System76 Review: My Adventure To Buy An Ubuntu Linux Laptop
I love the Linux operating system. I have been using it for over 8 years. For about 5 of those years I have used it exclusively on all my personal computers. So when I heard about companies that sold computers with Linux preinstalled on them I got excited. After looking into them I really liked what I saw in System76.
It had been quite a while since I purchased a new computer. A few years ago I bought a netbook which was really nice for portability. However my desktop started showing it's age and I started longing for a machine with more power.
While I found System76's prices to be very reasonable I just couldn't bring myself to spend the money when I had computers that were working. Even though there were some things I was limited on with my weak computers, they still allowed me to do a lot of what I wanted to do.
But then one day everything changed. I came home from work to be informed by my wife of a tragic accident. Our 16 month old daughter had climbed up onto the table, took my wife's cup of coffee and poured it all over the netbook. This sounds like a good excuse, I mean reason to buy a new laptop.
A note for the less knowledgeable, liquids of any kind and computers do not mix.
Who Is System76
Unless you have been hanging out in Linux circles, forums or other geeky areas you may not have ever heard of System76. I have been into Linux for quite awhile now and I didn't know about them until very recently. I was surprised to find out that they have actually been around for awhile.
Since 2005, System76 has been manufacturing computers that come preinstalled with Ubuntu Linux. They use high quality components to create high quality computers.
Being in business for 7 years is no small feat for a company. A small company cannot stay in business so long by providing poor products and service. So this made me feel more comfortable purchasing from a company I had not dealt with before.
Usually if you can find a computer with Linux preinstalled it is on a low end system, such as netbooks. Finding Linux on a high end system is impossible from the big computer companies. System76 goes against this trend and proves that people want and will buy high performance computers running Linux.
Ubuntu Linux Laptop
System76 chooses to focus exclusively on using Ubuntu Linux on their laptops, desktops and servers. Ubuntu is one of the most popular, if not the most popular Linux distribution. Ubuntu aims to make Linux for humans. This means they strive to make a Linux system that is easy to setup, easy to use and just works. They have done very well reaching these goals.
At the time of this writing System76 ships their computers with Ubuntu 12.04 which is the latest release of Ubuntu. They claim ship all computers with the latest release of Ubuntu starting the same day it is released. So if Ubuntu releases a new version before your order has shipped System76 will install it on your computer to ensure you have the most up to date operating system.
I am quite fond of Ubuntu. I have been using it on my computers for some time. The idea of buying a computer with it preinstalled was very appealing to me.
System76 has several different laptops in their lineup, which you can check out for yourself on their website. I chose the Pangolin Performance. The base price is $699. The base system is nice on its own and just fine for many people. I wanted to get a computer with some more power though and beefed it up a bit. After my upgrades and shipping I wound up spending $899. This is a good price in my opinion. Here is what I got:
15.6" 720p High Definition LED Backlit Display ( 1366 x 768 )
Intel High Definition Graphics
3rd Generation Intel Core i7-3610QM Processor ( 2.30GHz 6MB L3 Cache - 4 Cores plus Hyperthreading ) (Added $115.00 to the price.)
8 GB Dual Channel DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz - 2 X 4GB (Added $45.00 to the price.)
500 GB 7200 RPM SATA II
8X DVD±R/RW/4X +DL Super-Multi Drive
Intel Centrino 1030 - 802.11 b/g/n Wireless LAN + Bluetooth Combo Module
System76 Customer Service
Lets face it, customer service can make or break a company, especially a small one. Do you want to deal with a company that is rude, ignores you or is just not helpful? I don't either. In fact I have taken my business else where a few times because of this.
How does System76 stand up in this area? After I placed my order I had a few questions. You can contact System76 either by phone or through their message system which is very well integrated with your account on their website. It looks kind of like chat. There is a picture of you, if you choose to upload one, and a picture of the customer service representative with who you are communicating. It is really nice to see a face and name. It feels very personal.
My questions got a fast and friendly response. The woman was very helpful and even offered other suggestions. She even suggested if I wanted to change my order they would do what it took to make me happy. I was very pleased with the experience.
Getting My Laptop
After I placed my order I was told it would be 7 – 12 days before my order shipped due to high demand. Anyone who has ordered a computer and had to wait for it to arrive knows how painful those few days can be. You are all excited to start playing with your new toy. My order shipped on the 7th day. I received it a few days later.
The packaging was nothing special. Does it need to be? If is saves me money then I don't care how it arrives as long as it is in good condition. There was the shipping box. Inside was the box the laptop was packaged in.
The surprising thing was that inside the box was the laptop, power cord and a little slip. That was all. There was no user manual or 20 glossy pieces of advertisements. Well that was actually nice.
The slip thanked me for my purchase and referred me to some links if I needed any information or help. One link is to System76's own knowledge base and help website. The others are to Ubuntu websites. Also on the slip were two shiny stickers with the Ubuntu logo and the text 'Powered by Ubuntu'. These look really nice.
The laptop arrived in great condition. It looks very sleek and professional. It does not come in any fancy colors, unless you consider gray fancy. There is no special lighting. What you get is a laptop that can easily fit in at home, a social gathering with friends or a business meeting.
Something I really like about the laptop is that it is clean. By this I mean that it is not covered in stickers proclaiming the processor, video card, operating system or anything else. You get a clean, sleek laptop. This is also where those 'Powered by Ubuntu' stickers come in I mentioned earlier. If you want to stick them on the laptop you can. If you like the clean look you can stick them else where. I am still undecided if I want to put them on my laptop.
How does the system run? In a word it is fast. This laptop is very responsive, even running the Unity desktop which in the past for me could be a little slow. Everything comes right up and runs like you would expect (or better) on such a system. The two finger scroll works really well and I have become really fond of it.
The 15.6” 720p HD display is very sharp and clear. It has a great picture. Whether watching video in HD, playing games or working on graphics the picture is really nice.
Something that has impressed me is the sound. I didn't expect much from the sound on a laptop but on the Pangolin Performance it is pretty nice. Now I am not saying it is movie theater quality or anything like that. What I am saying is that for a laptop the built in sound system is good. I would say it is better than other laptops that I have heard.
In the reviews I have read for the older models of Pangolin Performance there were complaints about the keyboard. Many found it to be kind of weak and flexible when they typed. I am not sure if System76 changed the keyboard on the new Pangolin I purchased but I think the keyboard is great! It is the chiclet style keyboard. I find it to be really stable and sturdy. For a laptop it is really good.
What about battery life? This is something that almost all reviews on System76 laptops that I have read fail to mention. They get called out for this in the comments. Now I have not put the battery to the test. I usually have my laptop plugged in. Since I am usually using it around an outlet I see no reason to run down the battery.
I have used it on battery power some, however. From what I have seen so far the battery is really nothing special. It seems fairly typical. If the indicator is accurate then I would say you could get around 4 hours of use on the battery. However it is going to depend greatly on what you are doing. Obviously if you are doing some heavy gaming it is going to run down a lot faster than if you are just surfing the web.
Would you buy a laptop with Linux preinstalled on it?
Is A System76 Laptop For You?
I have been really impressed with my System76 Pangolin Performance laptop. It is a great high quality laptop. I really enjoy using it. I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking to buy a laptop with Linux preinstalled on it.
However everyone is different and it may not be for you. For most people even the base system should suite their needs. If you need more power you can customize it to fit you better.
You should know that at this time System76 laptops do not have the option to install nVidia graphics cards. The only option is Intel HD Graphics.
Some people turn their nose up at the Intel HD Graphics. In the past Intel graphics has usually only come on low end systems. However the newer Intel HD Graphics has really come a long way.
It can handle a lot. It is fine for many games and it did well for me running Blender doing some 3D rendering. Granted I have not done anything very intense with it yet. I have read that it does fine running World of Warcraft, but I no longer play this game so I cannot confirm it myself.
If you are a big gamer that likes to play the latests and greatest intense 3D games or you do some heavy 3D modeling and rendering then a System76 laptop may not be for you at this time. They may get nVidia options in the future like they had in the past, though for now it is not there.
Also if you need or want to be running Windows on your laptop then you may want to purchase a computer with it already on it and then install Linux as a dual boot after the purchase. Though if you are someone that likes to install Windows yourself I bet it would run just fine on the System76 laptop.
Otherwise, if you are looking for a high quality laptop from a great and friendly company that comes preinstalled with Ubuntu Linux then I highly recommend System76. I enjoyed my experience with them and I am loving my Pangolin Performance laptop.
Since I have been using my System76 Pangolin Performance for several months now I thought I would give a brief update. Some people have asked about my experiences after using the laptop for a longer period of time.
I am still very happy with my purchase. The Pangolin Performance has been a great laptop. It has handled everything I have thrown at it with ease. It is still running great and I have had no problems with it (almost! I will explain in a minute).
I have used this laptop to do some 3D modeling and rendering, using programs such as Blender and FreeCAD. I have played games such as World of Warcraft just fine. Of coarse I have also done the typical surfing the web and word processing.
One of the things I am most grateful for is the numpad. For some people is may not be very important. I use Blender, open source 3D modeling and animating software. The numpad is important in using Blender, and other similar software. While there are ways around this it is much easier to use a numpad. This is a great feature to have on a laptop.
I like to play around with different Linux OS's. Since System76's computers are designed for Ubuntu they should work with other Linux distributions. This has been true for me. I have tried other distros in various ways including Debian, Linux Mint, and Fedora. They all have run just fine. So if you are interested in installing another Linux distro, either to replace or run alongside Ubuntu, everything should work just fine.
Battery life can be important to some people. It is not very much so for me. So I have not done extensive testing in this area. From my real world usage I can typically get around 3 – 3.5 hours. Of course this can vary quite a bit depending on usage. You shouldn't expect much more than this. If you are going to to put the computer to heavy work when running on battery power then you should expect less. If battery life is top priority to you and you need a lot more than this, then you might want to consider another computer.
There has been one issue but it is not a very big deal to me. It is a little disappointing though. This has to do with the System76 logo on the laptop. It is just a decal that is fairly easy to peal off. One day I noticed that the S was just about to fall off. After closer inspection I saw how easy it is to just peal the whole thing off, which I did as who wants a computer that says 'ystem76'.
I was not picking at it or doing anything directly to cause the decal to come off. It must of happened when I pushed a book or something over the laptop when it was closed. The sad thing is this has been a know problem for some time. I have found people complaining about this for years.
I don't really mind as I like the clean look on the laptop. But as a company you would think they would like the advertising they would get from actually having their name out there for people to see. So I would think they would have resolved this some time ago.
Overall I am very happy with the Pangolin Performance. I would recommend it to anyone looking to purchase a laptop with Linux, especially Ubuntu, preinstalled.