Review: The ideal Linux laptop for power users

Although you'd be hard-pressed to find a laptop with better specs in this price range, I still can't recommend System76's Serval to everyone.

System 76 Serval review Linux Ubuntu laptop

Most laptops are boring.

One laptop gets slightly better battery life. The one next to it has a slightly faster GPU. That one over there is .00075 nanometers thinner. Minor differences. It's rare that a laptop actually stands out as being really and truly different. Unique. Ballsy.

And the Serval Workstation "laptop," without any doubt, qualifies as unabashedly ballsy. And, as luck would have it, the folks over at System76 sent me one to play with for a few weeks. You know. To properly evaluate its ballsiness.

Let's start with the fact that this isn't really a "laptop." The guts of the Serval Workstation make it more desktop than laptop. Desktop-class 4-GHz i7 processor. 16GB of DDR3 RAM. 128GB SSD. And, for the GPU, a 6GB nVidia GeForce GTX 970M.

And that's just the unit they sent me. You can cram up to 32GB of RAM and 5TB of storage in this rig. In. A. Freaking. Laptop. 

See also: 11 pointless but awesome Linux terminal tricks | Review: Canonical continues cloud push with Ubuntu 15.04

The display is 15.6 inches with a 1080p resolution. It's a great screen. It may not be 4K, but let's be honest, for most of us 1080p is just plain dandy. The reason I mention this independently from the other specs is that the 1080p screen, while great, is the only part of this machine that is merely "quite good."

Every other part qualifies squarely as freaking insane.

All of that high-end, desktop-class insanity does come at a bit of a price, however. In size. Sure, the Serval Workstation is, technically, a laptop…but it's really about as thick as two of the bigger, high-end laptops from other vendors stacked right on top of each other.

This bad-mamma-jamma has some serious ventilation, too. It would have to with that desktop-class CPU. Oh, and the power brick is the size of a Ford Focus. Give or take.

091415 serval image 2

But, and that's really the thing, this isn't a "laptop" in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, it's shaped like a laptop. Yes, it's portable. And, yes, I suppose you technically could put this computer on your lap – all 7 ½ pounds of it – but that's not what it's built for. Especially if you're wearing shorts. I'm pretty sure it would burn the hair on your legs clean off.

The rest of the specs are pretty hardcore as well. 4 USB 3.0 ports, an eSATA port, SD card reader, 1080p webcam, Gigabit Ethernet. and some of the best speakers I've ever heard on a laptop. And the keyboard, oh the keyboard! Great feeling, nice layout, and complete with a full 10-key number pad.

This is, in all reality, a portable desktop computer for someone who needs extreme power and is not willing to make compromises.

Video editing. Code compiling. Scientific computing. Those are the things the Serval Workstation is built for. Not for namby-pamby web browsing and spreadsheet editing (though it would do those just dandy as well). No. This machine is for the people who need intense speed and raw power.

In other words: This isn't a laptop that I would recommend for most people.

It's not terribly portable; I couldn't even fit the damned thing in my laptop backpack. I'd need to buy a new bag to accommodate its massive size. And that's without taking into consideration what lugging around an eight-pound laptop would do to my shoulders.

And most people simply do not need a high-end, desktop-class i7 CPU coupled with a 6GB GPU. Hell. The Serval comes with almost as much RAM dedicated just to graphics as the "high-end" Macbook Pro comes with… in total (GPU and System RAM put together).

But for people who need massive power? There is, quite simply, nothing that I have ever seen to rival the Serval. Massive, crazy, blistering power.

See what I mean? Ballsy. System76 isn't selling a mass-market laptop here. This is for a specific kind of user with specific needs and wants. And, hot damn, they nailed it.

All of that speed and power isn't terrible expensive for what you get, either. The rig they provided for my testing specs out at $2,089 (it starts at around $1,800). I was unable to configure a laptop that came close to touching the Serval's specs from any other manufacturer; and many (including Apple) sell more expensive gear with far lower specs. So, as nutty as it may sound for a rig like this, it's actually a pretty good deal. 

The Serval ships with Ubuntu right out of the box. I also loaded up openSUSE. Both Linux distributions ran fantastically well. (Would it run Windows well? I have no idea. I couldn't think of any good reason to check.) When I spoke to an engineer at System76 he regaled me with the story of making sure the firmware on the Serval supported Linux as perfectly as possible right out of the gate. That earned significant brownie points with me.

One side note: While this machine is, clearly, aimed towards professionals with demanding horsepower requirements, the Serval Workstation makes an absolutely ridonculous gaming machine. Just look at those specs. This is a LAN party dream machine. 

Now, with all that out of the way, there's the real question: Would I plop down $2,000 for the luxury of having this machine? For the time it would save in rendering video projects – along with the gaming speed it provides – you know… I'm seriously considering it.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.