It’s still hard to buy a turn-key or supported GNU/Linux computer. I keep trying, and I especially prefer to avoid paying what’s called the Microsoft Tax, i.e. the hardware-bundled cost of Microsoft software, which is how they have built and enforced their monopoly and, from what I can tell, thereby reduced the productivity of billions of people for decades, who have become stuck with software designed to enforce lock-in rather than designed to work well.
But by digressing before having even started, I am avoiding what is also not overall a happy blog post. In May 2014 I scanned the desktop computer options from the main competition of Zareason and System76, who nowadays look very similar, and found that System76 shipped to Canada. I thus ordered their Sable Touch: an integrated desktop monitor/computer with a solid state drive, 16GB of RAM, and Ubuntu-ready components.
What follows is an outline of what happened next, along with a review of the machine. I don’t like spreading bad news, but when a company under-performs yet feels no obligation to compensate for not fulfilling their end of the bargain, it sends a signal that they were not so surprised by their own failure, or that failures happen too often for them to be able to afford to compensate customers each time. For me, putting something on the line is a reassurance that their own expectations of themselves are high.
Hardware and software review
Besides the minor hardware problem recounted below, the computer seems nice:
Speed: It powers on from cold to log-in screen in 13 seconds. After typing in my password, I’m fully logged in in another two seconds. I like that.
In addition, launching applications is blazingly fast. I do no know why my comparably configured Lenovo X230T is ten times slower launching, Libreoffice, for instance.
Configuration: An important feature of ordering from an Ubuntu supplier is that they support the operating system (or at least kernel) I’m going to use. System76 machines all come with Ubuntu preloaded. This includes their own packages which provide any necessary tweaks to leverage the hardware they sell. (On the other hand, from what I can see, there is nothing actually in this package in the case of the Sable Touch; in that case, it’s a placeholder for their own custom updates.)
Unlike in the past when I ordered from Zareason, however, they do not allow any customization on the installation. Sadly, like many places, they install their operating system (root directory) on the same partition as all the data (/home), so that if you ever want to reinstall the system, you would be overwriting your data. I cannot understand this habit, and they declined my request to make two partitions. In any case, it takes only 10 minutes, after receiving the machine, to erase everything and reinstall Ubuntu from scratch with the partitions as I like them, including adding System76’s own support repositories.
Ergonomics: The computer comes with a short stand, which does not allow adjustment of the height of the machine, nor its pitch angle. The computer is heavy enough that you’d need care if shopping for one of the nice desk-mounted mobile display arms. It would be nice if System76 offered more options for the mount, even if just to allow height adjustment.
The screen is also very reflective.
Service: It’s great that System76 makes it straightforward to ship to Canada. You will pay full duties, which amount to GST and provincial tax, as a C.O.D. cost on delivery. However, it took nine weeks for me to get my final machine, as I recount below. Moreover, they seemed to me very confused about how to deal with, or even to comprehend, what should have been a small problem, and the delays and mistakes on their part only accumulated further as the fiasco continued.
Below the history that follows, I include, for transparency, the order log and the issue log, which contain all our interactions except for some phone calls.
I ordered on May 9 and received a Sable Touch on June 4, considerably later than they estimated (but I don’t remember precisely what they promised). There are assembly instructions online, but they hadn’t given a copy in the package, nor mentioned that I should look online. Never mind, the assembly was pretty obvious. There’s a desk platform mount which screws onto the back of the computer.
But it didn’t. The hole drilled in the mounting plate was misaligned with the hole in the back of the computer. A simple error, but very poor style for them to ship something so shoddily made. In any case, no problem with the computer, so they could just send me a new piece for the stand, or even the whole stand.
Confusion at System76
Next followed a bizarre set of communication in which System76 seemed to be asking how to assemble their own computer, and in which, when I got them on the phone, they had difficulty understanding the simple geometry of what was wrong, even though they ostensibly had a Sable Touch in front of them and even though I had sent them photos detailing the problem.
Eventually, they chose to send me a new computer rather than any of the obvious things — accept my offer to file or drill out the hole in the plate, or to send me a replacement plate or stand. With dread, I agreed to wait for a new computer and to send back the entire original. They assured me the replacement would arrive without C.O.D. charges, and that they would provide me with a free shipping return label.
Second blunder by System76
But what arrived was a UPS delivery demanding another $300 of tax duties. System76 had messed up the arrangement for sending the computer as a duty-free replacement. The computer was taken away again for another eleven days while System76 tried to fix their mistake, but it took regular prodding from me to get them to give me any update and likely to take action. I even passed on information from UPS to them, since they seemed to have the story wrong at one point.
On July 14, I finally got a working computer, packaged up the old one, and sent it back. During this whole interaction I also found a bug on System76’s support site, so that I had to share the photos they wanted through my own web site, and they also sent me an incorrectly scanned document without checking it. Overall, there was much to be desired in every aspect of their service and support — except the most important one: they remained positive and helpful when we were interacting.
Now, I have a quite-nice desktop on my hands, and the belief that its hardware will be well supported for my operating system. Unfortunately, it took over two months for me to get my order, which was meant for use by a summer student leaving at the end of July. System76 refused any compensation for the whole ordeal. This signals to me that they have a low volume and a high error rate, which is a shame, since having good hardware running snappy open source operating systems is rather nice! and I wish it was more easily accessible to the masses.
Below is the account of the written portion of our rather frustrating communication over those months.