Exploring the Kubuntu Focus laptop

In Focus

© Lead Image Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

© Lead Image Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Article from Issue 233/2020
Author(s):

If you're a gamer, a developer, or a Linux power user who appreciates powerful hardware, you might be ready for the Focus – a high-end Linux laptop built and tested for Kubuntu.

The Kubuntu Focus [1] is a high-performance laptop outfitted and optimized for maximum compatibility with Kubuntu and its KDE desktop. The Focus, which is produced by the Kubuntu Council, Tuxedo Computers, and MindShareManagement Inc., is the brainchild of MindShareManagement CEO Mike Mikowski. I first heard about this initiative through my role as Councilor for the Kubuntu project. Mike had approached the council via former council member Ovidiu-Florin Bogdan, with whom I co-host the Kubuntu Kafe live stream meetup and podcast.

The idea of the Focus is to provide a highly polished, high-performance laptop computer targeting workflows for web designers, developers, and professional creators. The goal is to offer a "Power out of the Box" experience beyond that of the PC and MacBook.

Unboxing

The unit arrived just two days before Christmas Eve (Figure 1), and I was able to record an unboxing video complete with Christmas tree and festive hat [2].

Figure 1: My Kubuntu Focus laptop arrived just in time for the holidays.

The Focus comes in a full-color printed box, wrapped in protective bubble wrap and surrounded by an exterior shipping box. Opening the box revealed further attention to detail, with a full-color printed Getting Started guide, and a welcome pack that included a Kubuntu-branded USB recovery key.

Shipping from the US meant that my device came with an American power lead for the power supply. However, I discovered that the laptop had 70% charge so I was able to experience first boot using the onboard battery. US and European orders will be fulfilled via separate distribution centers, thus production models will all come with a power lead appropriate for the destination country.

Two features impressed me at power on:

  1. The beautiful backlit keyboard, which lights up in a shimmer of rainbow colors.
  2. The Kubuntu logo on the BIOS splash screen – a nice touch that demonstrates a commitment to the Kubuntu brand and community.

From power on to the decrypt password field is around 6 seconds. Full disk encryption is enabled out of the box, and unlocking the disk realizes the login screen in around 3 seconds, with delivery to the desktop post password entry in a further 6 seconds. This delivers the user to a productive state in less than 20 seconds on power up, and takes less than 6 seconds to resume from RAM. Suspend and resume is triggered through closing and opening of the clamshell case, which is predominantly made of metal.

The Kubuntu Focus is intended for professionals, and the hardware specifications are very robust. The Focus builds around the Core i7-9750H, operating with 6 cores at 4.5Ghz and providing 12 threads of symmetric processing. The order form at the KFocus website offers several hardware options [3]. The base system, which sells for US$1795, comes with 16GB 2666MHz dual channel memory and Samsung Evo Plus 250GB NVMe storage. My Focus includes the upgrade to 32GB memory and 1TB Samsung EVO Plus NVMe 3,500MB/s.

For audio-visual creators and gamers, there is an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 6GB GDDR6 with PhysX and CUDA. However, the Focus goes beyond the gamers with workflows to support data scientists and machine-learning researchers. The Kubuntu Focus comes with Nvidia CUDA, Python 3, Tensorflow libraries, and Jupyter notebooks pre-installed.

Recently, it has become fashionable for ODM manufacturers to remove external connectivity ports, which might be cool but is impractical in the real world. It is very pleasing to see that the Focus hardware team rejects this modern folly. Display output provides HDMI, display port, and USB-C display output, along with a higher-amperage always-on USB-C connector for charging your mobile devices. USB 3 ports occupy the left and righthand side, with Ethernet, Microphone, Headphones SD/MMC, and MicroSD card slots available too.

A pressure-sensitive Glass Synaptics touchpad offers multi-point detection. Two-finger scrolling is enabled by default, along with tap to click. The keyboard has backlighting, with function controls for changing the color scheme and switching the backlights on/off. Brightness controls are available via the number pad when used in conjunction with the function control button.

The laptop's close association with the Kubuntu brand is an indication of the deep level of integration. For instance, the keyboard Meta (or "Windows") key has been laser-etched with the Kubuntu logo (Figure 2), and the outer lid of the clamshell is emblazoned with a laser cut, polished aluminum Kubuntu logo veneered with transparent acrylic gloss (Figure 3).

Figure 2: The Focus keyboard has the Kubuntu logo on the meta key instead of the Windows logo.
Figure 3: The lid also sports a polished, laser-cut Kubuntu emblem.

The desktop defaults to the Kfocus dark theme (Figure 4). As a Kubuntu user, I am used to the blended dark/light theme that comes with Kubuntu by default. I found the all-dark theme has taken some time to adjust to. However, I made the decision not to change the theme and to leave the address bar on the right – with the kickoff menu at the top right, which all felt really alien to me. However, I have to say that having the menu bar on the right has quickly grown on me. Western cultures tend to read left to right, and I had never given thought to how my eye moves over the screen until now. I have adjusted quickly to having the menu on the right, and furthermore, this has increased the top to bottom usable screen space. I am a convert to this new design, and I genuinely think others will really like this layout too, provided that they stick with it for a few days.

Figure 4: The Kubuntu Focus desktop uses the dark theme by default.

The Kubuntu Focus comes with a wide array of software installed, and the producers are keen to point out via their guidance notes that much effort has been invested by the product team in providing software stacks and tuning the experience for multiple workflows.

As part of my unboxing experience, I decided to try out this workflow theory by producing the actual unboxing video on the unboxed laptop. (The very fact that it sounds paradoxical makes it exciting.) The Focus comes with Kdenlive installed and configured for the hardware, which meant I could simply grab the video cuts from the cloud; drop them into the video editor; then cut, slice, and render. Kdenlive is configured to render with just one core out of the box; I would recommend changing those settings to take advantage of the multiple processors. Rendering the Video to H264 ready for YouTube took about 11 minutes, just a little longer than the unboxing video itself.

Conclusion

As I put the finishing touches to this magazine article, which I have written using the Kubuntu Focus, I have been using this laptop as my daily driver for one month. This includes utilizing it in my professional capacity as Senior Engineering Manager for Boomi – a Dell Technologies Ltd company, as well as my voluntary open source community efforts and my software development projects.

The workflows are simply fantastic – transferring the GoBandit project to the Focus is so simple because the Focus comes with the JetBrains toolbox already installed. Git is installed out of the box, but the laptop producers have been smart enough not to install Go, choosing instead to leave the user to choose between a snap-confined GoLang or the system-wide version, depending on personal preference. My personal preference is a system-wide install.

With all the graphics and compute performance on tap, users should not expect extensive battery life. The manufacturer claims battery life of between 3 and 4 hours. In my experience, I have not been able to get much beyond 2 hours before having to find a power source. However, this is a high-performance workstation, and I wouldn't anticipate the always-connected web surfer or Internet nomad to be considering the Kubuntu Focus as their laptop choice.

Steam and Nvidia drivers installed and configured out of the box, coupled with the high-end performance of this machine, make gaming a lot of fun, and the graphics performance is simply outstanding.

The Kubuntu Focus is built with the care and attention to detail that provides a polish that I have previously only seen from Apple products. My reviewer's edition cost $2,245, which is significantly less than a 16-inch MacBook Pro with 8-Cores and the AMD Radeon pro 550 GPU. Of course, because I am a member of the Kubuntu community, it could be argued that I have a natural bias. However, I have tried to be as objective as possible in my evaluation, and I am giving this laptop a resounding 10 out of 10.

The Author

Rick Timmis (http://www.ricktimmis.com) is a charismatic, optimistic, and sociable geek. He is an active participant in the free software and open source community, as well as a founding member and former CEO of the UK Open Source Consortium. He is currently a community manager, council member, and developer with the Kubuntu flavor of the Ubuntu linux distribution.

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