Short Review of the Pangolin Performance

Ever since I gave away my trusty Macbook, I’ve been pining for a new computer. The iPad purchase helped, but let’s face it: I’m not going to be able to do any programming on that thing.

I knew I was going to install Linux on whatever I bought, so I thought I’d cut out the middle man and buy one direct from System76. They’ve been making laptops and desktops with Ubuntu pre-installed for a few years now, and their reviews have been positive. So I swallowed my trepidation at buying a laptop without test-driving it in the store first and ordered one of their Pangolin Performance machines.

After two weeks, here’s what I think (in brief):

What’s Good

  • Ubuntu: I didn't have to do any configuration out of the box, or hunt down any extra drivers. Nice.
  • Speed: Ye gods, is this thing fast. Transferring my entire music collection (a good 20 GB) from my backup drive took just 15 minutes. It's good to know the i5 processor + solid state drive were worth it.
What's Bad
  • Keyboard: In a word, terrible. It's shifted to the left of the center of the screen, so I'm always twisted in my seat if I'm trying to type on it. The keys are more widely spaced than is comfortable, making my fingers work more to type anything. The spacebar also refuses to recognize most key-presses. Altogether it feels cheaply made, and is really frustrating to type on.
  • Customer Service: Not so helpful. I emailed System76 support about my spacebar problem. Their solution? "Press it closer to the center" Well, thanks, guys, but if I can only get a space by hitting a single spot on the space*bar*, it's not much use to me, is it?
  • General Build: Cheap. The "Ubuntu key" is just a regular key with a tacky sticker on it (placed off-center, no less). The laptop won't turn on unless you hit the power button at the exact right angle for the exact right amount of time. The whole thing feels shoddy.
  • Wifi: Maddeningly drops connections at random. Had to connect the laptop to ethernet to get reliable internet access. Sort of defeats the purpose of having a laptop, IMHO.
It's a very frustrating laptop. It runs Ubuntu well, it's screaming fast, and it didn't cost me an arm and a leg. Unfortunately, it's impossible to type on for longer than a few minutes without making me want to throw it across the room, and it's useless without an ethernet connection.

I’m close to returning it and just buying a Macbook. It might cost more, but at least I’ll know it’s solidly built.

Update 12-15-2010: Finally convinced system76 to let me ship the computer to them for a keyboard replacement. Hopefully this’ll fix the spacebar problem and make the laptop worth keeping.

Update 12-27-2010: They fixed the keyboard! Got the laptop back just before Christmas, and the spacebar works normally (as does the rest of the keyboard). Definitely keeping the laptop now. Thanks to system76 for coming through with hardware support.

Ron Toland @mindbat