I wanted a netbook for traveling. I plan to use it primarily for checking e-mail, browsing the Internet, writing documents, listening to music and watching movies. I may also at some point use it as an e-book reader and podcast player.
I'm a moderately competent user of computers. I have a little -- but not much -- experience with Linux.(Want to cut to the chase? Look at the bottom of this page for a blue chart listing Pros and Cons of the Starling)
Manufacturer: System76 (located in Denver, CO, USA) This company sells server, desktop, laptop, and netbook computers, all preloaded with the Ubuntu Linux operating system.Model: Starling
The System76 Web site is simple and straight-forward. Ordering the Starling online via that Web site is easy. The one downside I must report is that after ordering my Starling, I received an e-mail from System76 reporting that their Web hosting provider had been hacked and that an "unauthorized person" might be in possession of the credit card number and other information I entered when ordering. System76 said it does not store such information; the hack occurred during processing. Not what one wants to hear, of course. System76 says it has taken steps to ensure that it does not happen again.
I had a few questions about the netbook before ordering. I found a link on the System76 Web site for contacting the Sales Department and sent an email with my questions. They were answered clearly and promptly by Thomas Aaron.
I ordered the Starling on Thursday May 28, 2009. It arrived on my doorstep in Seattle six days later on Wednesday, June 3, 2009. Not bad considering I had opted for UPS ground shipping, the slowest and cheapest option. Shipping cost was $13.92. Oddly, I received an e-mail from System76 on Saturday June 6, 2009 giving me a UPS tracking number to track my shipment!
Unfortunately, the packing material was styrofoam peanuts, not the greatest choice environmentally speaking. (System76 claims on its Web site to be driven by environmental concerns: "As you may have noticed, our systems are named after animals. In fact, they are not only named after these wonderful beings but dedicated to them. System 76 works to promote wildlife and open lands conservation.")
Here's a picture of the packing box. The external USB optical drive is on the left; the Starling netbook is in a box underneath the peanuts.
Minimal instructions/documentation are included. But setup is pretty darn simple. You plug in the computer; press the "on" button; and fill in language, time zone, keyboard preference, user name and password. The whole thing took me less than 10 minutes, and I was deliberate rather than hasty about it.
Here's a picture of the Starling as I peeled off a plastic protective sheet from the screen. You can also see the power adapter to the upper right.
My desktop Windows XP box takes me 7 minutes from turning on the power switch to having my e-mail client and browser up. My Lenovo R60 Windows XP laptop takes more than 3 minutes to be up and browsing the Web. So I was eager to see what the bootup time on this Starling netbook would be. The time from turning on the power switch on the Starling netbook to having my Firefox browser up was 55 seconds.
Not surprisingly, the Starling also is much, much faster at coming back to life from "suspend" or "hibernate" states.
I have been delighted with the performance of the Starling. I sometimes have seen the statement on the Internet that netbooks are slow. For almost all of the tasks that I have been performing, this netbook has not been the least bit slow.
For example, while writing this review in the Bluefish editor, I have my Firefox browser up with 6 tabs open and I have my Rhythmbox audio player playing some tunes. I've got the Pidgin IM application open. The File Browser program is open. I'm also using the Picasa photo editing program. The netbook continues to perform snappily. I've had the netbook on for ~10 hours and see no degradation in performance, unlike my Windows desktop, which slows to a crawl after a while and must be rebooted.
I've twice played movies on this netbook (not with other apps open though) and they played just fine -- no jerkiness or pixilation or other problems. These are regular DVDs, not high-def. I've watched You Tube videos with excellent results.
But I have finally discovered one program that runs slowly on the Starling: Google Earth.
I've had no crashes or strange system messages so far. The system seems stable.
7th UPDATE: Now that I've been using my Starling for a while, I can say that the battery is generally good for 3½ to 4 hours.
The battery snaps quickly and easily into the back edge of the netbook. When it is inserted, the back of the computer is raised as shown in the photo below. If you are using AC power, you don't need to insert the battery, unless you want to charge it up.
UPDATE: I have never had to do any configuring or futzing of any kind to get the wi-fi working. It "just works" out of the box. However, I have on several occasions been unable to connect with detected networks until I moved closer to the access point.
I traveled recently with the Starling, and most of the time I was able to connect to wi-fi networks in motels with no problem. But in two cases -- once in a coffee shop and once in a library -- I had to move closer before I connected. In the library, there were people all over the place using their laptops, whereas I could connect only in one specific place. In the coffee shop, the access point apparently was across the street rather than in the coffee shop itself. But other users in the coffee shop were able to connect, whereas I was not. This suggests to me that the Starling's wi-fi card is a little weak at pulling in the signals. (Don't know if I am diagnosing the problem correctly here.)3rd UPDATE: It turns out that many people have had exactly the same wi-fi problem I've had: they often have to move closer to the access point to get connected. To its credit, System76 got on this problem and has just released an updated System76 Driver that it says substantially increases the wi-fi range.
4th UPDATE: I've downloaded the System76 Driver Version 2.3.7 and have found that wi-fi performance is improved. I can now connect to a network that I could not previously connect to. When the signal is weak, transfer rates are on the slow side. Moving closer helps in that case. Overall, I believe the wi-fi performance now is satisfactory. For info on the System76 driver update and more details on wi-fi performance, go to: http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=1233219
The screen displays fonts and pictures crisply. It's bright and pleasant to look at. No eyestrain. The two movies I've played have displayed beautifully. I was surprised at how well I could read the screen in sunlight. The glossy screen does not help, but still, I was able to read the screen pretty well.
The design of the hinge prevents the screen from reclining to a flat 180 degree angle. I'd say it goes a little less than half way between perpendicular and flat. UPDATE: Most of the time, this is not a problem, but a few times I have wished it reclined further to avoid glare in a particular light situation.
The touchpad is located immediately under the space bar; it is not centered either on the spacebar or the computer itself, but rather is slightly left of center. There might well be an ergonomic reason for this. However, I must confess that I am not a touchpad person, so I can't opine credibly on the touchpad. I prefer a pointing stick -- there isn't one on this computer -- but I most prefer a mouse. In fact, I have hooked up a USB mouse and am happily using that.
At 2 inches wide by 1-1/8 inches deep, the touchpad is pretty small. The buttons are on either side and each is 3/8-inch wide and 1-1/8 inch deep.
8th UPDATE: A contributor to Ubuntu Forums says that touchpads are not supposed to be centered on the computer but rather on the "home keys" where touch typists place their fingers when they begin typing. The touchpad, he says, should be placed such that a vertical line that runs between the "G" and "H" keys bisects the touchpad. On the Starling, the line between the "G" and "H" keys runs about 5/8" from the right edge of the touchpad and about 1 3/8" from the left edge. In other words, it does not exactly bisect the touchpad. I notice that on my desktop computer's keyboard, the "G" and "H" line does bisect the spacebar. On the Starling, that G-H line also bisects the spacebar. However, center point of the spacebar is slightly to the right of the center point of the touchpad.
Another review I read somewhere of the Starling mentioned that the keys had a stiff feel. That seems true, though it's not a bad thing; in fact, it makes the keyboard seem sturdy and high-quality to me. I like the feel of the keys a lot.
As is true with netbooks in general, the keyboard is smaller than a standard-sized laptop or desktop keyboard and takes some getting used to to avoid hitting the wrong key or inadvertently brushing the touchpad. I've found that the more I use it, the better I get. It does not seem like a big problem. Of course, people with large fingers might have a different view.
6th Update: My typing experience improved greatly after I turned off the touchpad. That ended the problem of unpredictable results from inadvertently brushing the touchpad while typing. To turn the touchpad off, go to the "Preferences" section and click on the "Mouse" icon. Then click on the "Touchpad" tab and uncheck the "Enable touchpad" box.
I'm new to Web cams, so I was wondering how to use the Web cam on the Starling. I did a Google search on something like "Linux Web cam" and saw a reference to Cheese. I recalled seeing a Cheese application when I was initially perusing the applications that came with the Starling. I opened the Cheese application and was immediately presented with a button that said "Take Picture." I clicked on it and here's what I got in my rather dark study:
At 0.3 megapixels, it's not exactly a powerhouse cam, but serviceable enough.
Because I wanted to watch movies on this netbook, I decided to order the optional USB external optical drive. System76 gives minimal information on its Website about the drive, other than to say that it is CD-RW DVD-RW. Cost is $85. The model I was sent is a nu External Super Slim DVD Burner ESW860.
This drive is available from nu and from other online retailers for $63 -$73. I can't see that the drive sent by System76 would differ in any way from one that you would order elsewhere online. In fact, the drive came with a "Nero 8 Essentials" CD that appears to be Windows-only software. And the box lists only Windows XP and Vista under the heading "OS Compatibility," so it hardly seems as if the drive is a special Starling variant.
I was a boob and hastily hooked up the USB cable from the burner to the netbook and couldn't seem to get the netbook to "see" the burner. I did online research to no avail. I recruited my husband to help and after awhile he saw that I might not have the cable hooked up properly. Aha! Once I hooked the cable up right, the drive immediately showed up on the netbook.
Below is a picture of the USB 2.0 cable. It's got a micro-USB connector at one end and two regular USB connectors at the other end. I used the wrong regular-sized connector. If I had paid attention instead of just hastily plugging in the first one I grabbed onto, I wouldn't have had problems.
And here is a picture of the Starling and the nu drive and its box:
There was minimal documentation with the drive. It's true that all you do is plug it in and the device shows up on the netbook. But it is up to you to figure out the software you need to use to play DVDs. (More about that in the Adding Software section below.)
A CD/DVD Creator program comes with the Starling, but before I discovered that, I had downloaded the Brasero CD/DVD burning program. Brasero has a good, clear interface, but it turns out that Brasero has a bug. I discovered this after trying unsuccessfully several times to burn a music CD. A Google search quickly turned up the bug. Fortunately, it is very easy to fix. Go to Brasero's Edit menu, click on "Plugins" and then uncheck the "Normalize" box. Now Brasero will work beautifully.
I popped a USB 4 GB thumbdrive into the USB port and it was immediately recognized by the netbook. I transferred files from it to the netbook with ease.
I connected the USB cable that came with this camera to the netbook. The netbook's file browser immediately came up showing all of the folders on the camera's memory stick. I easily copied the pictures from the camera to the netbook. I did not need to install any special software to do this. It "just worked," as have (7th UPDATE) most USB devices so far that I've hooked up to the Starling.
A "Going Linux" podcast (Episode #35 at http://goinglinux.com/) that discussed media player management software was a help.
Although Rhythmbox is included with the Starling and works fine as a media player and podcatcher, it does not provide a way for you to transfer podcasts and mp3s onto your mp3 player. I tried Amarok but found that it didn't work, even though it is supposed to have that functionality. It is aimed at the KDE desktop (the Starling uses the Gnome desktop), so perhaps its seeming bugginess was related to that. The gpodder program also didn't work for me. Next, I tried Banshee, and, thank God, that did work. I highly recommend Banshee.
I found that it works best if you do things in a certain order:
I'm currently wrestling with getting my cell phone working with the Starling. Once again, it comes with software for synching the phone to the PC, but naturally it is Windows software. I hook my phone up to the Starling via a USB cable. My goal is to be able to get photos from the cell phone to my Starling. I haven't been able to get this to work. I downloaded the Linux cell phone management program known as Wammu. It's got a nice wizard, but the program is not recognizing my phone. I have a query at Ubuntu Forums, so I hope I'll get some help on this.
8th UPDATE: Unfortunately, though people tried to help me with this issue on Ubuntu Forums, they were unable to come up with a solution. Thomas Aaron of System76 ended up concluding that "it looks like Ubuntu just doesn't play nicely with whatever kind of formatting/filesystem your phone uses."
When I hook up the USB cable from the cell phone to the Starling, I am presented with four options on the cell phone screen: phone mode, media transfer, mass storage and print. For the media transfer and mass storage options, log entries on the Starling show that the Starling does recognize that a phone or USB device is attached. However, I am unable to get access to the phone. The "phone mode" actually brought up a dialog that wanted to set up a broadband connection with my phone provider, so for folks who are looking to do that, that might work OK. I did not try the print option.
Having read a recent Wall Street Journal article that criticized Linux netbooks for incompatibilities with printers and other peripherals, I was worried about what I would face in trying to hook up to my printer.
I plugged the USB cable from my HP Laserjet 1022 into the Starling netbook. I immediately got a message saying "Missing printer driver." However, just as quickly I got another message that said: "For this printer a proprietary driver plugin from HP is available. Installing the plugin is optional, it completes or enhances the functionality of your printer. Without plugin at least basic operations work. The plugin provides the following features: -faster printing. Do you want to download and install the plugin now?"
Compliments to System76 or Ubuntu for writing a system message in plain English. (Not saying the grammar was perfect with the run-on sentence.)
I said yes to the download and installation of the plugin. I got a terminal-like screen that gave me three options: d for download (recommended), p for specify a path (advanced) and q for quit. I typed in d and the download proceeded.
I next got a dialogue box asking me to give a name to the printer and a location: I typed in "hplaserjet" and "study" and also was asked if I wanted to print a test copy. I clicked yes to that and immediately heard the sweet sound of my printer coming to life. The test print was perfect.
I did not consider this process burdensome. It took me about 5 minutes and I never worried or puzzled over anything.
I plugged my Cat.6 ethernet cable (it comes from the router) into the Starling's ethernet port. I was immediately connected to the Internet.
9th UPDATE: Initially, I was unable to test the card reader because I owned no SD cards. However, having bought a camera recently that uses SDHC cards, I was finally able to test this function. I am pleased to report that it works just fine. No hitches.
Like probably all netbooks and many laptops, the Starling's speakers are tinny and unpleasing. I plugged in my Radio Shack titanium headphones and the sound was beautiful.
This is the first Starling function that I've encountered that I've been unhappy with. I hooked up a Logitec USB Desktop microphone that cost $30 to the Starling. I went to the Sound and Video folder on the desktop and found the Sound Recorder application and clicked on it. So far so good.
Sound Recorder has a simple, clear interface. Across the top are the following icons: New, Open, Save, Record, Play, Stop. You see a drop-down list of seven different formats to record in: CD Quality AAC (.m4a type), CD Quality Lossless (.flac type), CD Quality Lossy (.ogg type), CD Quality mp2 (.mp2 type), CD Quality mp3 (.mp3 type), Voice Lossless (.wav type), and Voice lossy (.spx type).
I tried recording my speaking on four of these types (ogg, mp3, wav, and spx). At first, only the mp3 worked, and even it was not very satisfactory -- the volume is too low.
I then decided to install the System76 driver. This driver adds support for devices not natively supported by Ubuntu. It is found in the "Administration" folder on the desktop. After doing that, I was able to get the .ogg recording to work -- at about the same low volume as the .mp3.
The Sound Recorder application has a slider-type volume control, but it was set on the lowest possible volume and every time I tried to increase it, it reverted to the lowest setting.
I have not done any online research to see what the problem might be or how my results might be improved. But my conclusion is that the Starling's microphone function needs improvement.
7th UPDATE:I tried the built-in microphone, though I tested it only in the mp3 format. It worked, but even with the volume turned all the way up, the volume of the resulting recording is very low. I still consider the microphone performance sub-par.
7th UPDATE: Ubuntu releases a new version of the operating system about every six months. My Starling came preloaded with Jaunty Jackalope (9.04). Since then, Karmic Koala (9.10) has been released. However, Starling owners have been cautioned not to upgrade to Karmic until System76 can fix it so that the wireless card will work with Karmic.
9th UPDATE:After 2 to 3 months, System76 finally rewrote the driver software and got wireless working with Karmic Koala. I have not upgraded to Karmic yet because of lack of time and because I am happy enough with Jaunty, which is working fine. If it's not broke, don't fix it! However, I probably will upgrade when 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) comes along, though I will wait until others have done so first to make sure there are no glitches involved.
System76 is hoping to find a way to deal with the Starling wireless such that they won't have to hassle with it every time there is a new Ubuntu release. Let's hope that the 10.04 upgrade goes smoothly!
2nd UPDATE: I recommend that those who have not had experience with Linux download the free Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference, by Keir Thomas, which I have found to be a very clear and helpful guide for using the Ubuntu operating system.
You can do many things on the Starling netbook, such as browsing the Internet or doing e-mail, without even knowing you are on a Linux system. But when you go to do more complicated things with your computer involving folders and files, it will probably help to know something about Linux. This book will help you.
It is true that the Ubuntu Netbook Remix operating system that is installed on the Starling is not exactly the same as the regular Ubuntu operating system: specifically, the desktop differs. But there are so many other similarities that this book will work just fine for the netbook version of Ubuntu.
8th UPDATE:Down the right side of the screen are various folders holding documents, pictures, music, etc. This also is where external drives show up when they are connected. (It's essentially the "Places" menu on the classic Ubuntu desktop.) Click on any of these "places" and the File Browser application launches and shows you the contents of that folder.
Down the left side of the screen is a list of categories or sections that contain icons to launch software applications. (This left side essentially features the "Applications" and "Systems" menus of the classic Ubuntu desktop.) When you click on a category, the icons within that category show up in the middle of the screen. When you click on an icon once, the application is launched.
The Preferences section, by the way, has a "Switch Desktop Mode" that allows you to see either the Ubuntu Netbook Desktop pictured above or the Classic Ubuntu Desktop shown here:
Here is the software that comes included with the Starling:
My experience has been that installing software on the Starling is usually much faster and easier than doing it on Windows. There are some exceptions. It depends on which software you are wanting to install.
You will be able to get most free, open-source software that is not already installed on your Starling easily through the Add/Remove or the Synaptic Package Manager applications that come with the Starling. I personally LOVE these two applications -- it is a breeze to install and update software using either one of them. (Add/Remove is simpler to use but lists less software. I generally just use Synaptic, which is plenty simple to use.)
There are hundreds if not thousands of applications out there that you can add via this easy process. I've added Hearts (game), Brasero (CD/DVD burning program), and Bluefish (html and programming editor).
Here is information on using Synaptic: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/SynapticHowto
But to get non-open-source software, you must generally first add software repositories through the Software Sources application that comes with the Starling. Once you have added the repositories, you can use Add/Remove or Synaptic to install the applications. (A third, distinctly less appealing alternative is to manually install applications. I try to avoid this if possible.)
If you want to play DVD movies, go to this Web site to learn how to install the needed software: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/RestrictedFormats/PlayingDVDs.
To add the Skype application, go to this URL for guidance: http://knowledge76.com/index.php/Installing_Restricted_Formats
I had trouble installing Google Earth (mainly because of the Google EULA that I needed to agree to, which was hard to do in the Terminal window). I finally did get it installed. I guess I wouldn't recommend trying to install it.
Here are some other Web pages that may help with installing software:https://help.ubuntu.com/community/InstallingSoftware
I have found support to be a mixed bag, though now that I think of it, my husband got no support for the Apple iMac he bought a while back and I've never gotten any support for the Windows machines I've bought, so maybe Linux support is better than average.
As I mentioned above, System76 representative Thomas Aaron responded promptly when I e-mailed him prior to buying the Starling. But when I mistakenly thought my new external USB optical drive was not working (because I had plugged in the cable wrong), I sent Thomas Aaron an e-mail telling him it wasn't working and asking him for suggestions. I sent the e-mail on June 3, 2009 and never have heard from him. This despite statements on System76 literature like this: "We take pride in building our systems to suit all of your computing needs. If you have any questions or concerns do not hesitate to email or call us." (Note: Thomas Aaron says on Ubuntu Forums that he did respond to my e-mail. That could be true, as on rare occasions I have not received e-mail that others have sent me.)
Another problem is that the documentation you are referred to on the System76 Web site is out of date. It does not apply to the new Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04 OS that is on the Starling. And there's almost no documentation at all on the Starling itself.
OK, that said, here are the pluses. System76 Support is conducted as a section of the Ubuntu community forums. I did post a question there and got two good answers within a day -- one from Thomas Aaron. 4th UPDATE: After having the Starling for more than two months, I can now say that the System76 Support on the Ubuntu Forums is quite good. You can almost always get good answers to your questions fairly quickly there.
Also, the Netbook Remix OS is not that different from regular Ubuntu, from what I can tell. The main difference for the user, it seems to me, is in the desktop interface. I have found that almost all general Ubuntu advice has worked for Netbook Remix. And that's a good thing, because there is a lot of Ubuntu help out there. I found the answers to almost all of my questions fairly quickly either through Google searches or, usually, through Ubuntu online documentation.
Here are some links to Ubuntu help:http://ubuntuforums.org/ (A bunch of "main support categories" are listed toward the top of the Web page; click on "System76 Support.")
For those who know about such things, here are the data off the Starling power brick: The AC/DC adapter is Delta Electronics R33030 Model ADP-30JH B.
Input is given as 100-240V~ 1.2A 50-60HZ LPS
Output is given as 19V === 1.58A
System76 says: "To be notified when new features become available, you can create an account on our website and sign up for our low-volume newsletter. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter: http://twitter.com/system76"
|Bottom Line: I recommend the Starling. I like mine.|
|Comment at my blog: http://jah46.blogspot.com/ OR on twitter: email@example.com|