System76 laptops

Luxury linux



I ignored this option for my linux laptop for a while, on the grounds that they looked too clunky for my hipster soul. Now, though…. System76 laptops look less ugly than when I first became aware of them, when their aesthetic was “cereal boxes for cylons.” Indeed, the latest laptops are attractive, both aesthetically and technically.

Like the Razer gear, the fact that there is no company presence in Australia means that taking on such a machine is a risk if it needs warranty service or weird parts. That said, the technical support available from competing laptop manufacturers in Australia is not great anyway; the guy at the next desk is in a perpetual hell of Dell parts replacements, and Dell very much have a company presence in Australia. And last time I gave my Razer blade to the service agent, they formatted the hard drive (I send it in to get the power supply fixed) just to teach me a lesson I guess, then they ghosted me when the battery tried to explode. So, yeah. Local service agent has not yet shown itself worthwhile. Having to learn to fix stuff yourself might be a cost of business in the backwater banana republic that is Australia.

Given that, and since this is a private machine anyway, the next best thing to a cheap local service guarantee is a machine designed to be easily user serviceable. Which these are, I can now report from owning one. For more on that, read on.

Mini review: System76 Lemur

I now own a System76 Lemur and the experience is overall extremely good compared to a typical linux laptop —

  • there are no speculative config hacks to deal with idiosyncratic hardware/driver needs,
  • I did not spend 6 hours wrestling with a windows partition
  • firmware updates are not a cross-OS nightmare where you need to boot into windows just to do that
  • resume and suspend usually work fine without exotic xinput hacks.

More than that, it is a good experience compared to a typical laptop of any OS. If this were a Windows machine I would have spent days installing all the things I need, then would need to fork out 150 bucks for Windows Pro so I could encrypt my data, and then the bloody thing would still intermittently lose the bluetooth connection or whatever, and the entire time I would be vaguely nervous that the damned thing was full of spyware. (This is in fact what is happening with my windows laptop.)

Price was modest; including import duties to Australia it was only slightly pricier than an equivalent Dell. Subtracting time lost to configuring a Dell, I am ahead. I hope it does not need a warranty service or I am screwed, but for now I love it. Or am I screwed? It comes with a comprehensive service manual, and TBH looks like the build is such that it is reasonably easy to replace many parts. Oh, and also their remote service experience is as good as it possibly could be; see below.

Note that this model is not a GPU machine like my last laptop. I do not want or need GPUs for graphics, and if I want to use a GPU for science, I will use an external GPU, or use the cloud. System76 does support GPUs, however; in fact this is one of the selling points of their laptops and their recommended Linux distribution, Pop!_OS.

Joys:

  • light
  • looks nice
  • the keyboard has a pleasing action
  • Online plain language repair and parts guide with much detail, targeted at informed laypeople instead of technophobes or professional service personnel.
  • assembled by some charming geeks who phone you up personally to check how you are feeling about the purchase, in a sensible moment in your local timezone
  • comes in re-usable packing
  • battery really does last a long time. I logged 4 hours yesterday before I hit the notional half-charge level on a demanding dev workload
  • responsive and fast. How much of this is because of the Pop!_OS configuration defaulting to less bloat than Ubuntu default I wonder?
  • nice wifi antenna which as I write is dropping this flakey wifi extender connection much less frequently than does my macbook pro a metre away. (I am aware however that wifi signals are mysterious and inexplicable and this could change if a bird flies past or something.)
  • I chose to have it configured with Pop!_OS instead of ubuntu, and it is a great OS.

Sorrows:

  • It is too easy to hit PgUp/PgDn when using the tiny arrow pad on this keyboard. On the other hand I wrote to the tech support folks to ask about this and they gave me 1) an easy hack solution and 2) a programming guide to the keyboard firmware so that I can make arbitrary changes to what the keys do for a fancy fix.
  • The internal speakers are not great. I mean, all internal speakers on every laptop everywhere are terrible, and these are at the muffled end of that low standard. Sounds like a mouse in a sock under a brick. Since I would only use those speakers for watching movies in bed but in practice I use headphones for most things, this is fine. Internal speakers are never a determiner for laptop choice. I suspect they are designed to sound OK if your laptop is on a flat reflective surface (i.e. not a lap per se, or a bed). update: Yes, is much better if the laptop is on a hard surface. So I am upgrading my lap, installing hard reflective acoustic panels in my thighs.
  • no ambient light sensor so you need to adjust display brightness manually.

Overall, this is a ringing endorsement. As good as it gets. I have not had this good an experience with a laptop in a looong time, certainly not at this price point, and I recommend this laptop to you if you would like a fast cheap machine that is already configured to just go and is joyously easy to use.

Miscellaneous hardware tips

Battery stinginess can be made stricter. There are power profiles:

apt install system76-power

See also generic power management:

  • Lots of hardware tweaks are available and well-documented in the System76 Open Source Embedded Controller, e.g. keyboard layout
  • System76 has a lot of the hardware support design open and online
  • Technical Documentation includes everything you need to know. No really, actually everything, at least by comparison with typical user-accessible laptop manuals. It is good documentation and puts many obscure 733+ details at the disposal of mere prosumers. ❤️
  • see also the notes about Pop!_OS if using that

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