Thelio Desktop – One Year Later

This will not be a review of the Thelio desktop as compared to other desktops. I did not evaluate any other products. This is just my personal experience and thoughts.

About a year ago I decided to invest in a desktop computer. I had not owned a desktop since the one I had throughout my education. That computer lasted me over six years! The longevity of desktops over laptops was part of my motivation now for switching to the desktop.

I had been eyeing System 76’s Thelio desktop for years, since they released it to market. System 76 is a manufacturer of Linux-based computers. By default, System 76 products come with Pop_OS!, a Debian-derived OS based on Ubuntu, but you can also choose Ubuntu during the ordering process. I haven’t tried, but I’m sure other distros will work as well.

Would I recommend this computer? It all depends. The first question you should ask yourself is: am I ready to switch to Linux? For me, the question was a somewhat reluctant “yes.” I have begun switching to Linux for my personal computing needs more out of disappointment with Apple and their macOS than any ideological enthusiasm for Linux.

I used to really love Apple’s OS, and I would just as soon leave Linux as a server OS that I use for work, and continue using Apple products for my personal life, but the Apple ecosystem has been getting worse and worse. A few bad decisions by Apple finally pushed me to plan for a big transition to untether myself from the Apple ecosystem:

  1. The way Apple chose to implement Apple Music ended up breaking my music library. iTunes was then killed off, which signaled clearly Apple’s intention to stop allowing macOS users to manage music files themselves. This was apparently done to pressure Apple’s customers to switch to Apple Music, their new subscription service. I joined Apple Music on a free trial. The app itself was fine, but my local files were uploaded to the cloud, and I wasn’t able to use the app the same way I had used iTunes before — with a mixture of local files and purchased music. Worst of all, there was no warning about this behavior and no way to undo the switch. Apple clearly wants to erode the concept of “local files” completely, so that customers become accustomed to the idea of paying an ongoing service fee. I’m sure many customers like the convenience of streaming over owning and managing files, but I am an old fogy who prefers the older approach.
  2. Apple announced it was going to begin scanning iCloud photos for child pornography. I didn’t freak out about this the way some did. There is no reason to think Apple will flag your pictures of your kids as child porn because Apple servers are doing the comparison with hash values of known illegal material, not actually reading the photos pixel-by-pixel. Even so, the “CSAM” scanning represents a clear violation of privacy, and served as a welcome reminder that all of our data in iCloud is not end-to-end encrypted! Apple can view your photos, emails, todo list items, calendar events. And the further enmeshed our digital lives become with Apple’s cloud services, the more they are able to analyze our habits and behaviors. It seems all almost inevitable that Apple will eventually end up going the route of Facebook and Google in packaging and selling “anonymized” personal data the next time declining sales.

So all of this is to say that I have personal reasons to switch my personal digital life over to a Linux-based setup. Others may not have the same motivation.

I placed my order from System 76 in December, and received it about three weeks later in January. The shipping time seemed really long for me, but I’m sure this can be somehow blamed on supply-chain issues, and besides, I had no real pressing need, so I didn’t mind the wait.

On the whole, I’ve been thoroughly impressed with this machine. I like the Pop_OS! shell and have had very few problems adapting to it after using macOS.

I did have one big problem for a while. When I put my desktop into “suspend” mode, my GPU would kick into high-gear and run the fan at max levels. The computer would then not shut off, and the only way to restore it was to hold down the power button to force a halt, and then restart from scratch. LAME. I did contact System 76 about this. Their suspicion was that the graphics card may have had a hardware defect. I really didn’t want to return the machine for a replacement, so I tried a series changes that seems to have (knock on wood) resolved the issue, including updating the kernel modules for the graphics card. Since I upgraded my Pop_OS! to 21.04 I have not seen this issue again.

One surprise with my experience has been just how good PC games play on Linux today. I had last used Linux mainly during the early and mid 2000s. And let me tell you, it was not stable. I lost many, many hours trying to repair my Ubuntu installation back in those days. I am happy to say that Linux on desktop is a lot better under today’s modern distros like Pop_OS!. Surely much of this is due to the efforts of the System 76 team, but since much of this is built on top of Ubuntu and Debian, I must also give props to all the contributors to those projects whose hard work has created the most stable open source OS I have ever used.

The best part of owning a desktop is that it’s actually modular in a way that today’s laptops simply are not. It would be quite easy to upgrade my graphics card, hard drives, and memory to extend the life of this machine for many years to come. And unlike, say, an iMac, I can switch out the monitor and webcam whenever I like, so as new technology becomes available I can take advantage of it without having to invest thousands of my hard-earned dollars into a new machine while also putting more e-waste in the landfill.

In the end, the reasons that I chose to switch, and the reasons I can happy with my purchase of the Thelio, boil down to two main concerns:

  • I want to have true ownership of my personal computer. I don’t want a computer that is constantly “phoning home” to the manufacturer to report facts about how I’m using it. Since Apple has joined Microsoft in implementing more telemetry and aggressively pushing cloud services, our only real choice here is Linux or another open-source alternative.
  • I want to save money and avoid waste. Laptops today are locked-down hardware. They cannot be upgraded without replacing the whole machine. On top of this, your money doesn’t get you as much with a laptop compared to a desktop. Since I mainly use my personal computer at home, I don’t need much power on the go. I do still have a laptop for writing around town or when I travel, but for most uses I prefer the desktop. The modularity of a desktop also allows me to ensure I can rely on this machine for many years.

The only logical conclusion is to get a Linux desktop. Sure, there are much cheaper alternatives than System 76 that would meet these needs, but I decided to splurge. I don’t regret it a bit. Especially since supply chain problems have led to a rapid rise in the cost of new computers. I’m glad I made the switch when I did.