Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks

Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks

Summary: System76 gives me some hope for Linux on the desktop. Their well-tuned systems come with Ubuntu pre-installed at prices that make them very realistic for schools.


Unfortunately, it's time to send back some of the more interesting computers I've had the opportunity to test recently. I'm saying goodbye today to the Classmate spin (the "Starling Edubook"), consumer netbook (the "Starling Netbook"), and high-performance consumer laptop ("Pangolin Performance") from System76. I'm probably going to have to steal the Edubook from my youngest son while he sleeps if he relaxes his grip on the handle long enough and I'm sincerely going to miss the raw power of the Pangolin.

If you missed my other posts on the System76 systems (or just really didn't feel feel like clicking through the links above, which I completely understand on both a holiday here in the States and a Monday morning to boot), the company is interesting in that it sells only Ubuntu-powered computers. And a wide variety of them, at that. Desktops, laptops, netbooks, servers, and workstations, with spins for everything from casual users to education to high-end engineering and visualization.

Their prices are extremely competitive, partly because of the lack of Windows licensing costs, but also because they can leverage many of the same economies of scale that benefit major OEMs by purchasing from the big ODMs in Asia. And, of course, they allow users to buy machines pre-configured with the latest versions of Ubuntu (their netbooks being the only exception as they wanted to wait for Ubuntu 11.04 to roll out the Unity UI), instead of the usual route of buying a system and then wiping out the OS, installing Ubuntu, and potentially fussing with proprietary drivers.

As I mentioned, my 8-year old has become completely attached to the Edubook. He never bothers with his touch-screen Classmate, preferring the faster startup, streamlined interface, built-in games (all courtesy of Ubuntu) and chunkier form factor of the Edubook. I have to admit that, while the Convertible Classmates are pretty rugged, I feel better about him trucking around with the far more rugged "Clamshell Classmate."

He actually fell down the stairs the other day, most likely because he was carrying the Edubook while he played Cityville as he walked down newly carpeted steps in his footy pajamas. He was a little sore, but the Edubook took the fall like a champ. It wasn't the full flight, but I'm not sure how my MacBook would have fared. The idea of "micromobility" (a concept that Intel talks about at length when referring to the way kids move around with their netbooks) is alive and well with this machine and it would be my first choice to deploy in a primary classroom setting. The lengthy battery life, robust software, and speedy OS help, too.

The Starling Netbook hasn't gotten as much attention from me. Sure, it's attractive, quick, nicely configured, and works well for a netbook, but at its core, it's a netbook. True, a netbook pre-configured with Ubuntu Netbook Remix, a pretty good value, and certainly capable of supporting most 1:1 deployments, but I struggle to get really excited about netbooks. They're still workhorses of 1:1 and the Starling Netbook is a fine choice. Of course, it's hard to get excited about the Starling when the Pangolin Performance just plain rocks so hard.

There are only 3 things that would make System76's high-end consumer notebook the perfect system. The first is a better keyboard. While the keyboard is acceptable and includes a small numeric keypad (what I wouldn't give for a keypad on my Mac - my first job ever was data entry and I've never stopped using a keypad when I have one available), it just flexes a bit too much for my tastes. True, I've been spoiled by my MacBook Pro's amazing keyboard, but this is definitely an area for improvement.

The second is multitouch gesture support on the trackpad (which, by the way, has a wonderful slightly bumpy texture that gives great tactile feedback). This is something that isn't mature in Linux yet, though, so I'm hopeful that it will be available within the next few months.

The final element of system perfection also isn't something that System76 can solve. Only Adobe can solve this one. They need to do a Linux port of Acrobat X and CS5. I know this isn't going to happen, but graphics support and system performance in Linux (and on hardware like that in the Pangolin) are such that CS5 would scream. Certainly the GIMP could filter, edit, and convert like nobody's business on the Pangolin, but CS5 has become a pretty essential part of what I do.

That being said, for any educators or students focused on engineering, computer science, or mathematics (Maple was just plain fun running on this beast) or who simply need a portable virtualization platform or a very affordable desktop replacement that won't buckle under just about any load they can throw at it, then the Pangolin is an awesome choice. $1500 will snag you quad-core performance and high-end graphics. The system is a pleasure to use because of its sheer speed and the price is very hard to beat with these specifications.

When the time comes to purchase new computers, whether for my clients, for me, or for my family, System76 is going to be on my short list. Hey, Adobe! Let's do some Linux ports, please! It would irritate the heck out of Steve Jobs!

Topics: Hardware, CXO, Laptops, Mobility

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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  • And if your clients want Windows or OSX?

    you still going to give them Systems 76?
    • RE: Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks

      You should already know.
    • RE: Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks


      and then who's going to give them the applications or do we just worship a humming OS all day.

      You seem to be confusing a hobby with reality.
    • eRacks

      eRacks Open Source Systems has a whole line of laptops and netbooks with any flavor of Linux you want pre-installed.
  • An 8 year old playing Cityville

    Are you insane?
    • RE: Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks

      You should already know.
  • Licensing costs

    Those licensing costs weigh pretty heavy, these days.... They form a big percentage of the shop price. Makes a free OS even more attractive. :-)
  • Get Real

    Schools get Microsoft software dirt cheap. Kids know MS, they don't know Linux.

    Look, the PC World belongs to MS, like it or not.
  • I feel for you.

    While I haven't had a Systems76 system yet they look very good. I would love to get one for myself and my family, Ubuntu is already our primary operating system.

    The one thing that I seems to be a big issue, for me at least, is battery life. I would think at this time that even the Netbooks would have more battery, compared to others in their class.
  • RE: Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks

    "Certainly the GIMP could filter, edit, and convert like nobody?s business on the Pangolin, but CS5 has become a pretty essential part of what I do."

    what do you do?
    • RE: Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks

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  • I'd Certainly Seriously Consider a System76 Book at This Point

    The last time I was shopping for a new notebook/laptop computer and looked at System76, the prices seemed a bit high to me. Now I look and that certainly doesn't seem to be the case at all anymore. My high end laptop isn't due to be replaced for another year and a half or longer, but when I see the systems available there it makes me want to rationalize replacing it sooner. :-) But of course I won't do that... I don't think. :-) <br><br>You know, my old HP laptop went down in flames a few months back, and I've been restricted to just the one decent laptop ever since (not counting the 8 year old cast off business machine that's working fine). Maybe I should get a new machine to replace my current one so that it can replace that one. That kind of makes sense, doesn't it?
  • RE: Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks

    Yeah I found their stuff to be a bit higher priced that the deals you can find online. But you pay for it with worse Linux compatibility. I have an Asus laptop with i5 processor, 500gb 7200rpm drive, and nvidia optimus (not supported by Ubuntu) that I got for about $750 8 months ago. Similar specs from system76 run about $1100.

    Cityville is a great game for kids, you just have to supervise them so they don't spam facebook friends.
  • your 8yr old does not have to suffer

    I have a 2010 classmate convertible, happily dual booted with Ubuntu Narwhal. Kernels past 2.35 understand the touchscreen with further assistance, and the Unity desktop works well most of the time.
    If it is the school district's box rather than yours, install it anyway. The school should stop wasting tax money on MS crapware, and the students should know what the overseas competition is using.
  • Good riddance.

    Good riddance.
    • Seems Rather Pointless

      It seems rather pointless to just throw in a "Good riddance" jab with no explanation whatsoever. If you have a point, it would be more helpful to explain it. Otherwise, why bother to comment at all?
  • My experience and a tip

    I have a Pangolin Performance, which I really like. After 7+ years on Thinkpads, switching was not a problem, though there are still some little things I miss. I really enjoy the fact that I didn't have to pay the "Microsoft tax" on my laptop. I wouldn't use Windows anyways.

    By the way, if you are planning to run distros other than Ubuntu, it might be a good idea to get one of the Intel wlan adapters as opposed to "802.11 B+G+N Wireless LAN Module", which turns out to be Realtek, and requires compiling drivers by hand in Fedora, openSuse, and Mandriva. If you are sticking to Ubuntu, you don't have to worry about this particular issue.
  • Competitive?

    Their price is not that competitive, unless you compare them with apple products.
    • RE: Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks

      yes they are over priced - thanks for stating that
      john brezza
  • Linux reality

    A few years ago I would have agreed with the idea that Linux is for tech people and hobbyists only but recent versions of Ubuntu have changed my mind. Most home users don't use much more than a web browser, business users are another story but with application virtualization (citrix linux client) this can be overcome. Along with the maturity of the Linux OS, the applications for it have also matured. Ubuntu really hit a home run but streamlining the installation process which used to be a big stopping point for many who tried using Linux in the past. There will always be a need for Windows but Linux is now a very capable option. I will continue using Ubuntu in thin client and kiosk environments.