Saying goodbye to my System76 notebooks

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.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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!

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