System 76 Oryx Pro review: A laptop for your desk

oryx pro laptop
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

This monster of a laptop comes with Linux pre-installed.

In 2013 when I moved to the U.S. from Europe, I need a new laptop. My powerful desktop PC was on some ship due to arrive in 2-3 months. (Linux users will know how hard it can be to find a decent laptop that can run Linux without any issues.) I finally settled on a Macbook Pro that I have been using as my main laptop ever since.

Late last year, right around Christmas, System76 loaned me a review unit of its Oryx Pro laptop. I wish I had found something like this back in 2013.

The hardware

The body of the Oryx Pro is made out of aluminum alloy with some plastic, and although it’s not an all aluminum design like a Macbook Pro, it does feel good. One of the perks of this design is that you can easily upgrade the hardware, most notably RAM and storage, yourself.

The review unit they sent me is a 15.6” laptop -- the biggest laptop I've ever used.

The laptop has a 6th generation Intel Core i7 Quad-Core processor beating at its heart. This is a damn powerful processor, capable of handling anything that I threw at it. This Skylake processor gets all the support it needs from the Nvidia 970M w/ 3GiB video RAM GPU. The device comes with 8GB of RAM, but the motherboard supports up to 64GB DDR4 RAM at 2133 MHz. So you can install multiple virtual machines on it! That’s something I do a lot of my systems.

Oryx has four 3.0 USB Type A ports (I really wish everyone would move to reversible Type C USB). It also comes with an SD card reader. It has a Gigabyte Ethernet port, built-in Wireless-AC WiFi, Bluetooth and 2 mini DisplayPorts. It comes with a 1080p HD webcam for video chats plus stereo microphone.

It has a beautiful 15.6” 1920×1080, matte, in-plane switching (IPS) display, although I do wish it had a ultra high definition (UHD) -- a.k.a. retina -- display. Surrounded as I am by Pixel C, Nexus 6P, iPhone 6S Plus, Macbook Pro and iPad Pro, I can now see pixels. Unfortunately most Linux distros (along with Windows) still don’t support UHD as well as Mac OS X does. Everything looks tiny on such displays, so maybe System76 made the right choice.

The device comes with Onkyo speakers, which are as good as the ones found on my Macbook Pro. The sound is crisp and loud enough, though it lacks some bass.

Unfortunately, unlike Macbook Pro, you need to hold the Fn key in order to control volume, screen brightness and other such tasks. I wish System76 mapped the keys for these functions.

The power button is a bit clumsy. You have to really push it hard and it’s not as smooth as I would expect on a $1300-plus laptop. I hope the company will make some improvements in the next version of these devices.

It has a big trackpad that is quite good. I have heard bad things about sub-par trackpads on non-Mac hardware, but so far the trackpad hasn't given me any trouble.

The softer side of the picture

The laptop comes with Ubuntu pre-installed. And while I have nothing against Ubuntu, I prefer Plasma desktop over Unity.  So I formatted the solid state drive (SSD) to install openSUSE Leap.

(I tried to install Arch, but it seems like the Skylake processor and Nvidia GPU needed more of my time to get things working. As it was a review unit, there was no incentive for me to put in the extra work.)

Boy, do I love openSUSE Leap with Plasma 5 on this machine. Everything was so smooth. I didn’t bother to install Nvidia drivers, as open source drivers worked fine out of the box. Everything else - from Bluetooth to wireless worked flawlessly.

That’s when I got to test the hardware. Whatever I threw at it was handled gracefully. Transcoding high definition videos was painless, although the fans would kick in and the system would get hot.

After playing with it for a while and making an attempt to bring it with me on a short trip, I reached the conclusion that this device is meant for two purposes: gaming and desktop replacement.

system76 arrow Swapnil Bhartiya

Arrow keys for gamers.

Gaming: I used to be heavily into Crysis, Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, but while those days are behind me, for the sake of this review, I had to test the gaming experience on the laptop. There is a general perception that there are no games for Linux, but many games can be played natively on the Linux desktop through Steam Client.  Thanks to the powerful CPU and GPU on the Oryx Pro it was a pleasure playing games on this big screen. While playing games, I noticed that the WASD keys were marked with arrows so System76 is clearly positioning Oryx Pro as a gaming laptop.

system76 laptop Swapnil Bhartiya

The cons

Oryx Pro’s strength on the desktop becomes its weakness on the move. At 5.5 lbs, the laptop is too big and heavy as a travel companion. Its power adapter alone is three times the size of a Macbook Pro power adapter. It doesn't easily fit in my Lowepro backpack. And using it on your lap can be a painful experience -- the harder the powerful processor works, the more you will feel your thighs burning.

Another minor flaw with the device is that the power charger keeps unplugging and falling off when I use the Oryx Pro on my lap. It might have been better if it connected at one of the sides.

Conclusion

It’s a great laptop if you use it right. This is a perfect laptop for those who want a powerhouse computer at home, office or in a small businesses without having to deal with a bulky and messy desktop. Oryx Pro comes with Ubuntu, but installing your own OS on it won’t void the warranty (though you can’t expect System76 to offer support as they have expertise only in Ubuntu).

If you are looking for a decent laptop that has desktop grade power then Oryx Pro is a great contender.

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