IBM ThinkPad T42 with Biometric Security Review (pics, specs)

by Reads (64,412)

by Andrew Baxter, New York USA

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 is a full review and pictures of the latest 15.0″ screen IBM ThinkPad T42 notebook.


 

IBM ThinkPad T42 15.0″ Sized Screen Notebook (view larger image)

Specs

The specific ThinkPad T42 being reviewed here is the 2373L1U sku #.  Following are the specs for this notebook:

  • Pentium M Processor 735 (1.70GHz), 2MB L2 cache
  • 512MB DDR SDRAM
  • CD-RW (24x) /DVD Combo Optical Drive
  • 40GB Hard Drive, 5400 RPM
  • 15″ TFT XGA (1024 x 768) LCD screen
  • ATI 7500 32MB DDR 4X AGP video card
  • Standard 6-cell battery
  • Ports: 2 USB 2.0, Paralell, S-video out, Infrared, dock/port replicator, external display, AC adapter, phone-line, Ethernet, headphone jack, microphone jack.
  • Slots: 2 Type II or 1 Type III PC Card
  • Dimensions: 13.0″ x 10.6″ x 1.3″ (width x depth x thickness)
  • Weight: 5.7lb
  • Windows XP Professional, Service Pack 2
  • Warranty: 3 year system coverage, 1 year battery coverage
  • Included Software: Access IBM, Access Connections, Adobe Acrobat Reader, IBM Client Security Software, IBM RecordNOW and IBM DLA (powered by Sonics), IBM Rescue and Recovery, InterVideo WinDVD, InterVideo WinDVD Creator, Norton AntiVirus 2004 90-day trial, PC-Doctor, ThinkPad utilities, IBM Update Connector.
  • ThinkPad TrackPoint navigation
  • Integrated Fingerprint reader

ThinkPad Overview

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.

ThinkPad T42 Above View (view larger image)

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).
 
Design

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″ LCD had been available.  The T42 model I have includes this larger 15″ screen with an XGA resolution (1024 x 768).  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.

Like IBM’s other T40 series models, the T42 is a textbook definition of physical quality.  From the first time you touch it, you know it’s just good. The screen cover for the ThinkPad T42 is constructed of magnesium and prevents any screen flexing.  With other laptops you can usually push on the back of the lid and get a worrying ripple effect on the LCD screen, the T42 protective case will prevent such a thing from happening. The ThinkPad’s insides are housed in case of titanium-reinforced plastic. The whole thing is held together by a pair of sturdy metal hinges that attach the screen and main body of the laptop. The T42 simply looks like it’s been designed to take a beating, it’s a pricey notebook so I wouldn’t recommend doing it, but it’s nice to know that in the event of an accident with the end result being your notebook hitting the ground, it might just be the ground that receives the most damage.

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

Screen

The 15-inch screen on the T42 is very nice.  It’s bright, the colors are vibrant, the matte screen prevents any annoying reflections, it is evenly backlit and the viewing angle is generous.

Front view of screen (view larger image)

When compared to other notebook screens, the screen may or may not be in the same class as the best displays on Sony or Toshiba machines (the VAIO XBrite screens and Toshiba TruBrite are both very nice, but have a glossy finish that causes reflection).  In general though, the T42 screen can make other notebooks look bad when comparing based on clearness of text, still images or even some animations.

Personally I prefer having an SXGA screen, XGA was a nice resolution and adequate a few years ago, but those times have moved on.  Even though I have 15.0 inches of screen to work with, since the icons, text and images are so large with a 1,024 x 768 resolution, it’s actually only reasonable to have one document on the screen at a time.  With my IBM ThinkPad T40 I have SXGA resolution and can quite easily view two documents at once and can certainly see more on the 14.1″ SXGA screen than I can on the 15.0″ XGA screen.  To be fair though, some might prefer the text and graphic sizes that XGA has to offer — especially if your eyes are bad, so this can be called a personal preference.

In various other reviews and forums around the web, there have been some concerns raised about “ghosting” occurring on the ThinkPad T42 screen.  I experienced no such thing using the 15.0-inch XGA screen.  Ghosting, for those unfamiliar, is a phenomenon that can occur on an LCD screen when the pixel-refresh rate is low.  The end viewing result is that if you’re watching something on the screen that moves fast, be it a fighting scene on a DVD movie or fast scrolling through a document, you’ll see streaks or trails of ghost images.

It could be that this ghosting is only a problem with 15.0-inch SXGA screen or higher and maybe just those screens with FlexView technology included (IBM FlexView screens provide a 170-degree viewing angle).

Keyboard / TouchPad / TrackPoint

IBM T42 keyboard / TouchPad / TrackPoint view (view larger image)

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, referred to by newly indoctrinated ThinkPad owners as “that little red nub in the keyboard”.  The pointing stick is great for two reasons.  One, it makes it really easy to get the cursor where you want it to go on the screen.  I’ve never met a touchpad that gives you precise control and gets the cursor where you want it to go 100% of the time.  With the pointing stick the cursor goes exactly where I want it, and if it begins to act funny and not go where you want it to, simply let go and the machine recalibrates the pointing stick automatically.  Number two on the reason I find the pointing stick great, is that when combined with the scroll button (located between the two upper mouse buttons) you can scroll through web pages and long documents with ease.  Just hold down the scroll button and push the pointing stick up or down to scroll to where you want on a page.

The keyboard on the T42 is in line with the usual IBM exacting standards, there’s not a notebook out there with as usable a keyboard.  In fact, I prefer the T42 keyboard to even some external computer keyboards I’ve used.  Each key is firm and has excellent travel, and each key feels individual.  On a lot of notebooks you’ll get flexing of the keyboard, so when pushing in a key you’ll see other keys around it get slightly depressed and if you push in on the keyboard you’ll see the entire keyboard sag.  Not so with any ThinkPad, the keyboard is solid with zero rattle and zero flex.  The usability and ergonomics of a keyboard is hugely important for a laptop, IBM has done much research and exerted great effort to ensure this important feature is as good as it can be.

One thing I should note regarding any ThinkPad keyboard is that IBM has always been stubborn about not putting a “Windows” key on the bottom left-side that nearly every other notebook has.  Pushing this key by default pops up the start menu in Windows.  Some people like having this and find it annoying when it’s not there, personally I don’t care, and I’m sure some Linux fans are just plain chuffed that IBM chooses to leave this Windows friendly button out!

Above the main keyboard are a few hardware buttons: the power button, volume up and down buttons, a mute button and the blue “Access IBM” button.  The Access IBM button will launch an IBM software application called Access IBM that will guide you in using, protecting, configuring and updating software on your T42.  Once again, this shows IBM is highly concerned about the ThinkPad’s usability and end user experience.  It would have been nice to have play, pause and stop buttons for the DVD player, but these are more consumer oriented features and in general IBM shies away from such things.

Processor and Performance

The ThinkPad T42 I’m using comes with a Pentium M 733 1.7GHz processor, and for using standard work applications this is absolutely more than enough for what you’ll need.  In general, with a 5400RPM hard drive and 512MB of RAM you’ll be very happy with the overall T42 speed performance.  Running programs such as Microsoft Visual Studio, Adobe PhotoShop, Microsoft Word and Media Player at the same time, and flipping between them, were common tasks I performed and never made the T42 hiccup.  If you shift the processor to adaptive power mode, a setting in which the processor will shift down or rev up depending on usage (this is to save on battery, so adaptive mode is good when you are unplugged), you may get some lag if you have a bunch of programs open.  Presumably this is because it takes a hot second for the processor to kick it up a notch if you all of a sudden decide to start doing two things at once after the computer was just sitting idle.

If you want to play games, it’s a different story.  The T42 I have comes with an old ATI 7500 graphics card and has 32MB of RAM, so although it is a dedicated processor for graphics, it’s not a whole lot better than just having an integrated graphics card that shares memory with main RAM.  However, the ThinkPad line was never designed to be a gamers delight.  You can beef up the T42 and get a 1.80GHz processor, ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 graphics card with 64MB of RAM and a higher resolution screen, but you’ll be paying well upward of $3000 and still not getting the latest and greatest video card.  Look to other manufacturers for a gaming machine, Alienware, Dell, or Falcon Northwest to name a few.
Included below are some benchmarks to show how the Pentium M 735 (Current CPU) stacks up against other Pentium chips, SiSoft Sandra 2004 was run on the T42 to gain these results:

In addition I ran a program named “Super Pi” to see how long it took the ThinkPad T42 to calculate Pi to 2 million digits of accuracy, included are other notebooks and their times as a comparison.

Notebook and Processor Using Battery Plugged In
Compaq R3000T Celeron 2.8GHz 3m 3 s 3m 3s
IBM ThinkPad T42 Pentium M 1.7GHz 2m 2s  2m 1s
Sony GRT360 Pentium 4 2.8GHz 3m 19s 2m 5s
Fujitsu P5020 Pentium M 1.0GHz 5m 29s 3m 50s

Sound

I’ve used one laptop in the past two years that has truly impressed me with its built-in speaker performance (and I’ve lost count how many total laptops I’ve used!), that computer was the Dell Inspiron 9100.  Ironically, Dell made the 9100 for all of six months before ending its production.  The ThinkPad 42 does not end the streak of disappointing laptop speakers.  The T42 speakers are very average, there’s no bass whatsoever provided by them and any high notes sound thin.  Headphones or a pair of external speakers are a necessity for decent sound.  I can say the same for just about every other laptop I use though.

Heat & Fan

The palm rest areas on the T42 are very sturdy and, more importantly, don’t get too hot, even with prolonged use.  I also have a Dell Inspiron 600m in my possession right now and on the left palm rest the heat build up is sometimes so great that you really notice it and this becomes an annoyance at best, uncomfortable at worst.  The ThinkPad T42 won’t make you sweat though.  The bottom does get warm after a while, but not to the point of discomfort if you are using it on your lap, even if you are wearing shorts!

The heat in the T42 is dissipated via a fan and vents.  The fan is located on the left side.  The fan does not run constantly by any means, just now and again if you’re using the T42 to run processor intensive applications.  If you are in a warm room the fan will also have to run more often as heat cannot be dissipated as fast when the external temps are high.  Don’t worry though, the fan doesn’t sound like a blow dryer or anything, it’s fairly quiet and makes more of a “whirr” sound than a blowing sound.

Input/Output Ports, Drives and Slots

The ThinkPad T42 doesn’t have all the media input and output options that some consumer oriented notebooks currently have, but the options provided should suffice for most people.  I will complain about the fact there’s only two USB 2.0 ports, some laptops are coming with up to 4 USB 2.0 these days.  If you have a flash drive, mouse, digital camera and some other USB device, then you’re well over the limit of what can be plugged into the ThinkPad at the same time.

On the right hand side of the T42 there’s located the optical drive (UltraBay in IBM terminology), for my specific unit this houses a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive.  Next to the optical drive is what’s called a D-SUB port (can be used to carry analogue video signals to a monitor). On the left-hand side are two Type II PC Card slots, the modem with phone-input jack, ethernet port, an S-Video connector, two USB 2.0 ports, a headphone jack and a microphone port.  On the back of the notebook you have the AC jack for outlet power and a parallel port — a legacy port for older printers.  On the front of the T42 is the IrDA port.

Backside of T42 (view larger image)

Left-side of T42 (view larger image)

Right-side of T42 (view larger image)

It would be nice to have a built-in media card reader for such flash storage devices as SecureDigital cards or CompactFlash cards.  But no ThinkPad has this option.

Wireless Connectivity

The ThinkPad T42, as any good notebook should, comes with integrated 802.11 b/g wireless.  I had no problems using wireless on the T42.  Using the built-in IBM Access Connections application makes it very easy to find networks and manage various wireless connection profiles.  IBM places what it calls the UltraConnect Wireless Antenna in the upper right-hand part of the screen.  You can’t see it of course as it’s enclosed in the casing, but it really helps to extend your wireless range.

Also included in the T42 is a Bluetooth radio.  This allows you to connect to Bluetooth enabled PDAs, printers, cell phones, GPS devices or whatever else you can find out there on the market.

Infrared (IrDA) is also integrated into the ThinkPad and also serves as a useful way to connect to PDAs or cellphones.  When a ThinkPad with IrDA gets close to another ThinkPad with IrDA you’ll get a noise effect that sounds like a spring and you’ll be asked if you’d like to transfer files between the two machines.

Battery

The battery included with the T42 is a standard 6-cell Lithium Ion rechargeable battery.  In IBM documentation they claim “up to” 4.9 hours of life for the 15″ screen T42.  That’s a rather optimistic number, I couldn’t get this amount of battery life in my usage.  When running the machine in an essentially idle state but with the screen brightness turned up all the way the battery went from 100% to 8% in 3.5 hours (at 8% it went into hibernate mode, you could force the notebook to stay on and theoretically gain another 20 – 25 minutes of battery life).  If you’re actually using the machine such as watching a DVD and surfing the web, battery life drops to about 2.5 hours or less on a full charge.  This is a little disappointing for a thin and light notebook designed for travel.  But then again, the 15″ screen version of the T42 isn’t really a thin and light.  It straddles between being a thin-and-light and desktop replacement style notebook in my opinion.  Anyway, the larger screen is what really causes battery life drain.  I easily get 4 hours of charge on my ThinkPad T40 that has a 14.1″ screen.

If you crave more battery life you can buy an extended life 9-cell battery for around $140.  This will give you 33% more battery life.  You can also swap out the CD drive and place an UltraBay Slim battery there so that when your #1 battery gets low you can just tell the notebook to switch to using the #2 battery, or it will do this automatically for you if battery #1 gets low.  An ultrabay slim battery retails for around $189 (http://www-132.ibm.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?catalogId=-840&langId=-1&partNumber=08K8190&storeId=1).

FingerPrint reader Security and Software

The latest addition to the T42 is of course the built-in fingerprint reader to provide biometric security.
 

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

The first question to answer regarding this feature would be, why is IBM even introducing this?  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 (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 relatively 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, I can basically get the read right in one or two tries, but I won’t say it’s sure fire to work every time on the first try.

Although biometric security sounds really secure, it’s not necessarily more secure than a good password.  In fact, there is a just slightly less than .5% chance that some random person could authenticate as you using their own finger.  This is actually a lot worse security-wise than what a secure password can achieve.  A secure password consists of at least 6 characters (more is better) with combined alpha, numeric and lower/upper case characters.  If you use a secure password, there’s slim to no chance anyone will get into your windows account.  The trouble is that people use their favorite pet’s name, spouse’s name, the city they live in, or their last name as passwords.  Using these for passwords is very insecure and hackers will get into your machine in seconds if they know just a little bit of personal information about you.  And that’s when biometric security is better than a typed password.

Also, consider the fact that when you do use a very secure password, our feeble human mind is much more likely to forget that password.  If you are at work, where a secure password is much more important for a computer, a forgotten password insinuates a call to the IT department and lost time.  Fortunately, the likelihood of losing your finger is pretty low (please be careful when handling knives and scissors) so if you’re using biometric security there’s little chance of a “forgotten password”.

If you’re buying this notebook as a consumer, the Biometric security is not a necessity by any means, I’d in fact recommend against paying the extra for it.  It’s not a huge convenience for a home user that’s likely to have password logon disabled on their machine anyway.  If you can see that this feature would benefit you though, then go for it as it’s fairly intuitive to use.

It’s the Little Things

Having covered a lot of the basic features of a notebook, it might sound like the T42 is just a darn good machine that rises above the crowd with a basic approach to better quality for each notebook feature.  But it’s the extra little things that you get on an IBM notebook that makes it that much better too.  For instance, the ThinkLight is a small light at the top of the screen that can be turned on by holding “Fn” + “Pg-Up”, this light illuminates the keyboard in a dark room — pretty handy.  Or Hold in “Fn” + “F7” and a utility to easily select what presentation mode/monitor-output/screen resolution mode you want will pop up.  If your notebook all of a sudden one day is behaving strangely and crashing, you can use the built-in Restore and Recovery utility and take your notebook back to a point in time so everything is setup exactly as it was at that chosen time.  I’ve saved myself a couple of times using this — if I get infected with a virus and just need to get back to when I was uninfected in a quick amount of time I’ll recover to a state I was in a couple of days ago.  If you want to “zoom-in” to and enlarge images on your screen, use the “Fn” + “Space Bar” and the screen will enlarge so you can zoom in and see a character that might have been too small to read in normal resolution mode.  There are also two keys next to the arrow cursor keys that are dedicated to allowing you to go “Back” and “Forward” in a web browser simply by pushing these buttons.

The list of little features and utilities built into every IBM ThinkPad goes on and on.  It’s these things people don’t think about when buying a notebook, but once you start using a ThinkPad your eyes are opened and you become dependent on certain features — and then you can’t switch to anything else!

Service and Support

The ThinkPad T42 comes with a standard 3-yr parts and labor warranty when you purchase through IBM.com.  This is very good, many manufacturers will give just a year unless you want to cough up more money.

There’s a disaster story for every manufacturer out there in which a person has had a bad experience with a broken laptop and then subsequently being mistreated by customer service and support for that manufacturer.  I won’t deny IBM is immune from this, but in general IBM is the best there is for service and support.  They got the second best support rating in PC World’s recent reader survey.  So yes, it is good.  Their support department is in Atlanta, Georgia.  So unless you have problems understanding a Southern accent, you’ll be able to communicate with these nice people just fine.

Notebook PCs Reliability Scores

Survey Results from PCWorld.com for customer satisfaction with notebooks, IBM placed 2nd

Conclusion

If what you are looking for is a highly durable laptop, with great performance, great service and great usability then the ThinkPad T42 is for you — if you’re willing to pay the price that is.  This laptop is particularly good for business related work and for computer programmers — two occupations in which you spend a lot of time using a computer and keyboard and also might need extra security to protect your data.  The ThinkPad T42 line is expensive if you configure with it with good specs.  You’ll likely be paying $2,000 or up.  If you have the money and subscribe to the philosophy “you get what you pay for”, then you won’t mind paying extra for the IBM T42.  And remember, when you buy a laptop you’re not just buying a piece of equipment, you are buying a company because if something goes wrong with the laptop you’ll be dependent on getting help from that company.

Pros

  • The best keyboard around, combined with TrackPoint navigation allows for easy use and input
  • Tough case (titanium reinforced plastic) and rugged design, yet still relatively thin-and-light.
  • Good bright screen.
  • Using finger scanner as a substitute for password logon makes for easy yet secure protection of your account.
  • Great wireless range and features, Bluetooth, 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi and infrared all built-in.
  • UltraBay provides option to easily put in an extra hard drive, different optical drive such as a DVD burner, or an extra battery.

Cons

  • Pricey, you’ll pay $2,000 and up for a good configuration
  • No FireWire port or media card reader, only two USB 2.0 ports
  • Battery life suffers with the 15.0-inch screen, expect 3-hours or less if screen is at full brightness and wireless is on.

Pricing and Availability


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