System76 Galago UltraPro Review – Clevo W740SU

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I pre-ordered a System76 Galago UltraPro (Clevo W740SU) to replace my current Dell Precision M4600 laptop. I usually run Ubuntu or Debian Unstable on my laptops depending on the current state of hardware support. The Precision M4600 has been running Debian Unstable (Linux kernel 3.10) while the Galago comes preloaded with Ubuntu 13.04 (Linux kernel 3.8).

I ordered the 16 GB RAM, 256 GB mSATA and Centrino 6235 options.

Iris Pro Graphics 5200
Intel Core i7-4750HQ Processor
16 GB Dual Channel DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz
256 GB Crucial M4 Series mSATA Solid State Drive
Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235

For the full list of specifications you should look at System76 Galago page.

The Galago comes in at just under 4 pounds and fits very comfortably on my lap. During normal use on battery the laptop never got hot or too loud. My Precision M4600 weighs in at a hefty 7 pounds and is prone to cause 1st degree burns on occasion so it is quite a change.

The shell is fairly standard semi-metallic plastic – fingers do not leave prints on it like some similar materials I’ve seen. The laptop hinge is a little less stiff in opening than most laptops I’ve used – it is just right for me. There is some flex in the LCD panel – understandable given the thinness – but no obvious build quality or backlight leakage issues. Overall it may not turn heads but is a solid looking laptop with no egregious flaws.

First Power Up And BIOS

On powering up for the first time, you are presented with a fairly standard BIOS start screen. Compared to the M4600, there are very few BIOS settings – it is comparable to a retail HP laptop.  On second boot, after Ubuntu configuration, I was presented with a blank screen and blinking cursor. Power cycling the laptop brought up the proper login screen. I later found out this is a display manager bug that has been fixed. Boot times are very quick as expected for SSD.

Screen

The Galago has a 14″ full HD screen – it is comparable in quality to the 15″ M4600 panel at the same resolution. Most of my work is done in a terminal – the screen can fit two standard 105 column x 57 line Ubuntu terminals side by side. I didn’t see any color palette or brightness issues with various photos and videos – overall this is a good screen.

Keyboard and Trackpad

This is where things get  ugly for the Galago. At my typing speeds, the chiclet keyboard misses characters very frequently. I have used many laptop keyboards over the last 20 years and this is the worst keyboard I have ever used. Left and right clicking at the bottom of the trackpad result in mouse jumps and skips to the bottom of the screen. I also find the two finger scroll kicking in with one finger – I don’t have particularly large fingers. The two finger scroll can be turned off and tap to click can be enabled – I haven’t tried these settings yet to see if they help. The end result is that out of the box, the laptop is completely useless unless you hook up and external keyboard and mouse.

Video

I transferred a high-def h.264 mkv video over to the Galago to test the video capabilities. The bundled video player wouldn’t play it (I expected this). I installed my favorite video player, mplayer from the repositories and was greeted with a plain green screen – clearly a driver issue. After consulting the system76 support forums, it seems that an updated Intel driver is required. After installing the new driver, mplayer was able to render the video properly. However, I noticed a small bit of tearing on action scenes and the video did not seem smooth. It turns out that mplayer does not use the vaapi interface required for hardware acceleration. After installing the vlc video player and enabling hardware rendering the video did play smoothly as expected. A quick look at system utilization showed vlc using 10-20% of cpu for playback. Fan noise was a lot quieter than my M4600 during playback as well.

At work, I use a Dell U3011 30″ monitor. I hooked it up via DisplayPort and everything works fine at full 2560×1600 resolution.

Update – Linux will not even have support for the 128 MB eLLC cache in the Iris Pro until kernel 3.12 (source – http://blog.ffwll.ch/2013/09/neat-drmi915-stuff-for-312.html) – so yet another reason this hardware is half-baked.

Audio

The built-in speakers are small and missing bass punch – I wasn’t expecting much and wasn’t surprised.

I tried a skype call – the default audio devices did not work. I was able to get a headset working by using the HDA Intel PCH, VT1802 Analog (hw:1,0) device, but I was unable to get the built-in microphone to pick up any audio. Video through the webcam was fine.

Wireless

I chose the Centrino 6235 option because it has been baked in-kernel for some time. I didn’t experience any problems connecting to the wireless N access points at home and at work. Throughput is pretty much as expected. I never use bluetooth so I did not test that.

Battery

With several programs open and otherwise idle, powertop reported around 50-150 wakeups per second and 3 hour 45 minute battery life at maximum brightness. I haven’t performed any battery rundown tests yet.

Card Slot

I tested an SD card from a raspberry pi and a micro-SD card from my phone with adapter and there were no issues reading and writing. When inserted, the card sticks out about 1/2 inch from the side of the laptop which is pretty annoying.

Suspend/Hibernate

Two things I’ve had trouble with Linux in the past – wireless and audio out – resumed working correctly after a suspend. For whatever reason there is no option to hibernate so I did not test this.

Benchmarks

I compiled Handbrake 0.99 for the Galago and rendered a sample high def video down to h.264 standard def. My M4600 with 2.3 GHz  i7-2820QM was able to render the video at 55.2 fps. The Galago blasted through at 120.4 fps – pretty impressive! During this test the fans kicked into high gear but the noise level was low.

Final Impressions

If you plan on running Linux or if you type while using a laptop – do not buy this laptop. Actually do not buy this laptop in any situation.

The combination of hardware issues (keyboard) and driver and software issues (trackpad, microphone, video) make the Galago Linux experience pretty dismal. I am used to researching hardware and installing various bits and blobs to make Linux work correctly – perhaps I had an unreasonable expectation that by going with a Linux vendor I would not have to worry about these problems.

I am very disappointed that System76 decided to ship a laptop in this state, and I will never order hardware from them again. If System76 is not going to guarantee a decent Linux experience, what is the point?

I collected various hardware info (dmesg, lspci, cpuinfo, etc) of the laptop in this file.

Updates

2013-08-30 – I shipped the Galago back to System 76.
2013-09-09 – The refund was processed (minus a $5 handling fee and my own shipping costs)