Windows and macOS users have plenty of device options. Linux users on the other hand have traditionally been relegated to cobbling together their own builds. Denver, Colorado-based System76 provides a bevy of Linux laptops, desktops, and servers. I had the great pleasure of visiting the System76 headquarters for its 2017 Superfan II weekend, and learning about what’s next for this awesome company.

Hands on with System76 Hardware

As will occur when a bunch of superfans gather, glorious happenings ensued. Canonical Ltd. Cloud Liaison Jorge Castro decided to test out the capabilities of the Bonobo Workstation laptop by running a 32 node Kubernetes cluster.

The Bonobo, as System76 Product Engineer David Jordan explains, is running a quad-core Kaby Lake 770k desktop CPU. It’s available with up to five disks, two 2.5″ HDDs and three m.2 with NVME. What’s more, the Bonobo may be outfitted with up to two desktop GPUs. With its combination of desktop GPU and CPUs, the Bonobo is quite literally a desktop replacement.

I got an inside look at the Silverback WS server. The Silverback boasts dual Intel Xeon E5 v4 processors, up to 1 TB of ECC RAM, as high as 64 TB of storage, and you can deck out the Silverback WS with up to three GPUs. Graphics cards are available as GTX, Quadro, and Tesla options. With its beefy computing power, the Silverback is suitable for processing intensive tasks like machine learning. However, my first thought was what a sweet Plex set up a Silverback rocking 64 TB of harddrive space in RAID and dual Xeons would make. Complete overkill? Sure, but just think about all those potential concurrent transcodes. If you are looking for a sweet Plex server/client set up, check out the System76 Meerkat, which I listed as one of the best prebuilt, DIY, and NAS solutions for a Plex server over on MakeUseOf.

There’s a clear trend of devices getting smaller and lighter. System76 has a Linux thin and light laptop tentatively slated for release later in 2017. It features a metal case and 13″ display. Under the hood, you’ll find a Kaby Lake processor. It reminded me of an Apple MacBook Air/MacBook Pro fusion, but with better software.

System76: Reaching for the Stars

I was thrilled to get hands on with the new thin and light laptop. Yet it was the direction of System76 as a whole that really intrigued me, and is poised to place Linux machines on the map. Admittedly, and yes as a Linux advocate it pains me to say this, but Linux machines are not mainstream. System76 plans to move production completely to Colorado.

“This was a decision we made a year ago,” System76 CEO Carl Richell stated of the plan to in-house production.  Richell and the System76 team synthesized the company aesthetic: innovation, warmth, and down to earth, into design. When you get a System76, it’s one of the more revolutionary products available. A quick search for Linux laptops and desktops yields a small list outside of System76 machines. System76 is a name that connotes quality, and the forthcoming designs promise to exhibit this from the onset. Yet current cases appear as standard stock components.

I saw two prototypes at the Feb. 11, 2017 round-table in Denver, Colorado. Sorry folks, no pictures! With the case redesign, System76 seeks to convey their brand. “We’ve always felt we had a warmer brand than our competitors,” Richell explained. Don’t expect any gaudy LED lights. Rather, prototypes feature woodgrain and metal inlays. Plus, System76 plans to open-source case design.

System76 Prototype Designs: First Impressions

I enjoyed the first case quite a lot. The first appeared as a fairly standard desktop form factor, like an m-ATX or m-ITX mid-tower. But the front featured a woodgrain panel and aluminum inlays of an abstracted Rocky mountain range. System76 opted for padauk wood, selected for both its looks and sustainability.

However, the second design really blew me away. Its design features a sloped front and wood side panel with the Rocky mountains. On the other side, a star map of the sky as it appears from Denver appears. I loved this case as and its sort of HTPC aesthetic. Rather than a standard PC housing, it looked more like a stereo or turntable form factor. The design of the second PC reminded me of the PlayStation 2 fat in that it would seem comfortable positioned on its side or upright.

The prototypes were acrylic and laser cut. The final product won’t be acrylic, but this medium lent a solid impression of what’s to come. Thumbscrews made assembly and disassembly simple.

Final Thoughts: Whatever the Case May Be

In-housing production and redesigning cases is a radical change, and a true group effort. Brand Alchemist Kate Hazen, Product Engineer Jason DeRose, and Support Specialist Ian Santopietro each spoke on various aspects of their case concepts. Hazen elaborated on using woodgrain on desktop cases, with gorgeous adornments evocative of the company’s commitment to quality. DeRose took the mic and chronicled his elaborate romp through prototyping which involved reverse engineering and a revolutionary new means of separating a case. Santopietro discussed engineering aspects like uncovering the right shellac.

There’s no timetable on when  we’ll see any of these designs hit the market. Moreover, the final product may vary as engineering and design continue. But what’s certain is that System76 will continue to boldly go where no manufacturer has gone before. Inside these radical cases of course will be the stellar components and software that gave rise to the company’s popularity. Heavy hitters like Pixar, Google, and Tesla use System76 machines, and the New York transit system is powered by System76 devices.

But it’s not merely about a pretty case. Rather, the case exhibits outwardly the quality of a System76 device and not just the hardware. There’s the support you get when purchasing a System76 device, and the reliability of its machines. Additionally, it’s machines are positioned to be extremely recognizable from before they’re even powered on. Just as Mac devices are easily identifiable from a mere glance, so too will System76 machines remain recognizable from a quick look.

The two prototypes I saw unveiled were radically different than any desktop I’d seen before. System76 is transitioning after its 11 year history into a new chapter. I’m truly excited to see how System76 will continue to evolve and provide Linux users the best machines available. There’s innovation at the laptop, desktop, and server (sorry, no spoilers but expect an absolute beast of a server) front.

What are your thoughts? How important are case aesthetics, and what do you wish to see spawn from System76?