System76 Lemur Pro Review
My old Thinkpad X260 had some graphics issues, so it was time for a new laptop. I’ve had my Lemur Pro for a few months now, and I like it so far. Read on for my likes and dislikes.
Choosing a machine
I run Linux as my main operating system, so I’ve defaulted to Thinkpads in the past because I can trust that the hardware will be well-supported. This time around, I wanted to support a company that’s Linux-first. System76 is one of a handful of major (relative to the space) players, and I appreciate their support of efforts like coreboot and right to repair. With a vendor in mind, I looked for a few qualities:
Portability. I attend a good number of conferences, and being able to carry around my laptop to them is a requirement. My X260 was great for this, and there’s not much on the market with a screen that small, so I went with a 14” model. With the smaller bezel, it’s not too much larger than my old laptop. It’s also super light (2.4 lbs / 1.09 kg per the product page). The battery life is also a plus here, since I won’t need to worry about finding a place to plug in when at events most of the time.
Matte display. This is just a personal preference, but I find a matte display much easier to use than a glossy one, especially for long periods of time.
I/O. I’m stuck in my ways, and having just a USB-C port with a dongle is inconvenient. A couple of USB-A ports and an HDMI port make this a pretty good machine to present slides from. (I’m sure I’ll still carry around a dongle just in case, but the fewer parts required, the better.)
Some other nice-to-have feature parity with my existing machine like a backlit keyboard and a 180° hinge (I open my laptop nearly flat more often than you might think).
The Lemur Pro ticked all of these boxes, and reviews of the machine were generally positive, so I placed my order. These machines are assembled to order, and it arrived at my door just under three weeks later. It’s been my primary machine since then.
I’ll keep this short since I don’t have a ton to say. System76 machines ship with Pop!_OS, an Ubuntu-based Linux distribution with a slightly customized GNOME Shell desktop environment. None of this was particularly new to me (I’ve been using Ubuntu and GNOME for years), so I feel pretty at home here. One notable inclusion is Pop!_Shop, the Pop!_OS application manager; this is one of the more polished graphical application managers I’ve used. If you’re looking for a Linux desktop environment to drop right into and start using, it seems like a good choice.
System76 uses Clevo laptops as of the writing of this post1, which is what mine is. You can get the same base unit from other companies with some different build options; I chose System76 over purchasing from another company for the reasons mentioned above, as well some specific build options like the screen quality pointed out in this review by Linux For Everyone.
The case is metal, the build feels solid, and it’s lighter than I expected. I’m happy with the build quality over all, and it feels like it’ll last a long time if treated well. The only real complaint I have is that a bit of the paint came off of the bezel above the webcam early on; no other part of the case has had this problem yet, so I’ll chalk that up to a quirk rather than a build-wide or systemic issue.
The Lemur Pro ships with a 1080p matte display. It seems high quality to me compared to other laptop displays, and it’s plenty bright for my needs. In fact, my biggest issue with it is that it doesn’t get dim enough in some cases (reading a blog or doing the crossword at night in a dark room).
Keyboard and trackpad
I’m not generally opinionated about keyboards. This one works well enough for me and is pretty much on par with my Thinkpad one and has a very similar layout. Two gripes with this:
There’s no function lock option. This doesn’t make it a deal breaker, but I do things like adjust screen brightness or audio volume much more often than I use actual function key behavior.
The placement of the page up and page down keys is maddening. I find myself constantly hitting these keys instead of the arrow keys by accident. I thought I’d eventually adapt to this, but I haven’t so far. The arrow keys are all half-height, and the page up and down keys sit in this block above the right and left arrows. See the photos below for a comparison between the Thinkpad layout (first) and the System76 one (second). If I had to change one thing on this laptop, it’d be this corner of the keyboard.
The trackpad is pretty good for a non-Macbook. No major complaints here.
Things I’d like to see changed
The speakers on most laptops are bad, and these are no exception. I didn’t have any expectations here. They’re bottom facing and tinny. As a general rule, if you want quality speakers, a dedicated pair are a better bet than any laptop ones I’ve heard.
The webcam is worse than I expected it to be. The angle is kind of weird and points upward, which makes getting a straight-on view difficult. I don’t intend to use it much (I had a different camera when my laptop is docked at my desk), so it’s not a deal breaker for me, but if you need to do a lot of video calling, consider an external option. Thankfully, it’s not like my old Dell XPS laptop, which had its webcam below the screen for a prime view of your fingers while typing.
The included charger is comically short and slow to charge. It works, but you’ll have a much better time with a long USB-C cable and a third party charging brick. Battery life is good so far (though probably not the claimed 14 hours), but I haven’t had a reason to use it for a long period of time away from an outlet yet, but I expect it to be a good conference-going machine.
This is one of my favorite parts of the machine and the company. There’s excellent documentation on the machine including repair guides. This feels like a machine that you’re supposed to be able to fix when needed, which is a refreshing state in 2021. I opted to go with the base model everything and upgrade the SSD and RAM myself (I already had compatible parts, so I didn’t see a reason to buy new ones with my machine), and the swap was easy to do in 15 - 20 minutes. This feels like tangible evidence of the company’s support of the right to repair movement. I’ve also heard great things about the support team, but I haven’t had to contact them personally yet.
I’ve been using a USB-C hub when at my desk to connect my monitor, speakers, etc. It’s worked out pretty well, though sometimes I need to disconnect and reconnect to get configuration changes to apply. I’m not sure if this is a software issue or a hardware one. It’s not quite in a “Just Works™” state, but it’s pretty close. I’ve also been considering an eGPU setup (it’s tempting, but I definitely don’t need it for my daily use); if I add that to my setup, I’ll update this post with my experience.
After a few months, I’m happy with this purchase, and I expect to stick with it for several years. This is likely my go-to option for new machines for now. The Lemur Pro is not a perfect machine, but it gets a lot of things right, and I look forward to seeing what System76 does with their future models.
I’ve read that System76 is working on an in-house laptop to offer as opposed to just offering Clevo machines. I’m interested to see what happens there, and I’m willing to pay a premium for it depending on the options included. ↩