 according to IBM, no data on memory timings)
 Radeon 7500 Mobility w/32MB Ram
 5400 rpm 30 GB Hard Drive
 AC Power

AthlonXP Powered Desktop Computer
 AthlonXP @ 2.26 GHz Processor
 1 GB DDR424 RAM (2-2-3-5)
 ABit NF-7 nForce2 mobo
 ATI RAdeon 9700Pro w/128 MB Ram
 7200 rpm 120 GB WD Hard Drive w/8MB cache

Test 1: Straight recompress (no filters)
2-pass straight recompress of a 24 minute 640×480 video clip at 23.976 fps using xvidBeta1.00.  Encoding performed in VDubmod 1.4.13.  Average 2nd pass times are reported by dividing the number of frames by total time taken:

ThinkPad R50: 24.88 fps

Desktop: 52.58 fps


Test 2: IVTC in AVS2.5
The second test was an IVTC using decomb.dll and Dup of a 24 minute 640×480 video-clip from 30 fps to 23.976 using xvidBeta1.00.  Encoding performed in VDubmod 1.4.13 using AVS 2.5.2.  Once again, 2nd pass times are reported:

ThinkPad R50: 15.81 fps

Desktop: 24.88 fps

Based on these results it is seen that the 1.4 GHz Centrino based R50 performs at about the level of my old desktop powered by an AthlonXP2000 with 256 K cache. The performance of the R50 is acceptable for occasional video encoding with light filtering, but it won’t take the place of a good desktop for heavy usage. Be aware that encoding performance on Battery power will be much slower, as it will scale with both CPU speed and FSB (both of which drop on battery power). Also, it will probably chew through your battery life. As a side note related to multimedia editing, if you plan to transfer files from a digital camera or video recorder, make sure to get an R50 model with a Fire Wire port, or buy a PCMCIA Firewire card for fast file transfer.

File Compression Performance Showdown

Using the program WinRAR 3.0 to compress a 233MB AVI into the .rar compressed file format, I got some interesting results for speed of file compression performance when compressing this same file on my Athlon XP 3200 desktop versus the ThinkPad R50.  Below are the timed results for compressing this 233MB avi file, the R50 was running on AC power and not battery:

Athlon XP 3200 (2.26 GHz) 1 Gig DDR424 RAM: 6 min 13 s

Thinkpad R50 Centrino 1.4 GHz 512 MB DDR333: 5 min 13 s

Amazingly, the Centrino is significantly faster at compressing the file, even with a slower Hard Drive (5400 RPM Vs. 7200 RPM).  I attribute this superior performance at least in part to the 1 MB L2 cache on the Centrino processor.

The Centrino is able to keep up with the big boys, and even show them up a time or two!

Ethernet Performance

The LAN performance of the notebook using the built-in Ethernet port is very good. I took it to a LAN and used an external USB2 Hard Drive for file transfers. I was able to sustain 98-100% Network utilization with 16-20% CPU (on AC) and multiple streams going at the one time. Note that running the USB2 drive would incur some CPU overhead, so actual figures using the internal IDE drive might be a bit lower.

Wireless Performance

Wireless networking is likewise very good on the R50. I use an SMC Wireless Access Point/Broadband Router, and get sustained 48-50% network utilization of the WLAN during file transfers (these numbers are very good because the theoretical maximum is 50% of 11Mbps, since the “total speed” is calculated by adding the upload and download bandwidths).

The signal strength is 98-100% throughout my apartment (not a big apartment). Going outside my building, signal strength drops to 49% at ~30 metres (~100 ft), but that is through 3 brick walls!  Even at 49% signal strength the reception is still usable for Internet browsing, but not for heavy file transfers. Doubtless I would get better range and signal strength with a clear line of sight  to the Wi-Fi router and fewer obstructions.

Added Features Worth Noting

You know, it’s the little things. It is the little touches that IBM puts in that truly separates the R50 from the rest of the pack. It seems everyday I find more to like about the R50 as I discover the extra-added software features IBM includes with the ThinkPad.  I ll provide a few examples of these little-things :

1. IBM Access Connections

IBM access connections lets you set up different network configurations, so you can have different profiles for work, home, school etc. You can set different IPs, WEPs, File-sharing rights etc. This is so much better than manually configuring everything through Windows (which is what I used to do before I learnt how to use this great utility). Even better, you can set IBM Access Connections to automatically detect and switch to the fastest available connection. I use a Wireless Router at home for networking. Say want to transfer large files, I simply plug an Ethernet cable into my R50. Access Connections automatically detects it, and switches over my R50 from wireless to Ethernet, turning off the Wireless LAN in the process. It even keeps the same IP! I unplug the Ethernet, and it switches the WLAN back on and reconnects. Brilliant!

IBM Access Connections, possibly the most useful piece of software on the notebook. Manage your location profiles, IP, Encryption and Access levels with a single program.

2. Presentation Manager

How many times have we struggled with cycling through the Fn+Display Key settings to get the right combination of Internal and External displays working? And don’t forget getting the wrong primary (embarrassing to have a black screen on the projector during movies) or different settings between home and work (refresh rate, resolution etc).

Pressing Fn+F7 keys brings up an on-screen menu where you can select from a list of display options, as well as create your own. Need two settings for home and work? Done. Now I look at laptops that still use “cycling” and think…”how 1995! . Oh, and before I forget, you can also set up profiles to automatically disable screen-savers/monitor standby – nothing like wading through 10 minutes of presentation and then having your monitor blank out!


3. Easy Eject Utility

I can’t count the number of times that Windows unhelpfully decides not to show the “Safely Remove Hardware” icon in the taskbar (this happens on both my laptop and desktop from time to time). By pressing Fn+F9 on the R50 an onscreen menu is brought up letting me choose which device to disconnect.


4. IBM Rapid Restore

This is a useful utility for the safety conscious, but I find that it takes up way to much hard disk space when it creates a backup. Is not pre-installed on arrival, but you can install the software from your ThinkPad hard drive. Unlike the professional version, you can only have one image at a time. Note that there is already a factory pre-set image in a hidden partition of the hard drive that will restore everything to factory defaults (wiping your data in the process) – this is in addition to the Rapid Restore, and you can choose between the two if you decide to do a restore operation.

5. Thinklight


The Thinklight does what it is meant to do. It illuminates the keyboard in dark settings. However, I can’t honestly say I have ever had to use it. I can touch type (though not on a professional level), but anytime I need to find a key in the dark, the LCD screen has provided enough light for me to see by. Perhaps if I was using DOS or an Xconsole (black background), the Thinklight would then be more helpful, but on the whole this is just a nice to have but not necessary feature.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I am very happy with the R50 indeed. At the price I got it at (Australian Dollars $2133), it was an absolute steal. If you’re looking for a no-nonsense notebook for study and/or work, the ThinkPad R50 is the one for you. If you want an all-in-one multimedia notebook to play movies on, try another manufacturer.


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