As an avid user of Linux, I’ve been very interested in laptops specifically built to operate Linux, as my own laptop had a few minor issues that were never resolved. This high interest led us to buy a 15.6-inch System76 Gazelle Professional laptop.
We’re giving away a brand new one of these brilliant laptops designed to optimally run Linux worth almost $1000 to one very lucky reader! Read our review to find out more about this System76 laptop and then join our giveaway to be in the running.
One of the biggest issues facing Linux today is the fact that not all hardware may be supported with it. Of course, the list of supported hardware grows practically by the hour, but if it doesn’t work with your exact hardware, then it doesn’t work. You may also not want to wait months at a time to see if you might possibly get support by the addition of new drivers to the Linux kernel. Instead, if you love Linux and want to be sure that all of your hardware will be supported, the best thing to do is go out and buy a system which was designed specifically for Linux use!
System76 is a computer company which specializes in the assembly of machines which are guaranteed to work under Linux. They do so by picking out hardware which they know is fully supported by Linux distributions, and then assembling them for us so that we don’t have to do it ourselves. While desktops and servers usually don’t pose much of an issue as far as Linux support is concerned (although System76 does offer multiple models of both), the main benefit of going with System76 is that they can build laptops as well. Since it’s pretty much impossible to assemble and/or change parts of your laptop — apart from the hard drive and RAM — it’s very important that everything included in your laptop will work under Linux. System76 makes sure of this, and sells perfectly compatible laptops for our enjoyment. The company is based in Colorado, but has multiple locations where it builds systems, and ships to a number of international destinations.
System76 isn’t the only provider of machines which are built especially for Linux. Another big name in this depart is ZaReason, which caters to not only Ubuntu but other distributions, both Debian-based and not, as well. For some people, Lenovo systems could also be seen as competitors, as many people claim that their favorite Linux distribution works very well with Lenovo hardware.
Let me start out with the customized specifications which came with this System76 Gazelle Professional laptop I got to review. It includes a Intel 3rd Generation (Ivy Bridge) 2.4 Ghz (upgradeable to 2.8 Ghz) Core i7-3630QM processor, a matte 1080p display with 95% NTSC color gamut, 4 GB of 1600 Mhz DDR3 RAM (upgradable to 16 GB, 2 x 8 GB), 750 GB hard drive (upgradeable to different configurations include SSDs), an SD card reader, a 1.3MP webcam, a CD/DVD-RW DL drive, THX TruStudio PRO speakers, and Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 – 802.11A/B/G/N Wireless LAN + Bluetooth Combo Module. Overall, the specs are pretty impressive, especially when compared to my 3 year old laptop. The final price, without shipping and possible taxes, was $998.
The packaging was fairly simple. Inside a brown carton box in which the laptop was shipped was another brown carton box which included a plastic handle and some generic designs on the sides. Inside this box was the laptop itself, wrapped in a pink anti-static plastic wrap, covered by two styrofoam “bumpers”. There was a small area next to the laptop which stored the power supply and cord. That was all which was included, and as you’ll see in a bit, that’s all that is really needed.
After taking the laptop out of the anti-static bag, I noticed that it had taped-on plastic sheets, in order to prevent dust and other prints from collecting on the surfaces it was protecting, which included both sides of the screen.
Upon opening the laptop, you’ll notice one piece of paper, which includes some simple support information from System76 as well as two “Powered by Ubuntu” stickers which you can use if you’d like. Personally I won’t, simply because I like my laptops to be sticker-free, but some people will be delighted by the fact that these are included.
Further inspection of the System76 Gazelle Professional laptop shows that it is very well crafted. It’s in no way a MacBook as it is made out of very durable plastic instead of an aluminum block, but as soon as you touch it, you won’t really care. The backside of the screen has a strong brushed-aluminum look and feel which makes the laptop feel quite expensive. Also on the backside is System76 lettering which isn’t printed on but pressed on, but it seems to be holding up with some moderate rubbing.
The keyboard, simply put, is a dream come true. The buttons are large, comfortably springy, and generally a joy to type on. The spacing between the buttons is a fantastic change to the cramped keyboard on my old laptop, which makes it very easy to hit the button you want. The covering over the spaces between the keys also helps keep the keyboard and the empty space underneath each key clean from dust and dirt.
For those who find this to be important, System76 includes an Ubuntu sticker which covers the traditional Windows key. The only improvements I could think of is the addition of keyboard lighting for typing in the dark and that the Ubuntu logo could be printed on the Windows key instead of using a sticker to cover it, but I’m still extremely happy the way it is. The area on which your hands rest while typing have a lighter brushed-aluminum look and feel, which also feels quite nice and prevents slipping around while typing.
The trackpad feels a little funny to use at first because there are absolutely no physical borders which can tell your fingers that you’re on the edge of the trackpad. It is all one continuous surface, but after playing around with it for a while, you get used to it and it’s quite enjoyable to use. The physical mouse buttons is comprised of one long button which you can hit on either side to execute a left-click or right-click. In Ubuntu’s settings, you can also configure double-tapping on the trackpad and tapping with two fingers to do a right-click. By default, the laptop is setup to use two-finger scrolling on the trackpad both vertically and horizontally, but you can configure this to your own preferences.
The System76 Gazelle Professional laptop itself is very well built. Everything feels extremely sturdy, and I don’t feel like it’s going to break under stress. The laptop is designed with four rubber feet on the four corners of the laptop, which makes it surprisingly sturdy on the flat surface. I’ve had a couple laptops in the past where it would wiggle around while typing on it because it wasn’t entirely flat on a table. For the most part, the air circulation to cool the laptop is also well designed. The exhaust air comes out the left side, which I prefer over an exhaust in the back. Under a moderate workload, the laptop does get a little warm, but the fan is extremely quiet. It does get a tad bit louder when the laptop is under a full workload, but it’s still deep inside my acceptable range. The only gripe I have here is that the left palmrest does get warmer than the rest of the laptop, but it’s not something that makes you uncomfortable.
This system is decently equipped when it comes to peripheral ports. On the left side, you have your power connector, a VGA port, an Ethernet port, an HDMI port, 2 blue USB 3.0 ports, an eSATA port, and the SD card reader. The exhaust vent is located underneath the two USB ports and HDMI port. Unless you’re doing demanding work on your laptop for very long periods of time, any cables connected to these ports do not get warm at all. Even then, they’ll get somewhat warm at the most, so this should not really affect anything.
On the right side, you’ll find the CD/DVD drive (or equivalent replacement depending on what you choose), a USB 2.0 port, and a headphone jack and microphone jack. To sure your laptop, you’ll find a Kensington lock port in the back, on the right side of the battery.
The System76 Gazelle Professional comes with THX TruStudio PRO speakers which are located in the front of the laptop, underneath the palmrests right around where your wrists will probably be. They’re decent speakers, but nothing necessarily to tout about. While the speakers are of decent quality, the location of them is not. As they are in the front, they are slightly muffled whenever you have the laptop on your lap instead of a flat surface. Even on a flat surface, the sound isn’t entirely clear, but it’s good enough. They have an acceptable volume, but it wouldn’t hurt if they were a bit louder as well. If I truly had to gripe about something, it would be the speakers, but don’t get the wrong idea — this is still a minor gripe. The speakers are still acceptable in my opinion, and if you truly care about the quality of the music that is playing, you’ll more than likely plug in some headphones or speakers anyways.
As far as laptops are concerned, there’s a good chance that you haven’t seen a screen as good as the one which was ordered with this system. The Full HD 1080p display is an absolute beauty of high resolution, and its 95% NTSC color gamut capability allows for some pretty spectacular colors. The matte screen is also very helpful because it virtually eliminates any glare that may occur from the sun or room lighting. Speaking of which, the backlight of this screen is incredible, ranging from fairly dark (but still very readable in a well-lit room) to an incredibly bright setting where everything can be seen like never before. Of course, the brightness level affects battery usage, so you’re in control when you want a bright screen or a long battery life.
The power of the System76 Gazelle Professional laptop is downright incredible. Of course, there’s a beefy Core i7 inside this beast, and it makes itself well known from Day 1. I’ve been used to the 2 Ghz dual-core AMD processor which was inside my old laptop, but the difference between it and this new system is like night and day. I can throw virtually whatever I want at it, and it chugs away without any issues whatsoever. This system doesn’t have any dedicated graphics, but instead relies on the Intel HD 4000 graphics found inside the processor.
While some people might cringe at the thought of solely using Intel’s integrated graphics, I’m actually quite happy with it. The HD 4000 series has beefed up quite a bit compared to the HD 3000 series, running two 1080p monitors (the laptop’s screen and an HDTV) at the same time with ease. Despite all of this power, it’s actually quite energy-efficient, thanks to the processor’s Ivy Bridge architecture and all of the new technology that goes along with it. The battery included with this laptop is actually a tad bit smaller than the one in the old one when comparing Wh, but because the processor is so efficient, the laptop lasts about 3 times longer than my old one.
Speaking of which, the battery life is quite acceptable. With my own usage, I get roughly 3.5 hours of battery life while surfing around the internet on the lowest brightness setting for the screen. This does mean that the laptop isn’t meant to be extremely portable (although you’re good to go if you bring the power cord with you, of course), but for the amount of power that it has, it does run impressively long on just battery power.
Of course, System76 machines come with Ubuntu preinstalled on them. Ubuntu was chosen over other distributions because it is among one of the most popular ones which also has one of the stablest financial backbones, thanks to Canonical. Complete hardware support is guaranteed by Ubuntu’s included drivers as well as a System76 package which includes whatever else may be missing, such as backlight control. You can always install a different distribution if you wish, although you won’t be able to make use out of the specialized System76 drivers. However, these drivers tend to be included in future Linux kernels so that they will no longer be necessary. Cutting edge distributions like Fedora should work just fine.
There isn’t an included recovery disc you can run off of in case your system gets messed up. Instead, there’s a recovery partition you can boot into to start a full recovery. I welcome this approach to recovery, because you won’t have to go searching around the house for any discs; all needed recovery data is right there with your laptop.
Can You Run Windows?
System76 realizes that Ubuntu may not entirely fill the needs of certain people, such as those who absolutely require Photoshop instead of GIMP. All System76 machines can run Windows smoothly, as the company provides drivers for the operating system. They do, however, point out that they will not give support for people running Windows on their machines.
It’s very important to make sure that a person can buy a laptop from any company, and know that they’ll have support they can use if they come into any difficulties. I called System76 because for whatever reason I could not play sound through a TV via an HDMI cable, but after a quick call and following their instructions, I got it working just fine. I was very impressed with how I didn’t have to wait on hold in order to receive support. It’s quick, it’s accurate, and they are friendly people who want you to be happy with your purchase. Their support deserves a big thumbs up. You can also look up common issues in their support database, Knowledge76.
Overall, I find the System76 Gazelle Professional laptop to be magnificent. It has the power to do what I want to do with it, the battery life to keep me going for decent amounts of time, and complete hardware support. For Linux users who may have been struggling with getting a laptop where all of the hardware works perfectly, purchasing one specifically built for the purpose is the ideal solution.
MakeUseOf recommends: Buy if you regularly use Linux.
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