Linux

System 76: Making pre-installed Linux hardware a reality

Jack Wallen has seen plenty of companies make promises of bringing solid hardware pre-installed with Linux. Most of those promises have fallen way short. But now a company has risen from the ashes of those failures and made good on the promises. Read about System 76 and you might be tempted to make a purchase.

Recently I came upon a company called System 76 promising to bring pre-installed Linux hardware to the masses. At first I was a bit skeptical as I've seen this promise time and time again. So I requested review hardware thinking it would be nothing more than vapor ware. Surprisingly, however, the hardware arrived. Even more surprising was that the hardware was really quite nice. In fact, the laptop they sent me, the Pangolin Performance, was one of the finest laptops I have used to date (a Product Spotlight article is forthcoming). And the desktop (the Meerkat NetTop) was smooth, quiet, and fast (again a Product Spotlight is forthcoming).

But why does a company (based in Denver, CO) decide to bring Linux hardware to life? System 76 was founded in November 2005 with the intent on bringing Linux-powered hardware to the public. Many companies have wanted to do this, some have even tried, many have failed. System 76 is a different animal all together. With the foundation System 76 has laid, and the hardware they are producing, they should handily succeed. Why? Simple: When a consumer purchases a piece of hardware, say a laptop, from System 76 what they get from them works...and works well. The laptops System 76 puts together are as smooth as any Apple laptop and as user-friendly as any Windows laptop. So finally a Linux-based hardware company is finally delivering what Windows-based hardware vendors have for years.

But to an old-hat Linux user a laptop shipping with a running copy of Linux is not the tell-tale sign that said company is going to be something special. I have written about other companies that I thought were doing something right. Take Zonbu for instance. I reviewed a laptop for Zonbu which at first glance was a nice piece of hardware. But when I found the special Zonbu-fied operating system too limiting, I decided to install a regular distribution. Much to my chagrin this became an exercise in near-futility as the Zonbu hardware simply wasn't made for Linux.

The System 76 hardware, however, is. Each of their laptops and desktops ship with what is mostly a standard, out of the box, Ubuntu configuration (9.04 as we speak). So you know the hardware is Linux friendly. You won't find yourself spending late nights trying to get video or wireless working...they just work. System 76 did their homework and found well-supported hardware instead of going for the cheapest piece of meat on the market. In the end, this means their hardware isn't going to be the least expensive money can buy, but it will be the most Linux-proven available. If you're wondering about price, the review laptop checked out at $914.00 (there were some upgrades to the default) but the performance certainly reflected the price. Here are the specs:

  • Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) 64 Bit Linux
  • 15.4" WXGA Super Clear Glossy LCD (1280 x 800)
  • 512 MB DDR2 nVidia GeForce G105M
  • Core 2 Duo P8600 2.40 GHz 1066 MHz FSB 3 MB L2 (25 Watt)
  • 2 GB - DDR2 800 MHZ x 1 DIMM
  • 250 GB 5400 RPM SATA II
  • CD-RW / DVD-RW
  • Intel Wi-Fi Link 5100 - 802.11A/B/G/N Up to 300 Mbps

As you can see, the hardware warrants the price. But above the specs, the fact that the user can open up a box, fire up their hardware, and fully enjoy their Linux-powered laptop with nary an issue makes System 76 a winner all around. This smooth out-of-the-box experience wasn't limited to the laptop either. Same thing with the Meerkat NetTop -- everything comes out of the box working and working well (even Compiz!).

But System 76 isn't stopping with laptops and desktops. They offer some pretty beefy servers as well. And they have a knowledge base, forums, bug reports, e-mail support, the usual Ubuntu support (via a link to the Ubuntu forums), Linux badges, and free stickers too boot!

System 76 is a company you should take note of. If you are looking for solid hardware that runs Linux flawlessly, without having to research and piece a machine together, you will most likely find no better solution. My next laptop will come from System 76. They're a good company, strong supporters of Linux and open source, and they offer outstanding products.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

62 comments
martinlongbow
martinlongbow

I bought a System76 laptop 3 or 4 years ago and it runs like a top. I definitely plan on getting my next laptop from this great group. Their after sale support is fast and responsive, too.

martinlongbow
martinlongbow

I bought a System76 laptop 3 years ago. It runs like a top. Love it. Will buy another one. Thanks for spreading the good word on a great product and even better after/sale support.

jck
jck

i'm enough of a nerd to get me a blank laptop and put my own distro on it. but, my next laptop will be linux since i don't play games on them.

sonicsteve
sonicsteve

I say this simply because the reality of Duty coming across the boarder is a deal breaker. If they have solved this someone please correct me. An example of duty charges is this; a few years back I bought a de-soldering machine to replace bad capacitors on mainboards. It cost $300, the duty charges were over $100 when add taxes to the duty charges which were $110-$120. It was a killer. Dell succeeds because they have a Canadian branch. Does system 76 have something like this?

jmmckee
jmmckee

I recently purchased a netbook from System 76. It IS impressive! For the most pasrt, the Ubuntu remix seems extremely adequate. But, there have been times when I wondered if the standard Ubuntu would work as well. The only issue I have encountered was a broken package. Kind of puzzling, in a way. But, it was easily fixed.

roy.evison
roy.evison

cough splutter, how much? Sorry, originally came to Linux because of cost considerations. No doubt there are many that can afford ?700 for a Laptop but will they go for an unfamiliar o/s, perhaps so if they have that much burning a hole in their pocket.

jlwallen
jlwallen

i'm trying out various live distros on the Pangolin Performance. i'm using the Live version so not to blow away the current Ubuntu 9.04 it shipped with. so far i have found the following distros work great: OpenSuSE PCLinuxOS Linux Mint OpenGEU I gave my favorite Elive+Compiz a try but wireless was a nogo. Of course this is an unstable release so the stable release might be a different story.

stephanvaningen
stephanvaningen

I wanted to buy a box from them earlier, but they don't ship outside USA/Canada

mack_c10
mack_c10

i dont think that ill need linux hardware to make everything work.. if i can install it on my computer and make it run just fine... but for most users its a perfect deal

taylorstan
taylorstan

This is a very nice way to move *nix to the mainstream....BUT, the kicker is, how easy wil lit be to install/upgrade apps, and will game makers (other than flash/java games) support *nix versions of the games. imho that is what will make this a successfull move into the mainstream.

Doug Vitale
Doug Vitale

While it would be intriguing to get my hands on a PC/laptop that was designed from the ground up to run Linux, it looks like System 76 is only offering Ubuntu 9.04 as an OS choice. This is a problem for me because I hates the GNOME and loves the KDE. System 76 should at least offer Kubuntu as an additional OS option. However, what about those Linux users who use OpenSUSE, Mandriva, Fedora, etc.? If System 76 gave shoppers the ability to pick from 5 or 6 mainstream Linux distributions, that would be sweet.

dragonbite
dragonbite

I think it's great that somebody sells systems with Linux installed. Of course you're going to get the people whining "why isn't my distro, xyz, installed?" but that's not the issue here, is it? Having 6 laptops (including one netbook), 6 desktops and 5 servers to choose from, all of which will be 100% compatible (everybody has glitches with new technology but they're past that) is awesome! System76 even has their own section of Ubuntu Forums for answering questions. I hope these guys get more visibility and grow! This is great news for Linux in general!

Jaqui
Jaqui

no bare metal option? bad enough they picked ubuntu, a distro I would never use until the critically flawed configuration problem is fixed. [ and G.N.O.M.E. is removed ] but to not offer a bare metal option? no os included or installed = bare metal.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

I'd be interested in one of these, I don't have time to fiddle as I'd like with Linux. Somebody building something is just right for me, and I'd bet others like me.

RipVan
RipVan

I have been a fan of PCLinuxOS for a while. It got dissed a little in the May '09 issue of Linux Format, but it does everything I need it to do and it keeps my kids happy (and me free, instead of fighting the awful virus fights we had when they used Windows).

sar10538
sar10538

At least my distro is covered as most of them should do with the purposely designed for Linux hardware in this unit. If only other manufacturers would do the same.

sar10538
sar10538

If this box has been designed from the ground up to be Linux friendly, why not just blat the whole thing and install a distro that supports the desktop environment you prefer. Trying to add KDE to a distro that is so limited it does not off the KDE option, is doomed to failure. So, OK, there is the kbuntu option but why does the base ubuntu not offer the ability to select either or both of the major (even other) DE. I use OpenSuSE and can have the best of all worlds, including the ability to select my own root password. I really don't know why this ubuntu has such a following but I suspect it was chosen as it offers the GNOME comfy environment for newby Linux users.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If you've got enough Linux experience to have a GUI preference, don't you have enough to replace the default with your preference?

pgit
pgit

Well put, hadn't thought of that. Maybe it's something they're considering for the future. For now it's cool I have a third option to recommend that'll just plain work and isn't Mac or windows. I've been 'selling' a lot of Macs the last couple of years, that is recommending them. I've always preferred Linux but the headaches always fall to me setting it up. I dislike gnome also, but it should be a relatively easy chore to install KDE or XFCE etc, ubuntu has packages for these, no?

chris
chris

the issue i think some people will have is that if they are "compatible" in an among themselves and now, you using something else (for whatever reason) reduces that usability, we're kinda in the same world as using winders. If I am forced to use their Ubuntu, how is that better?

marty.kruse
marty.kruse

This one includes SLED-SuSE Linux for Enterprise. Seems intriguing: The HP Part # is: NV391UT#ABA HP Compaq Business Desktop dc5850 - Phenom X3 8600B 2.3 GHz, 3Gigs RAM, and a 320Gig Hard Drive with 3 Years Warranty. The Link: http://search.hp.com/query.html?lang=en&search=++&qt=NV391UT%23ABA&la=en&cc=us&charset=utf-8 I would be interested in hearing what folks think of this option. Best regards.

MarkGyver
MarkGyver

Their servers have a bare metal option listed, but if you're going to partition the drive anyway, what difference does it make if it has an OS already on it or not? Also, I imagine that they need an OS on there to run tests for quality control. That said, I also dislike GNOME and wish they would offer other distros. (K/X)ubuntu would be a start, but Debian, Fedora, Mandriva, Gentoo, Arch, etc would be nice. That said, there are a lot of distros out there and it quickly becomes impractical to include all you can think of. Perhaps they could maintain a list of "supported" distros that they can pre-install for free and then offer a flat fee (I'm thinking about $50) to install an unsupported distro, including the drivers, etc.

RipVan
RipVan

And maybe it was answered in the original article. You alluded to the process of installing your own favorite distro instead of the default, after saying that this didn't work on Zonbu. So I am assuming it does work on System76 (though I would assume that not all would). I wondered the same thing. I would like a laptop like this, but would prefer to put PCLinuxOS on it rather than Ubuntu. GAnd GI Gdon't Ggenerally Glike Gnome Geither. GNot Gexactly Gsure Gwhy, Gjust Ga Gpreference Kfor KDE, KI Kguess.

jlwallen
jlwallen

i think Ubuntu has such a following because it is very user friendly. in my experience new users have an easier time with Ubuntu than they do with just about any other distro. and yes part of it has to do with the lack of a root password. but over all Ubuntu does an outstanding job of meeting new users' needs.

Doug Vitale
Doug Vitale

I think what you're asking is that if a desktop Linux user has used Linux long enough to acquire a preference for a certain desktop environment DE, such as Gnome or KDE), then would he have enough experience to convert one DE to another? Not really, because Linux desktop users find out pretty quickly whether or not they want to use Gnome or KDE. That is usually the first thing that Linux users learn - how to navigate though their preferred DE. It's also not a good idea in general to convert one distro's default DE to another. Instead of installing a Gnome distro and converting it to KDE, it's a much better idea to just download the KDE version of that distro. I remember once I had Gnome-based Ubuntu 8.04 and I tried to manually install the whole KDE desktop environment...not a good idea. It turned out to be very messy. Furthermore, there are notable differences between Linux distros that use the same DE. For example, using KDE on multiple distros is not a uniform process, and users have their preferences. KDE exists in different formats on distros such as Kubuntu, openSUSE, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, etc.

Jaqui
Jaqui

no included os. and Kubuntu, Xbuntu .. all the distros from Cannonical have the same critical security flaw, so are bad options. no different password for system admin, because they are LYING and saying that attacks on the root account are constant. [ 12 years of GNU-Linux systems exposed online, and not ONE log entry of such an attack puts the lie to that. ]

sar10538
sar10538

My question was really rhetorical as, if it works fine with Ubuntu, there should be nothing stopping it working with most other reasonable distros as the kernels will be the same. These guys appear to have done thier homework and designed the hardware to suit known working drivers supported in the current kernels. If only other computer manufacturers would do the same instead of cutting corners on price and making difficulties. Also if the manufacturers of devices would publish their interfaces, or provide a SDK, it would make writing drivers so much easier and then Linux would support even more devices. Really, it's doing pretty good right now, when you look at it, it's the bleeding edge of devices and those manufacturers who are being stubborn that holds it back. But I don't mind, Vista came out and driver support for many items was not available so I got to buy unsupported items for nothing and have them working fine under the latest Linux distros. I have things which originally cost a small fortune but bought for a fist-full of dollars. I'd love it if Windows version 7 makes a whole lot more stuff redundant, it's good news for me.

jlwallen
jlwallen

I was told by a rep of System 76 that both OpenSuSE and Gentoo work well on the Pangolin Performance. I was also told that a standard Ubuntu disk is used to do the installations. So no kernel-level changes are made so that the hardware is supported. They do use the NVidia driver, but the nv driver does work. You will find a decrease in performance when using the nv driver though. Wireless is supported out of the box.

jlwallen
jlwallen

since the laptop does not belong to me, i have not attempted to place a different distro on the drive. i could run a Live CD and make sure but... i'm pretty confident you won't have any trouble installing a different distro. for assurance i am going to get in contact with System 76 about this. i will report back.

pgit
pgit

You could wipe the machine and install any distribution you'd like, and chances are if there are any hardware problems they could be fixed. But that would defeat the purpose of this. I'm happy to have a "it works" option to offer people looking for new systems. I do buy hardware and set up Linux for folks, and take the lumps myself getting everything working. Once Linux is installed and running you can relax, it'll just run and run and run... The good thing about this outfit is they have researched and found Linux friendly hardware. With Mandriva where it's at these days I'd bet it would go on without a hitch. Probably Debian, slackware and fedora as well. (and suse) Beyond that I'm sure many distributions wouldn't present any show stoppers. pclinuxos, mint etc seem to fit on a lot of hardware. But these guys give me a third option for clients looking for new hardware, one that gives them someone to yell at other than me. =) THEY said it would work. =)

john3347
john3347

I don't think you quite answered Palmetto's question and I am interested in the answer also. If one was familiar enough with Linux to have developed a desktop preference, why could they not just change the OS version to the equivalent other desktop version? In other words; if I really wanted to buy a (for instance) System 76 computer that has Ubuntu installed but I prefer KDE desktop, what keeps me from immediately uninstalling Ubuntu and installing Kubuntu as the first step in setting up the computer for my use? It is not like you would have to buy a new OS after paying for another that is pre-installed. I can understand that may not work without problems if one wanted to replace Ubuntu with Mandriva or Fedora or such, but are Ubuntu and Kubuntu not identical except fro the desktop?

chris
chris

they pulled a vista. i love kde 3.5, i can everything with it.

Jaqui
Jaqui

they use the same sources, they just use different build options.

Jaqui
Jaqui

that the distros change things. Mandriva uses a different menu style in KDE than mos distros do, making it different. actually, now Mandriva uses KDE4, which was designed by he KDE devs to be different, and the KDE devs ripped all usability out of it.

ruth69rach
ruth69rach

I think that their sources are still different so the KDE on each distro will have 1 or more difference in terms of the looks. Since we know that it can be easily customize. albeit interface is still the same as far as I know, Windows style.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If I understand what you're saying, the KDE include with Distro A not the same KDE that's on Distro B, even if they're the same KDE version? KDE KDE? And fanboys wonder why Windows users get confused.

yschoo1
yschoo1

If I were him, I would simply spell it out loud and clear: " I don't like Ubuntu period." Don't beat around the bush and talk about security issues. I'm a home user. I don't even care about that, unless I need to make system changes. Mine is boot right into the "Ubuntu", no password required.

chris
chris

you said "lots of entries for windows worms trying to break my apache installs thinking it was iis. " This says to me, any linux would have been fine.

domicius
domicius

behind Ubuntu's decision, or benefits how they call it: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/RootSudo#Benefits%20of%20using%20sudo And from 9 points I see only two as probably valid ones, number 5 and 9. But I'm not knowledgeable enough to really be sure about the first one and I expect every Linux admin (even a user who admins his/her personal system) to be savvy enough to not leave their system unattended, especially after becoming root. So the second one is just nice to have, which is not a reason enough in my opinion.

Jaqui
Jaqui

My Linux systems are the STRONGER, since I don't use the weaker ubuntu ones. and it's Cannonical that refuses to show proof of their claims of root account attacks.

j-mart
j-mart

Root or admin password for those with the authority and knowledge to to perform system administration, user passwords and accounts to stop just anyone from being able to screw things up. Simple and makes sense, why would changing this be of any value ?. I have never seen the point of the Ubuntu way.

chris
chris

that regardless, your linux system was safe...even if it was one of the "weaker" ones. Look, im not saying "who cares", I just think information needs to be looked at without bias.

Jaqui
Jaqui

should I have to jump through hoops to make ALL system admin require a different password than a user uses to login? That is the only issue with security, and their insistence on using it means their products are not usable. specially as I have yet to see any evidence to support their stated reason for butchering security like that.

Jaqui
Jaqui

for 12 years of logs showing constant attempts to crack the root account. That is their reason for disabling root login. in 12 years I haven't seen one log entry attempting to crack the root account. lots of entries for windows worms trying to break my apache installs thinking it was iis.

Jaqui
Jaqui

it's the config Cannonical put in place that is the issue. Their target user base use the same password everywhere, including insecure website logins. Yet Cannonical has Ubuntu etc. using that same password for system administration, knowing their users will EXPOSE it online daily.

chris
chris

im not the guru you are, but I wonder, you mention security issues with these (distros/desktops/etc). How many incidents of these exploits/issues occur annually? Or are they theoretical and you're just standing on principal?

Doug Vitale
Doug Vitale

"and Kubuntu, Xbuntu .. all the distros from Cannonical have the same critical security flaw, so are bad options." So this critical security flaw stems from Canonical itself and not from Debian-based distros? What exactly is this flaw? I run Linux Mint (Ubuntu derivative) so I'm curious. Thanks.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

is pretty simple in *buntu. It then follows a closer to Debian model. What other flaws are you looking at in terms of security?

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