Review of the System76 Darter Pro

I bought a Darter Pro by System76 (specifically the darp6 model), so here's the review of the Darter Pro... written with the Darter Pro.

Last updated on August 7, 2020. Created on November 15, 2019.

Darter Pro (darp6)

My elegant Darter Pro (darp6).

The Text Message

On October 9th, 2019, I awoke to this text message at 4:51am:

im so sorry but the car got broken into. your laptop was stolen please change your passwords

This message was from my wife, who borrowed my ex-laptop for a business trip. She left it unattended in a rental car somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is obviously the preferred way for one to secure personal effects. I still used the laptop on occasion, but it was almost seven years old. I bought it back in community college, and it delivered me through undergrad, so my wife was concerned that she had emotionally traumatized me by losing it. Thankfully for her, I'm an automaton without the capacity for feelings.

Brand Disillusion

I smelled fiscally irresponsible opportunity, so I told my wife I sought recompense effective immediately: a new laptop. Perhaps the new laptop would not be an oversized, heavy, hot piece of garbage like the refurbished Asus ZenBook I once owned for less than a week. I had heard nothing but great things about the Dell XPS, but I have trust issues from managing Dell products back in my past life as a bona fide IT technician. Moreover I knew I didn't want a fully proprietary, overpriced and flagrantly labor-exploiting chunk of rounded conceit as a personal computer, so my options dwindled.

My feelings on the other big brands are mixed, considering all the horror stories I hear from friends, family, and random Internet users. Since I no longer have any respect for pretty much any established brand at this point, I took a leap of faith on System76. I ordered the 15.6" Darter Pro.

Expectations

If you're wondering why I bought a Darter Pro, it's because I had high expectations for it.

Open Ecosystem

Why buy a Darter Pro? Well, for one, the Darter Pro ships with open firmware, earning respect in my book. Furthermore, System76 curates Pop!_OS, an Ubuntu-based distribution that ships with their various offerings. Needless to say, System76 not only appeals to my ethical and practical sensibilities as a programmer, but in so doing provides assurance that my hardware will actually work with a Linux-based operating system, a hit-and-miss sort of gamble for many alternatives on the market.

Upgradability

I thought the RAM options on System76's product customization tool for the Darter Pro were too expensive. No matter! It appears System76 does not solder otherwise replaceable components onto their devices, unlike some companies who will say, "But we solder the RAM to make the device thinner!" — yeah, okay, I'm sure that is your singular noble intention. Anyway, according to the product page, the Darter Pro supports "up to 64 GB Dual Channel DDR4 @ 2666 MHz," so I independently ordered two of the cheapest, best 32GB sticks of RAM I could find, because I'm dumb.

Now I can go longer than ever before detecting memory leaks in my code.

Keep in mind that the Darter Pro is not touted as a gaming laptop, despite the fact that I'm a gamer and game developer, so, what's my angle? Well, the Darter Pro has a Thunderbolt 3 port for connecting an external video card enclosure. I vastly prefer that to a nigh-unupgradable embedded card, which would increase the laptop's weight and complicate cooling. While I do not presently own such an enclosure, I will eventually test one and blog about it for your viewing pleasure.

Hi, My Name Is Matte

The Darter Pro's matte IPS display is antireflective, which bodes well for the those of us superior to others because we use dark mode. Better yet, the screen is just 1080p. All a higher resolution would accomplish is drain the battery to make text illegible. Why would I want that?

Mobility

Another big draw for me is the mobility of the Darter Pro, hence darter. While I never go anywhere or do anything, I want a laptop that can, just in case I suddenly become an adventuring extrovert after my wife finally batters me upside the head with sub-lethal force. Sporting a battery life reported by numerous third-party sources at about six to seven hours (keep reading to find out the actual battery life I experienced), assuming moderate-intensity processing and average screen brightness, I chalked that up as pretty damn good. And if I can bear overweight cats sleeping on my lap, then, at 3.6 pounds, the Darter Pro would easily replace their meaningless cuddles with sweet utilitarianism.

Unboxing

I received everything as advertised on November 11th, 2019. Swiftly I dropped what I was doing and haphazardly cut the packing tape by pulling the knife toward my body rather than away.

Darter Pro (darp6) Packaging

Such illustrious packaging.

Not only does the packaging look good, but it appropriately secured the laptop: no doubt it can survive trips from one corner of the earth to another.

Focus on Darter Pro (darp6) Resealable Packaging

System76 cares about the environment and stuff.

Note that the packaging is eco-friendly. It must also be pretty easy to return or resell the laptop.

Darter Pro (darp6) Stickers and Note

A bunch of stickers I'll never use and a thank-you note.

I don't care for stickers, but the thank-you note was a nice touch.

Darter Pro (darp6) Charger

The charger is not an annoyingly massive brick. Good.

They may not charge the fastest, but I prefer slender chargers like this.

Darter Pro (darp6) Closed

It's basically a vegan keyboard sandwich.

The logo on the laptop is a pre-pressed set of additional stickers, so I can remove the branding from the laptop if I want.

Darter Pro (darp6) Keyboard

Oh yeah, let's get a good look at that keyboard.

Reality

You can check the product page yourself for the Darter Pro's specs, but I will list my personal customizations:

  • Processor: 10th Gen Intel® Core i7-10510U: 1.8 up to 4.9 GHz - 8MB Cache - 4 Cores - 8 Threads
  • Memory: Supports up to 64GB Dual Channel DDR4 @ 2666 MHz (I ordered 8GB originally, and replaced it with two 32GB sticks)
  • Storage: Supports M.2 SATA or PCIe NVMe SSD of up to 2 TB total (I ordered a 1TB PCI NVMe SSD since it seemed to be the most cost-effective at the time)

Now I will go over what I like and do not like about this laptop. Furthermore, I'll even cover the things that could go either way.

The Good

The laptop rarely gets hot. And, as someone who's picky about keyboards, the keyboard feels great—each physical key press registers as anticipated. The double-finger scroll on the trackpad is brilliant, although I tend to use Vim-like extensions, meaning that I scroll with the j and k keys because there's something wrong with me. I noticed some lag when I was using 8GB of RAM while the computer tried to juggle an impromptu test: a circus carnival of browser tabs, Steam games, local web servers, and the Unity game engine's editor. The deficit was only noticeable upon app startup and profuse context switching.

Darter Pro (darp6) Innards

But now there's 64GB of RAM in this baby. Why, you might ask? Because, in the not-so-distant future, apps will need 64GB of RAM since they'll all be coded in Python, lol.

Replacing the original 8GB with 64GB of RAM was easy since System76 publishes service manuals with instructions on doing just that. Following the replacement, the computer took a few moments to figure out wtf I did to it, performing a bit of a light display with the keyboard backlight to acknowledge that something changed. Afterward, I noticed no hesitation in the computer's ability to manage memory. Also, speaking of the keyboard backlight, it's nice. There are several color options you can toggle with the function key.

The Bad

There's only one thing that irritated me about this laptop, but it doesn't have to do with the laptop itself.

While the installation of Pop!_OS was smooth, I later found that there must be something wrong with its desktop management configuration. I would try to open apps after restarting, and it would take them five minutes to load with no indication whatsoever that anything was happening in the meantime, no matter how much RAM was installed in the laptop. The worst offender was trying to open the Files interface, which would hang and never open. This is disappointing as the distribution ought to be usable without ever cracking open a terminal window. I thought Pop!_OS was just supposed to work, especially on a Darter Pro. Apparently 19.10 still has quirks.

So, what was the fix? I guess I could have called System76's wonderfully prompt customer support folks (they were kind and expedient when answering my queries during the order process), but generally I prefer to fix things myself (the wrong way). I figured I'd replace the desktop environment with Budgie, which I learned to love as a previous Solus user. I went ahead and installed the desktop environment with a command only known by internationally-wanted hackers:

sudo apt install ubuntu-budgie-desktop

After all, Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu.

Then I ran sudo reboot, restarting the computer into, yes, the Budgie desktop environment.

With that, there was no more weird process hanging. I should also mention that I think Budgie simply looks better, especially after switching it to dark mode (Pocillo-dark) via Budgie Desktop Settings. Another thing I found aggravating about Pop!_OS was its default handling of the super key. After pressing it, I would be bombarded with all the live windows and possible workspaces I could open. I find workspaces in general to be completely unnecessary—that's what Alt + Tab is for, people. With Budgie, however, pressing the super key results in a simple search bar and limited text-based list of apps and small, associated icons. Much, much better.

Meh

Every review I read about every device is lying about battery life, I'm assuming because most reviewers are paid for their reviews, unlike me. I'm just some guy trying to get a reliable laptop who happened to document his experience. So, let me be clear that anyone saying they get >7 hours out of the Darter Pro is probably BS. Five hours is all I can eke out of this laptop with a moderate workload, which is not bad, but it's not good either. It's certainly good enough for me, but I'm not you, and you my feel differently.

The webcam is okay, but not particularly impressive. I'll hardly ever use it, so I don't care. The speakers seem to work well, but I'm not an audiophile. The keyboard has a numpad, which is convenient, I guess. It is also possible to toggle the trackpad with the help of the function key, which may be worth noting to those who accidentally rest their palms against the trackpad—do not fear—your disregard for proper typing form will not be punished.

Conclusions

Aside from minor hiccups with Pop!_OS, which, I might add, is both optional and configurable, my Darter Pro is lightning fast. Aesthetically, it looks good, but not gaudy. I can easily change the hard drive and RAM to whatever I want. I noticed that other components, such as the WiFi card, are easily replacable as well. Again, with the Thunderbolt 3 port, I can eventually hook up an external video card enclosure. Provided I acquire such an enclosure, it may be possible for me to replace my beastly desktop computer with this laptop, and that's saying a lot.

For now, I strongly recommend the Darter Pro, and System76 in general.

But Before You Go

Yes, technically nobody paid me to write this article, but if you do follow the link to the aforementioned RAM and purchase it, then I will receive a small kickback. It was the best RAM I could find for the Darter Pro (darp6), and I know for a fact that it's compatible (it's currently functioning in my laptop).

Same goes for this travel bag, which I know fits the laptop like a glove because I bought one—it should work great for any 15.6" (or below) laptop. What's great about the bag is that it's inexpensive yet high quality; it has metal clasps instead of brittle plastic ones; the inside is well-padded to protect the device; and there's plenty of room for the charger as well.

Thanks for your time.

© Reese Schultz

My code is released under the MIT license.