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April 25th, 2016

Running Windows on System76

System76 is known throughout the world as one of the few companies exclusively selling new PCs and laptops preinstalled with GNU/Linux. The question is, will they run Windows?

Some things are so counterintuitive that they seem just plain wrong, like a crime against natural order. Things like running Windows on a System76 machine, which is something that would never have occurred to me to do, not even if it was the only computer available and I absolutely had to boot into Windows. It would be like putting ketchup on a delicately seasoned and perfectly grilled spencer steak.

It’s something I would never do, and yet, I am responsible.

A few months back I sent an email to my old friend Sparky, who can usually be counted on to have decent used computer equipment for sale. I inquired about the possibility of purchasing a used laptop or desktop, whichever was cheaper, which we needed at FOSS Force because our Symple PC had died, leaving us with nothing on which to test GNU/Linux distributions for reviews.

System76 Ubuntu key

On a System76 computer, there’s a “Ubuntu” key where most computers have a “Windows” key.

The only requirement was that the machine have a 64-bit processor, because with Fedora dropping support for 32-bit machines, it’s only a matter of time before other distros follow suit. Other than that, “cheap” was the primary keyword.

Oh, there was one other requirement…

Although the majority of Sparky’s used boxes come in the door running Windows, he’s in the habit of immediately reformatting the hard drive and installing Linux on every machine. He could skip that step for me. I needed a machine that still had a working installation of Windows.

This was an embarrassing request, me being a world famous — in my own mind, at least — Linux and free tech advocate and all. I felt I needed to explain.

“I know this seems strange coming from me,” I wrote, “but it’s tax time and the only decent tax software doesn’t work on Linux and I’m not a WINE sort of gal. I could do them online, but I do taxes for several people other than myself and when you do them online you have to pay separately for each return, which runs into some bucks fast.”

Here’s the math: To do taxes online for all the family members whose returns I prepare would cost something over $200. Download the program onto my machine, however, and the price drops to about $40. The savings would pay for a new used computer. After my taxes were safely done, I’d create a minimal partition for Windows so I’d be able to do taxes next year, and reserve the rest of the hard drive for the installation of new distro releases to review.

Sparky had a laptop that would do just fine and it would ship with Windows 7 installed. Being a FOSS Force supporter, he would donate the computer and not charge us anything for it, asking only to be reimbursed for shipping. Sweet deal, eh? It arrived about a week later, and when I finally freed it from the miles of bubble wrap he had used to keep it safe in transit, I found that we were now the owners of a brand new used laptop from System76 — the Linux people.

This was a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment that was wrought with irony.

In case you don’t know, System76 is a company that markets its own line of desktops and laptops that are shipped preinstalled with Ubuntu. For years, every time I go to a Linux or open source conference, I spend time lurking around the System76 booth, quietly coveting the company’s latest and greatest offerings — lurking because…well, everything they have is well outside my price range.

I’d be doing the same at a booth run by ZaReason, another company that specializes in Linux computers, but it’s never at any of the conferences I attend.

Just because I can’t afford one doesn’t keep me from wanting one, and every year I’ve found myself wishing there was some way, without breaking the bank, I could write the System76 salesperson a check for a computer that’s never processed proprietary code from Microsoft or Apple.

So when I opened the package from Sparky, I was met with a situation straight out of an O’Henry short story. I had one of the System76 laptops I’d been coveting, but instead of being a computer that had never been touched by Windows, I was in possession of one the rarest of animals, a System76 computer that boots only into Windows.

It’s a nice laptop, an old Pangolin with a 15.6 inch HD display, 500 GB hard drive and 4 GB RAM, which for our typical use at FOSS Force is more than adequate. We’re not hardcore gamers, we have no intentions of making a feature film anytime soon, and looking at distros for the type of reviews we do doesn’t put many demands on a processor.

By tonight, this laptop’s time as a Windows only machine will be over. As soon as I finish writing this, I plan to print a file copy of my return, which got mailed before last Monday’s deadline by the way, and also save a copy of the file that Tax Act created to a USB drive so I can move it to our desktop for safekeeping. Then I’ll be downloading the recently released Xubuntu 16.04 for a review, partitioning the hard drive to save Windows for next year’s taxes and then seeing what our new laptop can do running a real operating system.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

6 comments to Running Windows on System76

  • Juan

    I solved that by having a Virtual WinXP (latter a Win7) that I seldom use and most times only for doing taxes.

  • Guy

    I would boot it up before next year or when you need it, it will be doing updates forever!

  • Bob

    You seem to have a limited view of ketchup. What would be wrong with mushroom ketchup on steak? Banana ketchup might be totally wrong though. But walnut of camp ketchup would be interesting.
    “Modern Cookery In All Its Branches”, by Eliza Acton has quite a few recipes for ketchup, including tomato.

  • Somewhat Reticent

    “the only decent tax software doesn’t work on Linux” (and that would be Tax Act?) – somehow I suspect this is rather debatable.
    “when you do them online you have to pay separately for each return” – really? No FreeFile/fillable-forms?
    Some years ago, System 76 computers came with plastic discs carrying … windows drivers.
    If the hardware isn’t supported with Freed Open-Source drivers …

  • nonya

    You should avoid (P)-u-buntu at all costs! Go with Linux Mint(KDE)17.3 instead!

  • Mike


    I second FreeFile/fillable-forms. That’s what I do.

    I hope you at least had the decency to pirate the tax software. Those companies don’t deserve a dime.

    Both Intuit and H&R Block have lobbied extensively against measures to simplify taxes and make free online filing a reality.