My old computer died and I have replaced it with a System 76 Gazelle Pro laptop running Ubuntu 11.10 “Oneiric Ocelot”. In this article I review the hardware & the OS. This is an unsolicited and unpaid review.
In mid-December my old computer died. It was a 15" MacBook Pro, 3½
years old (early 2008 model), about 8 or 9 months past its extended
warranty. One Sunday I left it with the screen-saver running while I
had lunch, and when I came back it wouldn’t wake up. This had
happened before on occasion, so I wasn’t alarmed. I powered it down
and back up, but no luck — no startup chime, no video, no nothing. A
trip to the local Apple store resulted in a probable diagnosis of a
dead main logic board, a $600 repair with only a 3-month warranty. I
didn’t think this was worthwhile for a 3½ year old machine, so I
started looking for something new.
I’ve had a Mac as my main machine almost continuously since 1985
(first-generation, 128KB RAM, 400KB floppy drive). I have always been
a multi-platformer though, comfortably using various flavors of Unix,
GNU/Linux, and Windows, at school then at work, and even at home.
Ever since discovering GNU/Linux and Python I’ve moved my computing
more and more to Free/open-source software (FOSS) that’s also
cross-platform. In combination with keeping my life in
Subversion, using FOSS has enabled me to keep a consistent
environment across platforms for years now.
I have also had a GNU/Linux system in my home for many years, running
on old hardware. First it was a stop-gap when my old 66MHz PowerMac
7100 became unbearably slow and unable to cope with this newfangled
“web” thing (the one gap in my Mac-using history). That machine later
became a lightweight home server, running in a basement closet. I
installed the original Ubuntu 4.10, Warty Warthog, when it came out.
When Xubuntu was released I switched to that, being more friendly to
underpowered hardware. Until recently it was running Xubuntu 6.x or
7.x (can’t remember which), but when I wanted to use Mercurial on it I
upgraded it to Xubuntu 10.04 LTS — a seamless upgrade, performed
Even before the old laptop’s untimely death I had been thinking of
switching to GNU/Linux for my next main system. I did an informal
inventory of the apps I use and realized that I used almost nothing
Mac-specific, and those Mac-specific apps I did use had good FOSS
alternatives. Also, quite often I would wish I was running GNU/Linux,
since the FOSS situation under Mac OS X was less than ideal (at least
two systems, MacPorts & Fink, but neither complete and a pain to
maintain both in addition to some manually-installed packages).
A big part of my desire to switch was Apple’s trend toward walled
gardens. As long as the platform is less than fully open, I will
never own an iPhone or iPad, and unfortunately the Mac platform is
moving in the same direction. I am firmly on the side of
general-purpose computing in the coming war. I refuse to have
less than full access to any computer I ever own, and smartphones are
just small general-purpose computers that happen to communicate
wirelessly. Since I own it, I control it.
So I decided it was time to take the plunge and switch. I did some
research and decided on a System 76 Gazelle Professional laptop.
I had heard good things about the company. Also it was significantly
less expensive than an equivalent-spec MacBook Pro (about ⅓ less).
The ZaReason Strata was another candidate, but I preferred the
Gazelle’s options. I didn’t even look at mainstream manufacturers,
because I am violently opposed to paying the Microsoft monopoly tax,
even temporarily, and I have no interest in making the effort required
to get a refund for an unused copy of Windows (if that’s even
Before ordering I had some technical questions, which were promptly
answered by System 76 staff. Ordering was easy and the system was
quickly assembled and shipped. (BTW, importing to Canada I had to pay
taxes, but no duty, since the country of origin was the U.S.)
Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230 - 802.11A/B/G/N Wireless LAN
+ Bluetooth Combo Module
Since this is my main system, a desktop replacement, I opted for some
higher-end specs without going overboard (I see no point paying
$200 for an extra 0.1GHz). The quad-core CPU is clocked at 2.4GHz but
goes up to 3.5GHz under load, with “Turbo Boost”. Plenty fast.
The laptop case looks good, stealthy angular matte black. The build
is decent, if not as solid-feeling as a MacBook Pro (hard to beat a
unibody aluminum case). The material is polycarbonate with a matte
finish around the keyboard (palm rest) and on the outside of the lid,
glossy around the display. I wish the trackpad didn’t have the same
matte finish as the rest of the body though, as a patch has already worn
smooth. It would have been better had the trackpad been glossy smooth
right from the beginning.
(The Serval Professional has a “soft-touch, rubberized finish on
the lid and palm rest” plus a beefier power supply and cooling system.
I didn’t feel it was worth the extra $200 though. I doubt the
rubberized finish would hold up any better on the trackpad than the
Gazelle’s matte finish.)
I opted for a display upgrade: a richer gamut (better color
reproduction) matte display. I dislike the super-glossy and
super-reflective displays that are standard on most systems these days
— they look great in the showroom but suck in bright light. I’m not a
graphics professional, but I appreciate a good display (and my
wallpaper images look gorgeous; more on that below).
The keyboard is nice, plenty big, with room for a numeric keypad
(comes in handy sometimes). The keyboard feels a bit loose though, with an
annoying noisy vibration when I type, especially on the right-hand
side. Hopefully it’s just a loose screw that I can tighten. The lack
of backlighting on the keyboard is also slightly annoying, especially
when reaching for function keys in the dark. I’m thinking of adding
some bumps to some function keys and to an arrow key to make locating
them easier. I would have paid a bit extra for backlighting had it
been an option.
One nice touch is that System 76 doesn’t have a “Windows” key.
Instead, it has a “Super” key with an Ubuntu logo on it — which is
just a sticker they put on top of the Windows logo. Still, I
appreciate the sentiment.
There’s a fingerprint reader between the trackpad buttons. I got it
working, and I like it a lot. It makes unlocking the system,
authorizing installs & updates, and using sudo much easier. It doesn’t
work when first logging in (since I have filesystem encryption set
up), so I use my password then. I have a much longer and stronger
password now, which I don’t mind because I don’t need to use it
I haven’t been able to successfully burn a DVD yet. I researched how
to correctly create a DVD image and burn it to a disc, and the images
I’ve created work fine (readable in VLC etc.), but so far I’ve only
been able to produce polycarbonate coasters. I suspect that the DVD
writer may be defective. If so, the System 76 warranty will cover the
Speaking of warranties, I opted for the 3-year extended warranty. In
my experience laptops are prone to hardware failures under normal use,
since “normal use” means being lugged around a lot. When we got my
wife a new MacBook Pro we didn’t get Apple’s extended warranty though,
because she uses it almost exclusively on her desk; it doesn’t move
I like Ubuntu 11.10’s Unity desktop. It’s quite elegant and minimal,
plenty of bling/chrome without getting in my way. There are some
really nice touches like how the icons stack up in the application
switcher (Ctrl-Tab) when there are too many open. I’ve heard some
complaints, and I tried the Gnome 3 alternative, but I’m happiest with
Unity so far.
I’m used to a fixed menu bar on the Mac, so Ubuntu’s fixed top panel
doesn’t bother me (although I would like it to auto-hide — a feature I
wanted under Mac OS X as well). I like how the menus are only visible
when required. Using the “Ubuntu Tweak” package I set the panel’s
opacity to 0% so the wallpaper shows through, and I set the launcher
I used “CompizConfig Settings Manager” to set the workspaces (virtual
desktops) to 3×3 instead of the default 2×2. I hadn’t used virtual
desktops much before, happy to just hide applications under Mac OS X,
but I’m growing to like them. The only issue was moving files between
windows, which gives me a use for my otherwise-empty desktop (to allow
the pretty wallpaper images to show through).
The Dash is good, reminiscent of Quicksilver and Enso, as well as Mac
OS X’s Sherlock. It’s in early stages, but it has a lot of potential.
Adding “lenses” extends its functionality; see below for what I’ve
I’m looking forward to the new HUD in Ubuntu 12.04. It will come
in handy with apps like Inkscape and GIMP that have oodles of
extensions and filters that are hard to locate if you don’t use them
In order to tweak the OS and add some functionality I miss, I
installed the following. Panel indicators & applets:
System Load Indicator — provides a CPU graph (and could provide
memory & networks graphs if I wanted them) in the panel, works well.
ClassicMenu Indicator — provides a GNOME-style application menu,
but I haven’t needed it yet and may remove it.
Chars Indicator — provides a menu of user-configurable special
characters. Select a character to put it on the clipboard, and
paste it into your text in any app. I was delighted to see that it
was written in Python, and I submitted a patch (applied) to add
optional submenu titles & character descriptions.
Jupiter Applet — to set CPU performance modes. Jupiter works
well but seems unstable, sometimes the panel menu becomes
And I tweaked the menu bar clock to display a custom date & time
format using these commands:
gsettings set com.canonical.indicator.datetime time-format "'custom'"
gsettings set com.canonical.indicator.datetime custom-time-format \
AskUbuntu Lens — Unity lens to ask questions and get answers at
Utilities Lens (unity-lens-utilities) — Unity lens that provides a
Dash-based calculator and world city information (local time,
weather, map link). Very handy.
unclutter — hides the mouse pointer when idle. But it
interferes with (at least) the Remote Desktop Viewer app (AKA
Vinagre), and I couldn’t get the app-avoidance configuration to
work, do I disabled it. I wish this functionality was built in.
Wallch (Wallpaper Changer) — switches my desktop wallpaper
automatically every 30 seconds (configurable). I have a collection
of over 3000 images of space, sky, sea, and land, and enjoy the
variety (increasing daily; sources: APOD, Reddit SpacePorn,
EarthPorn, etc.). I keep my desktop empty of icons & clutter so
I can enjoy the beautiful and humbling views.
I do have some issues though:
When I wake the laptop from sleep (suspend/resume), it takes quite a
while before I can log in (often 30 seconds or more), a major
annoyance. This seems to be a known issue.
While typing, my hand sometimes touches the trackpad by accident,
moving the cursor within the window or moving the keyboard focus to
another window. This is partly a hardware issue, due to the
placement of the trackpad, which is not centered on the spacebar
like it should be. But the software should be able to compensate.
There’s a “Disable touchpad while typing” setting, but it doesn’t
seem to do anything. There is a function key to disable the
touchpad manually, but it would be nice if it worked automatically.
I enabled IBus for Japanese text entry (Anthy input method), but it
isn’t working properly. In the Dash it interferes with normal
(non-Japanese) text entry, consuming key presses without any
apparent rule. So far I’ve just quit IBus after first logging in.
Eventually I’ll have to figure out how to configure it properly,
since I really would like its functionality.
The “compose key” system didn’t work out of the box. I set the
Caps Lock key as my compose key, but it had no effect in any
application, except Emacs which complained that “<Multi_key> is
I got the compose key working (except in Emacs) by installing the
“ibus-table-compose” package. It seems odd that it wasn’t installed
by default, when the built-in help system references it.
For Emacs, I had to copy /usr/share/applications/emacs23.desktop
to ~/.local/share/applications/emacs23.desktop, change the Exec
line to Exec=envXMODIFIERS=""/usr/bin/emacs23%F, and set
execute permissions on the file. This workaround removes the default
environment setting of XMODIFIERS=@im=ibus when launching Emacs.
Video playback wasn’t smooth, but a bit jerky, choppy. Some
research suggested that this was due to Compiz’s graphical effects.
I worked around the problem by creating a second account that I
switch into (Gnome Classic desktop, no effects), and play videos
from there. A shared directory enables access to content from
These are some serious issues. While not all would affect most users
(some are particular to me), solving them requires technical abilities
that most users don’t have. Some are beyond my abilities (or
perseverance) so far.
I have had my System 76 Gazelle Professional for a month and a half
now. I’m generally happy with the hardware. Ubuntu 11.10 “Oneiric
Ocelot” is working well for me, apart from the issues listed above.
As a techno-geek, I see such issues as challenges, problems to be
solved. But most people want their systems to “just work” out of the
box, so I still recommend Macs for them. Maybe not for much longer
GNU/Linux in general, and Ubuntu in particular, is getting more usable
all the time. I think it’s ready for users with mainstream needs
already, and for adventurous non-technical users with more specialized
needs. Certainly for techno-geeks like me there is no longer a
compromise to be made.