System76 Galago Pro — Laptop Review

The modern hope for Linux laptop hardware. Or is it?

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Unix For Life

Hey, folks. If you’re anything like me, you probably love developing software on a Unix system. Not something embedded or added as an afterthought (looking at you, WSL), but the real deal. For the last 7 years or so I’ve been using Apple hardware. If you’ve been following their hardware shennanies over the last couple of years, then you are probably up to date with the frustrations that developers have been feeling. Couple this with some various moral/political issues and people have plenty of reasons to start looking elsewhere for their new devices.

I’ve been eyeing System76 for a while. I’m not much of a laptop guy, in fact, I can’t stand staggered offset keyboards. At a minimum, I prefer a docked setup. I’ve been using a MacBook Pro docked with a pair of 4k monitors for a while now, and it works well. I needed a new machine for my personal business and various side gigs, so I decided to finally shell out the cash for a System76 laptop. The bang per dollar on the hardware specs was pretty hard to beat when looking at the other options. I’ve also had tons of issues with hardware and warranty coverage with every major hardware manufacturer over the last decade or so as an engineer (Dell, HP, etc.), and I’m not super interested in dealing with Linux driver/compatibility issues. So System76 seemed like the best option.

Ordering Process

I ordered a System76 Galago Pro 14 inch laptop on May 16th. It was a Monday, and it took about 5 days for them to build it. You can see a screenshot of the specs below. It shipped out that Friday and arrived the following Thursday. I had paid a bit extra for faster shipping, so the Thursday arrival was not ideal, but given all of the issues going on in the world right now, it didn’t bother me at all. Coming in at a reasonable $1,577 with shipping, I was excited to get my hands on it. That’s where the excitement ended.

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First Impressions of The Hardware

There’s something about the build quality of the Apple products that just impresses me right away. I pick it up and I just know it will last. Maybe it is conditioning since my 2013 MacBook Pro lasted me almost 7 years without slowing down, living through multiple drops, and only recently starting to show its age. The Galago Pro did not quite inspire the same confidence. But that’s okay, they certainly aren’t marketing themselves as the greatest hardware innovators of all time.

The hardware feels good, but not great. The trackpad is especially awful, and the hinge has way too much bounce to it. If you are the type to use the keyboard directly on the laptop then you might not love that, especially if you tend to use the machine on your lap. The fans are pretty loud and kick on even when doing something as simple as a yarn install for a project. Overall their hardware still feels like it’s the top end of everything else available (keep in mind that I have never used the Microsoft products such as the surface/surface laptop, and I’ve also never used the Razer hardware). If Apple is an A in the hardware category, then this is a B-, where everything else is C or worse.

The real issues began when I turned the thing on.

Graphical Issues

I’m a huge fan of Pop OS, and I’ve been using it on my desktop for 2 years or something. It has become my go-to Linux distribution. The install process was exactly what you would expect. The first time I booted up I was prompted to install the OS, and after a reboot, I created a user account. So far so good. At this point, I went ahead and plugged in my external monitor. The first thing I noticed was a green line across the middle of my monitor, and I got worried that something was wrong with it. After scrolling the screen a bit, I realized that the line was moving with the content. The issue wasn’t the monitor, it was the laptop!

After I noticed that I started noticing everything. The OS animations for workspace switching and displaying apps were running slowly, ~10 FPS. Very choppy. The same goes for moving windows around. Videos didn’t look right, and this got worse over time. The external monitor would just randomly start flashing a fully black screen and it would do this for about 10 seconds before settling down again. Here are some images/videos that show the issues. Note that I triple checked everything with different HDMI cables and different monitors. The issues were definitely coming from the laptop. Unfortunately, I don’t have any videos of the screen flashing.

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Yay, its Christmas lights!

Support Time

So of course at this point, I reached out to them and let them know what was going on. I talked with a support specialist named Nathaniel who was very cordial and helpful, and it turned out that I had ordered literally the last Galago Pro they would ever sell. They had released two newer models (both of which I didn’t like for various reasons) and so they couldn’t just replace mine with a working model. Instead, the plan was for me to “upgrade” to the Lemur, their newest model, and he understood that I needed the machine for my business. Even with the issues, I was still working ~12 hours a day using the thing as work had piled up for me in the interim of not having a personal machine. They were going to send me the new model after I paid the difference, and when I received it I would simply switch the hard drives and send the Galago Pro back to them. The difference was a little over $200, and while they definitely should have offered to cover that, I wasn’t too worried about it.

The next day they processed the return order and requested that I send the Galago Pro back and that once they received it and processed the return they would send out the new one. This is not what I had discussed with the rep the day before, and it wasn’t going to work for me. I especially wasn’t happy because the turn around time for each and every interaction with the support team via their ticketing system was roughly an entire day. So this meant that ~26 minutes of actual support was spread out over 9 days. So my options were to either pay ~$1800 USD and have the new model shipped, getting my refund only after the return was processed, or to be without a machine for upwards of 2 weeks. Neither was acceptable, so I ended up returning it and buying a mac. It’s unfortunate, but I needed something reliable and stable that I could get some work done on.

The Return Process

The return process was relatively straight forward. They gave me a return label and some shipping instructions. The shipping instructions are rife with little gotchas and money savers for the company. Don’t send back the original box? Fee. Don’t pack it right? Fee. Gets damaged while shipping? Your problem. I knew I had to insure the shipment because I wasn’t willing to lose $1,520 worth of value to a shipping issue. Of course, the label that they sent me for the return shipping was not insured, and also could not be insured. I had to pay for the return shipping and the insurance, for a whopping total of $234 dollars. Definitely annoying. But still, I would rather be out $234 than $1,521.

Should You Buy a System76 Machine?

If you absolutely have to get a laptop and don’t want to shell out the cash for a mac, I still think these are your best bet. If you prefer windows, check out the Dell XPS, the Razer laptops, and the Microsoft Surface Laptop. I haven’t used any of these, but apparently they are great. When it comes to non-Apple brands, I’ve personally only had luck with the Lenovo stuff. Just know that by purchasing a System76 machine you may run into issues with the hardware, and the hardware will be second-rate depending on what you are comparing it to. Don’t forget to budget an extra day for each interaction with support! I do believe that I would have liked the machine just fine had it worked properly, and probably would have given the experience 4–5 stars. Overall, 3 stars for build quality, 2 stars for support. I would not recommend it.

I will update this story later to report how the refund went. I’ve budgeted in about $100 for little things that they might do to decrease the amount of the refund.

Update #1

So it turns out that the label they provided was insured, apparently. I will attach images that show how I arrived at the conclusion that I need to provide insurance for the package. Apparently, when they send you a label it should be intuitive knowledge that you should ignore the explicit instructions to insure your shipment. You can decide for yourself if I’m just an idiot, or if the instructions legitimately allowed for the confusion. The return shipment should arrive at System76 sometime in the next few hours.

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So basically: Please follow the instructions, here’s a shipping label. The message did not specify/indicate that the shipping label provided was insured, and I was instructed to follow the instructions exactly. Line 8 of the return instructions state that you must provide your own insurance for the package, as they cannot refund the purchase if it arrives damaged. When I arrived at UPS and told them that I had to make sure the package was insured, they also did not indicate that the existing label that I brought with me had insurance. Either way, goodbye $234.

Update #2 — 6/12/2020

It’s been 17 days since I filed my support ticket. Still no refund. They received the laptop on Tuesday, 3 days ago. I haven’t heard anything since, excluding a message the day they received it that it would take a few days to process. I probably won’t see any movement until at least Monday. Not sure why it takes 6 days to plug a laptop into an external monitor. Hopefully next week I see some movement. Definitely starting to get impatient.

Update #3–6/16/2020

Exactly one week after receiving the laptop back they have confirmed the refund for the full amount minus shipping. It hasn’t hit my bank account yet. I will update when it does. Overall it was 21 days from the day I filed the original support ticket to the day they issued the refund.

Update #4–6/18/2020

Two days later the refund posted to my account. Overall a 23 day turnaround time.

Written by

Software engineer, musician, and aspiring humanitarian. Call me Ty. http://tytr.dev https://twitter.com/tytr_dev

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