I just spent a casual weekend (or now a full week as I’ve done this sporadically) with my new System76 laptop, a coreboot-powered Darter Pro (darp6)! These were recently announced, and I was eager to jump at the opportunity to support them with their efforts to not only push quality laptops pre-loaded with a usable Linux-based distribution, but also for their efforts to open-source as much as they possibly can.
Does anyone else get annoyed when a blog starts with all this build up and history of why the person did the thing they did? I mean, sometimes it’s interesting to hear of a new use case, but often times my eyes gloss over and I start thinking, “I just came here to research X,Y, or Z. I don’t want your life story…”.
…so I changed the title of this post to ramble about my history and reasoning! …consider this research for the Darter Pro (darp6) and Pop!_OS as I’m trying to see if my emacs+jekyll+git workflow is as usable here. Hint: this is super basic and probably works on almost all systems… Hey. I gotta start somewhere. Also, I’m not bothering to research/cite much, and claims are going to be recollections and may be 3 years out of date since last I researched/bought a laptop :P
In all honesty… I didn’t need a new laptop. I’ve been using a 13” MacBook Pro 2015 for the past three years and it still functions well enough as a daily driver. This is pre-touchbar (so I have my escape/function keys), Linux installed very easily, it had a 2K retina display that was quite a step up from the used Thinkpads (and that one Chromebook) I used for so long, and the trackpad was pretty amazing and worked out of box (I’m really surprised it was designed this way and not speaking a custom protocol over a weird port to an esoteric EC. Good job!).
Well, mostly well. I’ve been having problems with suspend (some sort of ACPI storm problem from the firmware that keeps it and the screen awake, even when closed). Only workaround I know of is to block the events when they start, but they are random and unknown events…). I’ve also had problems with certain USB 2.0 devices (such as any AVR microcontroller boards, where the xhci controller just resets and drops them). This one in particular supposedly could be worked around by using an active USB 2.0 hub, but I had no luck there. These problems in particular were out of my ability or desire to debug and work on myself, and outside of the community I doubt the parent company would care to fix them and push a firmware update…that I’d need to boot into MacOS in order to apply (which always resets my boot order in EFI as it does…). And yup, I needed to keep MacOS on my drive. I also kept it originally when I was job hunting, “just in case I need to do cross-platform work and need MacOS to test/build” (spoiler: I ended up only ever booting it to apply firmware upgrades).
Coincidentally, I had been using that machine a lot more recently as I was doing exploratory work for a new project that involved programming microcontrollers and doing 3D graphics programming. The former put me against the USB controller problem, and I no longer had a spare desktop sitting around in my workshop to use. Then, I was doing the graphics work in our living area, trying to utilize spare time whenever I could, which meant I was suspending a lot to stop and help with dinner or whatever, and meant I was hitting the suspend problem a lot. I was getting frustrated with my machine that ran fairly well, but it still did it’s job (and most laptops have their problems, I always remember this being a treacherous area for Linux).
I’ve been following and wanting to support System76 even before I moved to Colorado as they are a US-based company with a Linux and open-source focused business that was also trying to start local manufacturing of their systems. What’s not to love? But… I also try to keep my electronics purchases to a minimum. I don’t upgrade my phone every year, but try to use it until it dies. Same with my laptops. Well… usually. I used a rotating cast of gently used Thinkpads I got as surplus, but applying for and actually getting a developer position has made me make some rash decisions.
And this was one of them! Once System76 officially released their coreboot-powered laptops, I went ahead and threw money at them. Insert some ancient meme, because I am a Futurama fan.
This does feel like a less-than-ideal time to purchase a new laptop as well, as I’ve been excited for an AMD laptop, and it seems that manufacturers are finally starting to make some non-budget AMD laptops again now that Ryzen has helped them make a comeback. But, these are definitely not Linux-oriented laptops, and I feel better served supporting local companies making an effort (who could themselves possibly carry some AMD based laptops, hinthintnudgenudge).
I’ve always been attracted to smaller, lighter, more manageable laptops, and make due with effective use of workspaces and being comfortable in textual environments. I’ve also tended to run very lean systems and for a long time now 8GB has been far more than enough RAM. Lately though I’ve been doing more, let’s call it, “screen-space intensive” applications like Blend, GIMP, Godot, etc, and I’ve finally been feeling cramped by my little 13” screen. External monitors are nice, but tether you to specific places. So, I took a chance at upgrading to a 15” model (which I liked the look of better anyways, had better battery life, etc). This was surprising even to myself, and I actually had to go out and give some 15” ultrabooks a try to see if I’d be comfortable with them. Turns out weight and thickness really contributed to my impression as the 15” laptops being “unwieldy beasts.”
As I’ve never used much memory, I’ve never bothered with swap either. This may then seem outside the realm of possibility, but using Blender for a gamejam resulted in a surprise introduction to the OOM killer, which kicked in and killed Blender in the middle of me cramming to get something done… This didn’t happened often after that either, but having extra memory (or at least the ability to upgrade memory) no longer sounded like a bad idea…
So I picked up the darp6 with extra memory and a good SSD, and been enjoying it so far :] Here’s to fantastic Linux support, supporting a good company, and a laptop I can feel good using.
I have a few more things to test, but I’m aiming to write a review of the laptop, System76, and (at this rate) maybe even Pop!_OS?