How do you write a review of a laptop when you’re struggling to find truly negative things to say? This is rarely an issue – every laptop is a compromise – but with the KDE Slimbook, I feel like I’ve hit this particular problem for the first time. A luxury, for sure, but it makes writing this review a lot harder than it’s supposed to be.
First, let’s talk about Slimbook itself. Slimbook is a Linux OEM from Spain, founded in 2015, which sells various laptops and desktops with a variety of preinstalled Linux distributions to choose from (including options for no operating system, or Windows). A few years ago, Slimbook partnered with KDE to sell the KDE Slimbook – a Slimbook laptop with KDE Neon preinstalled, and the KDE logo engraved on the laptop’s lid. The current KDE Slimbook is – I think – the third generation, and the first to make the switch from Intel to AMD.
With the help of the KDE organisation, Slimbook sent over a KDE Slimbook for me to review, and here’s my impressions.
Power and quality
The KDE Slimbook is the first modern AMD laptop I’ve tested and used, and it feels great to see AMD at the top again when it comes to laptops. The laptop Slimbook sent me comes in at € 1149, and packs the AMD Ryzen 7 4800H, which has 8 cores and 16 threads, running at a base clock of 2.9Ghz and a boost clock of 4.2Ghz. That’s more cores and threads than in any of my desktop PCs (save for the dual-processor POWER9 workstation I’m currently reviewing as well), which I still find kind of bonkers.
Integrated onto the processor die is the Radeon RX Vega 7 GPU, with 7 compute units running at 1600Mhz. This obviously isn’t a gaming-oriented GPU, but it can run less intensive games in a pinch, and since it’s AMD, it works perfectly fine with Wayland, too.
My unit was configured with a total of 16GB of RAM, in dual-channel mode (as it should be), running at 3200 MT/s. The motherboard has two RAM slots, both accessible, and can be configured with a maximum of 64GB of RAM – making this a rather future-proof laptop when it comes to memory.
It won’t surprise you in 2021 that my review unit came with an NVMe SSD – a 256GB, PCIe 3.0 model from Gigabyte, good for a maximum sequential read speed of 1700 GB/s and a maximum sequential write speed of 1100 GB/s. This isn’t exactly the fastest SSD on the market, but Slimbook offers the option for faster – and more expensive – Samsung EVO SSDs as well. On top of that, the M.2 2280 slot is user-accessible, so you can always upgrade later.
Slimbook sent me the 15.6″ model, which comes with a 15.6″ 1920×1080 60Hz panel. There is also a 14″ model with the same resolution and refresh rate. The panel is 100% sGRB, and is plenty bright and pleasant to look at. Sadly, Slimbook does not offer 1440p, 4K, or high-refresh rate options, which is a big downside in 2021. If it were up to me, I’d love to see at least a 1440p/144Hz option on both the 14″ and 15.6″, and I hope the next generation of the KDE Slimbook will offer this as an option.
Battery life has been outstanding. The device loses little charge when sleeping, and I easily get 7-8 hours of regular use out of the battery.
The keyboard deviates from the norm a little bit, in that it’s not the usual island chicklet type keyboard where the keys are surrounded by metal. Instead, the keys float in the keyboard deck, which instantly brought back memories of Apple’s aluminium PowerBook line. I prefer this type of keyboard design over the chicklet island design, and typing is a delight on the KDE Slimbook – the keys are stable, clicky, and requiring just the right amount of force. I also happen to think it looks really, really nice, and it has full-height inverted T arrow keys. Nice.
The keyboard does have two minor niggles, though, and they both relate to the backlight. First, it takes 1-2 seconds for the keyboard backlight to come back on after it has faded off, and that’s a lot more annoying than you would think. The second issue has to do with the lettering on the keyboard. The backlight shines through the lettering on the keyboard, but in some places, it just does not shine through at all. I’m not sure what the underlying issue is – the placement of the individual LEDs or the lettering etching process – but it makes some keys hard to read when the backlight is on.
The trackpad is excellent, feels smooth, pleasant, and responsive, and I haven’t experienced any issues. It’s of the diving board design, and I think it’s glass, but I’m not entirely sure. Even if it’s plastic – if it feels and works well, that’s not an issue to me. I am, however, deeply intrigued by that little LED in the top-left corner. I have no idea what it’s for, and I am fairly sure I’ve seen it come on at least a few times. I made it a point not to look it up to see if I could figure it out, but here we are, and I still have no clue.
The KDE Slimbook comes packed with ports, which is a godsend in the modern world. On the left side, there’s a microSD slot, a headphone/microphone jack, a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, an Ethernet jack, and a Kensington lock. On the right side, there’s a USB-C port (no Thunderbolt, since this is an AMD machine), a USB 3.0 port, a full-size HDMI port, and the barrel plug power connector.
That’s a solid set of ports, and I have no complaints about the selection. The one big miss here is that the machine does not support charging over USB-C, tying you to the bundled charger with its barrel plug. I’ve mentioned it before, but I don’t like barrel plugs – the sockets tend to be more fragile than they need to be, and it makes finding replacement chargers harder than it needs to be. In 2021, I expect laptops of this calibre and price to charge over USB-C. The USB-C port also doesn’t function as a video output, but the full-size HDMI port makes that not much of an issue.
Build quality is where the Slimbook really shines. It’s made of magnesium, a material that always feels nice to the touch and gives it more than enough rigidity in both the lid as well as the deck. Neither flex in any meaningful way, and thanks to the magnesium, it’s quite light too, at a mere 1.55 kg. The unit just feels nice, premium, and solid, and I like that.
As far as grab bag features – there’s a webcam, and it works. As usual with laptop webcams, it’s the bare minimum, but fine enough for the video conferencing a lot of people need to do these days. There’s also an IR camera for Windows Hello-style facial recognition, and Slimbook provides a Linux application in its repositories to set it up that makes use of Howdy. Sadly, this application does not work with KDE – while you can scan your face and save it, trying to set up the log-in-with-your-face feature will throw up an error message about KDE not being compatible yet. I’m assuming I could get it to work with manual finagling, but the point of buying a ready-made Linux laptop is that I shouldn’t have to.
The speakers are downfiring, and sound perfectly fine to me. Many laptops this thin sound very tinny, bordering on the unpleasant, but the Slimbook manages to avoid that and sound a bit more well-rounded and full. Of course, it’s never going to be room-filling, but you can’t beat physics.
Moving on to what I find one of the most important aspects of a laptop like this – the fans and cooling system – I was very pleasantly surprised. Coming from a long string of Intel laptops, I’m used to lots of hotspots on laptops and whiny, high-pitched fans that drive me nuts. I pretty much do whatever it takes to shut those fans down, including downclocking and similar measures. I take this matter very seriously, and as my fiancée can attest to – my hatred for fan noise runs deep.
The Slimbook is the first Linux laptop where I haven’t had to do any manual tuning. The fans rarely come on during regular, day-to-day use, including when playing video, a common issue on Linux laptops. Even when the fans do come on, their sound isn’t whiny and high-pitched, but more a soft whooshing sound that doesn’t bother me at all. As you can clearly tell, I am terrible at describing sounds and noise, so I hope this makes sense. The end result is that I don’t even feel the need to mess around with power profiles and fan settings, since the defaults work just fine for me.
The Slimbook comes with a fairly standard BIOS, but it does have one interesting feature: it gives you the option to disable things like the camera and microphone at a firmware level. Sadly, the BIOS is not open source, and the laptop does not seem to use software like Coreboot like some other Linux laptops do, such as those from System76.
I make a point of not turning Linux laptop reviews into distribution reviews, but with this being the KDE Slimbook, I do have to say a few things about how the operating system is set up. It comes preloaded with KDE Neon, which is, for all intents and purposes, the official KDE Linux distribution, based on Ubuntu. You get all the latest KDE software, and new KDE releases become available as updates much quicker than in many other distributions.
There are a few niggles about KDE on the KDE Slimbook, though. First and foremost, KDE Neon uses something called offline updates, which I find an anti-feature instead of a feature. Offline updates make it so that once updates become available, they are downloaded to disk, and then installed upon the next reboot. This theoretically limits possible cases of update problems, but ti also makes the updating process a lot more cumbersome than what I’m used to. Why do I need to reboot my computer for a new version of Firefox and some other non-essential updates?
By all means, mark certain updates as offline updates – new kernels, X or wayland updates, in-use libraries, whatever – but making you reboot for every single update is not a pleasant user experience, and brings back terrible memories of the awful macOS and Windows update experiences.
Speaking of Wayland – since this is an all-AMD machine with AMD graphics, Wayland is fully supported and works great. You can use plain old X.org, too, of course, but it’s good to know this machine is entirely ready for the switch to Wayland. KDE itself has made immense progress on this front, too, and I haven’t run into any issues whatsoever (I ran Wayland exclusively on the KDE Slimbook).
This is an excellent laptop. I have so few complaints, and the ones I do have are so minimal, I have no qualms about recommending the KDE Slimbook as an outstanding choice for both existing and new Linux users. The hardware is solid, fast, and attractive, the keyboard is great to type on, the touchpad is smooth and pleasant, and KDE Neon is an excellent Linux distribution for Linux users of all experience levels.
If you are a KDE user looking for a new laptop, the KDE Slimbook is a massive no-brainer: it should be the yardstick all other laptops you might be considering should be measured against. There are very few – if any – other laptops that come preinstalled with KDE, and even fewer that have the KDE logo so beautifully engraved on the lid. Part of the proceeds of the KDE Slimbook is donated to KDE, so by buying this machine, you’d also be supporting KDE financially.
Add to this the very, very reasonable pricing Slimbook employs, and this laptop is a total winner.
I don’t use KDE as my main desktop environment – I’m a Cinnamon person – but if I did, this would be my next laptop, no doubt about it. The good thing if you’re not a KDE user is that the KDE Slimbook is also available as the Slimbook PRO X, with a wide variety of preinstalled Linux distributions to choose from, as well as the option to go with an Intel version. Slimbook seems to understand the Linux community well, and is willing to go the extra mile to cater to the diversity inherent in using Linux.
Slimbook offers a number of other machines in the same price bracket, and I’m very curious to try them out and review them for y’all too – especially the Slimbook Executive, which comes with a 90Hz 14″ 2880×1800 display, and which may just offer a peek at the next generation KDE Slimbook.