Darter Pro Review

A lightweight laptop from a revolutionary open source computer company.

If macOS is basically Linux and Ubuntu runs on Windows through WSL2 and Chrome OS is literally Linux, why bother with GNU/Linux on your personal computer? Furthermore, if I can buy any Windows laptop I want and install Linux on it myself then why would I consider buying a laptop from System76? My goal for writing this review is to answer those questions and hopefully convince you that a Linux-powered laptop from System76 has something special you won’t find anywhere else.

I’ve installed Linux on virtually every computer I’ve owned and I’ve installed Linux on friends’ computers, too. I am comfortable configuring drivers, installing graphics cards and power supplies and I partition hard drives with cgdisk so my reasons for purchasing a computer from System76 had nothing to do with my technical abilities.

Before I tell you what I think of the Darter Pro I’ll list the laptops I have previously own (operating systems in parenthesis):

  • Apple Powerbook 520c (Mac OS 7.5.3)
  • Tangerine iBook (Mac OS 9.2.2 and Ubuntu 5.04)
  • Random Refurbished Gateway Laptop (Windows XP, Ubuntu, Fedora)
  • Black Macbook Core 2 Duo (Mac OS X 10.6, 10.7, Fedora)
  • First generation Dell XPS 13 (Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Linux Mint, Debian, Fedora)
  • Dell Inspiron 1525 (Ubuntu, Ubuntu MATE)
  • Lenovo Chromebook N20 (GalliumOS, Fedora)
  • Thinkpad W510 (Debian, Fedora, Pop!_OS)
  • Darter Pro (Pop!_OS)

So you see I have used a variety of different laptops. Having a Mac when I was young meant I learned to appreciate the importance of a high quality user experience. It was easy to feel the difference between Classic Mac OS and Windows. Being used to Apple computers meant I became familiar with the benefits of using a computer whose hardware and software were designed to work together. This doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea that Apple has so much control over their technology experience stack, but I appreciate when attention to detail has been taken to ensure a quality user experience not impeded by the hardware or the software .

I felt compelled to purchase a laptop from System76 because I wanted to support a company who has a vested interest in the success of Linux as a desktop operating system. Additionally, System76 provides very good support for their hardware in the form of firmware updates.

updates

But there is more to it than that. System76 goes beyond just supporting Desktop Linux. They live it and they celebrate it. I want to tell people my laptop came from a “Linux computer company” not just a company that supports Linux. There is something unpleasant about having to wipe your hard drive when you buy a new computer to install Linux. And people look down on it too. They think it means Linux is not worthy of actual use in the real world (outside of servers).

Why choose System76 over some of their competitors like TUXEDO Computers or Dell? Because System76 has style and soul and the talent to pull off a stylish Linux Desktop with a flawless user experience.

Why would someone care about desktop Linux? My computer is an extension of my body and mind. I want the ability to choose how I use it. I want to know how it was made. I don’t want any one company owning all the parts. I want to know there is no included spyware or adware installed in the computer. Linux and other completely open source operating systems provide this. It is hard to describe the feeling of freedom that comes from using desktop Linux so I encourage you to try it out if you haven’t already.

Pop!_OS

Now which Linux distro should you use? I’ve only run Pop!_OS on my Darter Pro. That’s not because I’ve been forced to use Pop!_OS. I could install any flavor of Linux I want. Truth is, I simply like Pop!_OS better than any other distro I’ve used. Fedora and Ubuntu are also great but I just love the stylish theme and adorable artwork of Pop!_OS. If you are concerned about compatibility with third party software, rest assured, Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu so everything that works on Ubuntu will work on Pop!_OS. I’d say the main difference between the user experience of Ubuntu and Pop!_OS is that Pop!_OS offers an enhanced experience of the upstream GNOME project while Ubuntu customizes GNOME further by including an always-visible dock and icons are shown on the desktop.

Pop!_OS Wallpaper

Hardware

But what about the hardware? I purchased my Darter Pro with the following features:

  • Pop!_OS 19.10 with full-disk encryption
  • 4.2 GHz i5-10210U
  • 32 GB RAM
  • 500 GB NVMe
  • WiFi up to 867 MB/s + Bluetooth 5

The specs are pretty good, it’s not a speed daemon but it is fast enough for any data science chore I throw at it. The most striking feature of the Darter Pro is its weight to screen size ratio. 3.6 lbs is light for a laptop with a 15.6 inch screen. The 16 inch MacBook Pro is 4.3 lbs by comparison. In terms of build quality, I’ve found the screen and body are actually very sturdy. This is a well made laptop. The weakest points are the hinges and the plastic hinge covers. That being said, I’ve had this laptop for 7 months and the hinges are holding their own. I feel confident when opening and closing the laptop.

To protect my investment, I’ve purchased a protective sleeve for the laptop (the Darter Pro fits many sleeves/cases designed for the 16 inch MacBook Pro since the dimensions are comparable). For more hardware details and images see System76’s homepage.

Screen

I don’t have anything negative to say about the screen. It’s the nicest laptop screen I’ve ever used. It’s not HiDPI but it looks great anyway.

Battery Life

Battery life was an important factor in my decision process. At the time of purchase I was debating between the Darter Pro and the Gazelle. I chose the Darter Pro because of its weight and battery life. The battery has a rating of 54.5 Wh. and the CPU has a power range of 10 to 25W (depends on system load). This means I can expect to get between 2.18 and 5.45 hours of battery life. I believe I get closer to 5.45 hours. I find the battery life of the Darter Pro to be sufficient.

Webcam

I’m not going to review the webcam because I don’t use it (I have an external webcam) but I will say when I tried to test the webcam with Cheese I got a “No Device Found” error. After a bit of Googling I found that I had to enable the webcam with Fn+F10. The webcam does not work if you enable the Wayland session, which I do because animations are more smooth than in X11.

Keyboard

I own the following keyboards:

  1. Das Keyboard
  2. Anne Pro II with MDA profile keycaps
  3. Logitech MX Keys
  4. ThinkPad Bluetooth keyboard

I also used a Thinkpad W510 with the older style ThinkPad keyboard for 2 years. I am picky with keyboards. The keyboard of the Darter Pro has a light, springy feel. There is almost no mushiness. When I first got the laptop I was certain I was going to hate the layout but it turns out I actually like it. I have totally adjusted to it and I find that my typing is generally error free and I have a lot of fun typing. The big right-hand control key is useful for keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl + PageUp and Ctrl + PageDown which are useful for navigating tabs in a web browser.

Darter Pro Keyboard

I like the feel of the aluminum palm rest area. It feels smooth and the edge does not feel sharp unlike some other aluminum laptops I have used.

The color of the keyboard backlight can be set with the following command:

echo 110000 > /sys/class/leds/system76_acpi::kbd_backlight/color

Just change 110000 to whatever RGB color you want. Unfortunately keyboard color will not persist on reboot.

Fan

The system fan started to make a low pitched buzzing noise one day only a month or so after I purchased the laptop. I opened up the laptop on the following day and inspected the fan which seemed to look fine. I contacted System76 support about the fan and they were very helpful and responsive. After a bit of troubleshooting they decided to send me a new fan in the mail. I installed the new fan myself and sent back the old one. The new fan has been functioning perfectly well since. I could have opted to send them the computer but I live in Canada and I didn’t want to wait. I took a chance but so far so good.

Suspend & Resume

When on Pop!_OS 19.10 I had a few instances of the dreaded Linux resume-from-suspend-fail. I’ve been using Linux long enough to not blame System76 for this. It’s GNU/Linux’s fault. It’s 2020 and we still have laptops that can’t resume from suspend. I have upgraded to Pop!_OS 20.04 and since then it has been waking up from sleep perfectly. 20.04 is an LTS release which stands for Long Term Support. It’s best to stick with an LTS release when you can.

Conclusion

Before I purchased my Darter Pro I did a lot of research online. I was also interested in getting another Dell XPS 13. As I’ve hopefully made clear, I chose to support System76 because they are interested in Desktop Linux just like me. I was however nervous about buying a computer online without having seen it in person first. Luckily a friend and I were going on a trip to Denver to see Vulfpeck and Cory Henry play live at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. We took the opportunity to visit System76 and peruse their computers. I could tell the System76ers were a passionate group of people. Who else would literally want to make open source computers (especially desktops) but true revolutionaries?

Trip to Denver

In closing I’d like to say that my Darter Pro is totally great. It meets all my needs in terms of being a lightweight laptop with a great screen and an awesome typing experience.