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Pythonista & Techno-Geek
Review of My New System: System 76 Gazelle Pro Laptop & Ubuntu 11.10
by David Goodger
February 16, 2012
Summary
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.

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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 remotely.

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 possible).

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.)

Hardware

Specs:

Model:Gazelle Professional (gazp6) laptop
OS:Ubuntu 11.10 64 bit
Display:15.6" Full HD (1920 x 1080), 95% NTSC Color Gamut, Matte
Graphics:Nvidia GeForce GTX 560M Graphics with 1.5GB GDDR5 Video Memory
CPU:2nd Generation Intel Core i7-2760QM Processor (6MB L3 Cache, 2.40GHz)
RAM:8 GB Dual Channel DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz
Hard Drive:750 GB 7200 RPM SATA II
Optical Drive:8X DVD±R/RW/4X+DL Super-Multi Drive
Wireless: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 very often.

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 replacement.

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 around much.

Software

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 to auto-hide.

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 added.

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 every day.

In order to tweak the OS and add some functionality I miss, I installed the following. Panel indicators & applets:

Dash lenses:

Miscellaneous:

I do have some issues though:

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.

Conclusion

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 though.

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.

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About the Blogger

David Goodger has been using Python since 1998, and began working on reStructuredText and Docutils in 2000. A proud Canadian, he lived in Japan for 7 years, where a stint at a document processing company in Tokyo began his love/hate relationship with structured markup. David is a Python Enhancement Proposal (PEP) Editor and a member of the Python Software Foundation. He currently lives outside of Montreal, Quebec, with his Japanese wife and their two children.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2012 David Goodger. All rights reserved.

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