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

Sure my System76 test machine is a screamer, but will high-end consumers buy in to Ubuntu, even if it's pre-installed?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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.

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