Updated: August 29, 2018
I decided to bite the bullet and try something rather audacious. Well, not that audacious. I decided to see whether it's possible to actually use a Linux machine for everyday productivity work. To that end, I have purchased a 14-inch Slimbook Pro2, and it's currently making its merry way to my home.
Now, this is not a reactionary decision. It is one based on curiosity. I am not trying to wean myself off the evil corporations or anything of that sort. I am quite happy using Windows and Linux in parallel, but then, I also want to see the Linux desktop succeed, in a real-life, pragmatic sort of way, without compromising or any sweet illusions. So I am now going to take my Linux experience to another level, and that means using a Linux machine for some really really serious stuff. After me.
When the Slimbook came out (KDE Slimbook to be more precise), I was instantly intrigued. I contacted the Slimbook team twice, requesting a review model, but both times, my query was forwarded the the marketing department with no reply. That's not the most auspicious of starts, you have to admit.
I then started browsing around, looking for a Linux-dedicated laptop. While there are some rather popular choices out there, unlike the distro world, there aren't that many. In fact, the repertoire is very limited, and in the end, it comes down to: Dell XPS, System76 machines - and possibly Slimbook. I couldn't really find more than this. Nothing major Linux-wise on Amazon, for instance.
Moreover, with the vendors that do offer Linux-supported systems - which should mean good hardware and driver support, I'd like to believe, not like my Lenovo G50 saga - you then become limited by the available models. XPS looks nice, but it is expensive, only 13.3 inches and I never liked Dell keyboards. System76 has a wider selection, but most models come in black trim and the somewhat travel-inconvenient 15.6-inch size, although I do personally like and prefer bigger laptops. However, for the sake of this experiment, I was looking for something that would blend convenience with practicality, and the middle-of-the-road 14 inches sounds like a good compromise, travel, weight and ergonomics all combined.
The Spanish vendor Slimbook seemed to offer the most my-taste-friendly menu. I decided to explore the available models. KDE Slimbook (second generation) is a no-go on the account of its screen size. Katana II also disqualified itself due to the exact same restriction. Excalibur 2 is too big. That left me with the Pro2 model, which offers both 13.3 and 14 inch screens.
Overall, the Slimbook search 'n' customize experience wasn't that good. The official site defaults to Spanish, which probably doesn't make sense - not commercially and not when it comes to figuring out the user's language or location.
The English site is full of spelling errors, and when you do click the Buy button, half the explanations and terminology are still in Spanish. The same is true of the order page, the order confirmation and the email you receive upon a successful purchase. It would make far more sense to have everything done in one language, and for that matter, business-wise, English makes most sense.
Next, I considered Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (6th generation), which is just about to be released. I've always loved ThinkPads, because they are sturdy and reliable and have very good build quality. But the comparable model is about twice the price of the Slimbook Pro2 model (in terms of raw spec), and it comes with Windows 10 Pro, which is not what I had in mind. Dual-boot is always possible, but again, not the purpose of this experiment. Lastly, this is not an "official" Linux laptop. So it might not be 100% compatible.
In the end, I decided to go with the Slimbook Pro2, despite the clunky site interface problems - the 13.3-inch model was available one day, but then gone the next, the URL reads 13.3 but the order reads 14, which is what I want, and so on. There were also niggles at the checkout phase, but in the end I had the order processed and the laptop should arrive in about a week or two.
So, what did I choose? I decided to go for the i5 processor rather than i7 - shouldn't make much difference except heavy workloads (like games and rendering), which is not what the laptop will be doing. I did beef up the default 4GB RAM spec to 16 GB. I also upgraded the standard 128GB SSD to 500GB, did not go for the faster SSD models (2000 MB/sec is good enough), or a second hard disk. Slimbook Pro2 does allow you to slot in a second mechanical or SSD device.
I did not upgrade the Wireless antenna from the default dual-band Intel 7265N, or add the SIM module. The main reason is - this would delay the assembly and delivery by two full weeks! The same also applies to the keyboard selection. You can choose several European layouts, including English UK but not English US. This one brings in a whole month delay! BTW, for KDE Slimbook, even the UK layout incurred the one-month penalty. No mention of extra chargers or the type of charger (I assume EU plug). No mention of any other accessories either on the model customization page.
I went for standard USB Type-C rather than Thunderbolt connectivity, and finally selected no operating system. Several distros are available, including Debian, Ubuntu, Mint, SUSE, neon, and others, plus Windows. I am not 100% sure how compatible and supported all these are out of the box, but that's something I will discover once I get the laptop. Perhaps the Slimbook team do extra customization and install stuff manually, but I don't think this is the case, since KDE Slimbook officially supports KDE neon, so I'd expect all recent Ubuntu flavors to run without issues.
Looking at the rest of the official spec, there's quite a lot there. Slimbook Pro2 also offers Ethernet port whereas KDE Slimbook does not. You also get audio jack, DisplayPort and HDMI, several USB 3.0 sockets (not Type-C), SD card slot, aluminum body, and a full-HD screen. The 13.3-inch Pro2 model (if and when available) comes with 3200 x 1800 HiDPI, I guess in order to compete with Dell XPS. But we will talk about this once the laptop arrives.
All this cost slightly less than EUR1,100. A few days earlier, there was some kind of discount, but it did not show up when I came back to order (although I'm not sure if the price went up, I don't remember). There's also warranty (two years in Europe), and you do have to pay for shipment, ranging from EUR9 in Spain to more than EUR100 for international shipments. Well, bon voyage.
Operating system choice
I won't go into too many details, but I am thinking Kubuntu 18.04 Bionic Beaver. Ever since majestic Zesty, I started thinking about deploying Kubuntu in my production setup, and this will be a nice opportunity to realize that desire. Hopefully, there shall be no disappointments. I am also planning on full-disk encryption or at the very least, home partition encryption. And then, there's Vault, too. More things to test and evaluate, indeed.
BTW, you may be asking, what are you currently running in what you call your production setup? There's a whole array of Windows systems (Windows 7 and Windows 8.1), an Asus ultrabook with a dual-boot config, which includes Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty, and then there's also a rather ancient and struggling Asus eeePC netbook, less frequently used, but still alive and sort of kicking in defiance and whatnot. Other Linux machines are all test systems that are not used for productivity work. And we shall define that in detail as we go along with this experiment.
Questions & concerns
I am still not 100% sure that the Slimbook Pro2 will offer a seamless Linux experience. It is the wording on some of the specs that gives me a bit of a pause. Like the Wireless antenna. To quote the official page:
WiFi includes a brand new antenna design supported by Intel’s new 8265-AC card, it will provide a better signal and more stability in the latest Linux kernels, to be more precise, 4.8 or superior.
What does this mean - more stability? Does this mean it's not going to be stable? Or that the 8265-AC model did not work well or wasn't stable enough in kernels prior to version 4.8? There's no mention of the other, weaker antenna here, so what does that mean? Moreover, Bluetooth 4.0 is mentioned but only with 8265-AC model and not the other one (7265 N). So what does that mean? Does this mean there's no Bluetooth with the cheaper chip or what? Or that a lower standard is offered? And what kind of incompatibility am I supposed to expect, if any? It would be quite annoying if the connectivity turns out to be a dud, but hey, you have to risk it.
I'm also not sure how the warranty works. Do I ship the laptop for potential repairs to Spain? We'll see.
This might be a pre-cliffhanger, but there are certain things that Slimbook Pro2 is not going to achieve. It will not replace Windows when it comes to serious gaming or the use of Microsoft Office. Those are indispensable for me and currently the sole domain of the Windows operating system. But lots of the other stuff can be done in Linux, and quite effectively, too. Hey, I've been using the Asus ultrabook a fair deal in the past five years, and without any major issues. So it's time to notch this up some.
The side effect of this experiment will be the awareness factor. It may sound like an idealistic cause, but it's always good to have product choice, and supporting small vendors allows for a better user experience in the long run. However, the most important thing here is - I want my Slimbook Pro2 to allow me to be productive and to have fun. So let's see how it goes. Welcome to the journey. To be continued.