So, I got my shiny new Pangolin Performance laptop from system76, and I think it warrants a review, because it comes pre-installed with Ubuntu rather than, say, Windows Vista or Windows XP. Most reviews of free operating systems start with "Part 1: Installation," an utterly unfair comparison to reviews of computers which come ready-to-use with Windows or Mac OS.
(Fun fact: many free operating systems are easier to install than any version of Windows. Ubuntu is one of them. The installation CD is "live," meaning that actually boots you into the operating system itself, so you can make sure everything works before you install it.)
The Pangolin hardware itself is beautiful and functional. It's exceptionally light and well-organized, even minimalistic. Glossy black cover, cream on the inside, with a 15" wide-screen, which is the sweet-spot between laptop portability vs. usability. 15" could be cramped, but I got the high-resolution glossy upgrade, which is easily the best screen I have seen on a laptop. The gloss adds some glare, but the display is crystal clear and very sharp. The touchpad could be better: the buttons are kinda hard to click. But, I use an external mouse: even the best touchpads make me go postal after five minutes. Above the screen is a built-in webcam.
On the left and right you'll find all the standard laptop connectors: three USB ports, audio (including digital out), Ethernet (gigabit speed), modem, VGA, ExpressCard. Some very nice extras are an eSATA port for connecting external hard drives (much, much faster than USB or FireWire), an HDMI port for high-quality external monitors, and a memory card reader, supporting all common types. My machine also came with a fingerprint reader on the touchpad, but this still has limited support in Ubuntu.
Inside, it's all the latest-and-greatest. The chipset is Intel's new "Centrino 2" platform. "Centrino" is Intel's brand-name for its laptop platform, which combines CPU, RAM, WiFi and external ports for minimal power consumption, while maintaining top performance. Centrino actually kept being upgraded over the years, and there's nothing too dramatic that warrants re-branding it "Centrino 2" this time. Still, this is the best right now. It also supports the newest range of Intel mobile CPUs. I got mine with the T9400, which has a whopping 6MB of L2 cache. That's some astounding processing power. Centrino 2 also supports fast 800MHz DDR2 memory, which is what system76 uses. Fast memory makes little difference in actual performance for home uses, but it's still a nice touch. Finally, my Pangolin came with the latest mobile video support from NVIDIA, the 9300M GS. Very good for 3D games. Note also that the Pangolin comes with the 64bit version of Ubuntu, which is better at using all this great tech. 64bit software can offer up to 30% better performance over 32bits.
The machine itself is brand-less. The box says "Made in China," but the documentation does not mention any manufacturer information. It could very well be a company that makes laptops for famous brands (Dell, HP, etc.). The bottom line is that this is a well-made computer. I should also mention that the price is very competitive, without even considering all those extra touches. Expect to pay $500 more for an equivalent Apple.
THE UBUNTU EXPERIENCE
Since I've been using Ubuntu for years, nothing here is new for me. For you newbies, you'll find a remarkably easy-to-use, fast, pretty and safe computing experience. The most dramatic change for those coming from Windows or Mac is how to add software to your machine. With Ubuntu, you simply click add/remove, and choose from an overwhelmingly huge repository of software. And that's it, if you can believe it. There are also additional repositories out there from some other companies, that can even further expand your repertoire. It sometimes takes a while for new versions of software to get into the repositories (there's a quality-assurance process they must pass), so there's also GetDeb, where the latest-and-greatest can be found. For example, I was anxious to get the latest version of Pidgin (2.5), which was available there. A nice perk to this already-great repository system is that software updates all come together, and immediately, as soon as they are available on the repositories.
Need I mention that all of this is free? As in: it will cost you nothing. As for "free" as in "you have a license to modify the source code," the Ubuntu repositories actually do contain some software that's non-free. These are quite rare and marked quite clearly, so you have the option not to add such software if you want to maintain purity. However, note that system76 might install some non-free hardware drivers for you when you get the machine (notably, video drivers). If free-software purity really is important to you, Ubuntu might not be the best choice.
Still, even before adding software, your Ubuntu laptop comes out of the box with far more software than a Mac or an expensive Windows Vista Ultimate machine: a complete office suite (OpenOffice), a powerful PhotoShop-like graphic editor (GIMP), a Microsoft Outlook-like email/contact/calendar center (Evolution), an instant messenger that can connect you to all major networks (Pidgin), an iTunes-like media center (Rhythmbox), and lots of games and useful utilities.
One easily-fixable limitation, which might surprise you, is that out-of-the-box Ubuntu does not play MP3s and a lot of video formats, including DVDs! First, the reason: these formats, despite being ubiquitous, are actually not free. They are registered trademarks, which must be used with permission from the appropriate consortium or private company. Instead, Ubtuntu encourages you to use a series of truly-free formats wrapped as OGG files. In many cases, these formats are better than the proprietary formats, offering better compression, quality and performance. However, it's likely that a lot of the files you already have or find are not OGGs. Ubuntu will in most cases detect this and automatically install the appropriate codec. Additionally, I recommend adding the Medibuntu repository, which adds even more codecs, including full DVD support. To quote Medibuntu: "It is your legal responsibility to make sure that the software you are installing can be legally used in your country and for your intended purpose."
If you're worried about some special software you have that you think only works on Windows, then think again. First, there might be software in the repositories that is a decent substitute. Second, a lot of Windows software can install in Ubuntu, by adding a package called WINE from the repositories. The WINE site maintains a database of applications which are known to work well. WINE is not an emulator (actually, that's what the acronym stands for!), and works as fast if not faster than Windows. In fact, there is a long list of older Windows software that won't work on Windows Vista, but will work fine with WINE. Third, you can install Windows as a virtual machine running inside Ubuntu, by adding VirtualBox from the repositories. It works great for everything except 3D games. Note that you will need your Windows installation CD to do this. Fourth and finally, you can actually install Windows on your laptop while keeping Ubuntu on it. Whenever you turn on your laptop, it will ask you if you want to boot into Ubuntu or Windows.
That last step might be required if you want to run the latest-and-greatest computer games (though check first: some work fine with WINE). But, it's also required for Mac owners. Game makers target Windows.
For people who care about looks, I should say that Ubuntu provides a beautiful, clean, simple desktop experience. The default theme, called "Human," offers Earth-themed colors oriented around brownish-orange, and pristine controls. Ubuntu also comes with many other themes, oriented around blue, and there are thousands available online. The desktop is also fully 3D, giving you cool application-flipping like in Vista, and easy window selection like Exposé in Mac. It does even better by adding the famous "desktop cube," which makes it easy and fun to expand your desktop size. I personally like to run a Windows virtual machine on the other side of my cube. See a complete demo here.
As for working with external hardware, there's this myth that Linux-based operating systems only support a limited amount of hardware, due to the unavailability of drivers. Well, let me debunk this right now: Linux supports a much, much longer list of hardware than any version of Windows, and definitely much more than Mac. Not only that, there usually isn't any need to install drivers: with Linux, hardware usually works just by plugging it in. I've had this easy experience in the past with printers, professional audio adapters and webcams. I plugged them in, and Ubuntu immediately started using them.
The problem, of course, is that a long list doesn't help you if your particular hardware isn't on the list. Mac owners know to check that the hardware clearly says that it works on Mac. Unfortunately, because Linux-based operating systems are still fairly new to the consumer market, few hardware manufacturers note on the box whether or not they support Linux. So, you must add the question "Does it work with Linux?" to your research when you plan to buy new hardware. Also note that sometimes the answer might be "yes," but might require some special work to get it running, and that not all features are supported. The best answer, of course, is "yes, and out of the box, and fully." The only trouble I had this time around was getting my Pangolin connected to my external monitor. It did work "out of the box," but it used a very low resolution for the monitor. It took considerable fiddling to make it work. For what it's worth, Windows laptops are also notoriously bad at this task.
Of course, all the hardware inside the Pangolin worked immediately for me: the webcam, sound, video, all the ports. Actually, I couldn't get the internal microphone to work for me, but it seems that it's not even worth trying to fix it. People say that it's of miserable quality. Plugging in an external mic works just fine. In fact, today I had a nice video chat with my friend over Skype.
system76 provides a repository with all the necessary drivers, so if you ever need to reinstall Ubuntu (or add a specialized Linux kernel to it), it's just a few clicks to reinstall them. (Note that support for the fingerprint reader is still experimental.)
I'll just give you an example of it. When I got my Pangolin, the first thing I did was install a realtime Linux kernel, which I need for my audio recording work. That worked fine, except that my video did not work well with this kernel. So, I shot system76 an email, and also posted on their forums. Now, this is a rather specialized support request. Nevertheless, I got an email response within half an hour, and a forum response within a day. I got all my questions answered and everything works fine now.
Getting support from small companies is a crapshoot: sometimes it means unprofessional, slow response, but sometimes it means up-close and personal. system76 seems like the latter type.
Another nice touch is that the system76 support forum is actually part of the general Ubuntu support forum. So, if you search for an answer to a problem, you're much more likely to find answers in one place.