Review: Pangolin Performance laptop from System76

I’ve now had my Pangolin Performance laptop from System76 for a month or so, and it’s time for a review. This won’t be one of those brilliant technical reviews that smart people write. This is just one guy’s experience with the Pangolin.

First of all, let me say that I like the laptop and I’m very happy to support a company such as System76 that’s committed to Open Source software. My laptop came with Ubuntu (Linux) 8.10 installed. I upgraded to the beta of Ubuntu 9.04 shortly thereafter. The upgrade worked like a charm.

Right from the beginning, the Pangolin and Ubuntu found the wifi network at my house. It also found and controlled my HP all-in-one printer with no problem. I was able to start surfing the Web right away, although I had to install a few extra things to make videos work on the Web. This is fairly normal for Ubuntu, and not difficult even for a non-geek like me.

The Pangolin has a nice screen. Bright, clear and easy to read. I do a lot of word processing and blogging and enjoy being able to see things. I give the Pangolin high marks in that regard. The keyboard is also responsive and easy to use, although I’ve noticed some clacking in the arrow keys and a (rarely) non-responsive “c” key. Obviously the “c” key works most of the time, or I wouldn’t be typing this.

The Pangolin’s case is solid. I’m not an enormous fan of the black finish on the lid, which shows more fingerprints than an episode of CSI. And the keyboard and surrounding plastic are much more white than they appear in the photo above, where they look a bit silver to my eye. So maybe 7 out of 10 for looks.

I ordered my Pangolin with the Core Duo T3400 2.16 GHz 667 MHz FSB 1 MB L2 (35 Watt). If I had it to do over again, I would have spent the extra $55 and upgraded to the Core2 Duo. That said, the build I have is plenty fast, as I’ll detail later. I have 2GB of RAM, a 250GB SATA II hard drive, a CD-RW/DVD-RW optical drive, and the Intel Wi-Fi Link 5300. Of all those components, the only one that feels a little cheap is the optical drive. It works just fine, but feels like very light plastic that wobbles a little in its slot.

One issue I have with the Pangolin is temperature. I have nothing technical or smart to say about it, but it seems to get pretty hot. I think, though, that I have more to learn about the fan management system in Ubuntu, so there may be more I can do to help with the temperature control.

I produce a weekly jazz interview show called The Jazz Session. Even when I made the show on a Mac, I used Audacity, so there wasn’t much of a switch to move to Ubuntu. The Pangolin is plenty fast enough to do all the multi-tracked audio editing I need to do. So much so, in fact, that it’s replaced my Mac completely. I do have one issue — there’s a lot of noise in the audio system. When I add the Pangolin to my mixer setup, I can hear a distinct buzz, which never happened with the Mac. I know it’s coming from the laptop because I can cause an attack in the buzz by hitting any key. I’m going to try to address this issue with a USB audio hub.

All in all, it’s a solid machine with everything I need to be productive and happy. I’d recommend System76 to others.

Drinking the Ubuntu-Aid

I’ve been a Mac user since that was possible (in 1984) — first through school and then with every personal computer I’ve ever purchased. (Caveat: My parents purchased my first computer, my beloved Commodore64. The first computer I actually bought myself was a Mac.) Over the years, I’ve also used Windows in various jobs, although I’ve always tried to use Macs and even worked with our tech guys to convert Jazz90.1 to Macs when I was station manager there.

My good friend Kevin Baird, author of Ruby by Example: Concepts and Code, has long been an advocate of open source software and the Free Software movement. And while I’ve wanted to join him in that advocacy, I’ve never really been able to get my head around Linux.

Recently, though, Kevin recommended that I give Ubuntu a try. Ubuntu is a version of Linux that describes itself as “Linux for human beings.” Well, that sounded right to me, so I downloaded a CD version of Ubuntu that I could run on my work laptop without making any changes at all to the laptop. And you know what? It just works.

With that positive experience in hand, and needing to add a second computer to our home in advance of grad school and new jobs, I decided to order a Linux-based laptop. Of course, Linux (and Ubuntu) can run on whichever laptop you have, but I wanted a laptop that came right out of the box with Ubuntu installed. I Googled around and found System76, a company based in Denver, Colorado, that makes laptops, desktops and servers with Ubuntu installed. I decided on the Pangolin Performance model:

It should arrive sometime this week, so look for updates on my entry in the world of Linux.