System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

Summary: Sure my System76 test machine is a screamer, but will high-end consumers buy in to Ubuntu, even if it's pre-installed?


Readers of my Ed Tech blog will know that System76, an OEM dedicated to selling Ubuntu-powered laptops, desktops, and servers recently sent me a pair of their netbooks to test for use in student computing. While the hardware was stock netbook (Atom processors, Intel graphics, etc.), the computers reminded me how much I liked Ubuntu and offered a glimpse of how easy a transition to Linux could be if it simply came pre-installed on a high quality machine from a reputable manufacturer. After all, no matter how easy Ubuntu is to install, the average consumer (or business, school, or government agency for that matter) simply isn't going to start downloading ISOs and blowing away pre-installed copies of Windows 7.

The netbooks were perfectly nice,and represented a solid choice for schools because of their abundant free software and competitive prices when compared to other netbooks with similar specs. However, System76 also sent me a high-performance, consumer-oriented laptop to evaluate in the broader context of desktop Linux.

I use Ubuntu regularly, primarily as a server OS, and it's been my primary desktop OS at various points since version 7. However, being the geeky sort of guy that I am, I don't hesitate to either fire it up in a virtual machine or just burn a CD and wipe out any of the various computers that tend to float around my house and install the operating system. This is all well and good for geeky sorts of guys (and I mean "guys" in a very gender-neutral sense) or for businesses that either need or want to use Linux.

Most people just go to Dell, HP, or Apple, though, buy a computer, and use whatever OS came with it until it dies. What can System76 offer to make consumers order a $1500 laptop and use Ubuntu on it until it dies?

The computer pictured above is their Pangolin Performance model. A base price of $845 gets you an HD+, 15.6" LED screen; a Core i5 processor; 2GB of RAM; discrete ATI graphics; a 250GB hard drive; a DVD burner; Bluetooth, 802.11b/g/n wireless; a 6-cell battery; a modem; an integrated webcam; 64-bit Ubuntu 10.10; and plenty of ports (everything from HDMI to eSata). A similarly configured (although lacking the System76's numeric keypad) HP Dv6t running 64-bit Windows 7 Professional will cost you just under $1000. At the moment, HP is offering a free upgrade to 8GB of RAM and comes standard with a 640GB hard drive, but clearly the prices are competitive.

Pricing stays competitive as you start adding options. My test machine was upgraded with a 1.83GHz Core i7 quad-core processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 40GB solid state drive and rings up at just over $1500. You can't even get a quad-core MacBook Pro, let alone touch a 15" MBP for $1500.

This is, in fact, where things start to get interesting, both for geeks like me and for pro-sumers and power users. Long story short, my test laptop screams. It boots in about 15 seconds, applications launch instantly, and even with only 4GB of RAM, I can't get it to bog down on my usual stack of browser windows and countless tabs. My MacBook Pro? Two different browsers, 3-4 windows each, with 8-10 tabs a piece tend to get it down.

Of course, the higher clock speed on my Mac favors single-threaded applications, but I'm going to miss 4 hyperthreaded cores when I send the Pangolin back. I'm also going to miss the SSD, despite it's small size.

My point is that for a very reasonable price, demanding consumers can have a rock solid machine that will handle anything they throw at it (at least in terms of performance).

Next: So what's the catch? »

So why did I qualify that statement if the laptop is so awesome? Because even the savviest of power users may very well not be willing to give up Quicken or Office. Sure, there are open source alternatives galore that are just a click away in the Ubuntu Software Center, but if we're talking about above-average consumers here and not the Technorati, then the Windows (and/or Mac) software ecosystems are undeniably powerful.

Users are increasingly comfortable with UI changes. They move deftly from an Android phone to an iPod to a Windows PC. So the switch to Ubuntu as a platform might even be met with a smile (it's a world-class OS, no matter what the zealots on any side of the classic debates say). The inability to run key Windows applications, though, will probably not elicit a smile. It's one thing for a consumer to download Angry Birds on a phone. It's another thing entirely to find the open source equivalents of software they find critical in an app store-style "Software Center."

It's also another thing entirely to need to find and install the "Ubuntu Restricted Extras" to enable proprietary software that Windows and Mac users take for granted. Or to need to run a quick command at a prompt, no matter how well documented, to enable DVD playback.

This isn't a failing of System76. The vast majority of computer users don't realize that for every Windows or Mac computer they buy, the licensing cost for decoding MP3s or DVDs is passed right along to them. Ubuntu doesn't pass these along automatically, nor does System76. However, anyone who hasn't installed Linux before is going to be left scratching their heads about why a variety of media don't work out of the box.

Fortunately, System76 has extensive wiki-style support online that covers these issues. System76 also handles the installation of all proprietary drivers so all hardware works out of the box. The question is, will the thousands of free software titles, snappy performance (both related to 64-bit Ubuntu 10.10, which is quite fast to begin with, as well as high-end hardware), competitive prices, and stability that doesn't require an obtrusive install of Norton be enough to lure consumers to a Ubuntu-powered laptop?

For some, absolutely. System76 is doing a great business with schools, government agencies, developers, and engineering firms. It's increasingly finding consumers who aren't willing to pay a premium for OS X (or buy into the Apple ecosystem) and who want an alternative to Windows but want the convenience of having that alternative pre-installed and pre-configured.

For me, as I end my first week of a month-long test, replacing my MacBook Pro with the Pangolin as my primary computer, the raw performance and unflappable stability of the Pangolin is keeping me happy. What doesn't make me happy is every time I need to break out my Mac to use the Adobe tools in which I'm so heavily invested. I'll be writing more about this test in the new year. For now, share your thoughts on desktop Linux in the talkbacks.

Topics: Hardware, CXO, Laptops, Linux, Mobility, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Let's see how they are doing next year

    Ok, so the Linux zealots can stop whining about how they cant buy a laptop with Linux preinstalled.

    But do you really think many people will move to this? You can get laptops with Win7 Home for less than $1000 so there really isnt much of a price difference.

    If Ubuntu did some marketing and advertising, perhaps they could get some interested in trying it, but until then, there will be little interest.
    • RE: System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

      @otaddy Well, there is a lot of software available for Linux, enough now that perhaps the question can be posed: What actual benefit does Windows bring?

      Now for gamers, sure I'll concede the point - and weird "workarounds" aren't going to cut it - if you want to play games you don't necessarily want monkey around getting them to run. Sure, if games aren't a focus then you can get many to run on Linux - but if you bought your computer to play games (and nothing wrong with that) then you are better off sticking with Windows.

      But otherwise, well I don't think it's as clear cut anymore. If you're installing - what benefit does running it on Windows bring?
      • How about...


        1) You can get Win 7 problems fixed *anywhere*, just about by anyone. When you have problems to begin with, which is rarely.

        2) No worries about hardware support.

        3) No worries about running app XYZ, no funny interactions between applications, no *fiddling* to make things work.

        Oh, did I mention *no fiddling*? :) Most folks don't want to know. Linux works fine for dedicated devices like DVRs and the like, but not when you actually have to *use* the OS for other stuff...

        Granted Ubuntu makes Linux about as easy as it can be--but that's the rub. Win 7 or OS X level easy it is not, and the creators really don't want it to be.

        Free is nice--if it does what you want. If you can't make that all-in-one printer work, well, that's a problem. If you can't buy a game off the shelf (or a geneology program, or a cross-stich pattern program, or a cookbook program or...) you're not going to want it.

        That's always been the problem with Linux. It's by geeks, for geeks, and always will be. People who love to fiddle, well they enjoy Linux.

        But that's a very small slice of the pie, Jeremy.
      • For now, Windows offers more, but that may change


        I dont play games on my PC so that is not an issue, but here are the benefits I see:

        1. Can run wider range of software from MS Office to Open source.
        2. Media support out of the box.
        3. Windows Media Center. I use this almost daily to listen to my MP3 collection/view pictures while doing things around the house.
        4. Can run all of my Java development tools.
        5. Can run cygwin to get unix like commands/functionality.

        OpenOffice is worthless. If your office needs are minimal, then GoogleDocs is a better choice. If you need more than that, you are better served with MS Office.
      • RE: System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

        @jeremychappell and otaddy
        It is obvious you have no or little knowledge of Linux/Ubuntu.
        Linux problems are solved anywhere and are far less likely to occur if you have a system that is compatible (like sys76) than with Win.
        Funny interactions between apps is Win "feature", I am not sure why you think this is not a problem...
        "Fiddling" in Ubuntu is far less likely than having through registry keys in Win. Well, I know- people just reinstall Win to make it simpler. Loosing several hours in the process and sometime precious data too.
        Media support is in Ubuntu out of the box. There are multiple media centers you can use- it is your choice which one you use.
        Development in Linux is much easier than in Win (unless you do .NET of course).
        I agree on 2 things- games and OO. Though I play nexuiz and this is all I need for now so even this is not an issue for me. OO sucks, but the new Win office releases are increasingly suckish....
      • Well...

        <i>1) You can get Win 7 problems fixed *anywhere*, just about by anyone. When you have problems to begin with, which is rarely.</i>

        You can get Windows problems fixed incompetently by just about anyone anywhere. You better know how to back up your own data or else not care much about it. People who actually know what they're doing usually aren't completely mystified by Linux.

        <i>2) No worries about hardware support.</i>

        Well, that kind of depends on the age of the hardware. Very new hardware sometimes doesn't work with Linux. Old hardware is more likely to work with Linux and not with Windows. There are a few wireless chipsets that never had a good Linux driver, but of course, the wireless in a System76 notebook will be Linux compatible. Part of the advantage of buying from System76 for Linux is that a lot of concerns along these lines will be taken care of for you (just like they are with Windows OEM installations, although you have to deal with the junkware that's also included).

        <i>3) No worries about running app XYZ, no funny interactions between applications, no *fiddling* to make things work.</i>

        I'll give you no worries about running app XYZ in a general sense (the caveats being that there actually do exist some desirable apps not available for Windows, and some older Windows applications don't always work right in Windows 7). If you have never seen a funny interaction between programs in Windows then you are most fortunate. If you have never had to fiddle to make things work in Windows then you must be satisfied with not having a lot of things work.

        You don't have to fiddle with Windows as long as you are willing to accept Microsoft's version of what works and what doesn't and how everything should be set up. Otherwise, you are still going to have to fiddle. Really with a distribution that is pre-installed like on a System76 laptop you have the same general options, with the caveats that Chris already mentioned in the article.

        It's true that Linux has greater appeal for me because I am the type that likes to be in control of my system, or at least have whatever level of control I feel like taking. I realize that this a "geek" appeal. I will never be the type that wants my computer to be like an "appliance." Of course I also feel like a general use computer can never really be an appliance. As soon as you make it into an appliance, it becomes a special use computer instead of a general use one. It seems to me that having a software center, like Ubuntu, is about the closest it can come. Of course, Ubuntu's software center is somewhat like a "walled garden," but it doesn't really have walls. If you really want to, you can go outside of it.

        Finally, as a geek, Ubuntu isn't always the most appealing distribution to me (although I sometimes still use variations of it for when I'm feeling lazy), but I understand why people who are not as technically oriented would like a pre-installed Ubuntu.
    • RE: System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

      @otaddy <br>I had heard about System76 from other sources and was checking out its product line the other night. This is not a new company. Nor is the model described above their lowest priced offering.<br><br>Your point about the mass market is correct and irrelevant. Here, we are not talking about macro trends in personal computing. We are talking about the use of a test unit by someone who is experienced with Ubuntu.<br><br>In your final sentence you hit a salient point, but you miss its importance.<br><br>There is some interest in Linux powered systems where the manufacturer has made smart choices in hardware and have tuned the os. System76 could be such a manufacturer and it bears investigation by those who have utility for a Linux laptop.<br><br>You are not such a person. Fair enough. I am (especially at a sub-800 price point) and I got something out of the review.
      • But i do concede that linux could sell


        If it were marketed and sold properly. (For example, include the multimedia codecs for gosh sakes.) Most users dont care about the open vs proprietary argument...they just want to be able to play their mp3's and watch dvd's.
    • The problem with marketing is who gets the benefits.

      The simple answer is, if marketing Ubuntu or any form of Linux succeeds in increasing it's sales, then whoever was advertising will find themselves having to compete with every other computer maker out there who can now build and sell identical Ubuntu products to a more interested public without worrying about recouping any advertising expense.
      • Good point.


        But if Linux had a lot of sales potential, then I suspect the OEM's themselves would pay to market it.
      • RE: System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

        No. They get a kick out of adware they add to each machine, etc. BTW, Dell is selling Linux netbooks, but I hate Dell.
    • RE: System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

      @otaddy The problem is you can't walk into a bestbuy and find a Linux laptop. I was unfortunate enough to have my laptop die while visiting my family over the holidays. There was not enough time to have something shipped before I went back to Japan so I was stuck with what I could buy from a brick and mortar. In the end I got a great ASUS laptop that runs Ubuntu perfectly but I am stuck with a Win7 license that I will never use.
      • So that is the fault of Microsoft?


        Again, if linux had potential, and marketing, then OEM's would offer it.

        And you should give Win7 a try, it is quite nice.
    • Ubuntu Advertising Team

      @otaddy I'm one of the leaders of the Ubuntu Advertising team and we do have some advertising in the works. :) We'll be launching a few different ad campaigns this year, but ultimately, users have a greater reach than we do.

      While we will work to land advertising deals in as many places as possible, that costs <i>a lot</i> of money, something that isn't flowing out of an open source project. We rely on volunteers and donations, mostly. In the future we'll be trying to land some partnerships with vendors such as System76 to help spread the goodness of Ubuntu. :)

      If anyone's interested in joining, donating, or just learning more, our site is
      • Thanks for the info, I will check it out


        But as you can see, the grassroots approach isnt working. The average consumer sees Windows or Mac as their only choices.
    • RE: System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

      @otaddy ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? There is already a huge amount of interest, do you know how to read????
      • Doesnt look that way


        Desktop linux has been stagnating for a long time now. Server and mobile are a different story and not relevant to this article. Can you comprehend what you read? (Only one ? is needed BTW.)
  • Bringing AmigaOS To The Desktop

    "...the computers reminded me how much I liked AmigaOS and offered a glimpse of how easy a transition to AmigaOS could be if it simply came pre-installed on a high quality machine from a reputable manufacturer."
    R.L. Parson
    • RE: System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

      @R.L. Parson
      Now that is funny. I am sure ~90% of supercomputers at that time ran AmigaOS.
  • RE: System76: Bringing Linux to the desktop, 1 stupid-fast computer at a time

    Which Adobe tools are unavailable on Windows???