UPDATED: Hardware review – Star Labs LabTop IV

Published 19 Mar 2021 in Hardware, Linux by ZigPress

UPDATE: SEE LAST SECTION

We don’t generally talk about hardware in this blog – usually we’re more concerned with software and the WordPress ecosystem. But there’s a first time for everything.

I’ve been using my new laptop intensively as a daily driver for four months now. It’s a Star Labs LabTop IV, and I have some thoughts about how well it fulfils that role and whether it represents good value for money.

If you weren’t aware, the space that Star Labs competes in is laptops built for Linux. When you buy one, Linux is pre-installed (you can choose from six popular distros), and all required drivers are present and correct.

So this review is based on the fact that I specifically wanted a moderately-priced laptop with zero Linux compatibility issues, and that is what I got. If you’re only in the market for a Windows machine, there’s no need to read further. Go buy an Acer.

Spec

You can make some choices when buying a Star Labs machine, and I opted for an Intel Core i3 (10th generation) and a 480Gb SSD. Other specifications which are fixed are 16Gb RAM, a 13″ HD (1920×1080) screen, a USB type C (which charges the laptop and can drive displays), an HDMI, 2 USB 3.0 type A, an old-style charging jack and a MicroSD slot. There’s the usual webcam and headphone jack, and of course wifi and Bluetooth, though no Ethernet port.

As well as a USB type C port, the charging brick has a USB type A port for charging an additional device which is a nice touch.

Also noteworthy is that you can now order it with open source coreboot firmware rather than the more common AMI closed-source BIOS.

Star Labs LabTop IV

General build quality

The chassis is metal and reasonably rigid, and feels high quality to the touch though looks cheaper from a couple of metres away. The hinge feels strong and reliable, though the lip you have to get your finger into to open the lid is very thin and a bit awkward. The laptop’s weight is, for me, about right (slightly lighter than a MacBook Air). It has enough weight that it feels solid, but is not tiring to carry around. It’s also impressively slim, and my inner geek likes the logo on the lid. When the fan spins up (which is not often) it’s high-pitched but pretty quiet.

Screen

The screen is OK but with some reservations. It has a matte finish which is a plus, and can be made very bright if you’re outdoors, but the colour profile seems to have the temperature set incorrectly, so whites and pale greys are too warm, almost beige, at normal brightness levels. I installed the “sct” command line utility and found that if I set the temperature to 7000 instead of the default 6500, the colours were much more neutral. Another niggle is that the bezel is quite wide – it feels like you could almost fit a 14″ panel in if the bezel were narrower, without increasing the size of the chassis much if at all.

Unfortunately (though it could happen to anyone), on arrival the screen was damaged (a dark vertical line down the centre) and there was a stuck pixel. I’m still not sure whether the vertical line was down to 10,000km in DHL’s hands, or an oversight at the factory. Star Labs accepted my return request, paid the DHL return fee, replaced the panel and sent it back to me. Unfortunately I had to pay import duty a second time, and even more unfortunately there is now noticeable backlight bleed at the bottom of the screen (and a little at the top) making dark mode unusable. In the end I decided not to lose a month’s use by returning it a second time, and when I have a spare moment I’ll see if a local technician can adjust the seating of the panel to try and fix it. One good thing about Star Labs is that they publish illustrated take-it-apart guides on their website, and you don’t need a 5-pointed allen key (*cough* *Apple*), only a Philips screwdriver.

Keyboard

The keyboard is nothing to type home about, in fact it’s disappointing. The keytops are absolutely flat (no concave profile at all) which makes it too easy to mistype, and the travel is extremely short. However when working I use a Logitech MX Keys so this is only an issue when not in the office. There is a backlight but the illumination is rather uneven. There’s also no cAPs LoCK indicator light. At least there’s a forward delete key as well as backspace – something my previous MacBook was sadly lacking. The “super” key simply shows the word “super”, which is definitely better than a Windows or Mac symbol, though I would have quite liked a penguin…

Touchpad

I know, I used a MacBook before so I’m a little spoiled, but the LabTop’s touchpad could be better. If your fingers are less than 99.9999% spotless and freshly washed, they won’t glide easily, making cursor movement jerky and imprecise. Again, I normally use an external mouse (Logitech MX Anywhere 3) so I don’t have to use the trackpad too much.

Ports

Everything I’ve plugged into the ports has fit snugly and positively. You might need to keep one thumbnail a little longer in order to insert and extract MicroSD cards.

Audio & Video

The mic is OK (though read on for a funny story), and the speakers are OK though not loud enough for me. The webcam is fine, with better automatic exposure than an Apple webcam, and has a bright indicator light when active.

Performance

Happily I can make this paragraph much more positive. Even though I opted for the slower of the two processors on offer, this laptop fairly flies along, helped no doubt by the generous 16Gb memory and extremely fast SSD. Pop!_OS boots from power-up to login screen in about 4 seconds. Shutdown is about 2 seconds. My image workhorse, GIMP, launches in about 2 seconds, compared to a full 15 seconds on my old MacBook, and it’s a similar story for Electron apps, which launch impressively quickly.

I’ve set Pop!_OS to use a “balanced” power mode, which probably means I could squeeze even more speed out of it if needed – useful for transcoding video.

Software

This is, of course, more a user issue than a Star Labs issue. When you order a LabTop you can choose from Ubuntu, elementaryOS, Mint, Manjaro, MX Linux and Zorin. I chose elementaryOS because I wanted a UI that was a little more Mac than Windows, and Pop!_OS wasn’t on the list. Unfortunately elementaryOS, just like its inspiration macOS, is quite inflexible and I found I couldn’t configure it the way I wanted. However I’m not going to recommend a particular distro because personal choice is what Linux is all about.

After trying elementaryOS I installed Pop!_OS from USB which was an easy process. Certainly there have been no driver issues – all I had to do was ensure that the Star Labs PPA was added to the package manager, and all components worked perfectly.

There have been some issues as time progressed, but I’m 99% sure none of them can be laid at the door of Star Labs. For example, the internal mic suddenly started picking up waaaaay too much background noise – enough for me to spend $20 on a USB desk mic! – but after a week the problem vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared, leaving me to chalk it up to a less-than-perfect Pop!_OS software update.

In fact, four months with Pop!_OS and its various quirks (screaming fans when the app store is finding updates, vanishing printers, stuck brightness sliders, and other delights) has led me to add the launch date for Kubuntu 21.04 to my diary, and shortly after that date I will switch distros and see if Kubuntu is more polished. An hour with it booted from a USB stick suggested that KDE Plasma will also be more to my liking than Gnome. We will see.

Final Thoughts

I’ll start this section by saying that the LabTop IV is not a particularly expensive computer. In the UK (Star Labs’ base), the configuration I bought costs GBP 743 including UK VAT. For the core spec of i3 10th Gen + 16Gb + 480Gb, that’s not too bad.

The thing is, when buying a computer, you always kind of hope that your careful research will lead you to that special bargain, where you’re somehow getting ahead of the curve and acquiring something that’s an absolute steal and better value (or simply better) than all the other choices you could have made. In other words, you want your choice to be strongly vindicated.

I wanted to believe that about the LabTop IV, but it’s not really the case. You’re paying around £750 for what is definitely a £750 computer, no more, no less, and the only noteworthy component is the super-fast SSD. If you can afford to spend more on something else (like a Thinkpad X1 or X series), you probably should. That particularly applies if you’re on the move a lot and will be using your laptop’s keyboard and trackpad rather than an external keyboard and

In fact, if I can sum up my opinion of the LabTop in one sentence, it’s a decent budget laptop let down by a poor keyboard and possible quality control issues.

If you’re a Linux user (especially someone quite new to Linux) with a limited budget, and you use an external keyboard and mouse most of the time, then I think the LabTop is a reasonable choice. There are no driver issues, it feels really fast in use, and with any luck your screen won’t have problems.

However, depending on where you are in the world, it might be possible to get a second-hand Lenovo Thinkpad with a decent spec for a similar outlay, and by doing that you’ll get a machine built like a tank with a far better keyboard and trackpad, and still benefit from perfect Linux compatibility if you pick the right model.

If I could turn back time with the knowledge I have now, would I still buy the LabTop? The answer has to be no. I’d find a way to increase my budget somehow, and go for a Thinkpad X1 Carbon. Another (also pricey) option might be a System76 Lemur Pro but that also has totally flat keytops.

Updated 26th March 2021

Well, now the LabTop has suddenly decided that its wifi adaptor and Bluetoooth adaptor no longer exist.

I was working online, having done no updates for a few days, when suddenly the wifi icon disappeared from the top bar and my Bluetooth keyboard and mouse stopped responding. I checked the settings and was told Bluetooth was switched off. I tried to switch it on and was told that airplane mode was on. I then searched for wifi in the settings (because the wifi entry had disappeared), and was told there was no wifi adaptor.

I tethered it to a phone via USB and did an apt update and upgrade, several system packages were updated but didn’t change the situation, even after a shutdown and reboot.

In accordance with the law of sod, this of course happened just before a weekend trip, so when I get back I will open it up and try reseating any relevant connectors. I should point out that it has never been dropped or jarred while in my ownership.

But whether reseating the connectors works or not, my opinion of this laptop is now:

Do not buy one. It looks like a nice deal on the face of it, but either inferior parts are being used, or the internal configuration is poorly designed, or the quality control and testing are completely inadequate, or a combination of these.

My plan is now to revert temporarily to my old Mac while I look for the best local Thinkpad deal. The LabTop will be recycled (maybe I can find a use for the SSD). There’s no point in returning it for repair because I’ll be stung for import duty a third time.

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