An In-depth Review of the Kubuntu Focus XE Gen 1

An In-depth Review of the Kubuntu Focus XE Gen 1

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About four months ago, a friend of mine got me in touch with his employer at the time. I was in a bit of a bind, using rather old and slow hardware (a 3rd gen mobile i5) for my development work, and was hoping to get a newer, faster system to help make things less painful. My friend and his boss managed to get me hooked up with a bug bounty – in exchange for fixing one of several high-priority bugs in the KDE Desktop Environment, I would receive a new Kubuntu Focus system, either a KFocus XE laptop (which is what I ultimately chose), or a KFocus NX desktop. I jumped at the chance, and managed to play a significant role in resolving two of the bugs. I also got a much better computer.

A Kubuntu Focus XE laptop displaying my personal system’s screen.

That was about four months ago. And if you’ve ever gotten a glimpse of my workflow, you know just how much damage… er… testing I can do in four months. I do not treat my systems all that kindly. After having gone through the trials of over seven terabytes of SSD writes, thousands of software compiles, probably over a hundred VM installs, and three distrohops, I finally feel that I can give this system a proper review. For those of you who have been looking into the Kubuntu Focus systems, this should help you get an idea of what you can expect from them, and for those who are on the hunt for a good Linux laptop, this should hopefully help you choose a good one.

The Kubuntu Focus XE is essentially a nicely modded Clevo laptop with Kubuntu 22.04 LTS and a suite of utilities and extra features. For those of you who don’t already know this, Kubuntu is an official flavor of the Ubuntu Linux operating system, using the KDE desktop rather than the GNOME desktop. I personally have always been a huge fan of KDE (in fact it was the desktop that came with the first “real” distro I ever used), which made the idea of contributing to KDE to get a laptop even more appealing. The Kubuntu installation that comes with the Kubuntu Focus has a ton of value-adding customizations, including hardware optimization, curated apps and libraries, a very efficient setup wizard, built-in file versioning and recovery, a special Quick Help Widget, and several custom-made utilities for changing special hardware and software settings that are difficult to change otherwise.

The actual laptop is quite thin and light compared to many older systems, and features quite a few I/O ports of various types, including a Gigabit Ethernet port (which is somewhat rare among modern laptops). The keyboard features backlighting, which is always a nice touch if you do a lot of typing, and the cooling system uses dual fans, which looks cool and does a good job of keeping the system cool while under heavy load. Other systems I’ve used would get quite toasty if you really hammered them, while this one gets warm in just one spot right where the CPU itself is located.

For specs, the system I received came with an i5-1135G7 processor, 32 GB of 3200 MHz RAM, and a 1 TB Samsung 970 EVO PLUS solid state drive. 32 GB of RAM is a godsend when you’re doing really intensive work (like running four or more VMs at the same time, something I’ve been known to do in the past). The SSD’s size and speed has also been quite welcome, especially since a lot of what I do involves copious amounts of disk writes.

All in all, things looked pretty impressive initially. The final verdict, however, would depend on how it performed in real-world use.

Having done some KDE development work, it seemed only fitting to use the new machine for KDE development. But not normal KDE development. I wasn’t going to just hack on some source code and do a few builds to test my changes.

One of the projects I maintain is KForge, which is a KDE development virtual appliance that has all of the needed build and runtime dependencies for almost all KDE software preinstalled. This is quite useful as it has been historically difficult to set up a fully functional KDE development environment due to missing build dependencies. You usually don’t know you’re missing a dependency until a build fails, and sometimes the logs left by the build failures are significantly less than helpful.

However, getting KForge to work just right was tricky for the same reason it’s tricky to get a decent KDE build environment going. So, if I was going to make sure I was pulling in all of the dependencies for all of the KDE software, I was going to have to compile almost everything in KDE.

By “almost everything”, I mean 300+ packages.

I ended up deciding to exclude some KDE applications from the build (namely Krita and Kdenlive, both of which I felt would just add too much bulk to the build and wouldn’t add all that much value), and there was one component I ended up excluding since it was defunct and wasn’t maintained anymore. But the remaining 300+ pieces of software needed built. The idea was that, if I got all the dependencies right, and if all of the KDE development branches were in buildable states, I would be able to successfully build everything, and that would tell me that I had succeeded at finding all of the dependencies.

Needless to say, compiling over 300 applications is virtually always going to be a large task even if the apps are somewhat small. Not only were some of these apps not small, many of them were juggernauts (especially KWin, the window manager used by KDE).

While the system’s fans do ramp up significantly and can be quite loud during compilation, the system itself actually remains responsive during such a job. Responsive enough for me to just keep using it while the compilation happens in the background. This was somewhat amazing, since my old system was known for randomly freezing when it got hit with a lot of disk writes, and so to be able to hammer the system like this in the background and still have it be usable during that time was massively helpful. Not to mention the dramatically reduced compile times compared to my older system.

Part of me isn’t sure why I do this, but I have a tendency to try and work on two or three projects at once, sometimes more. As a result, I generally have a slew of apps open all over the place that I switch between rapidly. As I write this part of the review, I’m review-writing, chatting on both IRC and Matrix, and trying to reproduce a bug in Lubuntu, all at the same time. As a result, a well-streamlined DE is very helpful.

KDE is, for me, very good at making work easy. But the Kubuntu Focus takes things a step further and makes it easy to access virtual desktops, something that Kubuntu usually doesn’t have enabled by default. Virtual desktops let me break up my work into different “screens”. The KFocus has four virtual desktops enabled out of the box, essentially giving me four screens at the same time, all on one screen. Not only that, but I can switch between virtual desktops with Ctrl+F1, Ctrl+F2, etc, allowing me to switch desktops without even having to click on the virtual desktop I want.

Additionally, the lots of RAM my system came with made multitasking comfortable from a performance perspective – lag was very rare and the times it happened, it was very small, and only happened during things like a massive compile job. (And even that rarely caused any lag.)

On the hardware side of things, multitasking is also helped by a good keyboard and touchpad – hard-to-press keys and a jumpy or insensitive touchpad can seriously hamper productivity. The keyboard on the KFocus XE is really nice and allows me to type at 100 WPM without problems (and that’s with a cat on my lap and distractions nearby – I could very likely go faster in an ideal situation). The mousepad was initially tricky since it’s so big and I would keep accidentally brushing it with my hand – this ended up becoming a non-issue with time as I got used to holding my hands away from it (which is probably better for avoiding carpal tunnel too). Oh, and the mousepad is also quite precise, responsive, and works well even when I’m doing things at high speeds. The only other problem I’ve noticed is that the touchpad will occasionally stop responding for no apparent reason. This happens infrequently, but when it happens, I’m able to simply switch to a TTY by pressing Ctrl+Alt+F3, then return to my desktop with Ctrl+Alt+F1 – this makes the touchpad work again.

I am not a gamer, and the KFocus XE is not designed for heavy gaming. I have no clue how well this thing performs if you’re intending to run intensive 3D games on it. That being said, graphics are important even in the general productivity world to some degree.

The Kubuntu Focus XE boasts a fairly good Intel iRIS XE iGPU, and while Intel’s integrated graphics are not known for being the pixel-crunching behemoths that NVIDIA and AMD churn out, they’re generally great for light and moderate uses. That was exactly my use case.

Everything I threw at the machine graphics-wise worked swimmingly. Full HD video playback is free of stutters and screen tearing. Windows have no stuttering when dragging them (even with the window transparency and wobbly windows that the OS has enabled by default, which look really cool and smooth). Desktop animations are nice and smooth everywhere.

For 3D performance, I tried using (which is basically an open-source Metaverse-like thing) in Chrome. My fans got a bit louder, but other than that it seemed to perform OK, though it was somewhat laggy. All of the graphics rendered relatively smoothly. The graphics performance for the Intel iGPU is listed on the KFocus website as being similar to the NVIDIA GeForce MX250 – benchmarks show the Intel iGPU as being as good or better than the MX250 in many tests and only slightly lacking in others.

The other important part of the graphics experience is the screen. Here I have one gripe… and before I describe it, I should say, I’m pretty sure this is my fault – my friend has not had this problem, and I’ve not seen any other reports of it. The one problem is screen burn-in. If stuff around the edges of the screen stays in the same spot too long, and then I turn the screen off and leave it that way for a while, I can see shadows of the old screen contents later, sometimes quite well. The reason I think this is my fault is because it didn’t happen at first, and then I left the laptop upside-down trying to improve its cooling airflow during a large compile job. I left it in this state overnight… and when I opened the laptop in the morning, I could see burn-in. Facepalm. I confirmed with my friend that KFocus XE is not intended to be left upside-down like that, and that I may have damaged the screen in so doing. Which would explain why the burn-in happens most near the edges of the screen and much less in the middle. Thankfully, the burn-in mostly goes away on its own if I leave the screen on long enough, and I can use the LCD Scrub screensaver from XScreenSaver to help it out (which may not even be necessary). Other than that, the screen seems to have survived my accidental mistreatment without problems.

Apart from my most likely self-inflicted burn-in issue, the screen is amazing. Colors are bright and crisp, and details are easily visible even when they’re small thanks to the Full HD resolution. The closest thing I’ve had to a monitor this good was a ViewSonic Full HD monitor, and both of the ones I have are dead. Every other Full HD monitor I have either has horrible color or something wrong with the backlight – the KFocus XE screen has neither problem. Coming from a 1366×768 screen, this high-res screen has been a gigantic relief and makes multitasking a lot easier. I can’t think of any way the screen could be better – if it was any higher resolution, I’d need display scaling due to its size, and that would essentially negate the best effect of having a higher res monitor (more screen real estate).

As a whole, the graphics and screen of the KFocus XE have surpassed my expectations and are perfect for everything I do.

A good laptop generally has to be relatively lightweight, have good battery life, and have good WiFi range in order to be useful as a mobile system. In my experience, the Kubuntu Focus XE has all three.

For weight, the XE is, as discussed earlier, quite thin and light. Unlike my older system, which was a leg-squisher and could end up causing actual pain if you left it on your lap too long, the XE can remain on my lap for extended periods of time without problems. It’s not as light as my tablet (an HP Chromebook x2), but it’s fairly close, which is surprising considering that my tablet is a fanless machine with a rather pathetic processor. Whereas the KFocus XE has dual fans and a powerful processor.

Battery life is also quite good. I generally prefer battery lifetime over “how long can I use the battery before it drains dry”, so I don’t have my XE disconnected from its charger for super long, and I use the FlexiCharger feature, which I have set to make the laptop not charge at all until it get to below 40% and stop charging once it hits about 80%. Most of the time, I only use 25% of the battery life at a time, if that. That lasts me for what I would guess is an hour of intensive use, and much longer when in a power-saving mode. According to the Kubuntu Focus team, the battery should last from four hours under heavy use, to as much as ten hours under light use. That fits with my experience, and that also means that the battery in this should last longer than my ChromeOS tablet (which only gives about six to seven hours).

As for WiFi range, I currently live in a relatively small house where each room is about two rooms away from the room furthest away from it. One would think a house of this size would make it tricky to thoroughly review the WiFi range, but the smallish house is offset by my absolutely pathetic router (alright so it’s a cellular mobile hotspot about the size of half a deck of cards). I have the hotspot on one side of my house, yet I still get connectivity and decent speeds on the other side of the house most of the time. Considering the very poor quality of the WiFi signal provided by the hotspot, this is really good, and it works perfectly for what I do.

The WiFi chip in the KFocus XE is the Intel AX201, which is a WiFi 6 device that is theoretically capable of 2.4 Gbps speeds. My hotspot doesn’t provide anything even close to that, but while I may not get the full speed of the chip, I definitely get the full speed of my hotspot, as I see no difference in speeds whether I use a WiFi connection or a direct USB connection to the hotspot.

The Ethernet included in the KFocus XE is a fairly standard Gigabit Ethernet port with a Realtek controller. It works flawlessly for me, and gives me full gigabit speeds when transferring data from one computer to another via an Ethernet cable. I just set one of the computers to share an IPv4 connection, then put one end of the cable in the laptop, the other end of the cable in the other computer, and then use netcat to beam whatever I need transferred. I can even share an Internet connection to another computer doing this. Ethernet is increasingly rare in modern laptops, yet still very handy in many instances, so this is a very nice feature to have.

As for the other ports on the system, there’s a pair of USB3 ports, a pair of USB-C ports (one of which supports Thunderbolt 4), a headphone jack, an SD card slot, and an HDMI port. This is more than sufficient for my uses, and for those who need more ports, the Thunderbolt 4 port should let you attach a docking station to extend the system.

Another connectivity feature I use is Bluetooth. In my experience, Bluetooth has been quite finicky on other laptops I’ve used, so I didn’t have very high expectations here. However, surprisingly, things mostly worked as I would have expected them to. My Bluetooth earbuds connected without problems, and while they are a little fiddly when getting them reconnected, they reconnect pretty easily and work well once connected. (I disconnect and reconnect them manually in the Bluetooth menu, then they work right.)

The KFocus XE not only performs beautifully, it also looks beautiful IMO. There are plenty of well-made design choices both within the OS and in the hardware itself. If you’ve ever used Kubuntu before, you’re already familiar with KDE’s aesthetics. The customized Kubuntu installation that comes with the KFocus XE keeps the same basic look-and-feel, but also throws in a few more nice-looking (and even functional) design elements.

The most noticeable of these additions is the Quick Help Widget on the desktop (visible in the screenshot near the start of the review). The widget looks sharp and complements the rest of the design rather well. It has several pages inside loaded with numerous keyboard shortcuts, terminal commands, and even a Vim cheat sheet.

There’s also a couple of window effects enabled by default that I mentioned earlier – transparency and wobbly windows. In essence, when you grab a window in order to move it across the screen, the window becomes transparent, allowing you to see underneath it while moving it. The window will also “flow” as you move it, making the movement look smoother. The wobbly windows effect also causes windows to visibly “snap” into place if you use window snapping, which is kind of the visual equivalent of tactile feedback – you can “feel” the window snap into place properly.

On the hardware side of things, there are several nice touches that add to the system’s aesthetic value, most noticeably the hexagonal hinges on the screen, the Kubuntu logo on the Meta key (where you usually see a Windows logo on most laptops), and the mitered angles on the edges of the recessed keyboard. The backlighting on the keyboard is also a nice touch (both functionally and aesthetically).

I saved this part for near the end since, in all likelihood, you’re only going to go through the setup procedure once per reinstall, and you’re going to reinstall very rarely, if ever. Most of what you do is going to be done once everything has been set up. But the setup procedure on the Kubuntu Focus is a major feature of the OS it ships with, so I felt it was worth reviewing.

This part was somewhat shocking for me. Most of the time, once I install a new OS on my system, it takes me a while to get fully set up. A lot of the apps I use aren’t installed by default, getting logged into everything takes time, etc. The worst part is that I have a very bad tendency to forget things, so I won’t end up getting some part of my workflow set up at all until I hit something where I need it to be set up. The Kubuntu Focus has an entire initial setup wizard that makes a massive amount of the initial setup work way easier. And there are a ton of preinstalled apps, many of which are ones I actually use. The wizard has several neat features built into it, including helping me remember to log into my email. (That part was particularly helpful since I’m pretty sure I’ve had at least one time when I only remembered to log into Thunderbird because I went to check my email.)

After a few minutes of downloads and logins, most of everything I needed was set up. I did end up having to install a few apps myself, as well as my Ubuntu development utilities. And I think I found one small bug in the wizard when I rejected VirtualBox’s Personal Use and Evaluation License for their expansion pack because I didn’t want to use Oracle’s proprietary VBox addons and comply with the restrictions that came with them. Doing so still let VirtualBox install (which was correct), but also left it marked as autoremovable (not correct). No big deal, I ended up installing a newer version of VirtualBox from the main VBox website anyway. It’s a setup wizard, it’s not going to magically read your mind and set up everything perfectly the first time. But it got pretty close, and that was close enough to save me a ton of setup time.

One unique part of the setup process is the “Curated Apps” feature. Somehow (and I don’t fully understand how), the Kubuntu Focus people have a website where you can click on the icon of an app you want to install (from a list of apps they recommend), and it will automatically do the installation for you. You have to type your password (thankfully!), but aside from that, it’s a one-touch installation procedure. Through a website. (I’m guessing there’s a client-side thingy built into the OS that makes this work.) It can even launch an app if its already installed or if you’ve just installed it. I installed several apps through the Curated Apps page, including VSCode, which is usually a bit tricky to set up. The installation process for each app was simpler even than using the Google Play store.

The whole setup procedure was drastically different from the usual “Bailing out, you’re on your own, good luck” post-install experience most other operating systems leave you with. It was an extremely good intro to a fantastic system, and it helped me a lot.

The built-in Kubuntu operating system works quite well and should be all most people need. But some of us either need to use a different distro, or want to explore other distros on our physical hardware. So far I haven’t tried distros other than official Ubuntu flavors, since I really like the Ubuntu ecosystem. But within the Ubuntu ecosystem at least, the KFocus XE works like a champ.

I tried two other Ubuntu flavors (Lubuntu 23.04 Alpha and Ubuntu Unity 22.10), and both of them worked very well out of the box. I assume that other distros like Fedora, Arch, or openSUSE would very likely work well, since the hardware in the KFocus is quite Linux-friendly.

There are a couple of downsides of using a different Ubuntu flavor on the KFocus XE. For one, you lose a bunch of the tools that the Kubuntu Focus Suite has built in, like the fan profile settings. You may also not end up being able to set a power profile like KDE allows you to do. You can install the Kubuntu Focus Tools on other distros, however this will probably pull in a lot of KDE dependencies since the Kubuntu Focus Tools, are, unsurprisingly, Kubuntu-focused. Personally, I just lived without them when I was trying out different distros.

The other downside is the loss of system component curation. One hidden feature that you usually won’t see on the KFocus is the fact that the Kubuntu Focus team tests updates to several important components, such as the curated apps and the kernel, before releasing those updates to end-user systems. So if, for instance, a kernel update breaks some hardware, you won’t get that update, and your hardware will continue to work right. When you’re using other distros, the Kubuntu Focus team no longer can control those updates, and so if an update breaks something, you’ll probably end up seeing that breakage.

Aside from those two problems, the user experience when using different Ubuntu flavors was flawless for me. All hardware worked out of the box without issues (except for Bluetooth was much finickier on Ubuntu Unity than it was on Kubuntu, which may have been a consequence of lacking the curated system components). The system performed perfectly well, and I was able to use it just like I’d use any other computer I installed Linux on.

Pretty much anything with a Linux 5.17 or newer kernel should work, if I’m understanding correctly. (The 5.15 kernel is probably not ideal.) Ubuntu 22.04.2 or higher should work out of the box. There aren’t any required third-party drivers, so as long as your distro of choice ships with a reasonable set of in-kernel drivers, everything should just work out of the box, even if you’re using a non-Ubuntu distro.

I mean, this is the best laptop I’ve ever used in my life. It’s fast, it’s powerful, everything works smoothly, it looks nice, and it makes it easy to get work done. That’s what a good laptop should do. If you’re into Linux and want a laptop that just works, I’d highly recommend the Kubuntu Focus XE. It’s amazing.

Thanks for taking a look, and I hope this has helped you in some way. Thanks to Michael and the Kubuntu Focus team for making these awesome systems, and for giving me the opportunity to work for one!

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