Thoughts on My New Thelio by System76

I lived in Japan from 2005 to 2007. Going in, I had read that international rates for telephone calls to the United States from Japan were obscene, and so I'd gotten myself set up with an account on a then-brand new service called Skype. That worked like a charm, and I got to keep in contact with college friends and family on regular basis for reasonable rates.

At least until the Dell laptop I had brought with me became unstable. Halfway through my trip, my installation of Windows had degraded to the point of near-unusability. I had grown accustomed to running a Windows re-installation when this happened, but I discovered the installation CD didn't contain the installation software itself, it merely prompted the computer to boot up the computer's install partition, a process which wasn't working do the aforementioned near-unusability. I called Dell, and they wanted three full months to ship the computer back to the States, fix it, and ship it back (not to mention a ton of money, too). I didn't want to be out of contact with home for that long, so that clearly wasn't an option.

A friend in Japan encouraged me to see if Skype would run on Linux, and indeed it did (this was well before Microsoft bought them). But, Linux? I imagined myself without a graphical environment, running everything from command line, and nothing ever working right. The same friend continued nudging me toward Ubuntu, and as my Windows installation continued to degrade, Linux grew more and more appealing.

Eventually, I decided to take the plunge. I partitioned the hard drive and installed Ubuntu 6.06 Dapper Drake. Surprisingly, most of what I was used to on Windows just worked. I had a graphical desktop environment. I could browse the internet with Firefox. And, most importantly, I had Skype back. Eventually, I would jettison Windows entirely and run only Ubuntu on that machine.

In graduate school, I became even more passionate about my home computing environments running Linux. When I moved to Seattle for work in 2010, though, I decided to move my home computing environment to Mac OS X, primarily because I wanted to mirror the work setup at my new job. It was the right call at the time. I learned a ton in my off-hours, but the needs that generated that change are long gone.

I've had my eye on System76 for a while. I first discovered them in graduate school when I was looking for manufacturers who would build systems designed to run Linux. I was happy to discover that, in addition to hardware, they've now got their own Ubuntu-based operating system, too, Pop!_OS. Linux desktop environments now rival Mac OS X for features and performance, and Windows isn't even close. I have multi-monitor support out of the box, and it runs like a dream. As I mentioned in a previous post, all applications I need either run natively on Linux (such as every major web browser, Steam, Atom, and Visual Studio Code) or there is a Linux-native alternative that meets my needs (such as GIMP, Inkscape, and Scribus).

The Thelio itself is elegant and has been built to the specifications I selected. The customer service representatives at System76 responded quickly to my questions during the shipping process, and everything shipped on time. The laptop portion of my order was actually early.

The only element about the experience that did not quite work out of the box the way that I expected was workspace switching. On a dual-monitor setup, only the primary monitor switches workspaces, while the second monitor remains static. This can be corrected with a free GUI plugin, which is easily installed from the linked page. This is an extremely minor issue, though I would recommend System76 include this or something like it by default.

I should also mention that the Thelio's fan is definitely louder than my Mac's. However, this is a much beefier machine, and, to be honest, I don't really notice it, especially when I've got music on, or if I'm just concentrating on something.

In a previous post, I expressed my surprise to discover that over half of my Steam library runs natively on Linux. Since then, I have made a further discovery. Steam will allow me to run any Windows-only game in Proton, which is a Steam-maintained Windows emulator based off of Wine. That means I can finally return to an old favorite, Skyrim, which I was forced to give up when I made the tough call to wipe out the Windows partition of my iMac in 2012.

Now, emulation isn't perfect, and it should raise eyebrows for anyone technically savvy, as it degrades performance. In games, performance is critical. But, I can happily report that in eighteen hours of Skyrim, I have experienced:

  • a perceived near-60 fps framerate throughout
  • occasional mouse stuttering in UI systems after extended play, corrected with a restart
  • occasional voice audio stuttering (perhaps one occurrence every two or three hours)
  • a total of two hard locks (the game completely froze), which forced me to restart the application

Everything else just worked. I had to make one system modification to get to this state, though. More on that in tomorrow's post. And as for my other favorites such as Cities XL, Civilization 6, and Stellaris, those run natively. And boy did I have fun cranking them up to maximum graphical settings, which you definitely can't do on a Mac. Civilization: Beyond Earth looks particular visually impressive at max settings.

Thank you, System76! I'm looking forward to many productive years with my Thelio.

Categories: Technology

Tags: Linux Pop!_OS System76 Ubuntu Games Skyrim