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Sunday, December 11, 2016

System76 Kudu Review

About a week ago, I ordered and received the System76 Kudu laptop. Here is my review after six days of use.

The System76 Kudu, a 17.3 inch laptop

System76 is a relatively young computer brand that differentiates itself by making high-quality laptops installed with Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distro available. Since Apple's underwhelming 2016 MacBook announcements, System76 announced their website crashed due to the surge in traffic and orders. While Linux is still relatively obscure to the consumer public, System76 has taken advantage of the sudden interest from Apple users.

I have never been a MacBook person. I used a MacBook to prototype an iOS app in Objective-C back in 2011. I was not terribly thrilled with the developer tools at the time, so I never felt compelled to switch from my Windows/Linux dual boot setup. I switched to Windows almost exclusively for a time after I bought a Surface Pro 3. While it is a great piece of hardware, Windows 10 was slow and updated at the most inopportune times. There are few things more annoying than getting ready to project my Surface for a business meeting, and I sat there hoping and waiting the update will finish in time. After this happened on a business trip a few weeks ago, I made up my mind to switch back to Linux.

As I became proficient as a developer, I was already gravitating back to Linux on my desktop computer, and became particularly fond of Linux Mint which is based off Ubuntu. From my experience, Linux Mint is snappier, faster, less buggy, and prettier than Ubuntu. I tried to put Linux Mint on my Surface Pro 3, but the UEFI made it an absolute pain to use. Not to mention, the drivers hacked together in the linux-surface package felt fine at first, but broke down and froze my machine over time.

I decided to jump ship on Windows devices and wanted a UEFI/SecureBoot-free laptop. Although not fashionable, I wanted a 17.3" screen because I needed a large amount of screen real estate for the projects I am doing. Although this would make me less mobile, I did not plan on using it on the plane. Initially I looked at Dell Ubuntu machines, but then a colleague from an open-source project suggested I check out System76, and I immediately became drawn to the Kudu.

I use my laptops for work, and primarily do coding, technical writing, and instructional videos for O'Reilly.  Therefore I do not need high-end graphics capability or a 4K display, or else I would have gone with the popular System76 Oryx Pro. But the Kudu seemed to be what I needed. When I bought it, it featured a 6th-gen Intel i7 and a 1080P display. I customized it to have 8GB of RAM and a 256 GB PCIe M.2 SSD. Out the door, I paid around $1150. I'm glad to say it was worth every penny.

The System76 feels solid but sleek for a 17.3" laptop. It does not have a "hollow" cheap feel that many PC laptops have in this category

Installing Linux Mint

I tried to use the stock installation of Ubuntu, but after a few hours I wiped it and installed Linux Mint, which runs phenomenally well on it. What is great about System76 is you can take a vanilla Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and most other Linux distro images and install them with no drama. System76 makes all of their drivers available as a PPA so you can optimize Ubuntu or Linux Mint easily. It is nice to not have to use a proprietary OS with customizations (or even worse a Windows license key). You can nuke and re-install the Linux OS with no hassles at any time. This is a huge feature especially as Microsoft is now locking down Windows devices with UEFI and SecureBoot.

I installed Linux Mint 18 Cinnamon Edition on my Kudu, which I prefer over Ubuntu.

Appearance and Mobility

When I started using the Kudu, the first thing I noticed is it does not have that cheap "hollow" feel that many large-screen work laptops have. It feels fairly solid but is not too heavy at 6.8 lbs. Granted you will not want to walk long distances with it in one arm, but it is fairly mobile for a 17.3 inch laptop. I am able to work with it comfortably on my lap, but it probably would be difficult to use on a plane or other tight areas.

It has a fairly low profile as well. It is not an ultrabook for sure, but when folded closed does not feel like a brick.

The Kudu has a relatively compact profile

The Keyboard and Track Pad

The keyboard and track pad are comfortable and reliable. The keys are backlit and have a slight concave which feels great to type on. The track pad is responsive but not over-sensitive, and it supports gestures nicely. I have used many Windows laptops (including the Surface Pro 4 Touch Keyboard) and none of them approach this level of quality in a track pad. I have not used a MacBook in a while so I cannot compare to its track pad, which I understand is the best in terms of standards.

I have heard some people have issues activating the track pad accidentally while typing. I have not had this issue but System76 provides an easy means to turn the track pad on/off.

Notice the Ubuntu key!

Functionality and Performance

This laptop is fast. Of course I paid an extra $190 or so for the PCIe M.2 SSD, but it was well worth it. Everything from Intellij IDEA to Atom Editor opens almost instantly. When I booted Linux Mint off a USB stick, I recall the OS loaded in a few seconds.

I never was a big fan of Ubuntu after discovering Linux Mint. Although Linux Mint is based off Ubuntu, it does a much better job of "just working" from my experience. It is faster and more intuitive to navigate. The Cinnamon version of Linux Mint feels like a modernized Windows XP with better aesthetics and lean resource usage. I even put my parents' desktop on Linux Mint after Windows crashed, and they have used it daily without complaints.

That being said, you can use the stock Ubuntu installation or put Linux Mint on easily. Both are compatible with the same Debian/Ubuntu-based software which I'll discuss later.

The screen is beautiful and big, with no backlight bleeds or dead pixels. It is easy to multitask and have multiple windows open. Being able to review and edit code with the large workspace is also a plus. One task I especially am happy with is doing Markdown editing for books. Having enough screen real estate to have the editor on the left and the rendering on the right makes a huge difference to productivity. I also had some annoying lag on my Surface Pro 3 working with Atom Editor in Markdown Preview, but it is pretty snappy on the Kudu.

Writing books with Atom Editor on the Kudu's large HD screen is an absolute joy

Overrall, Linux Mint feels like it is made for the System76 Kudu. Everything is snappy, fast, and instantaneous. The Ubuntu key brings up the home menu and everything works optimally out-of-the-box.

The Software

I have been using Ubuntu and Linux Mint off-and-on for about 4 years now. Since Linux Mint is based off Ubuntu (which is based off Debian), you can easily install software built for any of those distros. LibreOffice comes pre-installed for both Ubuntu and Linux Mint, not that it matters since you can download it for free at any time. For a Microsoft Office alternative, LibreOffice works pretty well. I have had many issues moving presentations from Impress to PowerPoint and vice versa. The cross-compatibility is somewhat exaggerated as slide content can be misaligned and scattered. I learned to stick with PowerPoint if I am going to give my presentations to Office users.

Speaking of Microsoft Office, you can run Windows 10 inside VirtualBox for free. VirtualBox is an open-source virtual machine software that allows you to run an operating system inside an operating system. In other words, you can run Windows 10 inside Ubuntu or Linux Mint.

Running Windows 10 inside Linux Mint using VirtualBox

Although Microsoft does not advertise it, Windows 10 is effectively free now and you do not need a license key. This means it costs nothing to set up a Windows 10 virtual machine inside your Ubuntu or Linux Mint installation. I have used VirtualBox for a couple of years and never had any issues with it, other than it uses more battery.

You can also dual-boot or even exclusively use Windows 10 instead of Linux.


The System76 Kudu is probably the most productive laptop I ever had, outperforming my Surface Pro 3 and every other device I have owned. The hardware feels great and runs snappy. The experience of using a System76 has that "premium" quality lacking in most PC's now. If you are interested in graphics-intensive gaming and multimedia applications, you might want to consider getting the System76 Oryx Pro. But for a workhorse laptop, the Kudu is great.

System76 has some great help guides, especially for non-techies coming from Mac OS X or Windows. There is growing support for open-source creative software as well. For developers and power users, it provides a hardware experience that does Linux justice.