Review: System76’s Lemur Pro

If you’re a Linux user on the hunt for a new laptop, there’s quite a bit of preparation and research you must do on top of the regular research buying such an expensive piece of equipment already entails. Reading forum posts from other Linux users with the laptop you’re interested in, hunting for detailed specifications to make sure that specific chip version or that exact piece of exotic hardware is fully supported, checking to see if your favourite distribution has adequate support for it, and so on.

There is, however, another way. While vastly outnumbered, there are laptops sold with Linux preinstalled. Even some of the big manufacturers, such as Dell, sell laptops with Linux preinstalled, but often only on older models that have been out for a while, or while not fully supporting all hardware (the fingerprint reader and infrared camera on my XPS 13 were not supported by Linux, for instance). For the likes of Dell, Linux in the consumer space is an afterthought, a minor diversion, and it shows.

If you want the best possible out-of-the-box Linux experience, you’ll have to go to one of the smaller, more boutique Linux-only OEMs. One of the more prominent Linux OEMs is System76, who have been selling various laptops and desktops with Linux preinstalled for more than decade now. Recently, they launched their new ultraportable, the Lemur Pro, and they kindly loaned one to us for review.

Full disclosure: System76 sent us the laptop as a loan, and it will be returned to them after publication of this review. They did not read this review before publication, and placed zero restrictions on anything I could write about.

Specifications

The Lemur Pro configuration System76 sent to us comes in at $1492, and packs a 4C/8T 10th Gen Intel Core i7-10510U, with frequencies of 1.8 up to 4.9 GHz and 8MB Cache. It came with 16GB of RAM, of which 8 is soldered onto the motherboard, and 8 is seated in the single RAM expansion slot. Storage-wise, it is equipped with a 500GB SSD in one of its two user-accessible M.2 slots – a Samsung 970 Evo Plus.

The 14.1″ display has a resolution of 1920×1080 with a matte finish, with a maximum refresh rate of 60Hz. The display is powered by the integrated GPU, and there’s no option for a discrete GPU. The battery is a 73 Wh unit, and is entirely user-replacable.

Remove a few easily accessible screws, and the bottom cover goes right off – no fragile plastic clips, glue, or other shenanigans.

Bucking a trend in the industry, the Lemur Pro is reasonably equipped when it comes to ports: one USB 3.1 Type-C Gen 2 port, two USB 3.0 Type-A ports, a MicroSD Card Reader, a full-size HDMI port, a barrel connector for the included charger (USB-C charging is also supported), a combined headphone/microphone jack, and the usual Kensington lock. The USB-C port can also be used as a display port with DisplayPort 1.2.

Hardware

The design of the Lemur Pro is unassuming, mostly black, and free of the kind of design frivolities other laptops tend to suffer from. There’s no RGB here, no flames painted on the lid to make it go faster, no screaming logos or gamer accents – just a black laptop with a System76 logo on the lid. That’s it.

My fiancée thinks the logo is a bit too big, but I dig it.

It is incredibly light, weighing a mere 0.99 kg – for comparison, a MacBook Air weighs 1.29 kg, so the Lemur Pro is considerably lighter. This does come at a price, however, and the Lemur Pro just doesn’t feel as strong and sturdy as similar laptops with a bit more heft to it. There’s an amount of flex in the display lid, bottom cover, and keyboard cover that you just won’t see in a MacBook Air or an XPS 13. It’s a trade-off you have to make – if you really value the extreme kind of portability the Lemur Pro provides, it means giving in somewhere else.

I’m disappointed System76 does not provide a high refresh rate display on the Lemur Pro, in the very least as an option. Once you’ve gotten used to 144Hz (or even higher) on your computer displays, using a 60Hz display feels like a major step back. I understand the battery life concerns, but I’m definitely more than willing to give up a little bit of battery life if it meant a buttery-smooth 144Hz UI. Aside from the lack of a high refresh rate option, the display is excellent – it’s bright and the colours look normal, but note that I’m not a colour expert, so I can’t make any claims about colour accuracy. For my general use, however, I didn’t run into any issues.

Speaking of battery life – this is one of the major strong points of the Lemur Pro. System76 advertises a maximum battery life of 14 hours, and while these kind of figures are usually complete nonsense, I think they’re not far off the mark here. Since we do not (yet) have a long history of laptop reviews, we do not have any consistent methodology for measuring battery life, so anything I say here is very subjective and difficult for you as a reader to parse. That being said, with casual use – meaning, browsing, writing, Twitter and e-mailing while watching YouTube videos – I could definitely hit the 10 hour mark at the balanced power setting.

Switching to the power saver setting yielded me even more hours of battery life, but it did cause a notable hit in performance, especially for video. Simple 1080p YouTube video – either played in Firefox or locally – would stutter and lag, but everything else seemed to perform just fine. My guess is that the power saver setting targets the integrated Intel GPU quite aggressively, but honestly, for several hours of additional battery life, I think it’s worth it.

The battery life is especially remarkable since getting proper battery life out of laptops designed for Windows running Linux is often a major hassle, and no matter what you do, Linux battery life on laptops not designed for Linux always lags behind Windows – which makes sense when you think about it. Opting for a Linux-first laptop demonstrates that when hardware, software, and firmware (which we’ll get to in a minute) are designed together, Linux laptops can easily have similar or better battery life than Windows or macOS laptops.

The Lemur Pro has a multitouch trackpad that is entirely unremarkable in its operation. It works fine, but doesn’t come anywhere close to the quality of MacBook trackpads or the trackpad on my XPS 13. It’s not bad – just very average and middle-of-the-road. The trackpad surface has a bit too much resistance for my tastes, and since it has a ‘diving board’ design physically hinged at the top, it gets progressively harder to click the higher your finger goes, and at the top rim it becomes entirely impossible to click at all. I would prefer the type of trackpad that you can click anywhere.

The keyboard is solid, has a good feel, and nice clickiness without being annoyingly loud or overbearing. Due to the mentioned flex in the keyboard cover, keys in the middle of the keyboard do flex downwards a bit for those among you with a more forceful stroke. The only true issue with the keyboard is the placement of the page up and down keys right above the left and right arrow keys, which is something not everyone likes. I’ve gotten used to this layout because my XPS 13 uses it as well, but for the first few weeks, you will definitely hit page up and down instead of the left and right arrows.

I’ve gotten used to this layout on my Dell already, but boy was it annoying for a few weeks.

Two other points about the keyboard: first, there’s no Fn lock. This can be annoying since things like display brightness, volume, and keyboard lighting/brightness are all adjusted using Fn+Fx. Since I – and many others with me – don’t use the actual Fx keys all that often, but do adjust brightness and volume all day long, an Fn lock would be greatly appreciated.

Two, and this is a minor nitpick but one that bothers me nonetheless: the keyboard lighting is not automatic. On my XPS 13, when you move the mouse, click, or strike a key, the keyboard lighting comes on automatically (you can turn this feature off, too), and after a few seconds of inactivity, it gradually turns off, too. This is a great feature if you often use your laptop in dark environments to watch video, like I do. On the Lemur Pro, you constantly have to manually turn the keyboard lighting on and off using the Fn+Fx keys, which is just plain annoying.

There’s a 720p webcam included in the top bezel of the display, and as with all other webcams in laptops, it’s barely passable. It technically gets the job of displaying video done, but for some reason no laptop manufacturer seems even remotely interested in including webcams from later than 2004, so we’re stuck with what we have. If you rely on webcams for your job – as many have discovered this year they might – get an external quality webcam instead. As said, though, this applies to all laptops on the market today.

The included charging brick connects to the laptop using a barrel plug, which is an odd choice for such a modern laptop, especially taking into consideration it also supports charging over USB-C. I’ve had bad experiences with barrel plugs over the years regarding longevity, and since this is an ultraportable in 2020, it should’ve come with a USB-C charger and an additional USB-C/A port instead of the barrel connector.

A minor annoyance with the included charging brick is that the fixed cable with the brick on one end and the barrel connector on the other is incredibly short. It’s only about 67 cm long, meaning you always have to keep the brick on your desk, or when using the laptop on your lap, next to you on the couch. If you’re using the charger at a busy airport or whatever with no room to place the brick on the chair next to you – good luck, you’ll have to stick it between your legs or stuff it between your leg and the person sitting next to you.

In short, get a third-party USB-C charger with a longer cable.

A few notes on performance and thermals

If you’re in the market for an ultraportable machine like the Lemur Pro, you’re not going to use it for gaming or heavy video editing, since that’s simply not what it’s designed for. If you want a gaming laptop or a video editing workstation, you simply won’t be considering a laptop like this – you’ll be looking at laptops with discrete GPUs and processors with more cores.

The truth is that every ultraportable in this segment equipped with the latest Intel or AMD mobile processors will perform great, and the Lemur Pro is no exception. With the 10th Gen Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and the Samsung Evo M.2 SSD, this machine never slows down, and I’m pretty sure the same will apply for the slightly cheaper Core i5 model. You can spec the Lemur Pro up all the way to 40GB of RAM, so even if you have to run a bunch of local virtual machines to test your code, this laptop can serve you.

The Lemur Pro’s thermal solution leaves something to be desired, and I’m not sure if that’s because of software or hardware. It uses a single fan, and I have an issue where while watching video, every minute or so, the fan will spin up, spin for roughly 10 seconds, and then spin down. Now, I really don’t like fan noise and can be quite anal about, but I still feel like during such light use as a bit of browsing or a bit of video watching – nothing crazy, no 4K or anything – the fans should simply never spin up unless something is wrong.

The laptop tends to get relatively hot during such light use, and I feel this might be because the only ventilation openings are inside the hinge – there are no vents on the bottom or sides of the laptop for the fan to draw cold air from. What I think is happening in my case is that the temperature keeps just barely hitting the fan threshold, after which a few seconds of the fan spinning brings it back down just enough – rinse, repeat. This is nothing less sensitive thermal thresholds or a mild undervolt couldn’t solve, but I’m obviously not going to experiment with a laptop that’s only on loan.

That being said, not everyone cares as much about fan noise or temperature as I do, so your mileage may vary. If you mostly use your laptop in noisier settings like coffee shops or busy offices, a fan spinning up for a bit won’t be an issue for you, and the fan isn’t excessively loud either.

Software and firmware

The Lemur Pro comes preinstalled with System76’s own Pop!_OS, which is a fairly standard Ubuntu derivative with some tweaking done to the kernel and power management to make things like the great battery life possible. Since I feel most OSNews readers have their own favourite distributions, and because this is a laptop review, I’m not going to spend too much time on Pop!_OS.

It does seem you can add System76’s own PPA to other Ubuntu-based distributions to gain some of the benefits of System76’s drivers and kernel changes, and of course, you can look at their code and implement it on your own distribution of choice too if you have the skills to do so. You’re not tied to Pop!_OS (or Linux, for that matter) at all, and can run whatever distribution you want.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to find quality, no-nonsense design in laptops like this these days.

What I do want to talk about, however, is the firmware of this machine. Like other System76 machines, the Lemur Pro uses a combination of coreboot and System76’s own firmware tools as a BIOS/UEFI environment, as well as System76’s controller firmware for various other functions, which are all entirely open source and available on Github.

This means that there’s a lot more low-level open source code powering this laptop than most other laptops on the market. If you know how to program controller firmware or how to work with things like coreboot, you can pull the code from Github, make any changes you desire, and flash your own firmware onto the laptop. This isn’t something most average consumers – including myself – have the skills to do, but it does mean that it’s highly unlikely there’s anything nefarious hiding in the BIOS or firmware. Add to that the fact that all System76 laptops ship with Intel’s Management Engine disabled, and the Lemur Pro gives you lot more privacy and hacking options than most other laptops on the market.

There are also benefits for average users, however. For instance, thanks to the relatively lightweight nature of the System76’s BIOS replacement, this machine boots incredibly fast. Furthermore, the controller firmware, which controls things like battery management, thermals, the fan, special functions keys, and a host of other functions, plays a big role in achieving the excellent battery life figures this laptop achieves.

Still, there’s clearly a major missed opportunity here, something that might even be in the pipeline for all I know. Since System76 is using its own controller firmware for thermals, the battery, and fan control, the next step would be to integrate control over these into Pop!_OS itself, with an easy-to-use graphical interface to control fan speeds, thermal thresholds, power savings, processor frequencies, and so on. This is a major weak point in Linux compared to Windows, and System76 has a prime opportunity here to further set their computers apart from the rest.

In fact, with fine-grained control over the fans and thermal thresholds, I could probably pinpoint and smooth out my fan issue within a few minutes, setting up fan curves and thresholds specifically tailored for my use case – something I do manually in the BIOS of my two Linux desktops (but sadly not in Linux itself).

As a whole though, it’s an almost surreal experience to see such integration on the open source front. Not only was it an interesting experience to unbox a brand new laptop and have it boot straight to Linux, realising so many usually proprietary bits were open source just felt right. This kind of integration and low-level firmware stuff isn’t exactly sexy, and I find it commendable that System76 is investing in it. I hope they – and us, as users – will reap more benefits in the future.

All-rounder

After a few weeks of using the Lemur Pro, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really fail at anything, and has a few standout features – most notably the excellent battery life and the open source firmware. If you’re a Linux user looking for a powerful, understated ultraportable with amazing battery life, I honestly don’t know where you can do better than the Lemur Pro.

The situation changes a bit if you’re currently a Windows or macOS user and are looking for a new laptop. While the Lemur Pro is still a great laptop and you’ll enjoy using it, it can’t quite measure up to the best the Windows and macOS platforms have to offer in a few key areas. The trackpad is good, but not great – there’s better ones on similarly priced Dells or Macs. The display is good, but there’s no high refresh rate or 1440p/4K option as Windows PCs offer. The build quality is good, but it’s definitely not on the same level as an XPS or MacBook.

It basically is a good all-rounder for non-Linux users, but an unequalled option for Linux users.

That being said, if you had told me even just 5 or 10 years ago that we’d get a Linux-only laptop that was this good out of the box right now, I would not have believed you. There’s room for improvement, but there’s no denying this is simply a really solid offering.

17 Comments

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