IBM ThinkPad T42: Three-year Update

“It sure is nice to get out of that bag…”

On December 13, 2017, I received the IBM ThinkPad T42. It was the first “vintage” or collectable computer I owned, although in hindsight my HP XPavilion (RIP) probably predates it by at least a year, and ran older software. I purchased the T42 in hopes to start a collection of IBM computers, as at the time I was deeply interested in IBM’s history and their products.

IBM released the T42 in 2004 as part of the popular T-series segment of the ThinkPad line. The ThinkPad T42 was based on Intel’s Pentium M “Dothan” processor. It originally shipped with Windows XP, the de facto standard for Windows PCs of the time. The T42, as with all other T-series laptops of that era, features a color 4:3 LCD and a trackpad along with the popular TrackPoint for internal pointing devices. The T42 also included popular ports at the time, such as parallel and serial ports and two USB 2.0 ports, a built-in modem, Ethernet port, and PCMCIA ports. The T42 even features an infrared transceiver (did anyone ever use those regularly?), a docking port on the bottom, an option bay on the side, and even the famous ThinkLight.

When looking to purchase a vintage ThinkPad, my ideal machine was one that was made before 2000. IBM was a trendsetter in the PC laptop market with the ThinkPad line throughout the 1990s – often being on the forefront of trends like built-in CD drives, the TrackPoint, and other innovations that we often take for granted. The ThinkPad 750 was one of the first laptops to fly in space, while other ThinkPad models featured fold-out keyboards and handwriting recognition. My goal was to purchase a variant of the 700 series.

Alas, being a broke college student put a damper on my goal with a tight budget, making purchasing an older ThinkPad an intangible goal at the time.

Speaking of budget, I purchased my T42 for a total of $100. (Many would probably say I paid $100 too much.) $50 went toward actually purchasing the machine, but the other $50 went to the exorbitant shipping costs associated with having the machine shipped from Ontario (Canada) to Missouri.

My T42 is more of a “Frankenstein” machine. It’s essentially a T42 chassis that was installed inside of a T41p case. The seller installed Windows 7 on it, and shipped it with only 512 MB of memory installed. While I had plans to revert it back to Windows XP and/or upgrade the memory to the maximum 2 GB, those plans never came to fruition. My T42 was made by Lenovo in 2006, after they purchased IBM’s personal computing business.

In my freshman and sophomore years of college, the machine received daily use after I killed my then-daily driver, a ThinkPad T420. As I describe in a recent “Throwback Thursday” post, I used it mainly for note-taking, as other tasks requiring the use of the internet or software like Microsoft Office had to be done on the iMac I used at work.

The T42 saw regular use in 2018 after my daily driver machine died.

However, ever since, the machine has received minimal use. Three years has really affected the usability and practicality of this machine.

The machine itself is in nearly the same condition as it was when I received it. Unfortunately, it sounds like the hard drive may be starting to fail – which wouldn’t be a huge surprise, considering sometimes the machine refuses to “cold boot” into Windows. Often times I have to go into BIOS to get the machine to boot into Windows.

The battery is shot. The original seller installed a second battery in the option bay, which is the main battery for the machine. (The machine didn’t come with the main battery, I believe due to shipping issues.) The battery originally only held a charge for about 30 minutes – short enough to require me to plug it into AC power everywhere I used it for. (Which often meant having to find a seat next to a power outlet in classes.) Now, the battery doesn’t hold a charge at all – unplugging the machine kills it.

The plastics on the machine are also showing their age. One part of the case plastic to the right of the keyboard has been cracked since I received the machine. The palm rest creaks when you place any small amount of pressure on it.

Despite a bad battery and a creaking palm rest, the machine does work – in fact, I’m writing this post on it using WordPad. However, its uses has been severely impacted over the years.

When I first got the machine, I was able to write blog posts directly from the T42 using Internet Explorer 8. However, at some point, WordPress updated the back-end content editor, which wouldn’t even load in IE 8. I tried Pale Moon, another browser catering to older computers, with not much success. The T42 simply doesn’t have enough memory to support a more modern browser or browsing the modern internet in general.

I used to use the T42 to write and publish posts on this blog in 2017-18, before WordPress switched to a modern editor that wasn’t supported by IE 8.

But a modern browser and memory upgrade would all be worthless… because my university’s WiFi no longer supports the T42. After returning from summer break in August 2020, I was shocked and disappointed to learn the T42 would no longer connect to our university WiFi. I think it’s likely due to encryption problems, since the radio in the T42 seems to be working fine. (It sees the university WiFi networks, as well as others. However, it isn’t able to log in.)

The T42 mostly lives in its ThinkPad case until I want to use it for something. I primarily use the T42 for MIDI playback with OpenMPT, or playing around in DOSBox. However, I have managed to get Mini vMac working on it – and it actually runs really smooth and looks crisp on the LCD.

The T42 in its ThinkPad-branded carrying case alongside the Macintosh SE’s carrying case.

The T42 is severely limited with what I can do with it, to the point where my 1988 Macintosh SE could be considered a more useful computer for daily tasks. (Well, speaking in terms of what can run natively on the hardware.) While the T42 is 18 years newer and contains 512 times the memory of the SE, I have a lot of software that will run comfortably on the SE. On the other hand, I don’t have a whole lot of software for the T42 – and the memory constrains what you can do with it. A lot of software will either flat-out not run on the T42, or it will run but will be unstable.

The IBM ThinkPad T42 with OpenMPT and the 1988 Macintosh SE

Despite all of the negatives, the T42 still has some redeeming features that make it a decent computer – even in 2020. The keyboard, as with all other ThinkPad keyboards – especially of that era, is very pleasant to type on. It runs OpenMPT and DOSBox smoothly, making it a great computer for tinkering with MIDI files or playing old DOS software. And the legacy ports are there in case I ever get hardware that needs to use it.

The T42’s keyboard is nice to type on.

The ThinkPad T42 was a decent way to get my foot into the door of the old ThinkPad world. Hopefully some day I can add some older ThinkPads – along with some other IBM models – to my collection to join the T42.