A powerful ultrabook running Ubuntu or Pop!_OS Linux distributions, equally capable of productivity or gaming.
Whether you’re abandoning Windows and considering a MacBook or you’re a Linux veteran in the market for a new laptop, the name System76 will no doubt have come up in your research.
Among its range of desktop and laptop computers is the Pangolin, a smart-looking, “casually powerful” notebook. Boasting a range of storage options and up to 10 hours of battery life, it’s an attractive prospect.
An amazing Linux ultraportable
You might think that it is better to simply buy a laptop and install Linux on it rather than buy one with the open source operating system preinstalled. While that remains a valid option, nothing can beat an OS designed to run specifically on the hardware it ships with.
The System76 Pangolin laptop is a superb example of this. While its high CPU and RAM specification and considerable storage options are enough to make you sit up and take notice, the fact that System76's Pop!_OS runs so well on the machine demonstrates the company is serious about its range. These aren't mid-range systems with a Linux OS banged on and an extortionate price tag – this is top-end stuff, with a price point to match.
A strong performer that benchmarks impressively, if you're looking for an alternative to a Windows or Mac laptop, the System76 Pangolin is a superb option. Some might even say it's better…
But can the System76 Pangolin ultraportable replace your current computer and take your productivity out of the office?
If you’ve got this far, you’re probably interested in a Linux laptop. Well, why not? We’re long beyond the time of installing Linux on old laptops to squeeze more life out of them. These days, you can get a Linux laptop from Dell, although the spec may not suit you, and various other companies with greater presence in the open source space are also shipping Linux hardware.
Planning to move away from Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac? Linux is the ideal alternative to both, but you probably know that anyway. What you want to know is: could the System76 Pangolin be the Linux laptop you’ve been dreaming about?
Founded by Carl Richell in the early 2000s, System76 first started shipping Ubuntu-based computers in 2005. Advocates of open source and the right to repair, the company developed a strong reputation.
However, it probably took the release of its own Ubuntu-derived operating system, Pop!_OS, in 2017, for the Linux community to really take notice of System76. The operating system is available for almost any computer, but is particularly suitable for System76 hardware.
Despite competition from other Linux computer companies, System76 has pushed on with its mission to “build open source computers and software, empowering creators, makers, and builders to unleash their potential.”
At the time of reviewing the Pangolin laptop, the System76 line up includes laptops, desktops, mini computers, physical servers, a range of keyboards, and of course a free-to-use operating system.
Various specifications are available for the Pangolin, with up to 32GB of RAM and 16TB of storage supported. At the heart of the Pangolin (this is the pang12 model) is a 4.7GHz AMD Ryzen 7 6800U octa-core processor (16MB cache, 16 threads), AMD Radeon 680M graphics chip, with Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2, a 1MP 720p webcam with integrated mic, and stereo dual-driver full-range speakers. The laptop ships with very little else, aside from dust sheets and a 65W AC adapter, and portable power is courtesy of a 70Wh Li-Ion battery.
System76 laptops are only available via www.system76.com, where some storage options can be tweaked, the OS selected, and warranty added.
For the review device I selected 32GB of LPDDR5 RAM, a 2TB main drive, and 1TB secondary storage. Essentially, I opted for a build I considered useful to me, for effective evaluation.
You get a choice of Pop!_OS or Ubuntu with this laptop. I’m familiar with both, and opted for the former. My reasoning was simple: does System76 produce hardware that effectively showcases its own OS?
Various ports along the left and right sides of the Pangolin deliver the usual connectivity. On the right is a single USB 3.2 Type A Gen 1 port, an SD card reader (not low-profile), Gigabit Ethernet port, and a Kensington Lock point.
Along the left is the PSU connector, HDMI 2.0 out, two more USB 3.2 Type A Gen 1 ports, a single USB 3.2 Type C Gen 2 port (with DisplayPort 1.4 and 65W+ charging), a microphone/headset combo port, and hardware camera kill switch.
The right-hand USB-C port is suitable for all manner of connectivity options, from external cameras, phones, and even hubs. I’ve set up a USB-C docking station with HDMI cable and Ethernet to maximize the productivity options, with good results.
Along the left-hand face of the Pangolin (as you face the display) is a kill switch. This is a privacy measure that gives you the option to instantly disable the webcam. It’s a good option if you have concerns about online snooping and prefer to keep it switched off when not required.
I’ve seen other Linux laptops with a kill switch for wireless connectivity and microphone, but that isn’t an option for the Pangolin. Rather, you’ll need to open the Wi-Fi Settings page and enable Airplane Mode to go offline.
Does the kill switch have any real benefit? Well, it depends on your feelings about online intrusion and the risks presented by creepy voyeuristic behavior. It can annoy you if you forget the webcam (which isn't perfect, but adequate for video conferencing) is disabled, and you’re trying to attend a Zoom call.
With its 15.6-inch 1920×1080 FHD, 144Hz, matte finish display, the System76 Pangolin cuts a pretty sharp figure. While it looks big, it is surprisingly light, weighing in at 1.79kg (3.95 pounds). If you’re used to a larger laptop, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is by comparison.
It sports the charcoal black you see on many devices, with a nice blue LED glowing around the power button. The System76 logo is displayed in white on the lid. Unlike some other Linux laptops manufacturers, they seem genuinely proud of their hardware.
As is typical for laptops, the underside features various venting precautions. For a comparatively high-spec laptop, the Pangolin can unsurprisingly get a bit warm. Consequently, I’d recommend not placing it on your knees (unless you live on the Arctic Circle).
Measuring 37.06×24.79×1.80cm (14.59×9.76×0.71 inches), the Pangolin features a backlit 102-key QWERTY (US) keyboard, with low profile, responsive keys. The multitouch click pad, meanwhile, supports various gestures offered in modern Linux operating systems (including Pop!_OS).
The first thing to say here is that I don’t usually get along with Pop!_OS. I typically use it daily on a laptop before breakfast, later switching to an Ubuntu system.
My current set-up is built around a 2017 HP laptop (from the short-lived “desktop replacement” fad) running Ubuntu 23.04 with an external display connected. I’ve added RAM and a higher-capacity SSD over the years, and it’s done a great job. Meanwhile, I have a small 13-inch laptop with Pop!_OS installed.
I’ve owned and reviewed around a dozen laptops and hybrids over the past decade. The Pangolin’s trackpad is easily the best I’ve used, responsive to gentle and fast movements, offering satisfying feedback from clicks, and singularly pleasing to the touch.
Similarly, the keyboard is responsive, with no sticky keys or ones you have to tap harder. It’s easy to adapt to, and includes a number pad for any fast data entry. There is a unification of keyboard, trackpad, and operating system here that deftly combines to create an environment that you can really work with.
While this all sounds lovely, the Pangolin we tested had a trio of problems. First, it seems to struggle when waking (while plugged in) with a specific and admittedly bulky spreadsheet open. I had a 50% success rate with that.
Second, despite the matte finish on the display, the laptop is difficult to use in any sunlight, direct or otherwise.
The third issue is rather specialist. I use a RODEcaster Pro for podcasting, and this runs fine with Ubuntu via a USB 2.0 port on my HP. The System76 Pangolin only has USB 3.2 ports and there is a known issue with these on AMD chipsets returning distorted audio when played through the RODEcaster Pro. This doesn't prevent recording solo, but it impacts using apps or web tools like Zoom or Cleanfeed.
Given that this ultraportable laptop features a powerful AMD processor, you might expect battery life to take a significant hit. Incredibly, that’s not the case. While up to 10 hours of battery is mentioned on the System76 website, I find it difficult to work for quite that length of time without a break.
Running the battery down with standard use (writing, browsing, a bit of YouTube, a little gaming) took around 7 hours. However, it should be noted that after placing it on standby overnight following a full charge, the System76 Pangolin had barely lost any charge when I checked it the next morning. That’s pretty impressive.
Attempting to push the performance, I installed Red Dead Redemption 2 via Steam. While the game is five years old, it remains demanding on system resources. Running with the default settings, RDR2 failed to launch beyond Rockstar login screen. Happily, switching to the AMD Radeon 680M graphics was the only adjustment.
That’s when Red Dead Redemption 2 came to life on this Linux laptop. Further testing took place with audio editing (our weekly tech podcast) and some light video work. While time constraints limited what I could do with the Shotcut video editor on the System76 Pangolin, it was relatively quick.
There are various measures that you can apply to a laptop to establish benchmarks. Using Phoronix’s default benchmark command, I established the baseline:
Following this, I tested with a 10-minute YouTube video in HD:
Next, I opened the Firefox browser with 44 tabs:
Finally, I opened a 17-minute WAV file in Audacity and copied a track to the clipboard:
As you can see, the laptop was barely troubled by any of these challenges.
While this level of benchmarking isn’t going to provide a full picture of how the System76 Pangolin performs in various scenarios, suffice to say, it surprised me.
Of course, running high-performance games is going to chew through the battery life. For example, switching to the discrete graphics chip to run Red Dead Redemption 2 resulted in the battery lasting around an hour.
I’ve been pretty happy with my current setup; to have the System76 Pangolin come along has been pretty disruptive. It’s just too good to put down.
The Pangolin effortlessly supplants both of my current computers. Attached to a USB-C dock, it becomes a far superior replacement for my HP. When it’s time to work on the road, it's light enough to carry and powerful enough to be productive. Suitable for video editing, gaming, office productivity, and probably anything you can throw at it, the System76 Pangolin is a Linux laptop that is at least as good – if not better – as a Windows laptop at the same price point.
Ultimately, I’m finding it difficult to return to either of my other laptops…
Deputy Editor for Security, Linux, DIY, Programming, and Tech Explained, Christian has extensive experience in desktop and software support, and has been published in Computer Weekly, Linux Format, Tech Radar, ComputerActive, and other titles.
Christian also produces MakeUseOf’s weekly show, the Really Useful Podcast.
His current passions are his cigar box guitar, his retro gaming site (www.gamingretro.co.uk) and his family.