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Proteus VIII Laptop from PC Specialist in Review

Recently I bought a new laptop from PC Specialist. Unfortunately I'm lost the original quote / specs that were sent to me, but it was a Proteus VIII. It has the following specs:

In this post, I want to give a review now that I've had the device for a short while. I'm still experiencing some teething issues (more on those later), but I've experienced enough of the device to form an opinion on it. This post will also serve as a sort-of review of the installation process of Ubuntu too.

It arrived in good time - thankfully I didn't have any issues with their choice of delivery service (DPD in my area have some problems). I did have to wait a week or 2 for them to build the system, but I wasn't in any rush so this was fine for me. The packaging it arrived it was ok. It came in a rather large cardboard box, inside which there was some plastic padding (sad face), inside which there was another smaller cardboard box. Work to be done in the eco-friendly department, but on the whole good here.

I ordered without an operating system, as my preferred operating system is Ubuntu (the latest version is currently 20.10 Groovy Gorilla). The first order of business was the OS installation here. This went went fine - but only after I could actually get the machine to boot! It turns out that despite it appearing to have support for booting from USB flash drives as advertised in the boot menu, this feature doesn't actually work. I tried the following:

....and only the last one worked. I've worked with a diverse range of different devices, but never have I encountered one that completely refused to boot at all from a USB drive. Clearly some serious work is required on the BIOS. The number of different settings in the BIOS were also somewhat limited compared to other systems I've poked around on, but I can't give any specific examples here of things that were missing (other than a setting to toggle the virtualisation extensions, which was on by default) - so I guess it doesn't matter all that much. The biggest problem is the lack of USB flash drive boot support - that was really frustrating.

When installing Ubuntu this time around, I decided to try enabling LVM (Logical Volume Management, it's very cool I've discovered) and a LUKS encrypted hard drive. Although I've encountered these technologies before, this will be my first time using them regularly myself. Thankfully, the Ubuntu installer did a great job of setting this up automatically (except the swap partition, which was too small to hibernate, but I'll talk about that in a moment).

Once installed, I got to doing the initial setup. I'm particularly picky here - I use the Unity 7.5 Desktop (yes, I know Ubuntu now uses the GNOME shell, and no I haven't yet been able to get along with it). I'll skip over the details of the setup here, as it's not really relevant to the review. I will mention though that I'm also using X11, not Wayland at the moment - and that I have the propriety Nvidia driver installed (version 450 at the time of typing).

Although I've had a discrete graphics card before (most recently an AMD Radeon R7 M445, and an Nvidia 525M), this is the first time I've had one that's significantly more powerful than the integrated graphics that's built into the CPU. My experience with this so far is mostly positive (it's rather good at rendering in Blender, but I have yet to stress it significantly), and in some graphical tests it gives significantly higher frame rates than the integrated graphics. If you use the propriety graphics drivers, I recommend going into the Nvidia X server settings (accessed through the launcher) → PRIME Profiles, changing it to "On-Demand", and then rebooting. This will prolong your battery life and reduce the noise from the fans by using the integrated graphics by default, but allow you to run select applications on the GPU (see my recent post on how to do this).

It's not without its teething issues though. I think I'm just unlucky, but I have yet to setup a system with an Nvidia graphics card where I haven't had some kind of problem. In this case, it's screen flickering. To alleviate this somewhat, I found and followed the instructions in this Ask Ubuntu Answer. I also found I had to enable the Force synchronization between X and GLX workaround (and maybe another one as well, I can't remember). Even with these enabled, sometimes I still get flickering after it resumes from suspension / stand by.

Speaking of stand by mode, I've found that this laptop does not like hibernation at all. I'm unsure as to whether this is just because I'm using LVM + LUKS, or whether it's an issue with the device more generally, but if I try sudo pm-hibernate from the terminal, the screen flashes a bit, the mouse cursor disappears, and then the fan spins up - with the screen still on and all my windows apparently still open.

I haven't experimented with the quirks / workarounds provided yet, but I guess ties into the early issues with the BIOS, in that there are some clear issues with the BIOS that need to be resolved.

This hibernation issue also ties into the upower subsystem, in that even if you tell it (in both the Unity and GNOME desktop shells) to "do nothing" on low battery, it will forcefully turn the device off - even if you're in the middle of typing a sentence! I think this is because upower doesn't seem to have an option for suspend or "do nothing" in /etc/Upower/UPower.conf or something? I'm still investigating this issue (if you have any suggestions, please do get in touch!).

Despite these problems, the build quality seems good. It's certainly nice having a metal frame, as it feels a lot more solid than my previous laptop. The keyboard feels great too - the feedback from pressing the keys enhances the feeling of a solid frame. The keyboard is backlit too, which makes more a more pleasant experience in dimly lit rooms (though proper lighting is a must in any workspace).

The layout of the keyboard feels a little odd to me. It's a UK keyboard yes (I use a UK keyboard myself), but it doesn't have dedicated Home / End / Page Up / Page Down keys - these are built into the number pad at the right hand side of the keyboard. It's taken some getting used to toggling the number lock every time I want to use these keys, which increases cognitive load.

It does have a dedicated SysRq key though (which my last laptop didn't have), so now I can articles like this one and use the SysRq feature to talk to the Linux Kernel directly in case of a lock-up or crash (I have had the screen freeze on me once or twice - I later discovered this was because it had attempted to hibernate and failed, and I also ran into this problem, which I have yet to find a resolution to), or in case I accidentally set off a program that eats all of the available RAM.

The backlight of the keyboard goes from red at the left-hand side to green in the middle, and blue at the right-hand side. According to the PC Specialist forums, there's a driver that you can install to control this, but the installation seems messy - and would probably need recompiling every time you install a new kernel since DKMS (Dynamic Kernel Module System, I think) isn't used. I'm ok with the default for now, so I haven't bothered with this.

The touchpad does feel ok. It supports precision scrolling, has a nice feel to it, and isn't too small, so I can't complain about it.

The laptop doesn't have an inbuilt optical drive, which is another first for me. I don't use optical disks often, but it was nice having a built-in drive for this in previous laptops. An external one just feels clunky - but I guess I can't complain too much because of the extra components and power that are built-in to the system.

The airflow of the system - as far as I can tell so far, is very good. Air comes in through the bottom, and is then pushed out again through the back and the back of the sides by 2 different fans. These fans are, however, rather noisy at times - and have taken some getting used to as my previous Dell laptop's fans were near silent until I started to stress the system. The noise they make is also slightly higher pitched too, which makes it more noticeable - and sound like a jet engine (though I admit I've never heard a real one in person, and I'm also somewhat hypersensitive to sound) when at full blast. Curiously, there's a dedicated key on the keyboard that - as far as I can tell - toggles between the normal on-demand fan mode and locking the fans at full blast. Great to quickly cool down the system if the fans haven't kicked in yet, but not so great for your ears!

I haven't tested the speakers much, but from what I can tell they are appropriately placed in front of the keyboard just before the hinge for the screen - which is a much better placement than on the underside at the front in my last laptop! Definitely a positive improvement there.

I wasn't sure based on the details on the PC specialist website, but the thickness of the base is 17.5mm at the thickest point, and 6mm for the screen - making ~23.5mm in total (although my measurements may not be completely accurate).

To summarise, the hardware I received was great - overlooking a few pain points such as the BIOS and poor keyboard layout decisions. Some work is still needed on environmental issues and sustainability, but packaging was on the whole ok. Watch out for the delivery service, as my laptop was delivered by DPD who don't have a great track record in my area.

Overall, the hardware build quality is excellent. I'm not sure if I can recommend them yet, but if you want a new PC or laptop they are certainly not a bad place to look.

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