System76 Gazelle Pro review

February 2, 2014

In November I purchased a Gazelle Professional laptop from System76.  I’ve waited a few months to review it because I wanted to live with it for a while.  Since I may gush a little bit, I’ll note that this review is unsolicited and completely uncompensated; I just like to point out when a company’s doing something right.  I decided to go with System76 for my new laptop because of their dedication to open-source software — they use Ubuntu and only Ubuntu on all of their systems.  I went with the Gazelle Pro, well, because it was the cheapest.  At $749 it’s significantly less than the average Mac, but significantly more than a lower-end Windows system.  Since I was already using Ubuntu exclusively on my desktop and old laptop, it was a no-brainer for me.  The only extra I sprang for was an extra battery, since I’ve had problems with past laptops, but there are a number of fantastic upgrades, including SSDs at decent prices for being part of a prebuilt system.

The system boots to the login screen in about 20 seconds, with another 5-6 to load my desktop, which means from a cold start I’m up and running in under 30 seconds.  Shutdown takes significantly less time, about 10-12 seconds from the time I click the  Shut Down button.  The system also supports suspend/resume, but not hibernate.  Battery life during heavy use is a full 3-4 hours, with up to 6 for less power-intensive programs (e.g., web browsing).  I leave it suspended overnight on a regular basis, with no significant decrease in battery charge the next day.

The chassis is an attractive brushed metal finish (though actually plastic), gray with a slight purple tinge in color.  I’d prefer a heavier duty chassis for $700+, but I haven’t had any wear issues yet (maybe I’ll report back in a couple years).  I will say that the fact that the screen is set back from the body (it folds back behind the keyboard, rather than sitting on top of the body) leads me to believe that the hinge will hold up better under strenuous use than the Dells I’ve worn out before.  The 1920×1080 display is really, really nice, and since everything comes preconfigured I didn’t have to do any messing around with display drivers.  The 2MP built-in webcam works great, though I’ve had similar problems with Skype on this computer that I’ve had with other computers running Skype on various versions of Ubuntu (dealing with either echo or no sound at all, intermittently).  The built-in speakers are a little quiet for me, but of course with laptop speakers you’re not going to get great sound quality anyway.  I haven’t used them yet, but I like that the system includes an eSATA port and two USB 3.0 ports (plus an extra 2.0 one).

As far as software goes, the system has worked great so far.  Everything’s nice and fast, the graphics card handles HD video just fine.  I have had a little bit of an issue with software updates: whenever I try to use the graphical interface, it tells me to check my internet connection.  I haven’t investigated the issue further since I usually just use the command line for this anyway.  I’ve had no problems with wifi connectivity, and an improvement over my previous laptop running Ubuntu is that the connection is already established as soon as I open the screen, rather than having to wait for it to reconnect.  While I haven’t used the Bluetooth connection yet, I love that this is available.

Probably the only aspect I was underwhelmed by is the keyboard and the touchpad.  The chiclet-style keyboard (plus 10-key!) is nice, but the keys themselves feel fairly light (I’m talking about the keys themselves, not the tension, which is fine).  I usually like a little more substance in my keys.  I’ve also found that some of the keys don’t register if I touch them too lightly, especially the bottom row (okay, obviously this is theoretically true for all keyboards, but this is the first one I’ve ever had this problem with).  The touchpad is nice and big, with left and right buttons below.  However, I have two issues with it, both of which are related to my personal preferences.  I like side scrolling rather than two-finger scrolling, and it’s hard to zero in on the scrolling part of the touchpad when this is in use (possibly because the laptop ships configured for two-finger scrolling).  I also prefer tap-to-click, rather than always using the left button.  With the sensitivity configured reasonably for pointer use, I’ve found that I often end up clicking on things I didn’t mean to click on (especially when trying to scroll), or, conversely, it takes a few taps to actually get it to register a click.

Overall I’ve been very happy with this laptop so far.  Despite a few things I consider imperfections, I absolutely plan on going back to System76 for any and all future prebuilt systems (and of course I’d love to at some point try out their higher-end models).  It helps that they’re a company dedicated to great customer service and social responsibility (they spend a lot of time and money rehabilitating old laptops for underprivileged students).  I think the Gazelle Pro is also a great introduction to Ubuntu for people who are interested in switching from Windows or Mac but don’t want to have to install and configure the system themselves.