Writings - Lenovo T480 with Linux Review

Niek Sanders, June 2018

I bought a Lenovo T480 laptop for my personal use. This review looks at getting it dual booting and playing nice with Ubuntu 18.04. Though the T-series supposedly plays well with Linux, my expectation coming in was that various things would be broken after a stock install.

I bought the machine in May for $1730 including taxes. Some specs:

I normally use either Linux or MacOS. The last time I was a regular Windows user was back in the Win 98 days. For now, I'm keeping Windows 10 Pro for light gaming and dual-booting to Linux for everything else. The 512 GB SSD gives elbow room for two operating systems. The Nvidia MX150 gives me the option of doing CUDA development again. The 16 GB RAM fills just one of two slots, leaving the option of bumping to 32 GB if memory prices ever become sane again.

My previous daily driver was a 2013 Mac Book Air; a thoroughly excellent little machine. But I couldn't bring myself to buy Apple for my personal laptop. They've neglected the MBA line for years, and the MBP is overpriced, stingy on ports, and having major quality issues with its keyboard. The MBP touch bar is also unappealing for Vim users like me.

The Lenovo T480 is more hacker-friendly than a MBP. There is no dongle garbage involved. It comes with every port you could want, including an RJ45 port for gigabit networking and HDMI for presenting. The hot-swappable battery feature is nifty too, with a monster 72 Wh spare being available for a very reasonable price. For you MBP owners, the next time your keyboard craps out from "a spec of dust" and needs major surgery to fix, you can ponder what properly repairable hardware (video) looks like.

Picture of Lenovo T480 Keyboard and Track Pad

The keyboard on the T480 is great. The deep key travel and snappy response makes it a pleasure to type on. The touchpad is just ok... it's a class below my 2013 Mac Book Air in terms of feel, size, and responsiveness, but it's still good enough not to be annoying. The trackpad is vertically cramped by the TrackPoint mouse buttons sitting above it. The TrackPoint doesn't do much for me as a feature, but maybe that will change as I get used to it.

The lower end display is perfectly adequate for me. It is comfortably bright indoors and easy on the eyes. I don't do graphics work, so I don't care much about things like color gamut.

One sucky thing on the T480 is the audio quality. The speakers are fine for video conferencing or watching educational content, but they're pretty underwhelming when playing music. Lenovo should have put in more effort here.

Installing Ubuntu 18.04 for dual boot was straight forward:

  1. Shrink the existing disk partition using the Windows 10 disk utility.
  2. Turn off "Secure Boot" in the BIOS.
  3. Hit enter during system startup to boot from an Ubuntu-imaged thumb drive.
  4. Follow a vanilla Ubuntu install.

Ubuntu defaults to Gnome 3. And while I'm sure many people love it, for me it has all the appeal of a pile of cat vomit. Cinnamon treats me well on my Mint desktop, so I plopped that on my laptop too:

sudo apt install cinnamon-desktop-environment

Installing the package, changing my desktop choice at the login screen, and a few minutes of tweaking desktop preferences was all it took for a vomit-free desktop experience.

Picture of Lenovo T480 Running Linux

I installed the tlp package for power management. I haven't really measured any before/after changes, so I don't a real idea about its effectiveness. The tlp-stat output does look pretty interesting.

Surprisingly, the hardware just seems to work. The wireless was no problem. The webcam works. The sound is fine. Both the trackpad and TrackPoint do what you'd expect.

There are a few things I haven't tested yet. The wired networking must wait till I'm home from vacation. I haven't plugged anything into the HDMI port. I've yet to install the proprietary Nvidia drivers for playing with Cuda.

Final verdict: the T480 plays nice with Linux, with no crazy tweaking or weird kernel drivers being necessary. For a development machine, it seems like a very solid choice.

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