July 5, 2011

Meet the Ultimate Guru Laptop



Wish List

To determine which laptop I would receive I first had to asses my needs, what I really wanted was a laptop with the following capabilities and hardware.

  1. Linux compatible Hardware - All hardware must work natively with the Linux kernel so I only slightly modify my installations that I use for slackbuild maintenance.
  2. CPU
    1. AMD processor - During my past experiences Intel CPUs run too hot, so AMD is my preferred vendor.
    2. CPU frequency scaling supported hardware - This will be a laptop and battery life is important, so it is very important to have the capability to scale down the CPU frequency to save power.
    3. A fast CPU for compiling applications - This is needed because I am a Slackware slackbuild maintainer who tests various compile time options.
  3. Wireless Networking
    1. An Atheros or Intel based wireless card - One of the greatest pains for people switching to Linux based systems is wireless card compatability. So far both Atheros and Intel cards have proven very reliable.
    2. 802.11 b/g/n - I currently use a 802.11g wireless network, but it is important to plan for the future and be ready to move to a N based network.
  4. Video Capabilities
    1. A high resolution Monitor - The monitor is important so I can keep multiple windows open for documentation and coding.
    2. An Nvidia Video Card - I enjoy some gaming and watching videos, my experiences have shown me that Nvidia cards work great with Linux based system running both the proprietary and the open source drivers.
    3. A HDMI output plug - I want HDMI so I can review the video and audio configurations necessary to connect to newer hardware.
  5. Plenty of RAM - The RAM will be needed for running virtual machines to test various distros to help others and to test various network based services.
  6. A large hard drive - The space will be needed to house multiple operating systems being hosted as virtual machines. Due to the virtual machines size is more important than speed.
  7. A webcam - The webcam is wanted because I want to test various Linux based webcam and communication software to track the network packets and learn about the network load.
  8. External Media Access
    1. A SD card slot - The SD card slot is important because it simplifies accessing media from my digital camera.
    2. USB3.0 ports - The USB3.0 ports are wanted to plan for future compatability and high speed data transfer.
    3. An Internal DVD Reader - Some Linux based distros make it easy to install from a USB disk, but most don't. Since I will use the laptop for testing and documentation it is important that I can install any Linux based distro, so I must have a DVD reader available.



Time to choose

After building my hardware wishlist it is time to become realistic and track down a laptop that will satisfy my needs. When considering a manufacturer I was looking at Dell, HP, Sony and System76, all of which had some good laptops in their current offering. However most of those companies to not tell you the true specs of the hardware and you do not necessarily know which wireless chipset is offered or if their BIOS is restricting any capabilities that you want. You can search the internet for the model numbers to try to track down the hardware chipsets, but the large manufacturers seem to change hardware in their models which make it a gamble when trying to get a 100% Linux compatible laptop.

During the research I noticed that most manufacturers do not ship AMD CPUs in high end laptops, rather they use Intel processors. But at that time there was a problem getting an Intel based computer quickly because of their massive recall, so it appeared that I had to choose Intel and I had to wait longer than normal for it to be built and delivered.

In the end I could not find a laptop that fulfilled my wishlist, but I did choose a very powerful laptop from System76. The final decision was to get a System76 Serval Professional with the following:

  • Rubberizes palm rest
  • Intel Cire 17-2820QM Quad-core Cpu @ 2.30 Ghz
  • 12 GB DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz
  • 15.6" Full LED Glossy Display (1920x1080)
  • Nvidia GeForce GTX 460 Video Card with 1.5GB GDDR5
  • A 750GB 7200 TPM Sata II Hard Drive
  • Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 802.11 A/B/G/N Wireless Card
  • THX True Studio PRO Audio Card
  • Fingerprint Reader
  • 2.0 MP Webcam
  • HDMI port
  • 2 USB3.0 Ports
  • 2 USB 2.0 Ports
  • 1 eSata Port
  • 1 Firewire Port
  • CD Card Reader

In addition this laptop came with Ubuntu 10.10 in which the hardware was chosen to work with Linux based systems, which saved me from potentially painful research.



How it is being used


Operating Systems and Partitions

After the laptop was received I quickly wiped out ubuntu to reinstall it on a smaller partition so that I could add Slackware64-current. Although I am an avid Slackware user I decided to keep Ubuntu on the system so that I could keep the native OS and have a distro in place for 32-bit and mulit-lib based applications, such as the google-voice-plugin.
My partitioning scheme was as follows:

  • 300M ext2 Boot Partition
  • 10G Swap Partition
  • 50G ext4 Slackware Root Partition
  • 50G ext4 Ubuntu Root Partition
  • 100G ext4 Home Partition
  • 100G ext4 Partition for wirtual Machine
  • The rest is unpartitioned to be left for future uses


I have been doing several things with the laptop to test the capabilities, but rather than a run on sentence here is a list of activities:

  • Testing the Hardware
  • Maintaining my SlackBuild scripts
  • Installing virtual machines for testing and to help people with their problems
  • Learning CLI based tools to reduce my dependence on the mouse
  • LAMP server for testing
  • scripting various interactions between hardware and applications to test security configurations
  • Testing various firewall configurations in virtual machines
  • Testing various kernel and software configurations to extend the battery life



From Public
From Public

Pros and Cons




  • The fingerprint reader driver is easily installed from System76 on Ubuntu 10.10
  • The screen is does 1920x1080
  • HD webcam that is automatically recognized
  • The CPU is very fast at compiling applications and the kernel
  • The only hardware that is not supported by the default kernels in Slackware and Ubuntu is the fingerprint reader, which I don't use.
  • In Ubuntu it is very easy to configure the touchpad
  • Between te monitor and video card everything looks amazing
  • In slackware using the generic kernel and running the i3 window manager the battery life has exceeded 5 hours
  • The function keys can be used to turn off the webcam, wifi, etc..
  • The speakers give great output, but the sound is much better in my Sennheiser HD555 Headphones.
  • The pain onthe case is rubberised so it does not easily slip from my hands



  • The AC Adapter is a brick, both the weight and dimensions are close to a true brick
  • There is a bluetooth light and function key when no bluetooth hardware is included
  • The laptop weighs nearly 7 pounds
  • The System76 drivers have been unable to configure my fingerprint reader to work in ubuntu 11.04
  • The keyboard layout with the insert, arrow keys and keypad button placement is awkward
    From Public
  • The BIOS is lacking options such as cpu virtualization support, hardware switches and password options
  • For the price it would be great if System76 could start including a back-lit keyboard or a keyboard light.


The issues are in no way deal breakers, in fact once I adjusted to them this laptop quickly became my favorite computer for super-user uses and it guarantees that I will continue to use System76 to purchase new computers.

I will be enjoying the power of this laptop for many years to come and would like to thank the Linux Foundation for this Prize and all of the recognition that came with the title of Linux.com Ultimate Guru.

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