System76 'Bonobo' Ubuntu Laptop Review
I don’t normally write product reviews on my blog (although I do frequently write amazon reviews), so this is a bit out of place. However, I feel the need to write about the System76 laptop I recently purchased.
NOTE: I’m not making any money off this. I’m not in any way affiliated with System76. I don’t have any affiliate links, or any of that jazz.
As a programmer (and more importantly, nerd) I spend a majority of my days (and nights) online. As a Linux guy, finding a decent laptop that has full hardware compatibility can be a huge pain. Over the past year I’ve been using a laptop as my primary machine, which has compounded this issue and made it a nightmare for me to find new laptops when an old one dies. In case you’re wondering, I’ve gone through 4 laptops this past year, and each time spent no less than 4 days finding a suitable replacement.
The problem with finding a decent Linux laptop is that even if you google the exact model you plan on purchasing before hand, there is no guarantee it will work. At least in my experience, Google’ing laptop models before purchase is a lot like playing Russian roulette–you may get lucky, but it’s a risk.
The last time I purchased a laptop earlier this year I spent quite a while online researching the best options, eventually settling with a high end HP that was within my price range. Fast forward two weeks to delivery day–I’m installing Ubuntu on the laptop, and to my dismay, there are no video card drivers available. Damn.
After having several awful Linux laptop experiences, I asked some friends to recommend a decent hardware vendor with full Linux support. That’s when I first heard of System76. They’re a hardware vendor that builds and ships Ubuntu ready laptops, desktops, and servers.
A few weeks back, when my current laptop started dying, I decided to give System76 a try and I ordered their Bonobo model (their largest laptop). I got the base model with a couple small modifications:
- A 120G SSD drive (I like speed).
- 8G of RAM.
I decided to go with their largest model (it’s a 17.3”) because I love looking at lots of code on a single screen. I don’t use any external monitors, so having a large screen is important for my day-to-day work flow.
With the background out of the way, here’s my review of the actual laptop.
System76 did a great job on first impressions. You know how most laptops typically come in awful boxes, filled with tons of spam? System76 doesn’t do that at all. The shipping box was simple, easy to open, and not cluttered.
Inside their shipping box there was simply the laptop, the carrying case, and a card with links to the System76 website for help. Elegant.
My first thoughts upon seeing the actual laptop (once I pulled it out and set it on my table) was: woa. The laptop is really big and sturdy looking. It’s got a metallic casing around it (not plastic), and looks expensive. The lid of the laptop has the System76 logo etched into it, which looks brilliant.
The screen on this thing is amazing. It’s huge, clear, and surprisingly crisp. Maybe I’ve just been using shitty laptops ‘till now, but this thing makes my old Sony Vaio look like a child’s toy.
The keyboard is sturdy with thick, responsive keys. This is a big win for me, as I type fast, and having highly responsive keys just feels right.
Also: there are no stickers on the laptop. I hate getting a new machine covered in Intel, Windows, and other ridiculous stickers. This gives the laptop a really nice clean look, and it’s refreshing to not be bombarded by hardware ads.
After working my way through the first boot process just to see what it was like (it was fine), I popped in my own Ubuntu 11.04 CD and formatted the box. I was curious to see if this laptop was truly Linux compatible, or if it was just loaded with a bunch of special drivers to make things work decently.
Surprisingly, I had absolutely no issues installing Ubuntu. Everything worked perfectly out of the box. Web cam, microphone, video card drivers, etc. It was a pretty great feeling to get everything installed fresh with no issues whatsoever.
This thing is fast. Really, insanely fast. I don’t have much else to say about this, except that I’ve never had such a fast System. Ubuntu boots in less than 2 seconds, consistently.
If you’ve ever purchased a laptop online from a major hardware vendor (Dell, HP, etc.), you’ll notice that when customizing the laptop components, you’ve got a million choices. It’s typical to be able to choose from at least 20 different CPUs, 30 times of RAM, etc.
From what I saw, System76 takes a different approach. All their base Systems have excellent hardware, and they only offer a few upgrade options. I prefer this a lot more to the traditional model. Why? Because pricing is a lot clearer. Instead of purchasing a laptop that you think will cost 500$, and then upgrading it to make it decent and then realizing that the price is now 3,000$–you know right off the bat what sort of price you’re looking at.
While this laptop was expensive (I paid ~1,800$), its hardware stats are comparable to similarly priced HP laptops.
NOTE: I’ve only been using this laptop for two weeks so far. If I experience any other problems I’ll update this post to include them.
The power key. The most annoying problem I’ve had with the laptop to date is the power key. It’s hard to press. I can push it down easily enough, but it seems like you have to push it down and hold it for a second for it to actually recognize your key press. This is pretty annoying as it takes me at least two tries to turn the thing on.
The caps lock / num lock / wifi icons that light up when they’re on are ugly. They look like they’re pixelated globe icons from the 1980s. System76–if you read this, consider using something a bit nicer looking. They really detract from the clean, professional look of the laptop.
Lastly, the power cable for this thing is massive. The laptop doesn’t use your standard size power cord, it has a massive black box at least 3x’s larger than any laptop cord I’ve owned before. While I understand this is the largest model of laptop, and it has high end power-hungry hardware, the cord size still matters (at least to me). I haven’t carried this laptop anywhere with me yet, but I assume that when I do, my carrying case will be at least a few pounds heavier with the cord inside.
System76 makes a damn good laptop, as far as I’m concerned. Despite a few minor flaws, this thing has been excellent. I can honestly say that I’ve never owned such a great laptop in my life.
It’s fast, sturdy, looks great, and has perfect Linux hardware compatibility.
If you’re a Linux guy looking for a great laptop, I’d strongly recommend you give System76 a shot for your next purchase.
You can check out all their systems on their main site: http://www.system76.com/
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