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Not A Review: System76

I don’t usually do product reviews. Not that I’m against them, but this isn’t that kind of blog. I don’t buy or use a wide enough variety of computing equipment to have a valuable opinion. The truth is, as long as my personal computer is fast enough, I don’t have much reason to care about the nuances of processor tradeoffs, bus speeds, and the subtleties of graphics cards. Developing code actually isn’t very demanding in terms of hardware and when the code I write is deployed, it’s usually on swarms of anonymous generic servers managed by people I’ve never met.

What does matter at all levels is the operating system. The OS is the real computer. From inside a computer program you normally cannot see the hardware (unless you’re in a very esoteric field of programming.) All your code sees is the pretty face the OS puts on it. Still less can a user see the hardware. As long as there’s plenty of CPU and disk, the main thing you are aware of is the windowing system and the terminals. You occasionally have to do things that look like they involve hardware, like mounting disks, but even then, what you see is a layers-deep idealization provided by the operating system.

In the areas of computing I work in, it’s all Linux on the server side and usually Linux or Mac on the programmer/admin side. Nobody uses PC’s, not because there is anything wrong with them but because it’s a different sensibility. When the servers are all Linux, it is convenient to work on Linux or some other Unix variant.) Therefore, programmers and other techies deal with Linux user interfaces as a work environment but in my experience, despite heroic efforts by many, until recently, Linux has generally fallen short as an OS for the common person. If you wanted to use Linux for your all-purpose Netflix-watching, WordPress blogging, music-listening OS, you had to be willing to make it your hobby.

I’m doing this non-revue today because there seems to be a sea-change going on with Linux. At least I hope there is. Linux is finally poised to break out of the server-side programming world and truly become an operating system for ordinary computer users and not just programmers and aficionados with a high pain threshold. Ubuntu has pushed hard for this for years and come close, but I’ve yet to meet a single non-technical person who uses it other than a few scientists and electronics hobbyists, probably because most people still have to install it themselves and get utterly lost when the slightest thing goes wrong.

System76 (and some other companies) get around this by selling hardware with Linux preinstalled and thoroughly tested. System76 goes farther by customizing Ubuntu into a release called Pop-OS, that makes it a little slicker and gives them a version they can test rigorously for continued compatibility. Incidentally, if you like Pop-OS, there’s no reason you can’t download it and install it on your other computers for the sake of uniformity (full disclosure: I haven’t actually done that personally yet.)

My System76 Experience

A while back, at the urging of sons Arliss and Dodge, I bought System76’s mid-range Gazelle laptop to replace a rather expensive Mac laptop that had been supplied by an employer. At about $1,000 the Gazelle is well under half the price of the Mac. I got mine with Pop-OS, which seems to be the typical choice, but you can get their devices with vanilla Ubuntu if you choose. Fear not, because Pop-OS is still Ubuntu, so there is no issue of having to clutter up your brain with non-portable skills. Think of Pop-OS as Ubuntu that went to finishing school. It just works–it’s their way of keeping you off Stack Exchange.

On the negative side, I have to admit that the System76 doesn’t have the sexy polished aluminum case that looks so fine at Starbucks. However, those who take a closer look will admire your indifference to the superficial, so you may thereby impress a better class of stranger. This laptop is by far the fastest computer I’ve every had. It’s just ridiculous. It so fast that it took some getting used to because my programs would finish so quickly that I kept thinking they had failed. It’s oddly modest of System76 that they don’t make a bigger deal of the performance. None of the hardware seems particularly extraordinary, so it may just be that they’ve chosen a good mix of components, OS and tuning. Who knows? In my experience, most guesses about what makes computer programs run fast are wrong, even when experts are doing the guessing. What’s more important to me is that everything works exactly as well as you’d expect it to on a high-end Mac or PC.

This is what I meant when I said that despite me being a technical person, this isn’t a real techie’s review. I have very simple standards for my personal computers. Is it fast enough? (Oh God yes.) Does it have plenty of disk? ( It has a couple of terabytes, which for my purposes is basically infinite. You can order many times more if you want.) Does everything work and I never have to think about it. (Yes.) If I were to make a whole series of bone-head mistakes and totally crap it up, will System76 help me recover it? (Yep. I did and they did.) A week ago I was doing an upgrade and didn’t follow directions and messed it up so badly (entirely my fault) that all I could get when I turned it on the machine was a blinking square. I filed a service ticket and a very nice fellow named Nathan quickly helped me get it all running again without losing a thing. He even checked back repeatedly when I was slow to respond. This was a scary moment because I had hundreds of gigabytes of video and photos and other inadequately backed up content on it. I had been merging content from multiple computers onto a single device and I hadn’t yet consolidated it all into something easily backup-able.

It wouldn’t have occurred to me to call the vendor, but the son who recommended the machine in the first place said “just file a ticket.” He had dealt with 76 twice with excellent results. He knocked his Gazelle off of his desk one day and broke it, and had much the same experience I had, but with a physical repair. He also has some kind of exotic high-end graphics card that he takes advantage of for GPU processing, and has also gotten some expert advice from them making that work too. So they definitely stand behind their machines.

Seriously?

I still keep my iMac desktop going, primarily as an accessory to the iPhone and because it has a nicer monitor for Netflix. That, and I like the chair that’s at that desk. For everything else I use the Gazelle. The following are words I never imagined emerging from a human mouth: I actually find the Linux machine more useable and pleasant than the Mac. I feel the need to justify that. Macs are lovely machines, but their relentless demands that I log into iCloud, or upgrade, or give them my apple-id for something I don’t care about or even know about disrupt me many times a day. It’s like trying to work around a small child. In absolute terms each interruption lasts just a few seconds, but each inerruption significantly derails my train of thought, so it takes a large multiple of the narrowly defined interruption interval to get back to where I was. In the aggregate, I find it seriously chews into my work day. Linux doesn’t to that.

Also, no Linux windowing system I have ever encountered (and it has been many) has whatever memory management problem underlies the spinning meatball seizure that every Mac I have ever used (also many) has been afflicted with. Again, is it really that many hours a year? No–but it’s by no means a rare event and it derails you for many seconds (usually when you’re presenting something.) Every posted explanation seems to boil down to a list of N things you should spend half the day trying before you buy more memory (which also won’t fix it) or get a faster Mac (which will also have the problem.) It’s nonsense–nothing that runs in the GHZ speed range should ever seize up like that, period. the oft-repeated explanation that it’s caused by your program thrashing or using too much memory is clearly false–it happens with small, freshly started programs and it fails to happen with programs doing high-speed access to multi-gigabyte data structures. It’s a bug and I find it galling that the Mac world won’t call it one.

In terms of how well the two OS’s run the software I care about I fail to see a nickel’s worth of difference either way.

But Can I Run My Software On It?

Not every application runs on Linux, but there’s almost always something equivalent available. It would be very surprising to find something you could do on PC or Mac that you couldn’t find a free solution for on Ubuntu. For instance, I now edit video on it. I used to do it on the Mac but that was only because of the automated iCloud process of transferring footage from the iPhone to the iMac. I’m a huge Evernote user and Evernote doesn’t run on Linux. However, I have been running Tusk, which is the Linux equivalent to Evernote and it interacts with Evernote across the cloud just fine. The Web-UI version seems to work fine anyway so I guess Tusk isn’t necessary anymore. All of my myriad development tools like JetBrains, PyCharm, GoLand, R-Studio, Anaconda, MySQL, Postgres, Hadoop and Docker all run fine. OpenOffice is one of two free Linux clones of Microsoft Office so I have all those tools too. Linux runs my Arduino stuff too. I want for nothing.

Linux uber-nerds who can flog Centos or Ubuntu into working are ubiquitous at every place I work but the risk of finding yourself twirling in the wind with nobody to turn to has always been a major barrier to adoption by non-programmers. People need to be able to use the computer without having to be a system administrator. For me, that’s the biggest problem that System76 solves.

STEM

It is in no way PopOS specific, but it’s worth mentioning that science, technology, engineering and math get more important every year, and the requisite software is far more available on Linux than on Mac or PC. Abundant and free. If your kids are interested in any of these fields, they need to be comfortable on Linux, lest the other nerds kids make fun of them. A word to the wise.

Bottom Line

If you like the Mac OS but not the excessive price or their insufferable insistence that you do everything Mac’s way or the relentless sales tie-ins, then the time may be ripe to try Linux with a System76 system.

The System76 laptops range from considerably lighter than my Gazelle, up to an 8-core behemoth called the Bonobo that has 128GB of RAM, 24TB of SSD storage, and a monster Nvidia graphics card. That machine, which starts at $2,400, is substantially cheaper than my smaller 16″ Mac, which had only a tiny fraction of the memory and disk and fewer, slower cores. The Gazelle costs about $1,000 to which I added some extras, but even at $1200 the total price was less than half the cost of the Mac and it has power to burn so I wouldn’t bother with the behemoth unless you have special needs like video processing, machine learning or scientific computing. Gaming is another legitimate excuse (I am told by my gamer offspring.)

System76 also sells a range of desktops and rack-mount servers (none of which I have tried) but one interesting option is the “Meercat,” which is a tiny little desktop computer about the size of the paperback edition of War and Peace. If you have an extra monitor and keyboard, etc., this might be a great option. They start at about $500 and can hold up to 6TB of disk. They promote it as a super small desktop computer, but specs suggest that it has power to burn. To me it looks like a it might make a great file server for a home office or lab.

I hate computing hassles. I hate plowing through dozens of Stack Exchange posts to find some outdated oblique reference to the problem I might be having if that’s really what the problem is, which it might not be, in order to get back to doing something I’m actually interested in. That’s why I love this machine.

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