Review: System76’s Bonobo WS

Earlier this year, we reviewed System76’s Lemur Pro, a laptop designed for portability and long battery life. This time around, we’re going entirely the opposite direction with the System76 Bonobo WS – a mobile workstation that looks like a laptop (if you squint), but packs some of the fastest desktop-grade hardware available on the market.

Specifications

System76 sent us the latest version of the Bonobo WS, with some truly bonkers specifications for what is, technically, a laptop (sort of), at a total price of $4315.22. This mobile workstation comes with an Intel Core i9-10900K, which has 10 cores and 20 threads and runs at 5.3 Ghz – and this is not a constrained mobile chip, but the full desktop processor. It’s paired with an 8GB RTX 2080 Super graphics card – which, again, is the desktop part, not the mobile version. It has 32 GB of RAM configured in dual-channel at 3200 Mhz.

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.

To top it off, I configured it with a 250 GB NVMe drive for the operating system, and an additional 1 TB NVME drive for storage and other stuff. Both of these drives have a theoretical sequential read and write speeds of 3500 MB/s and 2300 MB/s respectively.

The Bonobo WS comes with a 17.3″ display, and I opted for the 1080p 144Hz version, since the 4K option was not yet available at the time of setting up the review unit. The 4K option, which I would normally recommend on a display of this size, might not make a lot of sense here since most people interested in a niche mobile workstation like this will most likely be using external displays anyway, making the splurge for the 4K option a bit moot, especially since it’s a mere 60 Hz panel.

There’s a few other specifications we need to mention – specifically the weight and battery life of a massive computer like this one. The base weight is roughly 3.8 kg, and its dimensions are 43.43 × 399.03 × 319.02 mm (height × width × depth). While this machine can technically be classified as a laptop, the mobile workstation moniker is a far more apt description. This is not a machine for carrying from classroom to classroom – this is a machine that most users will use in just two, possible three places, and don’t move very often.

Another reason for that is battery life. A machine with this much power requires a lot of juice, and the 97 Wh battery isn’t going to give you a lot of unplugged time to work. You’ll spend all of your time plugged into not one, but two power sockets, as this machine requires two huge power bricks. It even comes with an adorable rubber thing that ties the two power bricks together in a way that maintains some space between them for cooling and safety purposes. So not only do you have to lug around the massive machine itself, but also the two giant power bricks.

As this is a mobile workstation, the ports situation is excellent. It has a USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (ugh)/Thunderbolt 3 port (type C), 3 USB 3.2 Gen 2 (type A) ports, and a MicroSD card slot. For your external display needs, we’ve got a full-size HDMI port, 2 mini DisplayPorts (1.4) and a DisplayPort (1.4) over USB type C. Furthermore, there’s an Ethernet port, the usual audio jacks (microphone and headphones, and one also has an optical connection), and the obligatory Kensington lock. Of course, there’s wireless networking support through an Intel dual-band WiFi 6 chip, as well as Bluetooth support.

Hardware

The hardware of this machine is entirely dictated by its internals, since cramming this much desktop power in a computer that weighs less than 4 kg doesn’t leave you with much room to mess around. The entire design is dictated by the required cooling, and there are vents all over the place. This is not a pretty or attractive machine – but it doesn’t need to be. People who need this much mobile power to lug around don’t care about what it looks like, how thin it is, or how aluminium the aluminium is – they need this power to be properly cooled, and if that means more thickness or more vents, then please don’t skimp.

If you care about form over function – which is an entirely legitimate criterion, by the way, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise – there are other devices to choose from.

While the laptop does have some RGB flourishes here and there, they’re not overly present or distracting, and the ability to switch between several colours for the keyboard lighting is very nice to have, since I find the generic white light most laptops use to not always be ideal. You can cycle through the various lighting options with a key combination.

The keyboard has a little bit more key travel than I’m used to from most laptops, probably owed to its chunky size leaving more room for the keys to travel. The keys have a bit of wobble, but not enough to cause me to miss keystrokes. I am not a fan of the font used on the keyboard, but that’s a mere matter of taste.

The trackpad is decent, feels fine enough, and works great with Linux (obviously). In what I first thought was a blast from the past, the laptop has physical buttons for right and left click underneath the trackpad. However, after a little bit of use, I realised just how nice it was to have actual, physical buttons, and not a diving board or – god forbid – a trackpad that only supports tapping. Of course, it’s not nearly as good as Apple’s force touch trackpad that simulates an eerily realistic click wherever you press, but it does the job just fine.

That being said, though, much like with the display, I doubt many people who need a machine like this will really care. They’ll most likely not only have an external monitor – or two, or three – but also an external keyboard and mouse, to use the laptop docked pretty much all the time.

That’s not to say the display is bad – quite the opposite. If you are okay with a 1080p resolution on a 17.3″ monitor – which many people are – you’ll get a bright and pleasant display, and the 144 Hz refresh rate with G-SYNC is what every laptop of around €1000 and up should offer (at the very least). I do notice some light bleed at the edges when the device boots up (so when the display is entirely dark), but during general use I didn’t notice it at all.

On top of all this, the Bonobo WS is expandable. You have access to four RAM slots for a maximum total of 128 GB of RAM, and four M.2 slots of size 2280 each for a maximum of… A lot of storage. You can also replace the battery, the wireless/Bluetooth card, and, of course, the CMOS battery. And yes, even the processor and GPU can be replaced.

The processor uses an LGA 1200 socket, which is the latest Intel socket, so if you buy a machine with a lower-spec processor, there’s room for an upgrade later. The GPU uses the MXM III slot, which is quite a bit more exotic, and probably less likely to be upgradeable in the future. Still, if, for some reason, your GPU fails outside of warranty, there’s at least the possibility of finding an MXM III replacement, either new or used.

Overall, the Bonobo WS is exactly what you’d expect from a mobile workstation with desktop parts: it’s heavy, barely portable, not the prettiest to look at, but none of that really matters if you need a machine like this – because you’re getting the performance and upgradeability you need.

Performance

Before we get into some harder data, I want to begin with some generic remarks on performance and related matters. It will not surprise you that a machine with a 10 core, 20 thread processor and RTX 2080 Super performs like an absolute monster. A machine like this doesn’t ever slow down, stutter or lag. Whatever game, application, or task you throw at it is pretty much going to work out.

I’ve been hooked on Crusader Kings 3 ever since it came out, which is a 4X strategy game that doesn’t tax a GPU much, but does ask a lot from the processor, especially during large-scale wars or when zoomed out to show the entire map. On my own main gaming PC – with a 7700K and a GTX 1070, running the game at 1440p/144Hz – the game lags and stutters when it has to calculate a lot of AI movements and decisions, but on the Bonobo WS running at at either 1080p/144Hz (internal display) or 4K/60Hz (on an external display), the game never lags or stutters.

As for real benchmarks, I used the Phoronix Test Suite to run three test suites – Timed File Compression, Timed Code Compilation, and the Unigene Test Suite. Individual benchmarks within these suites are run three times each to come to an average score. Since you can easily upload Phoronix Test Suite results to OpenBenchmarking.org, you can actually open up the detailed results of these runs – compression, compilation, and Unigene – and perform the exact same benchmarks on your own machine to contrast and compare.

I’m not going to bore you with detailed descriptions and treatises of every single result – especially since you can run them yourself, too – but I do want to highlight a few red threads and patterns that run through these results when compared to other hardware.

When it comes to benchmarks focusing on the performance of the processor – the compression test in particular – a clear pattern emerges: obviously the 10900K performs extremely well, usually in the top of processors tested with the Phoronix Test Suite. However, when you dig a little bit deeper, you’ll see that in every one of the tests, it lags a little behind test results for other 10900K processors, presumably the desktop variant.

Moving on to the code compilation tests, we see the exact same pattern emerge. For instance, compiling the Linux kernel took the Bonobo WS 81 seconds, whereas the average for the 10900K is 63 seconds. Or look at the time it takes to compile FFmpeg – 57 seconds on the Bonobo WS, but the average for the 10900K is 45 seconds. This patterns repeats.

This implies that despite the Bonobo WS coming with a desktop part, it is still mildly thermally constrained. On top of that, this being the Linux and open source world, there can be vast differences between the software setups of machines with a 10900K, such as CPU governors, and tons of other possible optimisations, distribution differences, and so on. I could most likely squeeze better processor performance out of this machine by manually optimising my software environment, but I specifically decided to stick to the stock settings provided by System76, since that makes the most sense for a review.

The graphics performance is a different story, however – there’s no negative deviation from the mean here. The RTX 2080 Super inside the Bonobo WS performs exactly within line of the different RTX 2080 Super models from the various OEMs. This seems to indicate that at least as far the graphics card goes, you’re not giving up any performance compared to the same card in a desktop. Of course, you do most likely give up overclocking headroom, but if that’s your concern, you’re not going to look at a mobile workstation anyway.

Overall, though, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that performance on this machine is outstanding. The cooling system’s fans do, of course, ramp up when using all that power, but that’s the price to pay for relatively portable power. The fans were never so loud as to be excessive considering the hardware, but for longer stretches of gaming or performance-heavy work, I do suggest some decent speakers or headphones to drown out the noise. Again, fan noise is just a part of the trade-off with machines like this.

Software and firmware

All the same benefits of the firmware on the Lemur Pro apply to the Bonobo WS as well; it runs the same combination of coreboot and System76’s own firmware tools as its BIOS/UEFI environment, as well as System76’s controller firmware for various other functions. This code is all entirely open source and available on Github, so you can make your own modifications if you so desire.

This is a rarity among laptops and computers in general, and a major selling points for System76’s machines. Even if you’re not interested in hacking or do not have the skills to hack this code, the mere idea that someone else might come up with improved firmware, or the fact you’re supporting one of the few open source Linux PC vendors has value. It’s not like there’s a lot of choice out there in this regard.

As with the Lemur Pro, I don’t want to spend too much time on System76’s Pop!_OS, since most of us here have our own favourite distributions. That being said, Pop!_OS follows Ubuntu’s update schedule very closely, and System76 has added a number of useful features, like firmware upgrades from within the Gnome settings application, advanced window tiling functionality, and improved support for NVIDIA graphics cards (such as switching between the integrated Intel GPU and the dedicated NVIDIA GPU).

Monstrous

Everything about this mobile workstation – the size, the thickness, the vents, the fans, the processor, the GPU, the two massive power bricks – is simply monstrous. It’s rare that I get to use hardware like this, and that alone made this whole process a lot of fun.

The Bonobo WS is a niche product, and even here on OSNews there are probably very few people who truly need a machine like this. That being said, I think its performance and upgradeability warrant its high price tag, since you’ll be able to enjoy top-notch performance for years to come, and even if it does start to lag behind in the future, upgrades are plenty and easy to perform, especially compared to many other modern fancy laptops.

If you have to perform a lot of processor and GPU intensive workloads, sometimes work at the office, sometimes at home, and perhaps sometimes on-site, the Bonobo WS will be an excellent work tool for years and years to come.

14 Comments

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