Review: System76 Galago UltraPro

4 December 2013

I recently bucked my usual trend and decided to buy myself a Galago UltraPro from System76. Normally, I wait a few iterations to get something new, from phones to gaming systems. By the time I get my hands on one, I’ve read dozens of reviews, watched the bug reports, and interrogated everyone I can find on Twitter about the product.

This time, though, they hit a unique nexus of needs. I needed a new laptop. I wanted one from them, but was on the fence about the current offerings, and I had cash in hand, ready to throw down for a new machine.

I’m going to go through the whole process here, so if you’re just looking for my review of the machine, you might want to skip down to that part.

The history

I’ve been a huge fan of System76 for a while. A coworker turned me onto them when, for the millionth time, I complained about some weird issue between my install of Ubuntu and my Toshiba. Why not try a machine that comes with already installed? I can get that, and I can get a company that’s incredibly dedicated to the platform.

I have to admit, I used my kids as guinea pigs first. My son’s Toshiba died (I shall never buy refurb again), and I decided to buy him a Pangolin Performance (no longer offered by System76). It was a sturdy machine that should be good for homework as well as Minecraft.

Hannah, aged five, on her System76 laptop!

He adjusted quickly, and I have to admit, I fell in love with being able to open the machine up, set up the network, and go. Some people don’t mind spending a few hours tweaking drivers or trying to figure out why certain videos are green, but I don’t have the patience. I want to start using the damn thing, or at least hand it over to a child that’s eager to begin.

He loved it. He adjusted to Ubuntu in minutes, and once I showed him how to start up Minecraft, he was sold on the power. No lag! Fancy graphics! All the mods! Over a year later, he still uses it for homework, YouTube, and gaming, and his sister has one to match.

Momma’s turn

At this point, I was sold on them. System76 was turning out solid machines at a fantastic price, and the support, which I barely needed, was responsive and well-versed in Linux and their machines. I wanted one.

I didn’t want another monster machine. I was travelling more, and I wanted something I could toss in my bag, possibly next to my work machine, and zoom across the country without killing my back. I still wanted power, though. I wanted a full-sized keyboard. Oh, but give me ports. Lots of ports. Momma has peripheral needs.

Then the Galago UltraPro came out. It was just what I had been waiting for. Small. Powerful. Light. Lots of ports. I thought about waiting for reviews, and decided that, for once, I would be getting this sucker before the tech community had put it through its paces.

The ordering process

I love ordering from System76. I’ve built many a computer in my time, and I’ve developed a special brand of hate for multi-part forms filled with insensible upgrades that no sensible human would want, but that I’m halfway talked into by the time I’m on the seventh part of the form

At System76, the options are faster or bigger. It’s almost always immediately obvious what you want to upgrade to. Me, I build for longevity, so I tend to up the memory, processor, and hard-drive space. I could have built for more speed, had I wanted, swapping out my HD for an SSD. You can build a machine that works for you without going mad.

First impressions

If you’re looking for an aluminum case, this isn’t the machine for you. I hate metal cases, though, so the burnished plastic works way better for me.

The screen is glorious. Bright, crisp, and it worked well in direct sunlight. The casing for the screen feels fragile, though this could be something that I simply haven’t had to deal with yet. This is my first thin laptop, and I’ve heard people say the same thing about all sorts of super-thin laptops.

The setup was smooth, just as I’d come to expect. Open it up, set up an account, and get going.

The power brick is tiny. I’m used to a brick that I could use to make chicken piccata. This one weighs in at just a few ounces.

Yes, the brick matters to me. I now have a laptop that I can put in a slightly large purse and not have the power supply cause a seam to rip.

So far, so good, right? Well… let’s talk about the keyboard.

The keyboard (Dun dun DUNNNNN)

I’d seen some people complaining about the keyboard. It’s a funny thing to get loud about. Normally, people yell about non-charging ports or poor battery or poor construction. The keyboard?

I noticed right away that the keyboard didn’t seem to be responsive. I’d type and miss letters. I knew I’d pressed those letters. It felt like every fifth keystroke wasn’t being logged.

This was a problem. A big problem. I emailed System76, distressed, and they asked me to use the laptop for a week before returning or exchanging it. How can a keyboard issue clear up, though?

Oddly enough, it did. First, my fingers got used to typing slightly harder on this keyboard (and I have the worn nail polish to prove it). Second, I realized that the touchpad for the mouse is rather sensitive. I turned it off and got a Bluetooth mouse and noticed an improvement right away.

After a few days, I’d decided not to return it. I actually liked it, now. I set up a few projects and coded away happily, delighted that everything was local, and that I could easily mimic the environment I have in production.

But then, a miracle! System76 emailed everyone who bought the Galago and offered a new keyboard! I put in my request right then. It arrived the day before Thanksgiving. I took advantage of an early dismissal at work and got down to business.

The kit included instructions, a new keyboard, and a screwdriver. The only problem I ran into was that the screwdriver only worked with one of the screws I needed to remove. It’s a good thing I have a kit with every head known to man in it, otherwise I would have been running out to the store.

Opening up the UltraPro was quite easy. Remove one screw on the back, loosen another, remove a bit of casing, take out two more screws, pry everything up. The keyboard also came out quite easily.

Installation was a breeze, since there’s a surprising amount of room to move around inside the case. I popped in the connector for the new keyboard and reversed my way back out to a put-together laptop.

I booted it up, and wow. The new keyboard is fabulous. I could immediately feel the responsiveness. It was a pleasure to work on. This was the machine I had wanted when I first placed my order.

Would I recommend it?

Now that the keyboard issue is fixed, absolutely. It’s light, it’s fast, the screen is gorgeous, and the price is excellent. Their technical support has always been top of the line, and it’s nice to have a machine where you can just boot up and go, rather than tinkering with drivers and conflicts.

A footnote: Why not get a Mac?

I’m not a big fan of Macs. I’ve used them for work for seven years now, and I’m of the opinion that I’ll use them if it makes my day job easier, but I won’t pay for one out pocket. I like maxing out the specs on machines, and when I do that on an Apple machine, I have a mini-heart attack.

And for the price point, I’m just not impressed enough. Maybe I’m tough on my machines, but I’ve never had a Mac that I was still happy with two years later. I feel like I should get more than two years for what I’m laying down.

And at the end of the day, I’m deploying to a *nix box, and getting my environment working on a Mac has usually been an exercise in frustration that only serves to make me less familiar with production. Using a Vagrant image has only alleviated some of the pain. I’d rather work locally than add another thing that I have to troubleshoot.

Oh, and connectors. I have lost a nation’s worth of those connectors. One day, an island nation will rise made completely of white, plastic HDMI-to-Firewire converters.

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Comments

1 mark says...

Great review. Curious why you prefer plastic over metal though. I'm interested in the Galago but feel like these days can't be seen with a machine that is not metal.

Posted at 2:08 p.m. on December 16, 2013

2 Katie Cunningham says...

I've had a few metal laptops, and one thing I've noticed is that they get HOT. Like, I nearly burned my lap, working with my MacBook on my actual legs while on a flight a while back. I kept having to move it around and put things underneath it to keep from hurting myself. I've had no such issues with my plastic chassis.

As for those who judge me for having a plastic case? I have a whole folder of 'whatever' gifs for them.

Posted at 12:28 p.m. on December 18, 2013

3 David says...

Thanks for this review! I'm looking long and hard at the Galago, but I don't have any means to handle one in person first, so it's a bit of a jump off the ledge. I was particularly interested in the keyboard fix. Many thanks for the info.

One question: how does the hinge feel? My old laptop managed 5 years before one of the hinges cracked through the case. I'd like to get that kind of life out of my next machine. I know it's some serious projection, but does it feel like a hinge that might last that long?

Bonus question: how much flex does the keyboard have? (E.g. if you press on the plastic somewhere around the g/h keys, does it bow a lot or does it hold firm?

Posted at 4:49 p.m. on December 18, 2013

4 tuxalot says...

I was wondering if you could comment on the battery life. I am interested in this and havent seen much information on it.

Posted at 3:59 a.m. on December 27, 2013

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