Last year I ordered a Starlite Mk IV to replace an aging Lenovo Ideapad 110S-11IBR.
Probably the most important thing you want to know for a laptop running GNU/Linux, the experience from first boot is smooth and seamless. I went with Ubuntu 22.04 LTS, which was released in April and will be supported for another 5 years.
My closest comparison for the Starlite is the Pinebook Pro, and the difference is stark. There are no hiccups on boot, no extra drivers to download, no config files to edit to get Bluetooth working, no need to flash new firmware to fix a laggy trackpad. Everything just works out of the box. Even better, it’s not running a custom kernel specially tailored to work on this machine. You get mainline GNU/Linux and a vanilla Ubuntu install. On all these points I am very impressed.
For some laptops, the Do-It-Yourself factor is a significant selling point. Particularly with the Pinebook and other ARM-based computers, you can’t expect everything to just work out of the box, and support/troubleshooting is mainly provided by the community. The Starlite Mk IV doesn’t require any tinkering to get going, and you get support directly from Star Labs. It’s a difference in product philosophy.
The Starlite runs coreboot 4.17,1 and there’s some comfort in knowing that it’s free software all the way down to the BIOS. Star Labs are part of the Linux Firmware Vendor Service and this laptop is a supported device, which should make future firmware updates relatively straightforward.
The laptop boots from power off to the login screen in around 21 seconds. Ubuntu runs smoothly, I’ve encountered no stutters or glitchy behaviour in GNOME Shell. All the brightness and volume function buttons work as expected, and even the suspend state seems to work properly too. Besides Ubuntu, other distributions are available.
Most of my phone chargers are unable to charge the laptop through the USB-C port; the only USB-C charger which works is the one which comes with my work laptop.2 I emailed Star Labs support about this, they replied that charging circuitry only accepts chargers which support Power Delivery 3.0 and supply a minimum of 30 watts. After following up on a separate-but-related issue, they released some new firmware with the following change:
Modified charging frequency to improve compatibility with PD chargers.
I installed that, but no success with other chargers. The charging circuit on the Starlite does work, it’s just extremely picky about what chargers it accepts. I understand that low-wattage chargers are not ideal for laptops, and the USB standard is unhelpfully segmented into different specifications which aren’t obvious to the end user. However, it feels wrong to carry about two different USB-C chargers for my phone and laptop. That’s the exact problem a unified cable standard was supposed to solve!
The Starlite is small enough to qualify as netbook-sized, and the 11-inch screen is big enough to be useful with most programs. It doesn’t have to be particularly thin, just small enough to fit in a backpack and sturdy enough that you don’t have to worry about it. My second-last laptop, the Ideapad was the same form factor, I like it, and it’s rare to find laptops with these dimensions outside Chromebooks.
I have bigger than average hands, the keyboard is okay. The arrow keys could be spaced out more, as it is they feel small and fiddly.
I don’t consider that problem of chassis size either – my Ideapad had a far better keyboard within the same dimensions.3
The keys are not overly clicky, key presses have a very slightly perceptible bump.
Compared with the Pinebook Pro, I can’t help but notice a lot of similarities: the same rounded corners on a black aluminium shell, same power button placement on the keyboard, same style of screen hinge, same crosshead screws holding the chassis together. I know there are generic laptop makers, who create base designs for the likes of System76. Did the Starlite and the Pinebook Pro come from the same factory, same design office? Or is laptop design becoming increasingly homogenous?
The keyboard uses the Ubuntu font, a nice little detail.
Other comments on the hardware:
- The screen hinge opens to a maximum of around 130°.
- 1920x1080 resolution on an 11-inch screen turns out to be an awkward combination. Without scaling, 200 pixels-per-inch is too high, and with 2x scaling the effective resolution (960x540) is too small to be useful.
- The edge of the chassis around the keyboard is quite sharp, copying a terrible and uniquely unpopular feature of the Macbook Pro.
- The SSD uses an M.2 connector, but it’s on a SATA bus, not NVMe.
- The keyboard has a backlight, but the keys don’t have transparent letters for the light to shine through so it’s a bit useless for actually typing in the dark.
Here is the output of neofetch:
OS: Ubuntu 22.04 LTS x86_64 Host: Lite 1.0 Kernel: 5.15.0-35-generic Packages: 1861 Shell: bash 5.1.16 DE: GNOME 42.1 CPU: Intel Pentium Silver N5030 (4) @ 3.1GHz GPU: Intel GeminiLake Memory: 1384MiB / 7815MiB CPU Usage: 25% Disk (/): 14G / 219G (7%) Battery: 36% [Discharging]
The laptop has the following ports:
- 2 full-size USB-A 3.0
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- 3.5mm DC power connector (confusingly placed adjacent to the headphone jack)
Here’s the timeline of status updates from Star Labs from production to delivery.
- October 22, 2021
- Production for the StarLite Mk IV has officially started!
- November 11, 2021
- I made my order.
- December 17, 2021
- Production is progressing well for the Lites. Our estimate for late January is looking likely!
- January 14, 2022
- Production is almost complete for the StarLite Mk IV’s. We are expecting a delay due to over 20 COVID cases being reported in China, which is indirectly reducing the workforce in our factory. This will likely push the completion date to after Chinese New Year, February the 10th.
- February 22, 2022
- Production of the StarLites has been completed. The only curveball is that the SSDs required for final testing are currently being held in customs within Hong Kong.
- March 24, 2022
- The SSDs have now arrived at our factory and final testing has begun.
- April 1, 2022
- Testing is officially complete. Quality control will begin after the public holiday on the 7th of April.
- April 21, 2022
- Quality control is now complete. The factory has now begun to prepare and pack the machines, ready to be sent to Hong Kong for the next available flight. Ubuntu 22.04 LTS is released.4
- April 26, 2022
- Ubuntu install date recorded on the laptop.
- May 9, 2022
- The StarLites have arrived at our warehouse and we have begun dispatching pre-orders.
- May 12, 2022
- Laptop arrives in my hands.
When I pre-ordered, the estimated arrival time was January, which would have been three months. In the end it took over six months from pre-order to arrival. Double the estimated time. To some extent you can expect a delay, it was a pre-order after all. It’s not like these things are continuously rolling off a production line straight into shipping containers.5 The laptops are produced and shipped in batches, Star Labs were completely upfront and communicative at every stage of production and delivery. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that I spent half a year waiting for a new laptop, and that was not an ideal situation.
£380 £400 the Starlite Mk IV is slightly overpriced for the specs, but it’s in a completely different price category from other ‘business premium’ laptops with Linux preinstalled and all prices starting at £800 and above. The only other comparable laptop in this price category is the Slimbook Essential.
This laptop is definitely built for a small market, and within my very selective laptop preferences it has a lot going for it in terms of form factor, build quality, good support, operating system choice, and (relative) price.
This is a new coreboot version which was released after the laptop’s launch. Star Labs are quick on the updates. ↩
Lenovo 45W charger with model number ADLX45YCC3A. ↩
The excellent keyboard made it easier to hold onto that Ideapad for so long. The processor inside can go obsolete over time, but a good typing experience makes up for a lot. ↩
One silver lining to this long wait is that the new Ubuntu version was ready in time for delivery. ↩
That’s especially true for a niche product predicted to sell in low quantities. I don’t know how many of these laptops Starlabs made, but you can guess it’s nowhere near the quantities churned out by their bigger competitors. ↩