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Ubuntu Linux with Gnome Shell on Lenovo ThinkPad T530

I recently purchased a Lenovo ThinkPad T530 with the following specs:

  • 15.6″ FHD screen with 1920 x 1080 pixel dimensions (13.5 x 7.75″ physical dimensions)
  • Intel Core i5-3210M CPU @ 2.50GHz
  • Intel HD 4000 Graphics
  • 4 GB RAM (Max is 16 GB!) PC3-12800 DDR3
  • 120 GB SSD
  • Intel Centrino WL-N 2200 (dual-band wifi)
  • 9 cell battery (with WIFI on and dim screen I get about 8+ hours!)
  • Minutiae: backlit keyboard, bluetooth, HD webcam, 90W AC adapter, DVD-R optical drive, 320 GB 7200 HD with Windows 7 installed, I ordered a mini-displayport to HDMI adapter for $5 from Amazon

Though the machine feels pretty light for its size, it is a predictably durable-feeling machine. Very sturdy and the matte black finish is really great. The thing looks awesome once you get all of the stickers off of the palm rest. With the lid closed, the rigid body is comfortable to carry around. A considerable improvement over the squishy Lenovo Essential B570 that it replaced.

As many online reviews have stated, the battery doesn’t seem to latch into the main body in a very satisfying way. When holding the laptop you will notice a bit of play between the battery and laptop body. Not a show stopper by any means. The display hinges are very firm. The screen latches work well but don’t hold the screen as tight as I’d like. Also not a show stopper. Just picking nits.

The new island-style keyboard is just as good or better than the previous ThinkPad keyboard (I had a T42 once upon a time). It looks similar to the keyboard on the Lenovo IdeaPad and Essential laptops, but it feels much more firm and durable – a delightful surprise. I was perfectly happy with the feel of the B570 keyboard, but this ThinkPad keyboard is really awesome. One thing that will take some getting used to is the placement of the FUNCTION and CONTROL keys on the bottom-left of the keyboard. You can flip-flop which is which from the T530 BIOS and I did that which is great. Unfortunately they didn’t make the two keys the exact same size so that you could physically switch the keys to match the BIOS setting. But that’s a pretty nerdy problem to have (#nerdworldproblems).

Since I don’t use Windows, I removed the original HD and put it in a box where it will stay until the day I need to resell the T530. That way a fresh install of Windows 7 will be ready for the new owner, since nobody seems to include actual Windows install discs with these machines anymore. Turns out Lenovo is migrating to the newer 6mm HD form factor. There’s plenty of room for a 9mm drive but my 9mm SSD didn’t fit the rubber sleds that came with the machine. I ordered a 9mm sled from Amazon and installed the SSD without the sleds until that arrived.

Everything works with Ubuntu Linux 12.04. Special buttons for audio volume, screen brightness, play/pause/next/prev, the physical WIFI switch, the touchpad, the trackpoint, all of it. I highly recommend the Intel Centrino WL-N 2200 wifi upgrade. The dual-channel/radio feature (?) is a massive improvement for working over WIFI as opposed to just browsing the web. File transfers across my local network are nice and snappy. Plus there are Linux drivers for it, so no need for “restricted drivers”. It just works.

Contrary to some of the reviews, the speakers are nice though don’t have a lot of bass – is that really surprising though? Sometimes these laptop reviewers… I just don’t know what audience they are talking to. They don’t seem to be focused on what is important to me very often. The number of reviewers that think the Thinkpad hardware design is outdated and ugly are in the majority. They apparently like shiny hardware enough that they can overlook the idiocy of putting a too-small right-SHIFT key next to the UP key.

Linux on the T530 with 15″ FHD Screen

My existing Ubuntu Linux 12.04 system on the SSD had no trouble booting up on the T530. Everything was perfect if you didn’t mind really, really small text and interface elements. Also, the colors are all pretty saturated on this screen. It needs to be calibrated and if you are a graphic designer your tools need to support color management. Luckily, Gnome/Linux, Gimp, Inkscape, Scribus and Firefox all have some pretty good color management features. They are not always completely finished features, but serious work can be done if you know what you are trying to do. If thinking about color management makes your head spin, buy a Mac running OSX and buy Adobe’s Creative Suite.

This screen has an effective screen resolution of 142 PPI. Compare this to the ~210 PPI on the Retina MacBook Pro. And then compare it to the ~100 PPI of most 13/14/15″ laptop displays with 1366 pixels across. In a nut: if you can get your operating system to increase UI text and graphic sizes to the physical size you are used to working with on a 15″ screen you will have the luxury of a very sharp, high-resolution experience. I’ve been able to do just that for the most part, though it is a work in progress. The rest of this post will be a notebook of adjustments and tweaks that I’ve used to make the high resolution experience consistent throughout my Linux system on the T530.

Notes on T530 Linux Configuration

Gnome Text Scaling

Adjust Gnome 3 text scaling to get the Gnome interface to use more appropriately sized text. You will need to install the Gnome Tweak application for this.

Advanced Settings/Gnome Tweak (gnometweak) > Fonts (see screenshot for my settings)

Web Browsers: Default Zoom Value

Adjust web browsers to zoom websites to a default value.

  • Firefox: enter about:config in address bar, search for layout.css.devPixelsPerPx and set the value to your preference. I used 1.5.
  • Chrome/Chromium: Settings > Under the Hood > Web Content > Page zoom: > 150%
  • Opera: Settings > Preferences > Webpages > Page zoom > 150
  • Gnome Web Browser: Not a setting that is available as of version 3.4.1

This also works for Thunderbird! Preferences > Advanced > Config Editor … > search for layout.css.devPixelsPerPx and set to 1.5.

In general, browsing the web like this is a very good experience. Sure, the graphic images are being scaled up in many cases right now, but a lot of responsive sites actually look beautiful and in general everything that is text or drawn with CSS looks gorgeous. Most importantly, the way zooming in browsers works across all contemporary browsers preserves the layout and design of most sites.

Screen Calibration and Color Management

If you are running Ubuntu 12.04 or newer or any Linux with Gnome 3 a program that manages color management and screen calibration should already be installed. Go to System Settings > Color. From this application you can specify color profiles for your various devices: screen, printers, video cameras, any thing that records or displays visual color data can be calibrated and color managed.

The T530 and W530 can be equipped with a built-in display colorimeter. Which is a neat and unique idea, but the device is built in to the palmrest and so will only ever be able to monitor one specific spot on the screen. That and I’m sure the included Windows software does some special maneuvers to work while the laptop’s lid is closed… I figured that probably wouldn’t work under Linux so I didn’t buy it. Plus, I already own a Pantone Huey Pro. Either way, you’ll need some kind of colorimeter to calibrate your screen. If you don’t already own one, I recommend the Hughski ColorHug colorimeter by Richard Hughes, the guy that wrote the color management application for Gnome on Linux (there’s a version for KDE as well). Looks like a great device at a reasonable price.

Firefox Color Management

Even after calibrating my display this FHD screen shows pretty saturated colors in places. The Gnome colord calibration certainly improves the overall color of the screen, especially the white and black points. However, the applications you use also need to be color managed for the best possible experience. This screen seems to have a tendency to over saturate, making the lack of true color management very obvious to a designer like myself.

Fortunately Firefox has some great color management tools built in to the more recent versions. Unfortunately there is a certain amount of overhead involved in correcting colors, so Firefox comes preconfigured to only color manage images that include a color profile. You want to switch it to color manage everything. This can be done via the about:config method, but there’s a nice and simple addon that makes the setting more approachable: Firefox Addon: Color Management

Once its installed go to Tools > Addons > Color Management and set it to “All Images” and then identify your current display profile by using the “browse” feature to navigate to it. You should start seeing a better looking web right away!

Read more about color management in web browsers here: Gary G. Ballard’s Web Browser Color Management Tutorial (note that Firefox does color management the right way: color managing images as well as colors defined in CSS.) Gary G. Ballard is awesome.

Caps Lock / Num Lock Indication

The T530 does not have an LED light that indicates the state of Caps Lock or Num Lock. It’s an odd exclusion since there’s plenty of room next to the WIFI and HD activity lights. But OH WELL, there’s a Gnome Shell Extension called “Lock Keys” that adds a nice and simple indicator in the top panel.

Mouse Cursor Size

Struggling with this a bit right now. I am getting inconsistent results and so am hesitant to even share the tweaks that I’ve made so far. I hope to report back on this with a really good solution. The current state of adjustable mouse cursor sizes on Gnome 3 on Ubuntu 12.04 appears to be a bit of a hacked up mess.