Monday, December 31, 2012

[Review] System76 Gazelle Professional (gazp7)

After a few weeks of use, I am finally ready to give a full review of the System76 Gazelle Professional. System76 offered me a review unit weeks ago, and I gladly took the offer. Within a few days a unit was at my door and I was ready to “get cracking” if you can relate to that. The unit they shipped me was a Gazelle Professional, 7th generation. That is the “gazp7” in the review title, to specify the model reviewed. They have the 8th generation out now, but they didn't send me that. However, I wasn't going to let that be a fallen tree in my path.

Most of the pictures in this review were also available in the unboxing, and some are new. Click here to view my entire album of pictures used for the entire Gazelle Professional Series.

Specs
The specs of the machine are as followed:
  1. Intel® Core™ i7-3720QM CPU @ 2.60GHz – quad core plus hyperthreading
  2. 8GB DDR3 1600 MHz RAM
  3. Intel IvyBridge Graphics (HD Graphics 4000)
  4. 40GB Intel SSD
  5. Intel Centrino 1030 - 802.11 b/g/n Wireless LAN + Bluetooth Combo Module
  6. DVD/CD drive – read/write for both formats
  7. Other specs such as the ports can be found at the Gazelle Professional's product page.
Unboxing and First impressions
I wrote a separate post for the unboxing and first impressions. You can see that post by clicking here. As far as updates goes from that post, my impressions remain the same. The only thing that's changed is that the left palm rest can get a little bit warmer, but it shouldn't be too bad or uncomfortable.

So, let's hammer out this review shall we? :)

Laptop Design
One of the greatest things I like about the Gazelle Professional is its design. Like I have said in the first impressions, I really like the almost sharp edges/lines. Even though the laptop case is plastic, it has a brushed aluminum-like finish to it that makes the laptop appear brand new every day. The design also looks great on the back of the screen, which will be visible to others as you work behind your screen.

The laptop's look makes this machine feel very professional, which I would argue as a yes. This laptop is a professional one in my opinion.

Keyboard
The chicklet keyboard makes typing a breeze. The keyboard feels sturdy and it does not appear as if it can be damaged by typing too hard. There is plenty of space between the keys so it is virtually impossible to hit two buttons at once when typing, which I do sometimes when typing words and more often when trying to use the number pad too fast. Because of the chicklet style it is harder to get dirt and dust stuck down in the keys, which is more common in non-chicklet keyboards because each individual key is not covered.

The Gazelle Professional does come with a complete 10 key numeric keypad, but it doesn't look exactly like one you would find on a desktop PC. For example, some of the buttons are rearranged, probably to save space. You can get used to this fairly quickly but for the first few days using this you might want to take time to learn the layout of the numeric keypad before using it without looking at it, for example.

The keyboard comes with a complete set of function keys, for various tasks such as putting the computer to sleep without closing the lid, display output, volume control and brightness control. To use the function keys you just press down the blue Fn button and then choose a  key with a blue symbol on it.

One thing I did notice with the numeric keypad that's worth mentioning is that some keys require you to hold down SHIFT to use them normally. For example, the decimal/delete key. Usually the computer can sorta tell when a delete is a delete and when a decimal is a decimal, but on the Gazelle you have to use the Shift key to access the secondary functions.

Touchpad
The touchpad on the Gazelle is great. I covered this in a separate article as well. Click here to see it. My writing about the touchpad remains the same. I like how the touchpad has the same finish as the rest of the laptop, and that also makes it easier to clean.

Display
The display on the Gazelle is amazing. The display I am referring to is the one with the 95% color gamut and the matte finish display. I have seen many laptop, and have ran Ubuntu on many of them, but the Gazelle Professional is the first computer I've seen where the colors truly shine. Especially with Ubuntu, you can actually see the purples better, for example when the kernel is booting. Compared to other computers I've seen, the colors appear more pale. On the Gazelle the colors, not just purple, are reproduced fuller in my opinion, and I like that.

Watching movies/videos in 1080p also shows off how good the display is. It's still sad that Netflix isn't officially available on Ubuntu, but hopefully Netflix will make it's way here eventually. The odds are most likely against us.

Text typed on the screen was very clear. So clear that you can't even see the pixels that make up the letters, unless you basically shove your face into the monitor.

Heat
Heating is one of the greatest controversies about this laptop, from all across the web. One of the most discussed issues is the left palm rest. People say that it becomes excessively warm and such. Of course that's their opinion and I expect every Gazelle to vary slightly, but from this unit at least I can say that there is no real heating issue with the laptop at all. The left palm rest does indeed become warmer compared to other side of the laptop, for example, but like I have said before it is not a uncomfortable warm. In my opinion it is more of a welcome one, but this is all just my opinion. Then again if you feel as if the palm rest is a little warm, then you could mod the laptop by drilling small holes like my dad did with his HP. However like I said before I don't have an issue with it.

On the other hand I am impressed on how good the Gazelle cooling system is. I popped the covers off the back and the largest one had the fan on the back of it. The ironic thing about the sentence that I just wrote is that the Gazelle doesn't have a fan. It has a miniature blower that is very powerful for its size.

When the laptop is doing normal everyday tests, such as web browsing, composing a document, or reading a PDF, the laptop is dead silent. The "fan" is either running very low or it is not running at all.

When the laptop is being pushed hard, the blower does kick on. However the fan is not too terribly loud and when it really has to kick on it pushes a lot of air though very quickly so the system cools off even faster.

The only sad part about when the laptop becomes under heavy load and a great amount of hot air is being pushed though. The ports just above the grill for the blower can become hot, specifically. When I had one of my USB flash drives plugged into one of the ports above the grill, I thought it was fine. After a heavy load, I unplugged my flash drive and the plug was incredibly hot. Hopefully in the next model update there can be more insulation added, or have the ports moved to another place. On my old laptop the ports were nowhere near the air vents, so this makes me question why they were there, above the blower.

Webcam / Microphone
The Gazelle comes with a 1.3 megapixel webcam, which is one of the shockers for me. With a laptop so great, you would expect a better camera. Sadly the webcam is one of the biggest failure points for this laptop in my opinion. It works okay for video chats, but I would expect something better. Even with optimal lighting the picture appears slightly grainy with the picture becoming worse the lower the lighting.

If you have an external that has a better res, and works with Linux, that I would suggest you use that. I don't want to completely bag on System76 here, because some things they can't completely control...but come on. I know they can do better than this. Hopefully a model update could make this thing at least 5 megapixels, which is a tad lower than most higher priced smartphones. If they can take better pictures than your computer, then why bother using your webcam?

The other surprising twist to the webcam is the microphone. It's not that it's bad; it's where it is located. In that post I made about the Gazelle Professional's touchpad, you can see a little dot to the top left of the touchpad, just next to it. Do you remember? Well this photo should make it quite obvious: 
Usually on most laptops the location of the microphone is up there with the webcam. I guess this was bad designing by someone. Suppose you are typing. If you are a touch typist, like I am, your left palm will almost always be brushing against the microphone. If you are in a video chat with someone that could be an issue if you are trying to type something on the screen and speak at the same time.

Audio
The laptop has a sticker to its left when you open the lid that says it features THX Tru Studio pro speakers on board. The speakers is the other fail in this laptop, in my opinion. While it is not as serious as the webcam, the speakers are not placed on the top of the laptop, anywhere. You can even see this in System76's press shots. The speakers are actually on the bottom of the laptop, at a slight angle to a table for example, so the sound reflects off of the table and into your ears, if you can picture that. I tried to take a picture, but I couldn't find a spot for good lighting, and if I did I'd have to take the photo in a way that wouldn't be confusing.

The laptop speakers are 'meh' to me. Most laptop speakers these days are not all that good, and they don't handle bass well either. I did have some help in the audio department from my dad, since he's an audiophile. Basically, all laptop speakers don't sound "good" because they are meant to reproduce voices, not bass or anything other than voices.

As for testing the sound card, my dad and I connected the headphone output into a BOSE Wave radio system, we've found that the output of the sound card is wide and dynamic. So therefore there are no complaints with it.

Power (CPU + Graphics)
The Gazelle Professional is probably called professional in part of the guts the machine has. It has a beefy CORE i7 processor in the unit I was reviewing, but it isn't as high as it can go. The newer Gazelle is now out and you can get an even better selection of processors on it.

The processor has 4 physical cores, but Ubuntu shows 8 due to the built in hyper-threading. When you push one core to ~100%, that's when the fan starts to kick on a little bit. However, you have 8 virtual cores to work with, which gives you room to effectively multitask. I can be pushing a few virtual machines, compile large packages, render heavy web applications, and more. Of course by then the unit's fans are pushing full steam ahead, but the system will not "choke" under so much load. This is a good selling point in my opinion.

In the graphics arena, you have integrated graphics to work with. Since this is a 3rd generation CPU, you have the Intel HD 4000 graphics. It is an improvement over the 3000 graphics, that's for sure. Since the CPU also handles graphics, I went ahead to poke around a bit. The 4000 graphics aren't all that bad. Most like to poke at it because it isn't discreet graphics, and it isn't powerful as a dedicated graphics card, which are both true. However if you are a new user to HD4000 graphics, you won't be terrified. Not at all. This machine is perfectly able to run Unity, which is a sorta "heavy" Compiz rendered shell for GNOME, and play a HD 1080p video file at the same time.

One thing I noticed however is there is no GPU hardware support in Google Chrome 64 bit. When running the Let it Snow test from Microsoft on the browser, it had a significantly lower frame rate, about 9 or so frames per second with 4000 snowflakes rendering. I wonder why the number wasn't high, and then I went to check out the GPU information. Chrome said that it only has software rendering, and there was no option to turn hardware rendering on.

It's not that big of a deal for something like "Let it Snow" because you have a powerful CPU that could render for you, software wise. However a GPU is always more optimized for rendering graphics.

The HD 4000 should be able to render just about every video game this generation on lower settings, and games a few years behind fine. I got a question about playing MineCraft, and the Gazelle handles it just fine. There isn't any lag from what I saw.

Battery Life
The Gazelle Professional comes with a rather small 6 cell battery. The case spans the width of the laptop, but only one section really "holds" the battery.
I put the piece of paper there to give you a size estimate of how wide the battery is, and how big the actual battery section is.

As for battery life, it really depends on what you are doing. If you are doing something heavy, or even doing something as watching a HD video in full screen, the battery life will be lower if it was idle, for example. I did run two battery tests. The first test I ran an episode of the Linux Action Show in full screen at this brightness, and I got about 95 minutes before the battery alarm came on. That's another thing -- the battery alarm is loud! I took this test in the evening so I was winding down, but boy did that jump me back to speed! That's the loudest battery alarm I have ever heard, but at least it did it's job.

The other test I ran was when the computer was siting idle, with just LibreOffice open. That test lasted about 2 and 3/4 of an hour. However when I was using the laptop at another time, even though I didn't time it, it lasted about 3 hours.

I'm not too shocked about the battery life because you have to remember that that battery is powering a really powerful laptop, and more importantly a powerful CPU.

External Displays
On this laptop I did test HDMI out, and for some reason the outputted picture extended beyond all of my tested TV's screen barriers. I don't think this is much of an issue on System76's part, and more of Ubuntu's problem. However you can always extend windows to fit the screen area that you can see, so I didn't have problems watching a movie on the other screen or anything like that.

Update: Suspend and Resume (and Hibernate too)
I forgot to add this before the review but I got an email asking about suspend and resume. It works great, and out of the many times I tested it I was able to successfully resume every time.

As for Hibernate, the feature works too, even though it's not officially supported that much and Ubuntu even disables it because the feature is so hit and miss. Out of the times I tested Hibernate on the Gazelle Professional, it worked without a hitch. However hibernate does take a tad longer than just doing a fresh cold boot, but at least the feature is there if you choose to use it.

Conclusion
The Gazelle Professional, despite it's flaws, is a great laptop. You can get a lot of power out of this one, and the price is in line with other high performance laptops. While this laptop has Intel graphics, it shouldn't be that much of a deal if you aren't gaming. If you are, System76 has their own gaming laptop, the Bonobo Extreme, which has NVIDIA graphics out of the box, and can also have higher specs.

The cooling system in this laptop could use a minor adjustment, at least in the terms of where the ports for certain devices are located.

Otherwise, the webcam and microphone deserve a major improvement. The webcam should have a higher resolution and the microphone shouldn't be located near the left palm rest. It should be located up next to the webcam honestly. Hope System76 fixes that in a future model update, because in my opinion it was a fail.


Techman's World Rating: 4/5 stars

★★★★