The Linux world has long maintained a very specific rite of passage: wiping the default operating system from your laptop and plugging in a USB stick with your favorite distro’s live CD. Some of us get a little, dare I say, giddy every time we wipe that other OS away and see that first flash of GRUB.
Of course, rites of passage are supposed to be one-time events. Once you’ve wiped Windows or OS X a time or two, that giddiness vanishes—replaced by a feeling of annoyance, a kind of tax on being a Linux user.
In recent years, the PC industry has finally spawned a few manufacturers offering up machines with Linux pre-installed to eliminate this issue. By this point, I’ve tested most of them around Ars: Dell’s XPS and Precision lines both have Linux-friendly offerings, and dedicated Linux manufacturers like System76 have long offered decent hardware with Linux pre-installed. In all this testing, I’ve yet to encounter a driver problem, which is the real benefit of a machine with Linux pre-installed. (Though to be fair, I could say the same for the Lenovo x240 that serves as my daily driver.)
Still, finding the perfect Linux laptop has always been and remains something of a Goldilocks problem: this one is too big, this one is too underpowered, this one has too little RAM, this one lacks a big SSD, and so on. Generally speaking, if you want power and storage you’re going to end up with something too big to comfortably throw in a bag and carry all day. The Dell Precision 7520 and the System76 Oryx Pro are good examples of this.
Alternately, you could go for the more portable Dell XPS 13 or System76 Lemur, which both offer a more svelte, lightweight machine that’s easier on your shoulders but lacking in RAM and drive space.
What Linux users like myself have long wanted is a laptop with roughly the form factor and weight of a Macbook pro, but with the option to get 32GB of RAM or 3TB of storage. This is the mythical unicorn of pre-built Linux machines, a laptop that is both reasonably lightweight and powerful.
And that, my fellow Linux users, is refreshingly what System76 has managed to deliver with its new Galago Pro laptop.
Hardware and design
The Galago Pro model I tested featured the faster 7th Gen Intel i7-7500U (also available with an i5 for slightly less), 250 GB Samsung 960 EVO NVMe, 8GB RAM (Dual Channel DDR4 at 2133MHz), and a 13.3-inch, 3K HiDPI screen with an Intel HD Graphics 620 card. As tested, this iteration of the Galago Pro would set you back $1,328.
The Galago Pro features an all-aluminum body that looks and feels a bit like a Macbook Pro, but it comes without the wrist-cutting sharp edges of the Macbook Pro. It’s a slick piece of hardware that’s also light, weighing in at a mere 2.87lbs. That’s impressive, but it’s genuinely difficult to convey just how amazingly light this thing is in usage. Technically, it’s heavier than the XPS 13, but it’s also considerably larger, which makes it seem lighter. My Lenovo x240 isn’t exactly a beast, but after carting around the Galago Pro for a few weeks the Lenovo started to seem a bit more brick-like.
Around the outside of the Galago Pro, you’ll find the usual array of ports including one USB-C with Thunderbolt, two USB 3.1 ports, and an SD Card Reader. For additional displays, there’s also an HDMI as well as MiniDP/USB-C. System76 even bucks a current trend by including an actual Ethernet port, which also features a little door that holds the cable in place. If you’re a regular user of hotel Wi-Fi, you know how valuable an Ethernet jack can be. A SIM card rounds out the selection.
The keyboard is reminiscent of the Dell XPS 13: black chiclet keys surrounded by a smooth aluminum frame. The travel is OK, on par with the rest of the laptops out there that sport similar keyboards (again like the Macbook Pro). I happen to prefer the spongier, closer-to-clakkity keyboards Lenovo uses, but judging by the market I am not in the majority.
One place the Galago Pro differs significantly from both the XPS 13 and Macbook Pro is the bezel that surrounds the Galago Pro’s screen—it’s big. The display itself is more or less the same, though, as the 13.3-inch screen packs in 3200×1800 pixels. As with the Dell, there are some Linux apps where the HiDPI screen is more of a hindrance than a help (I’m looking at you, GiMP). But color-wise the screen is pleasant and renders true blacks pretty well. It’s also nicely backlit, and it works out of the box in Ubuntu.
The i7 that ships with the Galago Pro is the latest of the Kaby Lake versions, and for that reason I strongly recommend ordering your Galago Pro with Ubuntu 17.04. This spring Linux release features a newer kernel with much better support for Kaby Lake.
Another point that sometimes gets glossed over in reviews is that the Galago Pro is very user serviceable. I couldn’t find any disassembly guides on System76’s website, but a quick YouTube search will get you a couple videos. In practice, it’s pretty simple to lift up the keyboard, detach the cable, unscrew three screws, flip it over, and then unscrew everything from the bottom to access the insides. You can swap out both drives and the RAM if you decide to upgrade down the road.
So far, so good. But it’s worth noting that, despite its unicorn-status, the Galago Pro is not perfect. Sadly, its biggest failing comes in the form of battery life. In normal use—Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on, screen at 80-percent brightness and using Vim for writing, Firefox for browsing the Web, and mpd for music—I only got about 3.5 hours out of the battery. That was tested while using the stock Ubuntu as shipped. When I wiped that, installed Arch Linux, just used Openbox with tint2, and installed TLP, I managed to get an additional hour out if it. That’s still not great, but it is better. Suffice to say, the Galago Pro is not an all-day-without-a-cord laptop. On the plus side, the charger and cord are at least small and light.
Another thing I disliked about the Galago Pro was the trackpad. It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever used (pick any Chromebook to experience the worst trackpad ever), but I was plagued by jittery cursor movements and occasional moments where it would be totally unresponsive. Another downside is that the fan is loud, and it will kick in pretty much any time you spike the CPU to 100 percent.
None of the issues I experienced are what I would call deal breakers, except perhaps the battery. I really wish the battery life was closer to the Dell XPS 13, which consistently lasted seven or eight hours in all my informal tests.