March 29, 2007

Review: System 76 Darter laptop

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

While users are pleading with Dell to sell systems with Linux pre-installed, smaller vendors have been offering Linux on OEM hardware for some time. One of the more recent arrivals in the OEM Linux market is System 76, which sells a decent selection of desktop, workstation, and notebook systems with Ubuntu Linux pre-installed. I test-drove the company's Ubuntu-certified Darter laptop recently, and found that it has a few flaws, but overall provides a decent system for Linux users clamoring for a Linux-friendly vendor.

If you want to know about System 76's default install of Edgy, read our review; there's not much different here. The laptop does include Beagle installed by default and available in the top GNOME toolbar.

If you buy the system, it should come with a manual and quickstart guide. Mine didn't, but only because I picked up a review unit from the company's main office in Denver rather than going through the usual process. I did get a PDF of the quickstart guide, which gives a quick overview of the GNOME menu, installing the System 76 drivers, and URLs for the System 76 knowledge base and other Ubuntu help sites.

When I powered the machine on, I had to step through a short series of questions to set up my username, password, and timezone. After that, the system was ready to use -- and I mean entirely ready. I expected to have to run an update as soon as the system was online, but the machine had been updated before I picked it up.

I asked whether this was standard operating procedure, or whether the system was just updated in the office before being sent out for a review. I was told that all systems are updated just prior to shipping. Buyers might need to update one or two packages if Ubuntu releases an update while the machine is in transit, but the system should be largely up-to-date from the start.

Laptop specs and body

The Darter seems to be based on the Asus Z35Fm barebones laptop. The machine is light, and doesn't get too warm after extended use, at least as long as it's in a well-ventilated position. I used a laptop arm attached to a table for most of the time I spent with the Darter, which meant it had a decent amount of airflow around it. I also used it on my lap for a few hours and it never got scorching hot, unlike a few laptops I've tried.

The laptop has a nice keyboard -- not quite as crunchy or sturdy as the IBM ThinkPad that I'm used to, but with decent feedback. The Home/PageUp/PageDown/End keys are arranged all the way at the right side of the keyboard; it took me a few days to get used to the keyboard arrangement, but it's not so bad as to be unusable.

Speaking of arrangements, I really like the way that the Darter has its three USB ports arranged. Instead of plopping all the USB ports on one side of the machine or the other, the Darter has one USB port each on the right, left, and rear of the system. This means that if you're a lefty (or a righty), you can plug in a mouse on the appropriate side of the machine, and not have to drape the cord around the machine just to put the mouse where it works best for you.

The trackpad has a nice feel to it as well, though I would like to have a three-button trackpad for a Linux machine. You can chord the trackpad buttons to get the middle mouse button, of course, but I've gotten spoiled by having a third button on the ThinkPad. I'd also like to have the option to turn the trackpad off when a pointing device is attached via USB, as I can on my Apple iBook.

The screen is very bright, and the display is very crisp. The maximum/default resolution is 1280x800, which I found to be adequate for normal use.

With the exception of my trusty ThinkPad, the Darter is one of the sturdiest laptops I've had the pleasure of using. The laptop's chassis construction feels solid, and the screen does not flex much when you open and close it from a corner.

The review system I received included a Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 CPU, 1GB of system RAM, an Intel GMA 950 video chipset, Intel integrated audio and 802.11 a/b/g wireless Ethernet adapter, and a dual-layer DVD-RW/CD-RW drive. The system also includes a 10/100 Ethernet port, a single PCI Express card slot, a memory card reader, and a FireWire port with a mini FireWire connector.

The audio on the system is fairly good; not stellar, but good enough that you could listen to tunes on the laptop and be OK with the sound quality. It also has an onboard microphone; I used it to make a few calls with Skype and also tried recording my voice using the GNOME Sound Recorder. I didn't receive any complaints about voice quality via Skype, but I did notice a fair amount of noise when I was recording my voice using the Sound Recorder; you wouldn't want to use the mic to record a podcast. The Darter also has headphone and microphone jacks in the front of the system, under the PCI Express card slot.

I have no complaints at all with the system's performance, despite the fact that the Intel graphics chipset shares RAM, dynamically, with system memory. The chipset can use up to 224MB of RAM, and I'm a stickler for dedicated graphics RAM so that I have system RAM to dedicate to virtual machines.

Suspend problems

The system's biggest flaw is faulty suspend and hibernate, which has plagued Linux on laptops for some time. On several occasions, the laptop would not wake up from the Hibernate state at all. On at least one occasion, the laptop seemed to go into the Suspend state, but continued to consume power and depleted the battery overnight. Suspend is supposed to consume a small amount of power, because information is saved to RAM rather than disk, but it should not continue to consume power at a rate sufficient to drain the battery in one evening.

By default, the Darter's power management settings tell the system to blank the screen when the lid is closed rather than to suspend or hibernate the machine. However, even after I set the system to suspend when closed, rather than just blank the screen, it continued to have problems doing so -- and even when I put it in suspend mode manually. On the other hand, sometimes suspend worked just fine.

I've noticed a few other users complaining about the suspend issues on System 76's forum, so I'm pretty sure my situation is not unique. I also asked System 76 about this issue, and the company says that it's working with Canonical to improve support.

Install CDs and upgrades

One thing I'd like to see with the Darter is a restore CD that includes the company's drivers for the laptop. Right now, the system is supposed to ship with an Ubuntu Edgy CD (mine did not, but I got mine outside the normal supply chain) but the restore CD doesn't include the System 76 package that includes drivers for Darter. That means that if you decide to upgrade or reinstall Edgy Eft on the Darter for some reason, you'll need to install the system and then add the System 76 repository to the /etc/apt/sources.list file -- or just grab the driver package and install it manually.

The good news is that System 76 includes the URL for the restore instructions on its quickstart guide, and it's not a terribly difficult process by any stretch. It's certainly less onerous than the hoops one has to jump through to restore or upgrade the average Windows OEM system -- which requires re-installing Windows and then reinstalling drivers for several peripherals from separate CDs.

Final thoughts

Despite the issues with suspend, the Darter is a decent laptop. All of the remaining onboard peripherals seem to work fine with Linux.

The Darter starts at $995, with a Celeron M CPU and 512MB of RAM. As reviewed, the system runs $1,369, which isn't out of line for a Core 2 Duo-based system. If Linux laptops are on your radar, System 76's Darter should be on your short list.