Review: Darter Ultra Notebook

If online articles and blogs are any indication of things, the number of Linux users migrating to, and satisfied with, Ubuntu GNU/Linux seems to be staggering. Given that, it was only a matter of time before a capable company had the resources to offer accessible, affordable Linux desktops and notebooks that delivered the way that Apple’s products have. Colorado-based System76 sent us their Darter Ultra for review, and proved that there is an OEM hardware/software combination capable of being the primary PC for the general public.

With an impressive array of notebooks, desktop computers, and servers, System76 preloads a mostly stock version of the the current iteration of Ubuntu Linux and the System76 driver, which adds support for any included devices not supported by Ubuntu proper, such as microphones or integrated memory card readers. Our Darter Ultra came with the following specs:

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 at 2 Ghz
  • RAM: 1.5 GB DDR 2 667 MHz Memory
  • Hard Drive: 40 GB 5400 RPM Hard Drive
  • Display: 13.3î Widescreen WXGA
  • Graphics: Intel GMA 950 224 MB Integrated Graphics
  • Sound: Intel High Definition Audio
  • Networking: 10/100 (LAN)
  • Wireless: Intel 802.11 abg & Bluetooth
  • Drives: CD/RW and DVD/RW
  • Card Reader: 4 in 1 Card Reader
  • Expansion: PCI Express Card Slot (34/54)
  • Ports: VGA, 3x USB 2.0, Mic In, Headphone Out, FireWire 1394B, S-Video
  • Battery: 6 Cell Lithium Ion (4.5 Hours)
  • Dimensions: 12.4″ x 8.9″ x 1.24″ (W x D x H)
  • Weight: 4.3 lbs

    Screenshot The Darter came via DHL in a well packed box. The packaging was comparable to a similar Dell notebook, and secured the laptop very well. There is a “quick start” page included, but the rest of the documentation is digital.

    The first thing you’ll notice on the Darter is the number of ports it has. The power is connected on the back, but all sides except the front have a USB port, which is great for multi-peripheral support. The laptop is solid enough – it does not feel cheap – and it’s an attractive white color reminiscent of another manufacturer’s 13 inch offering. Around the sides, you have a PCMCIA slot, headphone jacks, an external display connector, a locking point, an S-VIDEO jack, a modem, an ethernet port, a mini firewire jack, the disk writer, and an SD card slot. The machine is full of options.

    Screenshot Upon first boot, a configuration program runs. I entered my name and pressed enter, and had some difficulty when I realized that the field was for username and I had typed my full name. There was no error when I attempted to use a space, it just refreshed the screen. Once I realized my error, I was in and the default desktop, at 1280×800, was the gorgeous Ubuntu Edgy Eft. My first order of business was flipping through several of the included Ubuntu/Gnome applications. Since the Darter comes pre-loaded with what is essentially a vanilla Ubuntu install, I will not get into the details of reviewing the specific applications. Suffice it to say that performance on the laptop is admirable; applications that load slowly still load slowly on the system, and applications capable of loading quickly do so.

    The array of problems I experienced with the Darter all showed themselves relatively quickly. They were all fairly minor and were mostly distractions with simple fixes. Nonetheless, they might stump some who don’t know where to go for support.

    My first order of business was getting online. It was so easy to click System > Administration > Network to find the network administration too. Imagine my surprise when I found that the system did not automatically search for wireless networks. In short, I had to know the SSID of the network in order to join it.

    Shortly thereafter, I found that there were 2 DNS servers and a search domain listed in my network properties – on first boot. One of the biggest things that I would focus on is out-of-the-box connectivity. I was able to use a wired ethernet cable to connect immediately.

    Screenshot Linux has had a long, sordid history with notebook hibernation and suspend. First off, I don’t know that the average user knows the difference. When I tried to hibernate, the system looked as if it was shutting down, led to an error message, and then finally shut off successfully. Pressing the power button resembles a new boot, complete with the Intel splash screen and then the Ubuntu loading screen. Furthermore, the internet connection is hit or miss when the laptop resumes. To be clear: on the edgy unit I got, hibernate did work, it just gave an error on resume, and the internet connection restoration was shaky. With so much work going in to cleaning up the boot and shutdown process, it’s a bit of a shame to see the hibernate process look so unfinished. I’ll touch on this again later: there are no errors on upgrade to Feisty, but the display is still non-graphical. Suspend mostly worked for me. This is the closest I’ve seen a Linux machine come to pulling off these processes successfully.

    Screenshot On that note, the default setting is to turn off the display on lid-close. I was very shocked when I returned 30 minutes later to find the screen very hot. Since the settings can be tweaked easily, I’m surprised to see System76 not change this to suspend or hibernate by default. Either way, it can be changed by the user without too much effort.

    I’ve never had a non-Apple laptop that did Bluetooth, so I fired up the included Bluetooth application and searched for devices. When none were found and I had some problems, I decided to test out the System76 resources, which includes the online knowledgebase and the System76 support forums. I posted under an silly nickname, anticipating, properly, that people I had dealt with might be monitoring the forum and I didn’t want to tip them off that I was doing a review. I was pleasantly surprised with the response: it was posted within 2 hours with a perfect solution exposing the real problem: an actual Ubuntu bug! I can’t hold System76 responsible for this any more than I can hold Macbook hardware responsible for an OS X bug or a Dell Inspiron for a Vista bug. For those interested, the System76 forum thread is here, and it did resolve the issue, I was able to receive pictures from a Cingular phone via Bluetooth.

    Screenshot One thing to note is that remaining issues with the Darter Ultra are all fixable via pushed online software updates, which is very promising.

    While the Darter had its share of little “gotchas,” the experience from there was almost entirely positive. Updates were a breeze. Installing the System76 driver is quick, painless, and easy. So let’s dig into the Darter experience.

    As I mentioned before, System76 loads their systems with mostly current Ubuntu installs, and they are served pretty much as is. The biggest difference I’ve noticed in the default view is the inclusion of the Beagle search box in the Gnome toolbar, which provides instant system search. The laptop runs reasonably quickly, certainly worlds faster than the Linux distros of yesteryear. Furthermore, the system runs fairly cool. While a Macbook Pro can and has burnt people who have used it in their lap, the Darter never got more than “toasty” even after long periods.

    The keyboard is nice and gives generally good response, although I had a problem with the mousepad sensitivity and found that my thumb, while typing, would often “tap” the pad. That said, the keyboard is large enough for a 13.3″ notebook and the lights on the front of the unit are informative.

    Screenshot The Update Manager built into Ubuntu is great – and after using the laptop for just minutes it checked and found updates. I downloaded the updates and they applied without a restart. Within a few days of receiving the laptop, the new version of Ubuntu, Feisty Fawn, was released, soon after, I received notice that a “distribution upgrade” was available. After a hefty 900MB+ download and a reinstall of the System76 driver, the system was upgraded.

    I plugged in my digital camera, which is a Canon PowerShot SD600. It discovered the camera and imported the photos. The onboard card-reader worked equally well – an SD card will be recognized, mounted as a disk with a nice little “SD” icon, and photos will be imported. When I connected an iPod nano, it recognized and opened Rhythmbox and showed me the contents, although the songs will not play unless you have the correct codecs installed. If you do, you can easily play songs right off of your iPod. Furthermore, you can mount and use your iPod as a disk. Peripherals-wise, the system did very well – often doing exactly what I’d expect – and all hardware, including the microphone, work well, which is a true feat for an OEM Linux machine.

    When you try to play an MP3 or a file in any other unsupported format, the system will ask you if you want to search online for the codec. If you do, and you agree that you are in part of the world where it is legal to download such a codec, it will download and install it for you. This is the type of script I’d prefer to see in more Linux distributions.

    In short, the Darter experience is mostly a positive one: it’s as good as Linux has to offer and there’s virtually no major downsides. Ubuntu appears to be most friendly of all distributions, even Dell recently chose Ubuntu for their desktop offerings, and it appears to be the distribution best fitted for a consumer friendly Linux computer.

    If you are a current Linux user or even one thinking about getting into the Linux world, the Darter Ultra is a great starting point. The available documentation, the friendly staff, and the rapid free support, not to mention the modern components – including the speedy dual core Intel Core 2 Duo chip, the integrated SD card reader, and the System76 driver – all make a very convincing argument. If you are looking for a mobile Linux experience – or even a compact desktop – you can’t go wrong with the Darter Ultra, especially now that they come with Feisty Fawn.


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