System76 Lemur Pro review

Can a laptop built for Linux users be a good alternative to Chromebooks?

Last February I had the chance to tour a seemingly random and outwardly non-descript warehouse in Denver Colorado. In this giant concrete building lives a company called System76. In the US, it is the only corporation that I know of dedicated to creating PCs specifically to run Linux.

System76 offers a great combination of hardware and software optimized for its machines and was nice enough to allow me three weeks with one of its latest laptops, the Lemur Pro.

So, why are we reviewing a Linux laptop? I think there’s a real subset of Android users that will find it compelling, as either a premium Chromebook competitor or even an alternative to the big boys of Microsoft and Apple. As we move forward with this review, I’d like you to keep an open mind to how far the once scary world of Linux devices has come over the last decade.

Design

I was taken back on how well built and light this laptop was upon picking it up. The magnesium body has a nice feel and seems sturdy enough to take daily use. It also leads to the low weight which makes it a joy tote around — versus my tank of a Dell Latitude.

There’s a large silver System76 logo on the top of the lid, but you’ll find no other branding other than an HDMI sticker on the bottom. No Intel logos even though it’s providing the horsepower. Just a monolithic black slab of a laptop.

The best missing logo… the Windows key! I know this doesn’t mean much to others, but not having a Windows key on a Linux machine is a unicorn. Even those offered with Linux installed by Dell and Lenovo still just use the exact same keyboard layout and logos as the Windows machines.

The port selection of the Lemur Pro is also really good. On the left, you have a 65W power port, HDMI, USB A 3.1, and a USB-C 3.1 capable of 65W power and DisplayPort 1.2 out. The USB-C is not Thunderbolt 3, but I’ve had no issues using it with my Dell D6000 dock for all my tasks.

The right side houses the Kensington lock, another USB A 3.1, 3.5mm audio/mic combo, microSD slot, and a flush power button. The power button is in an unorthodox place, but I kind of liked not having it hidden among the keyboard keys.

I would have traded it for another USB-C on this side though. It’s a nice touch to have dual USB-C with power on each side of the laptop. This makes conference room power supplies and the dongle life much easier than having to fight for position on a single side.

Keyboard and Trackpad

The keyboard is a chiclet-style layout with good travel and return. They don’t take as much force as a Dell or Lenovo. It reminds me a bit of the Pixelbook but the overall feel isn’t quite as nice. That’s not a bad thing because the Pixelbook has one of the best keyboards available in my eyes.

A similar comparison can be made for the trackpad. I believe it’s a Precision glass trackpad with better than average performance. I had no issues while using it but it’s not in the realm of a Macbook or Pixelbook smoothness. However, I’d pit it against any decent Windows laptop.

One complaint would be no multimedia keys. Even under the Function options, there’s no way to play or pause media from the keyboard without custom keybindings being set up. It’s not a deal-breaker but is something that most mainstream laptops have available.

Internal Hardware

The engines inside the System76 Lemur Pro can be configured to multiple variations. Thankfully our loaner was almost to the max. Our unit has a massive 40GB of RAM (8GB onboard and 32GB in an expansion slot), 500GB of SSD storage, and a 10th generation Intel core i7.

And somehow you can get up to 4TB of storage with the two M.2 SSD slots. The company has also included BIOS firmware called Coreboot. In true Linux fashion, the boot system is open source and available for audit or download on Coreboot’s servers.

I’ve had zero issues with the Lemur Pro with performance with the exception of the fan can be slightly aggressive in quieter rooms and the bottom gets a little on the warm side. Neither are alarming levels, but it’s worth a mention.

Display

The display will be a decisive feature on the Lemur Pro. Personally, I don’t need or want a super-high-resolution 4K screen on my portable machine. I’d much rather have a really good 1080p that’s not destroying my battery.

If you agree with that last statement, then you will be perfectly fine with the matte 14″ FHD screen on the Lemur Pro. It has good colors and brightness with smallish bezels.

The one exception of the bezels is at the top where there’s a “camera hump” that doubles as a lip to open the laptop when closed. It’s an interesting design choice but I found it added personality you don’t see in many laptop lids.

Pop_OS!

The operating system has a crazy name, but this is where System76 starts to shine. In my mind, the company wants to be the Apple of the Linux world. This means producing both hardware and the paired software under the same roof.

Onboarding was simple enough on the first boot. You are presented with a very well designed wizard that walks you through setting up users, time zones, privacy settings and even adding online accounts for contacts, etc.

Pop_OS! is based on the same code as Ubuntu, but after that, it’s very much a System76 product. The team has custom-built firmware, an app store, and UI elements that are all it’s own. The result is a stunning desktop environment that screams on this hardware.

For those not familiar, the environment is called GNOME shell and has elements of Mac, but was heavily influenced by webOS. You have a dock on the left side and a toolbar at the top. That’s it. The rest of the default layout is very minimal.

You can’t clutter it with desktop icons and fancy widgets. The system is designed to stay out of your way. Clicking the previously mentioned key where the Windows logo would be presents you with an overlay of all the open apps. It also allows you to quickly search apps, local files, and even your Firefox bookmarks.

It also supports an interesting window tiling feature. Once turned on inside the persistent icon in the top right of the toolbar, you have an automated UI element that will try to fill the screen while still showing every running app on the screen.

It’s not for everyone, including me, but it’s a nice feature to have. The option seems popular among many developers and designers. System76 claims it was one of the most requested additions from previous generations of Pop_OS!. I’ve included a clip below for those that want a better example than I can type out.

Any Google hooks? Yes, your Google accounts can be set up during the onboarding wizard or later to have access to Drive, Cloud Printers, Docs, and Photos. These all streamline pretty well into their respective apps.

The Drive access is not dissimilar to that on Chrome OS. You have a dedicated network drive shortcut that gives you remote access to your cloud files and folders. I will say it’s not as quick as it’s using open-source 3rd party tie-ins secure the connection.

And if you’re a fan of having the option for a dark-themed system, Pop has you covered. You can easily swap between light and dark apps in the Settings menu under Appearance. I don’t use it a lot but it’s a super popular feature System76 offers by default for users.

Learning Curve

There is, without a doubt, a learning curve for users coming from another OS to Pop. However, you could argue that’s true for picking up your first Chromebook too. Despite this, Linux with Pop_OS! is a mature robust operating system with a few caveats.

You need to learn how to track down apps. System76 has made the first toe-tip into this much easier. The Pop_OS! Shop has tons of apps via a universal Linux app platform, Flatpak, readily available for install. This includes many top-tier apps like Telegram, Spotify, Discord, Steam, and Slack.

If you can’t find them there, then you should use the safety net that anything installable on Ubuntu Linux can be installed on Pop as well. This usually means a .deb file, which for lack of better description, is the equivalent of a .dmg on Mac or .exe on Windows.

Take Google Chrome for instance. It’s not available in the Google ready form by default in the Pop Shop due to its proprietary software and Google hasn’t approved it to be redistributed. They do however recognize that Pop_OS! is Ubuntu-based and will give you the .deb file to download on the website.

Once you’ve downloaded a .deb, System76 has included an installation app called Eddy that will install that file in no time. You’ll also be presented with the first Linux only option of having to enter a password every time you install an app.

Who is it For?

This is the glaring question for System76 and prospective users. I think it’s users like me and probably developers, but this machine could be for anyone. I’ve never been a big fan of Windows and even begrudgingly use it at work.

I’ve also anchored myself to not spend the premium to live in Apple’s walled garden. That’s always lured me to the world of Linux. I was thrilled to see Google leverage it in both Android and Chrome OS, but I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Chromebooks.

Yes, Chrome devices are great for general tasks and web browsing. Yes, Android apps have made them a little bit better, but I’ve always found Chrome OS lacking. It’s also a little more locked down than even a Windows machine on how and what you can install.

I think that leaves a rather large subset of users who might find a machine built to run the traditional Linux desktop environment appealing. System76 has done an amazing job to build a machine and operating system that can allow developers to build Android apps in a native Linux environment. The same is true for server admins and web developers.

Dev environments for Android Studio, Postman, and VS code are all readily available. You can also accomplish amazing media production with apps like Inkscape for icons, Lightworks for video, and Blender for professional 3D rendering.

The evolution of Electron, Progressive web apps, and more universal installation platforms have made Pop_OS! a very appealing alternative. While some of those things are true on Chromebooks, I think Linux could offer users a more open and variety of environments with tools to work with outside of the Windows and Apple market.

It also offers you a community and freedom. With an open code base, you can tinker, patch, and learn as much as you want. Linux is the largest community-driven software project on the planet being built by amazing people waiting to walk you through it.

Final Thoughts

I loved my time with System76’s Lemur Pro. This is an amazing Linux workhorse built by Linux people for Linux people. I know it’s not for everyone, but I hope I was able to raise some awareness to some of our Android and Chromebooks fans that may have never considered Linux as a viable option.

With that said, it’s also not for everyone’s wallet. The Lemur Pro starts at $1099 and can be configured all the way to over $3000. That will run many off but is in the same starting price of Galaxy Chromebook, Pixelbooks, Macbooks, and many high-end Windows machines. The Lemur Pro is also similarly priced to it’s main US competitor, the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition.

Despite these hurdles, System76 has built an incredible marriage of software and hardware with the Lemur Pro. If you want a full development rig or a completely open-sourced premium laptop, this device should be on your shortlist. You can find more information and configure your own at System76’s website.

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