Review: System76 Pangolin Performance laptop

Jack Wallen
May 26, 2009
Updated • May 22, 2014
Mobile Computing

System 76 is a company, founded in 2005, dedicated to the spreading of Linux and open source. They are so dedicated to this cause they sell Linux-only hardware. You might be saying to yourself "It's been tried before and it failed." That is certainly the case if you can remember the Wal Mart/Linux failure or the Everex/Zonbu disaster. But it's not a universal. If you had the chance to try one of the Wal Mart or Zonbu machines you will remember well that the hardware was second-rate at best. On top of that, the hardware BARELY supported Linux. It seemed the only Linux those machines did support was the one-off distributions pre-installed. And, in the case of the Zonbu, that distribution was hardly worthy of the name Linux.

But along comes System 76 to make good on all of the promises these companies have failed to deliver on. And make good did they do. When the boxes arrived from System 76 I was naturally skeptical. The last Linux-based laptop I reviewed showed some promise until very quickly the weakness of the hardware reared its ugly head. Fortunately, with the Pangolin Performance, I was happily surprised.

The machine shipped was not a base-line product. Instead System 76 shipped me a bit beefier machine (you can upgrade in the purchase process). The specs are as such:

  • Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) 64 Bit Linux
  • 15.4″ WXGA Super Clear Glossy LCD (1280 x 800)
  • 512 MB DDR2 nVidia GeForce G105M
  • Core 2 Duo P8600 2.40 GHz 1066 MHz FSB 3 MB L2 (25 Watt)
  • 2 GB - DDR2 800 MHZ x 1 DIMM
  • 250 GB 5400 RPM SATA II
  • CD-RW / DVD-RW
  • Intel Wi-Fi Link 5100 - 802.11A/B/G/N Up to 300 Mbps

As you can see, the specs were pretty sweet. Add to that Ubuntu 9.04 and you have the makings of a fairly powerful laptop. Cost? $914.00. But does it stand up to its specs? And more importantly, does the hardware truly support Linux?

That last question is the one that really matters. Any time I see a company that touts their support for the Linux operating system my instincts tell me that they are going to ship with a version of Linux that is rolled up just for that hardware. That is not the case with the System 76 machine. The version of Ubuntu shipped is, for the most part, vanilla. There are two additional menu entries:

  • One that displays the System 76 information for support purposes
  • One for the fingerprint reader

Outside of that, it's your basic Ubuntu 9.04. It's fast and stable. But this isn't a review of Ubuntu.

The speed of the laptop can not be dismissed. My own personal laptop matches up almost identically in spec to the Pangolin.  The only difference between the two is my laptop has an Intel graphics chipset. But the difference in performance is very noticeable. The Pangolin blows my Vaio away. In both performance and feel. I have reviewed Ubuntu 9.04 prior to this review and made note of the much-improved start up times for both os boot and application start. This speed up is even more noticeable on the Pangolin. And did I mention Compiz? The pangolin ships with Compiz enabled and it works flawlessly. It only takes a few steps to get full-blown Compiz running (which includes the Cube - you can read how to do this in my recent article "Enabling the Cube in Compiz".)

The Pangolin has one of the best keyboards I have used on a laptop. The keys feel more like an Apple laptop with a bit more beef. The keys are well spaced and well laid out. As well the screen on the Pangolin is crystal clear with little glare.

The nit to pick

There is only one issue with the Pangolin, one of which can not be blamed on System 76. Because biometrics is new to the Linux desktop, GNOME has trouble with it. Even with the help of the tech, I have yet to successfully implement this feature into the desktop. Not that this is a big issue, but the laptop does have the fingerprint reader and I would hope that at some point it will work as the user would expect. Hopefully fprint reader will evolve to the point where the standard Linux desktop can take advantage of this type of hardware so companies like System 76 can offer these features out of the box.

And that is ultimately the best selling point of System 76 - their hardware works out of the box. The use can feel confident that what they purchase will work for them and work well. The elegant combination of Ubuntu 9.04 and the graceful look and feel of the Pangolin Performance laptop make a combination you can not go wrong with. Of all the Linux-based hardware companies I have ever dealt with, System 76 gets the highest recommendation I could offer.

Who would do well with a Pangolin?

If you are a new-to-Linux user and you just want something that works, this laptop is for you. If you do a lot of typing and you need a keyboard with well spaced and laid-out keys, this laptop is for you. If you need something with some power, but not something that will blow out your budget or burn down your house, this laptop is for you. If you are new to linux, a Linux guru, or anything in between, this laptop is for you. This particular laptop is perfectly in line for home use or business use. Either way you will get your money's worth with this machine.


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  1. mercurybreza said on January 18, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    I purchased a System76 Starling netbook and the power button shroud fell off the first day the screen failed within a month. The unit itself was poorly designed, cheaply made and will break easily(ie is not ruggeed like a netbook should be). Don’t waste your money on an overpriced product like I did.

  2. jellmoo said on June 3, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    @weric Not sure what I’m missing, but both laptops there are weaker than the Pangolin, and the second is 140$ more expensive. The Pangolin is a MUCH better deal than either of the laptops there.

  3. Zandra said on May 29, 2009 at 3:24 am

    whatever the debates maybe about this it seems like a good choice for a beginner and that’s exactly what I’m looking for. I think I’ll worry about what other distro’s it can and can’t use for after I get my feet wet.

  4. Mike said on May 29, 2009 at 1:35 am

    Good grief indeed!

    Its not like Ubuntu is THAT special. I have a System 76 Pangolin Performance laptop running openSuSE 11.1 just fine. I didn’t like the Ubuntu way of doing things, so loaded my distro of choice and haven’t had any problems. I can’t attest to the fingerprint reader, as I don’t use it. Rest assured, unless you’re using some ancient distribution or a highly specialized one, if it runs Ubuntu it will run the others.

    (Yes I know I have committed the most heinous sacrilege by wiping Ubuntu. May FOSS have mercy on my soul.)

  5. Chrissy said on May 28, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Good grief indeed, *Phil*

    As the author clearly mentions in the article, not all Linux PCs support much more than the distro they come with; since it’s implied this particular product is better than the rest, I merely suggested it would have been nice to see how the hardware fares with distros other than the one it comes with. You know, so the consumer isn’t necessarily stuck with the one OS?

    Other distros are not guaranteed to work properly on this hardware, and it’s true that any issues may lie more with the software than the hardware, but that’s not the point; if I’m going to spend hundreds of dollars on a computer, it’d be nice to know *before* hand how it handles other OSs. I’m not expecting any and all distros to be supported; I simply would like to know which of the major ones are. Nothing comprehensive, either: just whether networking, graphics, audio, etc. work–all the major things.

    Can you not handle this, honey? Darling, you’re just an overgrown orangutan.

  6. Phil said on May 28, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Good grief people…..

    I could have sworn Ubuntu was a Linux distro. If it runs Ubuntu then it will run other Linux distros. How it runs those is more up to the distro than the laptop. If you want to see distro vs distro performance then Phoronix often has Ubuntu vs Fedora comparisons as a start.

    You can’t expect a PC maker to try and support every distro thats out there. Be happy they support one since it usually means you can install your distro of choice without a problem.

  7. Chrissy said on May 28, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    For a PC that more than barely supports Linux, it would have been nice to see how it handles other distros. I use Ubuntu, but it’s not the only one out there.

  8. weric said on May 27, 2009 at 3:40 am
    Reply, sells similar notebooks with PCLinuxOS preinstalled for less.

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