System76 Gazelle Professional Review

Introduction

I had owned a Dell XPS 15 (L502X) laptop for a few years. The machine came with a 2nd generation i7 and a discrete NVIDIA GT 540M graphics card. The optimus technology was a pain to get working on Ubuntu, and it never really performed well. Sometimes I would spend days or weeks with display issues going unresolved. I also had various hardware issues with the graphics card, the webcam was unreliable, the 5400 RPM HDD was slow, and the spacebar on the keyboard would get stuck. I vowed never to buy from Dell again and was pointed to System76, a company that makes laptops optimised for Ubuntu.

I set my sights on the System 76 Gazelle Professional (gazp9) as it seemed to offer a nice blend of size, performance, and cost. The IPS matte 1080p LED display would sure make a good improvement over the glossy 720p screen my Dell had. I compared the Haswell i7 processor with the Intel HD 4600 integrated chip to my current NVIDIA graphics card and found it to be favourable. This wouldn't be a high end gaming machine, but then again, I wasn't after one of those.

Gazelle Professional

Ordering

Placing the order through the (since revamped) System76 website was a breeze. The product customisation system works beautifully and gives you many options. I selected the matte display, the 2.8GHz i7, and a 256GB SSD. I entered my credit card details and started to look forward to the arrival of my new laptop. Then came the first hiccup. I received an email asking for an "Authorization Code" to confirm that my credit card transaction was legitimate. It was noted in the email that most banks would not be familiar with such a request, but that they would have this code and would be able to provide me with it.

I went to a bank branch during a lunch break, but the teller didn't have a clue what I was talking about. I showed him the email. Still no luck. "Americans are crazy," he said. I decided I'd try again on a Saturday. This time there was someone who seemed to understand the request better and believed he could track down the code. There was one catch though, my bank only keeps that specific transaction information for 3 days. I decided to give System76 a phone call to sort things out. After about 10 minutes on the phone to Sam, an account manager, I was told all that could be done was for him to cancel the credit card payment and then for me to pay with a wire transfer instead. Sam refunded my payment, cancelled my order, and placed a new one at the same price. I made the wire transfer, which took around a week to go through, after which my laptop was assembled and shipped within 2 days.

Within a few more days the UPS tracking code paced my parcel in New Zealand. Three days later I decided that my shipment must be getting held up somewhere. I contacted NZ Customs and was informed that I needed an importer code before my very expensive and highly valuable parcel could be cleared (and taxed). I was sent a few forms to fill out and required to provide a copy of some photo identification. A week later I decided it was time to send a follow up email. Eventually my forms were processed and my importer code was provided. I was then billed $208.47 in GST and $62.27 in extra customs, security, and brokerage fees. Yippie. Four days later a package arrived on the front porch.

Over a month had passed from when I placed my first order to when I had the laptop in my possession. Most of these delays weren't the fault of System76, but I thought I'd take some time to highlight just how hard it still is to buy a laptop from overseas.

Impressions

The first thing that struck me about the laptop when I unwrapped it was the texture of the casing. It looks sleek and somewhat gritty, I haven't seen a design quite like it.

The SSD boots quickly, the IPS display looks absolutely amazing, and the processor is incredibly powerful. Best of all, it runs Ubuntu. And it does it well. I bought this laptop hoping it would bring an end to my Ubuntu hardware woes. And so far it has, I'd had the laptop for several months now and the biggest problem I have is some minor Unity issues after upgrading to 14.10, which is something I have come to expect of Ubuntu itself. I'll breakdown the different components and go over them in detail:

Display. The display looks stunning. The brightness range and increments are perfect. After two weeks the screen did develop a fault, which I had fixed under warranty. More on that below.

Speakers. Positioned under the laptop on the forward side, which reduces the overall sound volume a little. The top volume output of the speakers is also not very high, and the sound quality deteriorates to static if maxing volume and playing some music with too much bass. My old laptop had some of the best speakers I have ever seen on a laptop, so I could just be biased in my criticism here, as from what I have seen most laptops have pathetic speakers anyway. It's probably best to wear headphones if you plan to listen to any high quality or soft music.

Mic. I read some reviews stating that the mic was badly positioned. This seems to have been corrected in newer models as it now sits next to the camera. I usually use my headset microphone as the quality is far superior.

4th Generation i7. The Haswell is a beautiful piece of hardware. I have no criticism for the processor or the Intel 4800 HD integrated graphics chip it comes with. This CPU/GPU blend will take anything you throw at it, including playing every game in my Steam library (available on Linux), some of which have dedicated graphics (or an Iris Pro) listed as minimum requirements.

Keyboard. Nice and compact but good spacing between keys. Replacing the Windows logo with a Ubuntu one is perhaps the defining element of this keyboard. The only complaint I have is that the insert key just just to the right of the right arrow, and I initially hit that a lot instead, but I'm having less problems with that the longer I use the keyboard. I usually use an external one, but when I'm on the go the built in one works better than those of laptops I have owned or used in the past.

Portability. The laptop weighs just under 2.5 kgs, it fits into a standard laptop bag, and is easy to carry around. The battery lasts for a good 2-4 hours, depending on what you do with it while travelling.

Problems

RAM. I bought the laptop with the minimum amount of RAM, 4GB 1600MHz. The laptop was already pricey and there wasn't any discount for buying more. I decided I would upgrade it myself in a few months time. I checked the make, model, and timings so I'd know what to keep my eye out for. That's where I had a little surprise. The speed registered at 1333MHz. I checked the product specifications and contacted System76. They asked me to check the hardware. Opening the machine was easy, there are only 2 screws and the whole back panel just slides off. Interestingly enough, the label on the RAM stick marked it as 1600MHz. They offered to send me a replacement, and then asked me to pay $40 shipping. I firmly told them this was their problem and I wasn't paying a cent. They agreed to send it to me for free. But then something else went wrong.

Screen. I had been using the laptop for two weeks now, and as I sat in a lecture tutorial one morning I put my laptop on the desk and opened it up. I immediately noticed a thin line running about a third of the way across the screen. Dead pixels. So I opened my second support ticket and sent in pictures. They told me it could be returned and fixed under warranty. They then asked me to pay $140 international shipping. I laughed a little and told them to get their act together. After a week or two of sending emails back and forward I had a prepaid shipping label in my hands and returned the laptop.

Both issues were resolved, they placed the correct RAM in my machine and replaced the screen. I haven't had any problems in the ensuing months. On the return journey, I once again I noticed my laptop had spent a few days sitting at NZ Customs, and then I received a letter informing me I had $300 in taxes and fees to pay. A few phonecalls and emails later I had the customs fees waived after proving I had already paid those the first time around. Phew. It has been a few months now and I have encountered no further hardware problems.

Overall Rating and Summary

Pros:
  • Pretty good customer service.
    • I can't fault the customer service of System76. Their people are great to talk to and the ticket system is very user friendly. My only faults here are with the procedures. Shipping isn't officially covered under warranty, so I suppose I can understand why the default option is to have the customer pay that. It is a pain to get asked to pay for something someone else screwed up and I hope they change that.
  • Best Ubuntu laptop I've ever used.
    • It just works and I have not had any of the usual problems I experience with Ubuntu on this laptop.
  • Fast, quiet, light, and looks good.
    • The Gazelle Professional is powerful and runs smoothly.
    • The sleek design and obscure name are great conversation starters.
  • Screen.
    • I'll say it again, the IPS 1080p matte display is beautiful.
  • Ubuntu key.
    • Finally a keyboard without the "Windows" key.
Cons:
  • Quality control.
    • Enough said in the rest of this review I think.
  • Overseas.
    • I would love to see System76 make it easier to buy one of their laptops from overseas. I think the hassles I've described are going to discourage plenty of people. They will also need a better way to handle warranties on orders which have such a high shipping cost.

Would I recommend System76? Yes, I would. I'm hoping that my case is not common and I got that one-in-a-million faulty product. I have heard others complain, but it is hard to tell how out-dated those experiences are and how much has changed. If you live outside of the USA or Canada, getting a System76 laptop will probably be a hassle. Whether that is worth it for a quality Ubuntu laptop is up to you.

Technical Specifications

Processor Intel Core i7-4810MQ CPU @ 2.80GHz
Display 15.6″ Matte 1920×1080 LED Backlit
Graphics Intel HD 4600
Memory 8 GB Dual Channel DDR3 @ 1600 MHz (purchased with 4 GB)
Storage 250 GB mSATA SSD
Ports 2× USB 3.0, 1× eSata/USB 3.0, 1× USB 2.0, SD Card Reader, DVD-RW Drive, HDMI, VGA, Stereo Speakers, Mic, Headphone Jack, Mic Jack, 2.0 Megapixel Webcam
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, Intel WiFi up to 433 Mbps + Bluetooth
Battery Approx. 3 hours (6 Cell Smart Li-Ion – 62.16 Wh; 90W, AC-in 100–240V, 50–60Hz)
Dimensions 37 × 25 × 3 cm (approx.)
Weight 2.45 kg

 

Replies to Post

Terrible computers. The galago ultra pro was a complete dud. Broken keyboard out of the box, cheap plastic case, no support for software updates, and completely unuseable in 2 years even though it cost +$1200. All this company does is install linux on Chinese lemons (Clevo). Buy the Dell XPS Ubuntu instead or get a Mac.

I can't comment on System 76 laptops, but our two Wild Dog desk tops has been superb... over a year with no problems, no bugs... and I mean - no issues... just great solid performance 6-7 days a week for servicing our online retail shops. I can't comment on their customer service, because never had to use it...

this is the first true "out of the box" Linux computer, I have experienced... after 11 years of various operating systems and upgrades... SUSE, Red Hat, Unbuntu... and so forth. Then again, I just need a reliable fast work horse and not looking to integrate complex software, graphics or such...

 

 

 

I am really impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, its rare to see a great blog like this one nowadays afcgbcddfdac

Dieuwe de Boer's picture

Thanks. I made this theme myself (it still needs some polishing). I have used paid themes on various independent projects, but I thought it would be fun to write and maintain my own theme on my own site. I might open source it on GitHub one day.

Hey Dieuwe,

Is the keyboard backlit? By the way ... If the RAM is labeled incorrectly then all the other components may also be counterfeit?

 

 

Dieuwe de Boer's picture

Thank you for your comment Tommy. No, the keyboard is not backlit. I have checked all the other components and they do check out fine. Other reviews and people I know who have System76 laptops have checked their specs and do check out fine. I think it was a "one off" mistake.

Nice review Dieuwe :D

Hi. Great review. I'm an Ubuntu fan too. Does your laptop have a 2.5'' drive bay? 250GB would be too small for me. I want to have both an mSATA SSD and a 1TB HDD.

Dieuwe de Boer's picture

Yes, you can add a second 2.5" 1TB HDD when you order it with an SSD. I believe this replaces the optical (DVD) drive.