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Saturday, September 14, 2013

System76 Galago UltraPro (galu1) Review: Avoid

I've been a long-time Linux user, and a couple years ago I bought the Lemur Ultrathin from System76. It was an amazing machine, very portable very usable, and I loved it. Unfortunately a couple of months ago it lost its ability to power on - it was just around this time that System76 announced it's first real successor, the Galago UltraPro. On paper, it looks like a dream machine: clocking in at only $995 for the base model, it's got a Haswell i7 and Iris Pro Graphics, along with a 1080p screen. Unfortunately, on practice the machine just really isn't very good. I returned it.

Hardware
The first thing I thought when I pulled this laptop out of the box is that this hardware truly is beautiful. The grey colouring is sleek, and it has very subtle accents of brushing giving it the look and feel of brushed steel - which is a comforting feeling when thinking about durability. It's not brushed steel or aluminum though, the official word is Magnesium Alloy and Poly-carbonate. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel as tough as my girlfriend's MacBook Air - I feel like I can very easily scratch the body of the Galago and I'm not sure (nor do I want to test) how it would fare in a drop situation. However comparing it to a standard, plasticy Dell, HP or even my previous Lemur Ultrathin it feels a bit better.

It's not all rosy, though; I'm sure anyone who's seen the promotional pictures on System76 has felt the same feeling I have - the hinge on the screen is really small and looks precarious. From using it so far, I can say that my fears have only slightly been assuaged. The screen is able to hold in any position quite securely and when closing it there's a bit of a satisfying "thunk" - its honestly really rewarding to hear - as the lid mechanism seals itself against the body of the laptop (with what I assume are magnets). But the hinge is still incredibly small, and if there's a failure point, I think that is going to be it. Another problem with the body is the screen. The actual display is beautiful, don't get my wrong, but the physical body of the screen is very thin and has a lot of flex. I think I would have liked to see a more sturdy material used in the construction of the screen's frame because there is a lot of flex and distortion when simply gently moving the screen around. It makes me worry that an accidental step would be devastating to the computer, but again, I don't want to try that.

The crisp edges of the machine definitely make it look slick, but it too suffers from a bit of the MacBook Air problem where resting your arms leads to pretty painful cutting into your skin. Using it laying in bed, on your back is my current challenge. I've found one sweet spot where my arms don't rest on the sharp edges, but once my shoulder cramps up it's an unfortunate dilemma: sit up (too lazy for that), stop programming (of course not) or deal with the pain in my forearm from the edge. I think it's obvious that I pick the third.

Where the palmrests connect with the base of the laptop also has a little "lip" - it's only a millimetre or two, but there have been a couple instances so far of my skin getting "caught" on it briefly. It was uncomfortable. I think since this is such a small lip that it will wear down over time and become a non-issue once it stops being sharp, but only time will tell.

The positioning of the fans in a block behind the screen - while a bit awkward looking - is fantastic for temperature. The laptop doesn't really get hot on the bottom, and that's awesome. Devices like the MacBook, Thinkpad Carbon and my old Lemur all seemed to have a vendetta against my testes.

Speakers
Well... they're not very good. They're latptop speakers though, so that excuses most of it but honestly, since they're both beside the keyboard and physically rather large, I expected better from them. In reality, they're only moderately loud (they max out quieter than the MacBook Air) and they get a little tinny when maxed out, so it's best to keep them around 70%, I've found. In fact my girlfriend and I were trying to watch some VGHS in bed, and we had to switch to her laptop after an episode because we couldn't hear the show.

Edit: Now that I've returned the machine and am borrowing a MacBook Pro from work, holy cow were the Galago's speakers ever bad in comparison. They're just tinny and quiet

Quick Software Note: this is one of the weird speaker setups where alsa, by default puts the hdmi audio as the first device instead of the speakers - so if you're deviating from Ubuntu like I do (I use Arch), you should make sure that the PCH is set as the default device.

Upgradability
The first thing I did when I got this machine was to replace the harddrive that came default with my SSD. this was a frustrating experience, the harddrive slot must be accessed by removing the backplate, which isn't hard but involves removing and then replacing the 16 screws. The mSATA and RAM are underneath the keyboard, but just like my Lemur I'm relatively incapable of getting the damn thing off. You've gotta be crafty with a business card to move back the little plastic clips. I haven't actually succeeded on the Galago yet, there must be some trick to it.

Screen
This display is beautiful. There's not much more to say about this. It's 1080p in a 14" laptop, so text is crisp and clean. It ships with an .icc for best colour display. And it is matte. If you've been stuck on glossy screens for years, matte is the best thing ever. There's no reflections of the screens, and it looks good in all lighting scenarios, not just under fluorescent lights. This is the high point of the laptop. Absolutely beautiful. 10/10.

However, physically, I had issues with the design of the screen mentioned above, and I had defects with the screen which will be mentioned below in Support.

Keyboard and Clickpad

When I was initially typing this review, using this keyboard was an exercise in frustration, and I got really mad. I returned the laptop because of the keyboard - more on that in Support. If you take only one thing away from this review, take away that the keyboard is really bad and give extra considerations to that before purchasing.

I'm a programmer, so a functioning keyboard is incredibly important to me. But that's the kicker, I don't necessarily need a good keyboard, I just need one that functions. I need one that when you press a key, the Operating System registers that key as pressed and renders the appropriate ascii character on screen. The Galago keyboard does not do that.

Keys are a little tough. It takes a bit of effort to depress them, so it's a little more rigorous a typing experience than with other keyboards. The feedback on each key is really weird too: rubber domes are typically mushy, and this has that, but there's a stiffness to it. Keypresses are stiffly mushy. Describing this is causing me distress. The thing is, once you expend all the effort to depress that key (and it really doesn't feel very depressed because of the stiffness) you have no guarantee that the key will actually register. For most keys, the non-registered keys were erratic and occurred somewhat infrequently. In the case of the spacebar, there were fundamental problems with it. Essentially you can divide the spacebar into three sections: Two sections on the right and left that occupy about 25% of the spacebar, and once section in the centre that occupies about 50% of the spacebar. Only the centre section would ever register a space. Look at where your spacebar thumb rests when your fingers are home row. If you're seeing your thumb on one of the non-registering sections I hope you're drawing the truthful conclusion that with proper keyboard ergonomics you cannot type a space on this machine. It wasn't just erratic, I actively tested this and a total of half of my spacebar simply didn't work and wouldn't ever register a keypress. Support said this was a defect, I'm suspicious, more on that in support.

The clickpad might even deserve a section of its own, there's just so much to say about it. First, from a hardware perspective, the clickpad is beautiful. It is a large, expansive place, so you're never hitting the edge and it feels a lot like the glass trackpads of MacBooks. That is, there's very little friction felt when using it, which means that even after prolonged use, your finger doesn't start to hurt. Unfortunately, the software falls a bit flat on its face. The guys at xf86-input-mtrack are making some progress on multitouch support on linux, but it's not all there. For the time being, sometimes the trackpad doesn't behave exactly how I would like. Sometimes the cursor will jump to a corner of the screen unexpectedly when one of my extra fingers or palms accidentally brushes the pad when I'm using it. Dragging operations are incredibly difficult to do without a distinct button. First, you put the pointer to the first letter you want to select, sure. But then when you try to click down, the cursor moves because the button is under the touchable surface. This is exacerbated by the incredibly high-resolution screen. You have such a smaller area to actually aim for so selecting the text you want is nigh-impossible. This can be made better by enabling some of the clickpad synaptics options documented in the Arch Wiki, but it still is not as fluid, from a software perspective, as something like the Apple Trackpads.

Two finger scrolling works beautifully though, so kudos on that. The hardware also does support all manner of gestures with multiple fingers, but the software just isn't there yet.

I think this is a good time to bring up the fundamental problem with this machine, and by extension System76 in general. I have no idea who this machine is built for. It's clearly not built for people who use Linux, despite what System76 tries to say. If it was built for Linux, they would have found a machine with a Touchpad that behaved as expected under Linux. They have accepted and announced on their twitter that they're aware of the touchpad issues. These issues aren't new. Further, there's the keyboard. There's seriously absolutely no reason to ever choose this chasis based on they keyboard alone, it's even worse when they're a Linux vendor, and a vast quantity of people that use Linux and would want this machine are also programmers.

The worst part about it all is they're either looking at the whole thing with rosy-eyed glasses, or are incompetent. I hope it's the former. Even with this completely obvious, often unusable clickpad bug, before the release of the Galago isantop from System76 was on reddit gloating about how it's equal to or better than Apple's Magic Trackpad. This makes me so mad because it's just complete horseshit. There's no comparison, if you can't select text on your computer your hardware is insufficient.

Portability and Battery Life
I've got some mixed feelings about the portability of this machine. It's definitely very thin, but it has some clout to it - perhaps I've been spoiled by the MacBook Air, or perhaps I'm a wimpy white kid, but carrying this around in addition to textbooks and paper and the various board games and all my Magic the Gathering cards can make for one heavy backpack to lug around campus. Depending on your perspective, I do or do not have to carry the charger around with me. System76 gives really accurate descriptions of their real-world battery life, and this machine sits solidly at 4 1/2 hours, as promised. Whether that's enough is up to you. Obviously that gets a bit shorter if you're making use of the Iris Pro and playing games. The charger is rather clunky and the cables don't really wrap up nicely, so it's a bit of a pain to carry around if you have to.

Support
This section is going to make some people with experience with System76 quite angry, so all I ask is that you read all the way through and then make your judgement. Support was horrible on this machine. There are two facets to support: the actual talking to the support technician, and then the physical repairing of the machine. System76 is full of nice people who are usually a delight to talk to. But it's all talk, and when it comes time to actually fix problem, the whole thing is a clusterfuck of bad support design. I'll tell my story:

As I'm sure you're aware by this point in the review, I hated the keyboard. Hated it. I knew this as soon as I opened the machine - which was on a Friday - and had the support ticket in about it before the Monday. In my support ticket I was quite furious and I said some very harshly worded things about the keyboard. All of them true of course, but harshly worded. I mentioned this tweet, which at the time had no replies and made me believe that System76 was intentionally shipping out bad keyboards when they had better ones available. The actual story on this is that the original Galago keyboard design which went out with review units didn't have a metal panel beneath the keyboard so it had more flex when you typed on it. All of the current Galago's have the keyboard with this flex-preventing panel.

Words were exchanged in the support ticket and misunderstandings were had, and I was eventually calling them condescending jackasses providing a sorry excuse for support and demanding my machine be returned. It wasn't seven minutes after that that Ian from System76 physically called my phone and chatted about the misunderstanding and what they could do about it. Kudos on the people side, but here's where the problem starts. He says "the keyboard is a little tough, but after getting used to it, it works great! Your spacebar thing sounds like a defect though. We can send you a new one" - that's great, except the keyboards were on backorder, so he would send it out in a couple weeks. Okay, cool, I guess I can wait, I want to like this machine.

A week later my screen started having problems. Any darkish colour would yield a 1cm x 5cm purple blob in the centre of the screen - unusable for watching movies. I filed a support ticket. Now support starts to fail again. He says "sure we can RMA that", and then requests that I pay shipping for the machine. For the record, it would cost me ~$65 to ship it to them, they wanted me to pay $61 for them to ship it back to me, and then at the same time, I received a request for $48 to ship the keyboard. Because of all the waiting I've done on them, I know only have about ten days before my return period expires. System76 offers a Canada warranty program for $30, which if you buy will cover shipping on warranties to Canada both ways. I didn't buy it during the initial purchase figuring if something goes wrong or I'm suspicious during the first 30 days, I can upgrade as per this tweet. I bring this up on the morning of the fifth of september, with nine days left in my return period. Ian says "I'll look into that and get back to you". I then receive no response.

After more than three days with no response I realize that they wasted all of my time with their own problems: backorders, not understanding their own policies, etc. Even if he gets back to me saying I can get the Canada shipping, there is no way I can ship it back, have them repair it, and then receive it and test it before the end of my return period in less than six days. So I file another ticket telling them that due to this I'd have to return my machine. I receive a response quite quickly after that saying "We can definitely get the shipping coverage added, and that will negate shipping on this and any future repairs. If you return the system, your shipping won't be covered."

Of course I'd love to love this system, and I tell them as such. But due to their lack of preparation, I was unable to get a proper keyboard on my system in thirty days, and if the second one turns out to be shit then I'm completely out of luck and stuck with this system. I asked if they could extend my returns period in light of this delay until after I evaluated the new keyboard, and then decide if I wanted to return the system and received no response at all, but instructions for returning my system appeared in my inbox.

Now, my system is returned and I'm out ~$140 in shipping costs. Needless to say I'm unhappy and will not be buying, nor recommending System76 to anyone.

Overall
Avoid. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

This machine is badly designed and badly supported. It's absolutely disgusting that they chose this Clevo chasis for the machine, when it's obviously so badly designed and so unusable, especially under Linux. The only reasoning I can see for them using this is greedily wanting to boast about being the "industry first" to have Iris Pro in a machine. If that's the case, then I'm even more disgusted with System76 as a company. I got penalized for being an early adopter of this machine. Please learn from my mistakes and stay far, far away.

EDIT: (Sept 23rd) - my refund was processed. Apparently 25.25 in import duties were deducted. I'm not sure if I want to bother trying to reclaim those - getting taxes back from a foreign country seems like a lot of work, and 25$ isn't very many billable hours.