System76 - The Rise of the Linux Desktop

At my current company and, I imagine, at most of yours, the de-facto platform for developer work is the Mac Book running a left-handed Unix derivative under a GUI called iOS.  After working for more than 20 years in Silicon Valley and continuing my career in the south bay, I can't honestly recall developers doing IoT coding on Windows.  The developer laptop of choice for tech has pretty much always been a Mac.

I broke away from Macbooks about six years ago when I worked for a poor start-up that couldn't afford Apple's hefty price tag.  (I used have respect for Apple's engineering and all-in-one proprietary solutions and think they're worth the extra price.  Today, considering the state of iOS, not so much.)

For me, it's always been a struggle to install open-source software on a Macbook when compared to doing the same natively on Linux.  Homebrew, for example.  MAMP and MacPorts put many a developer through the proverbial wringer trying to install the simplest of open-source services that just worked, effortlessly, on a native-Linux environment.

So, I got a PC notebook, blew away Windoze, and installed some Linux derivative.  I've not looked back since.

Side Bar:  Are Macbooks responsible for Docker's popularity?

Shower thought:  the prevalence in most shops to use a Macbook combined with the difficulties of seamless FOSS installs projected Docker into it's current level of popularity. 

I'm not a big Docker fan although I have had occasion to use it, if only for familiarization and evaluation.  However, I can see the need to have a container-based deployment because your shop lacks the devOps chops to do native installs.  I would posit that Docker's meteoric rise in popularity is a somewhat inverse-proportionate response to the pain of native FOSS installs under iOS.  

At the end of the day, as a back-end developer, I am worried about milliseconds of performance.  Slapping multiple (micro-)services into Docker containers may facilitate installation and maintenance, but the virtualization comes at a cost of cpu-cycles and memory.  That's why, in my world, I've yet to quaff deeply of the Docker waters.

Anyway, back to the review...

I'd asked my current company to consider replacing my aged Dell with a newer Dell XPS-13 DE with Ubuntu natively installed.  I picked a configuration that was comparable to my current spec, next-to-last on the price scale, coming in at about $1600.

Company refused.  Offered me a laptop that was actually, in terms of hardware, worse than my current machine, valued at (estimated) around $600.  Considering every single engineer at the company is given the a Macbook, I was perplexed by their response.  I thanked them for the consideration and, realizing the tax advantages, informed them I would purchase my own equipment.  (Not unreasonable on either side as I telecommute 80%.)

I considered the Dell XPS-13 DE and the stunning display as my first choice.  However, digging deeper into my research, I started reading many horror stories about multiple returns and a largely ignorant technical-support who found it easier to ship a replacement machine rather than suss-out the problem through diagnostic evaluation.

Like most of you, I don't have the luxury of downtime - needing several iterations of exchanging laptops via US Mail while I wait for the working machine to arrive.  Not even once.

I'd been eyeballing System-76 for several years but put-off making a purchase because their price-points seemed a little high.  To be fair, back then I was mainly interested in 17" laptops.  I've since matured and realized that I can be perfectly happy with a net-book sized display as long as the machine has a couple ports into which I can attach 24" or 27" monitors. 

System-76 happened to be having a sale, and I decided (easily) to go with the Lemur model as it was their only sub-15" offering.  With their current sale, it was also about 10% off the list price which I figured would just about cover California taxes.

I configured the unit online and ended up with the following configuration:

  • Ubuntu 14.04.4 LTS (64-bit)
  • 14.1″ Matte 1080p IPS LED Backlit Display
  • Intel® HD Graphics 5203.1 GHz i7-6500U (2.5 up to 3.1 GHz – 4 MB Cache – 2 Cores – 4 Threads) ($150.00)
  • 16 GB Dual-channel DDR3 at 1600 MHz (2× 8 GB) ($125.00)
  • United States Keyboard
  • 250 GB M.2 SSD – Seq. Read: 540 MB/s, Write: 500 MB/s ($99.00)
  • 500 GB 2.5″ 7200 RPM Drive ($69.00)
  • WiFi up to 867 Mbps + Bluetooth ($20.00)
  • 1 Year Limited Parts and Labor WarrantyNormal Assembly Service
  • California LCD Recycling Fee (Under 15") ($3.00)

Upgraded items show the price-point difference in (parens) following the item.

With California tax, and expedited (overnight) shipping, my laptop came in at just under $1,215.  Price with upgrades was $1090.  Basically, I ordered about $465 in upgrades.

The assembly and expedited shipping put me in possession of my laptop almost one week after I placed the order.

First Impressions

My first impression was with the shipping.  To me, it was a little bit on the low-end side with a large card-board box that had been modified to fix the internal cardboard backer that the laptop was saran-wrapped securely saran-wrapped to.  The box had the laptop, the power supply, and an black envelope containing several stickers, a robot (M3lvin) cardboard guardian, and a card welcoming me to the System-76 family.

Nothing else.  No owner's manual, statement of liability, or other legal documents warning me about not immersing it water.  Obviously System-76 customers know what they're doing.  I can imagine my Dad or one of my non-technical co-workers receiving this and being completely perplexed as to how to proceed.

Luckily, not so for me.

The unit itself is constructed out of a gray plastic, and was larger than I expected in terms of volume.  I was expecting something along the lines of a Chromebook - this laptop, even at 14", is significantly larger.  The case measures 9.5" x 13.25", 16" diagonally, and the back is about 1.25" tall.

It is. however, very light.  Especially when compared to my Dell 17" luggable.  

And I fucking love the Ubuntu logo key that replaces the "windows" key found on most PC keyboards.  Sorry, but this makes me stupidly-happy to not have to have anything on my newlap top that reeks of, or even hints at, the jankyness of Windows.

Boot Time

Booting the box for the first time, I kind of picked-up the tail-end of a standard Ubuntu install - where they solicit your (sudo) account information.  You can also connect to your network in this phase.  Once you enter your account info, you can boot into the login screen, enter your credentials, and get to the desktop.

Any Ubuntu user won't be surprised.  I'd requested 14.04 to be installed instead of 16.04 because of where our development project currently is.  (We're not ready yet for the PHP7 migration.)  Once I logged in and did the standard package updates, I went looking for my back-up storage, the 500gb 7200-rpm hard drive.

I set-up the drive to be encrypted and auto-mounted under the /home mount point.  All of which went flawlessly after a few reboots.

Booting off the SSD is nice and quick, as expected.  (Even my old Dell ran off SSD.)  

The screen is really beautiful at 1900x1080.  To be honest, my aging eyes handle the 24" displays much better, but the laptop screen comes across incredibly crisp and clear, greatly exceeding my expectations for the display quality.

There's a plethora of ports and I had no trouble attaching the HDMI and VGA cables to my external monitors.  Two USB3 ports for my mouse/keyboard leaves one unused USB2 port for later expansion.

Performance

This is a subjective review.  I loaded up my software and all the accompanying services (RabbitMQ, mongodb, PHP5, Redis) and didn't notice a significant increase in the speed of my framework's unit tests (I wasn't running an encrypted filesystem in my last laptop so I probably lost some cycles there.)  However, I definitely noticed an improvement in the overall desktop - Applications run quicker, load faster, and I can, of course, run more of them.

System-76 installs some proprietary drivers - which you will find in the configuration/settings application.  Not sure on what it does exactly, if I had to guess, I'd say something to do with the graphics drivers.  As such, I wasn't presented with additional/available 3rd-party driver options when I checked.  (A first - so I guess they got it covered.)

I can't tell you how loud it runs - Meniere's has obliterated my hearing, but I did notice that it runs about as warm as my Dell did.  Which is pretty good considering the processor is much, much improved.   The heat build-up is an issue for me - I noticed that it got pretty warm in my lap - there's two ventilation spots on the bottom and one on the left side (where I noticed the heat-build up) and it's warm to the touch after an overnight idle.

For the work I do, I am going to invest in a cool-pad for the laptop as heat is the primary killer in all things electronic.  When I am running tests, I intentionally thrash the system so I treat heat management very seriously.

Final Thoughts

I'm very pleased, overall, with the ROI on this laptop. I feel like i have a solid product that will serve me well for many years.  The "extra" price for having Ubuntu natively installed means I didn't have to - convenience.  Over the past couple of years, I've come to prefer either Mint (Cinnamon) or Ubuntu-Gnome for my desktop UIs.  Moving back to a plain Ubuntu install is a bit less-refined in terms of desktop experience.  Next steps would be to contact System-76 and ask about warranty coverage under Linux variants.

It was simply serendipity that I hit the sale - I would have purchased the laptop regardless.  Pricing wasn't my main consideration.  That, if I encountered a problem, I could contact support persons who were fluent in "Linux" was.  I didn't get that from my research with Dell.