A Linux user review of the Darter Pro laptop from System76

In spite of its light weight, the Darter Pro stacks up well against other powerful laptops.
140 readers like this
140 readers like this
Darter Pro laptop

Don Watkins, CC0

I've been looking for a Linux laptop that's as powerful as a MacBook Pro and as light as a Chromebook, so when System 76 offered me the opportunity to review its Darter Pro, I was excited to accept the opportunity. I'm glad I did—in addition to being feather light and powerful, it has lots of features that meet my needs.

Darter Pro's specs

I do a lot of training on coding and Raspberry Pi, which means I'm always on the go, so having a lightweight laptop with maximum battery life is essential. The Darter Pro weighs only 3.6 pounds, and according to System 76, its 54.5Wh battery is good for six to 10 hours. It also has a 15.6-inch 1920x1080p Matte IPS display plus ample interfaces to external LCDs and projection devices if I need to expand my screen real estate even further. Another key feature for me is its SD card slot, which is imperative for creating Raspberry Pi boot drives. I found its 101-key backlit chicklet keyboard responsive, and its touchpad lets me scroll through websites and blogs like using a MacBook Pro.

System 76 offers the Darter Pro in a variety of configurations, including the option to install Pop_OS or Ubuntu. Its base model has an 8th Generation Intel Core i5-8265U and 8GB of RAM. (You can check the rest of its specs on the Darter Pro website.) The model I tested had Pop_OS 18.10, an 8th Generation Intel Core i7-8565U, a 250GB M.2 SSD drive, and 16GB of RAM. Here are the specifications from the evaluation computer.

Darter Pro specs

How does it stack up?

I was curious how Darter Pro stacks up against its peers, so I contacted Michael Larabel at open source benchmarking site Phoronix and asked for his advice. He recommended I test it against Dell's new XPS 13 9380 with Ubuntu 18.10, which he recently reviewed.

After installing the Phoronix Test Suite software on the Darter Pro, I entered the command

$ phoronix-test-suite benchmark 1902114-SP-BENCHMARK79

into an open terminal and waited a couple of hours for the benchmark testing to complete.

I am happy to report that the Darter Pro did extremely well and outperformed the XPS 13 and the other computers included in that benchmarking suite. You can see from the graphics below that the Darter Pro was more than equal to its peers.

In the timed Linux kernel compilation, it finished first.

Darter Pro benchmark

It also did well on a test that measures the time required to encode a WAV file to MP3 format.

Darter Pro benchmark

I used the unsharp mask operation in GIMP to test graphic and CPU performance; the Darter Pro outperformed the XPS13.

Darter Pro benchmark

I shared the benchmarking results on Openbenchmarking.org; you can check them there.

If you are looking for a light laptop that's powerful enough to handle the challenges of your day-to-day operations, and you want it to come pre-installed with Linux, I recommend you consider the Darter Pro.

Tags
Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, Follow me at @Don_Watkins .

13 Comments

Always good to see benchmarks against other hardware. Thanks for Sharing Don.

What is the actual battery life, in your experience?
The battery is not user-replaceable (a sad trend). What service does System76 offer to replace it when it dies? How much will it cost? Will they sell replacement batteries to DIY users (which is majority of Linux users)?

How does the price of the Darter Pro compare to similarly-spec'd XPS 13 and macbook?

Thank you!

The battery life in my experience has been as advertised. I have owned 2 MacBook Pro's and most recently a MacBook Air 13.I have had to replace batteries on them and in no case in my experience did the battery power last 6 - 10 hours. I've also owned a number of Dell products which I generally like. I've never owned the XPS 13. My most recent Linux laptop was a Dell Latitude Ultrabook running Ubuntu 18.10. I don't like that the battery is not user replaceable either. I don't know what it would cost to replace. I do know that System 76 has great technical support and integrity. The unit like I tested costs $1398 with a one year warranty. I don't know what the other systems cost.

In reply to by Digitalis

The battery is not hot-swap-able but you can change it out when it needs to be replaced. It's a few screws and then the cable connecting the battery to the motherboard. We do ship battery for quite a while once a product is launched and we will help you swap most parts out other then the motherboard since.

In reply to by Don Watkins

I don't believe that it's reasonable to compare a 15.6" machine against a 13.3" machine, because:
- they really offer quite different ergonomic experiences and different levels of portability
- U-series processors are thermally bound. Whichever machine has the larger cooler (and configured tdp) will have higher performance. You didn't need to run a benchmark for me to know that the bigger, heavier machine would offer higher performance.

Can you do a more in-depth coverage of real-world use and comparison? Screen quality in day/night and in/out-doors, graphic responsiveness, build quality, etc.? Specs being comparable, the look-and-feel can make a difference.

I already want one, but can't afford it (or any computer right now).

I think it's built well. I've had a number of Dell laptops and several MacBooks and it is comparable. I'm a senior citizen and my eyes aren't what they used to be so screen quality is important to me. I have not used it outdoors but I regularly put it in my backpack and travel around with it and connect in libraries. The keyboard is responsive as is the track-pad and left and right mouse buttons. I bought a laptop from them at one point and elected to send it back and there were no questions regarding the return. They sent me a shipping label and I got my money back. There was no restocking fee. They offer a 30 day money back guarantee. Their tech support is very good too. Much better than other PC makers that I've dealt with. I hope this helps answer some of your questions.

In reply to by Drew Kwashnak

Its good to see OEM's that are designing and building devices for the Open Source Community and the GNI/Linux crowd! I'm "stuck" right now, because I don't really "believe" in buying new....but I REALLY wouldn't mind the Darter or the Galago Pro or any of System76's machines. I guess I'll break my own rule just once, when its time for a new desktop (and its been time since 2015! when the 2011 machine died!) I'm going to keep saving up for a Thelio...the mid-sized tower! And then my life will be complete!...LoL! Great article!! Thanks for the info!

I ordered a Darter Pro based on this review and a few other articles, podcasts, and videos I found online. It was a decision between this machine and the XPS13. I prefer supporting a Linux provider and found System76 had better customization options. I'm looking forward to receiving it and trying Pop OS, which I hear good things about. Thanks for your help.

I have the system76 Meerkat and it is great. Saving up for that Darter Pro.... just a few 4 or 5 months...!
Thanks for the review

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