A couple weeks ago Kurt posted a comment on my System76 review, asking if I thought the System76 hardware was better than the hardware on  a comparably priced Dell laptop, i.e., if it was worth getting System76’s Ubuntu laptop rather than a Windows laptop dual-booting with Ubuntu.  This is a worthwhile question, since I mentioned in my earlier review that my primary reason for going with System76 was ethical: I value open-source software, and I want to give my money to a company that values that as well.  However, in a word, I think the answer to Kurt’s question is “yes”.  I’ll summarize some reasons why.

I owned 2 Dell Inspirons (sequentially) before buying my current laptop, the first in the $1000-$2000 range, the second in the <$500 range.  Both had the same issue, which ultimately was one major reason I swore off Dell: the screen hinge breaks under reasonable use after a couple years.  For the first (more expensive) Latitude, the problem started happening just after the 3-year (warrantied) mark, and progressed to making the hinge non-functional less than a year later.  I’m not willing (or able) to spend more than ~$300 per year on a laptop, so if I spend $1500 on a laptop, I expect to get some wear out of it.  That was simply not the case (no pun intended) with my Dells.  The second (cheap) one I mostly abandoned before the hinge failed completely due to an LCD problem (not Dell’s fault — liquid damage), but even in the time I used it (less than 2 years) cracks had formed on the case near the hinges, and the hinge itself was starting to wear.

What I would love to do is some accurate benchmark testing, but since the systems I have access to vary widely, I won’t be able to give some really useful numbers.  As I mentioned in the original review, my Gazelle Pro boots to login in about 20 seconds, with another 5 to actually log in.  My old Dell which dual-boots Ubuntu boots to login in about 35 seconds, with about 10 to log in, for a total of about 45 seconds from power up to desktop.  It has an older and more streamlined Ubuntu installation, and the same amount of memory, but it does have a Celeron processor (please hold your groans until the end of the presentation), so I don’t think it’s fair to compare these two systems.  Kurt mentioned the Dell Latitude as a possible comparable system, but in my experience it’s the lesser-quality Inspiron that’s in a similar price range (my work laptop is a Latitude and runs around $2500).

I checked out the Dell web site and found an Inspiron 15 for $750 that roughly compares to the System76 Gazelle Pro.  The Gazelle, similarly configured, goes for $843.  At that price the Gazelle has a slightly better video card (both are Intel, the Gazelle a 4600 vs. the Inspiron’s 4400) and better HD display.  The processors and WiFi options are comparable, and I selected the same memory and hard drive for each.  For me there are two big advantages to the System76: it has a CD/DVD drive, and it has a larger capacity battery (62.16 6-cell vs. the Inspiron’s 43 3-cell).  Looking at the $750 Inspiron, I would definitely say that Dell has stepped up its game since I last bought one of their systems (in 2010).  The new Inspiron looks sleek and they claim improved hinges in the description, which tells me they at least know about the hinge issue (though I still wonder if it’s fully resolved).  However, for me the lack of an optical drive is almost a deal-breaker.  I will definitely always choose a laptop with built-in optical drive as long as it’s affordable.  The battery life is less important to me, but it is really great to have a laptop that I can unplug for hours at a time.  I’m 9 months into my Gazelle Pro, and the battery still lasts up to 4 hours on light use, and 2-3 if I’m doing processor- or graphics-intensive stuff.  My Dell battery was only fully functional for the first year.  During year two I could only leave it unplugged for maybe an hour (if that), and in year three the battery served basically as a backup power supply so that I could unplug the adapter and the move to another room.  Now in year four the system doesn’t even recognize the battery, and dies the instant the plug is removed.

In my original review I mentioned four specific things I wasn’t happy with: the weight of the keys, the sensitivity of the keys, side scrolling functionality, and tap-to-click functionality in the touchpad.  Obviously the keys and the tap-to-click functionality haven’t changed, though I have gotten a bit more used to them.  Last month I switched to two-finger natural scrolling after getting accustomed to it on my work computer, and it’s definitely a lot more natural on the Gazelle than one-finger side-scrolling was.  Lastly I wanted to mention three specific issues a potential commenter on my original post brought up about System76’s Galago UltraPro.  I rejected the comment because I felt that it was vitriolic bordering on libelous, but I don’t like to reject people’s ideas (and I’ve never used the Galago), so I wanted to bring up his issues here.

According to Melvin, the screen, WiFi, battery, and speakers on the Galago are below standard, to the point that he would not recommend the system (and in fact stated that he would not return to System76 as a result of his experience).  I’ll mention my experience with these components on my Gazelle, but ultrabooks in my experience have far more issues that standard size laptops, so I don’t mean any of my “rebuttals” to invalidate his points (and in my opinion I do think that a lot of research is necessary before going with any ultrabook, as they are usually impossible to upgrade and much more difficult to troubleshoot), but I do want to point out, where applicable, my positive experiences with System76 in comparison to his negative experiences.  Melvin mentions that the screen on the Galago is subpar; obviously I can’t comment on the Galago, but on the Gazelle the screen is absolutely beautiful.  The only issue I’ve had is that after a system update I had to reset the color profile.  I also haven’t had any trouble the the WiFi connection on the Gazelle, though in general I have found that wireless adapters can be a bit more finicky on Ubuntu than on Windows.  I see that the Galago has a slightly smaller battery than the Gazelle (53.28 vs. the Gazelle’s 62.16), but they’re both 6-cell, so I’m not sure why the battery would be so bad on the Galago.  As I mentioned, I still get a good 4 hours of life out of my Gazelle after 9 months of constant use.  The speakers are definitely an issue.  The System76 speakers are very, very quiet, to the point that it’s sometimes difficult to make out audio while watching, e.g., a YouTube video.  This hasn’t really been an issue for me because if I’m ever using my laptop for music and video I use my Chromecast, external speakers, or headphones, but I think the frustration with the speakers is definitely a valid issue that I would like to see System76 address.

In conclusion, I would say that a System76 laptop would probably edge out a comparable Dell in benchmark tests, though as I mentioned I don’t have comparable systems at my disposal, so this is just an anecdotal feeling rather than anything basic on meaningful data.  It’s hard for me to be objective about this issue anyway, because I am ideologically opposed to the way Dell and Microsoft do business, and so I take any change I get to spend money on a product that supports open-source software.  Thus, take my opinion with a grain of salt if you like Windows and Dell.  I haven’t bought a Dell in 4 years, but it looks like their current systems are comparable to the System76 (in that the comparable Inspiron I looked at was not quite as good but also a bit cheaper), and I know from experience that installing Ubuntu on a Dell laptop is definitely a viable way to go.  I would say it all comes down to whether or not you need Windows.  If you do, a Dell is probably a better option rather than going with the more experience System76 that you’ll probably have to reformat to install Windows on (remember kids, Windows 7 MUST have the first hard drive partition!).  If you don’t want Windows, I would always recommend System76.