Hands on With elementary OS Powered Centurion Nano Laptop by Alpha Store

Brief: We take the elementary OS powered Centurion Nano laptop for a test ride. And it seems to be a decent, value for money device.

We were recently contacted by Alpha Store to test their new Centurion laptop products.

What? Yet another confidential laptop brand? I must admit that was my initial reaction. But after a closer look, a few things draw my attention: First, the surprisingly high specifications for the price. Second and most interesting, it comes pre-installed with Linux and according to the seller, you can install coreboot on top of that. In these days of privacy concerns, this is very interesting. Sufficient for me to want to test that product.

The elementary OS powered Centurion laptops by Alpha

Some of you might have already heard of Alpha. They came into limelight when they launched first elementary OS laptop Litebook earlier this year. Since then, the company seemed to have matured as they launch more products powered by elementary OS Linux distribution.

The new Centurion laptop comes in two models:

  • the 13.3″ 1080P Centurion Nano (starting at $699 for an Intel i5 7200U Dual Core @3.1GHz, 8GB RAM and hybrid storage 128 GB SSD+1 TB HDD)
  • the 15.6″ 1080P Centurion Ultra (starting at $749 for the exact same base configuration as above)

What makes the difference between the Nano and Ultra is mostly the size. The Ultra has a larger display and comes equipped with a Nvidia 940mx GPU do drive it. In addition, given the larger case, it can hosts 4 USB3.0 connectors instead of only 2 for the Nano.

As options, both models can be purchased with an Intel i7-7500U Dual Core processor instead, 16GB RAM and a couple of different storage configurations.

I tested the Centurion Nano equipped with the Intel Core i7 7500U and 16GB of RAM. When the computer arrived, I had less than 24h for testing.

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Centurion Nano Review

Let’s see what this new device has to offer to a regular Linux user.

Unpacking/package content

The package contains the computer, a 19V/2.1A power supply, and the cable to connect it to the main power line. That later caused me some troubles: the cable was made for a US plug. So I had to find a replacement part before being able to connect the power supply to a French plug. Which gives me plenty of time to examine the build quality of the device.

Alpha Centurion Nano Laptop powered by elementary OS

Build quality

The laptop by itself looks pretty well assembled. It fits in a classy plastic and metal case (aluminum?), far from the cheap plastic I expected. There’s a simple “Alpha Centurion” marking on top of the lid. No other branding can be seen elsewhere. I do not know if it was on purpose, but the shiny silver look of the laptop finally fits pretty well with its name, since it is not without reminding the Centurions in the original Battlestar Galactica series. A little bit less shiny though ;)

Overall, the laptop (closed) is about 22×32.5×2 cm³. For a weight of 1.5 Kg.

Alpha Centurion Nano Laptop powered by elementary OS

I/O connectors

Given its small form factor, you will not see many connectors on the computers. All connectors are located on the sides:

On the left side you will find:

  • The power plug,
  • 1xUSB type A plug,
  • 1xheadphone jack.

Alpha Centurion Nano Laptop powered by elementary OS

On the right side you will find:

  • 1xcombo USB/eSATA,
  • 1xHDMI,
  • 1xUSB type C plug,
  • and the SD card reader.

Alpha Centurion Nano Laptop powered by elementary OS

Keyboard

The QWERTY keyboard is backlighted. It would have been better if the keys were a little bit taller since you can see the LEDs behind them. Moreover, that small gap will allow the penetration of dust or other impurities below the keys.

However, besides that cosmetic issue, the keyboard is pretty agreeable to use, and I found the palm rest pretty comfortable and well proportioned for my hands.

The only real issue I had was with the power button unfortunately placed in the upper right corner of the keyboard, where you usually find the delete key. I put the laptop to sleep a couple of times by pressing it by mistake while I just wanted to delete some text.

Alpha Centurion Nano Laptop powered by elementary OS

Trackpad

Below the keyboard, you will find a trackpad. This one has no visible button. Since it is a multi-touch trackpad, you can emulate right-click by tapping with two fingers. And tapping with three fingers will produce a middle-click.

I realized later you can press onto the tracking area to trigger some the button(s?) hidden below. About 80-90% of the area surface will trigger a left-click. Only when pressing on the lower right part of the trackpad will trigger a right click. I was not able to produce a middle-click that way. I do not know if this is impossible or if I just lacked the dexterity to press at the right position for that.

Worth mentioning while reviewing the computer, we received a message from Andrew Bernstein of Alpha Universal LLC to say they have improved the trackpad in new models. Since I was already satisfied with the one I had, I cannot tell for sure what exactly was improved.

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First boot

When you boot, you see the familiar (for a Linux user) Grub bootloader menu. By pressing enter (or just waiting 30 seconds), the boot process continues by loading Alpha OS, the Alpha-branded Elementary OS Linux distribution that comes pre-installed.

Elementary OS is a nice choice for that Linux laptop since given its gentle learning curve, it will not frighten people accustomed to Windows or MacOS. However, being based on Ubuntu (which itself is based on Debian), it will still give you access to the full power of Linux if you need it.

During the first boot, the computer performs some initialization setups, asking few simple questions like your keyboard layout, desired login name and password, time zone and Wi-Fi settings. Only after I skipped that later part, I realized there was no Ethernet plug on the computer. So the Wi-Fi is your only choice to connect to the network.

Display

The 13.3″ Full HD display is very readable with nice saturated colors. And it is much more pleasing to use than my usual 17″ Dell laptop screen. Of course, displaying 1920×1080 on a screen of only 13.3″ might challenge those of you with a less than perfect sight. If that is your case, maybe you should consider switching to the 15″ Centurion Ultra instead.

Sound

Audio capabilities are certainly not the greatest strength of the Centurion Nano. It is sufficient for occasional use or videophone applications. However, when playing pop music, it is quite obvious the medium to medium-high frequency(treble) are over-represented. Whereas at the same time, there are very few low-frequency sounds (bass). Also, high frequencies suffer from audible distortions and saturation when we are close to 0dBFS. Clearly, all those defects are limitations of the internal speaker and analog circuitry.

I did not open the case, but it feels like if there was only one speaker, below the left palm rest. Or, at least, this is where you actually can feel the vibrations of the speaker— something that is not very pleasant. So you probably won’t enjoy listening to music from the internal speaker while typing text.

I will not say too much about the internal microphone which is comparable to the one you can find on most laptops. Certainly not your best solution for quality audio captures.

The Centurion Nano lacks microphone jacks. So, for “serious” audio recording, you will probably have invest in a USB microphone. Or better, you could plug into the laptop an external USB audio card/interface that would be a perfect complement if you intend to use it for audio-intensive applications or if you want Hi-Fi restitution.

Webcam

If audio capabilities were somewhat disappointing, I was quite surprised by the good quality of the internal webcam. It shows pretty low noise levels, even at relatively low light levels like in my house interior on the cloudy autumn day we had today. Perfect for video phone application or even for occasional video recording.

According to lsusb, the camera is advertised as “QUANTA HD WebCam” and has a maximum resolution of 1280×720 (HD 720p), natively supporting both RAW output and MJPEG compression.

Webcam of Alpha Centurion Nano Laptop powered by elementary OS

Hardware listing

Instead of bothering you with descriptions, here are the configuration reported using some traditional Linux tools:

[email protected]:~# uname -a
Linux sylvain-Kabylake-Platform 4.10.0-32-generic #36~16.04.1-Ubuntu SMP Wed Aug 9 09:19:02 UTC 2017 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux
[email protected]:~# lspci
00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Device 5904 (rev 02)
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Device 5916 (rev 02)
00:14.0 USB controller: Intel Corporation Sunrise Point-LP USB 3.0 xHCI Controller (rev 21)
00:14.2 Signal processing controller: Intel Corporation Sunrise Point-LP Thermal subsystem (rev 21)
00:16.0 Communication controller: Intel Corporation Sunrise Point-LP CSME HECI (rev 21)
00:17.0 SATA controller: Intel Corporation Sunrise Point-LP SATA Controller [AHCI mode] (rev 21)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation Device 9d10 (rev f1)
00:1c.4 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation Sunrise Point-LP PCI Express Root Port (rev f1)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation Device 9d58 (rev 21)
00:1f.2 Memory controller: Intel Corporation Sunrise Point-LP PMC (rev 21)
00:1f.3 Audio device: Intel Corporation Device 9d71 (rev 21)
00:1f.4 SMBus: Intel Corporation Sunrise Point-LP SMBus (rev 21)
02:00.0 Network controller: Intel Corporation Wireless 3165 (rev 81)
[email protected]:~# lsusb
Bus 002 Device 001: ID 1d6b:0003 Linux Foundation 3.0 root hub
Bus 001 Device 002: ID 058f:d102 Alcor Micro Corp.
Bus 001 Device 001: ID 1d6b:0002 Linux Foundation 2.0 root hub
[email protected]:~# aplay -l
**** List of PLAYBACK Hardware Devices ****
card 0: PCH [HDA Intel PCH], device 0: ALC269VC Analog [ALC269VC Analog]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 0: PCH [HDA Intel PCH], device 3: HDMI 0 [HDMI 0]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 0: PCH [HDA Intel PCH], device 7: HDMI 1 [HDMI 1]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 0: PCH [HDA Intel PCH], device 8: HDMI 2 [HDMI 2]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
[email protected]:~# arecord -l
**** List of CAPTURE Hardware Devices ****
card 0: PCH [HDA Intel PCH], device 0: ALC269VC Analog [ALC269VC Analog]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
[email protected]:~# phoronix-test-suite detailed-system-info
Phoronix Test Suite v5.2.1
System Information

Hardware:
Processor: Intel Core i7-7500U @ 3.50GHz (4 Cores), Motherboard: Intel KU31, Chipset: Intel Device 5904, Memory: 1 x 16384 MB DDR4-2400MHz, Disk: 1000GB HGST HTS541010B7 + 256GB TOSHIBA THNSNK25, Graphics: Intel Device 5916, Audio: Realtek ALC269VC, Monitor: LM133LF1L01, Network: Intel Wireless 3165

Software:
OS: Alpha OS 1.0.0, Kernel: 4.10.0-32-generic (x86_64), Display Server: X Server 1.19.3, Display Driver: modesetting 1.19.3, OpenGL: 4.5 Mesa 17.0.7, Compiler: GCC 5.4.0 20160609, File-System: ext4, Screen Resolution: 1920x1080


PROCESSOR:

Core Count: 2
Thread Count: 4
Cache Size: 4096 KB
Instruction Set Extensions: SSE 4.2 + AVX2 + AVX + RDRAND + FSGSBASE
AES Encryption: YES
Energy Performance Bias: YES
Virtualization: VT-x
Compiler Configuration: --build=x86_64-linux-gnu --disable-browser-plugin --disable-vtable-verify --disable-werror --enable-checking=release --enable-clocale=gnu --enable-gnu-unique-object --enable-gtk-cairo --enable-java-awt=gtk --enable-java-home --enable-languages=c,ada,c++,java,go,d,fortran,objc,obj-c++ --enable-libmpx --enable-libstdcxx-debug --enable-libstdcxx-time=yes --enable-multiarch --enable-multilib --enable-nls --enable-objc-gc --enable-plugin --enable-shared --enable-threads=posix --host=x86_64-linux-gnu --target=x86_64-linux-gnu --with-abi=m64 --with-arch-32=i686 --with-arch-directory=amd64 --with-default-libstdcxx-abi=new --with-multilib-list=m32,m64,mx32 --with-tune=generic -v
Disk Scheduler: CFQ
Disk Mount Options: data=ordered,errors=remount-ro,relatime,rw
Cpu Scaling Governor: intel_pstate powersave

Pre-installed software

The laptop comes with a set of software pre-installed. Once again, it will be great for new Linux users that will be able to use their computer immediately for the most common tasks, even if they do not have access to the Internet. To name a few, you will find in the application menu:

  • Libre Office (writer, calc, base, impress, math and draw)
  • Firefox
  • The GIMP
  • Scratch (the Elementary OS code/text editor, not the MIT programming language for kids— yes, I was disappointed too)
  • The Pantheon terminal emulator
  • The Pantheon mail application

Battery life

This is hard to tell since I did not have access to the computer for an extended period and battery performances are dependent on so many factors. However, what I can say is that battery came at about 50% power charge, and it took me about 3 hours to fully charge it (while using the computer).

After that initial charge, I was able to work for about 5h on the battery before reaching the critical level. Of course, the exact performances here will depend on the actual type of work you do. HDD- or CPU- intensive tasks will probably draw the battery power more quickly, but that is pretty normal.

Benchmark testing

I do not give too much importance to benchmarks usually. Since the raw performances of a computer are not always correlated with the productivity.

Speaking for myself, after a couple of hours, I really enjoyed the usability of that laptop for home and office tasks. But I can understand you prefer reading some figures and numbers. So here they are.

Those tests were performed using the Phoronix test suite available in the Ubuntu repository, on the Centurion Nano I received plugged into the main power line. The tests were run as “root” from a terminal emulator in a user session. The average system load before testing was <1%.

Phoronix contains hundred of tests. To have an overview of the system performances, I ran the “complex system test” suite which includes four tests:

  • the Apache Benchmark for web page serving performance,
  • C-Ray for ray tracing performance (CPU),
  • RAMspeed for memory performance,
  • and PostMark for disk transaction performance.

In addition, I ran the pts/supertuxkart benchmark to test the graphical capabilities of the device.

Test result units

Apache (static pages)

34798

requests per second

C-Ray

55

s

RAMspeed (integers)

10540

MB/s

RAMspeed (floating points)

10548

MB/s

PostMark

6578

transactions per second

Super Tux Cart (Full HD)

18

FPS

Naturally, since the Centurion Nano is using the Intel HD graphic chip embedded on the CPU, I did not expect amazing results for that test. Notice the Centurion Ultra using a Nvidia board to drive its screen. So, it is probably for graphic/display tests that you could expect the greatest differences between the two models.

Conclusion

If you want to buy a new laptop, no doubt you should consider the Centurion line. It will be a good choice for you, Linux aficionado. As well as for your Windows-addicted husband/wife/employees. The Centurion Nano is certainly not a “gamer” laptop. However, besides that particular use case, and for an interesting price, you will get a very competent computer, 100% compatible with Linux and usable for a broad range of tasks.

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19 comments

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This is an example of very poor value. You can purchase any AMD A10, or better, laptop and put Linux on it yourself for less than $400 every day of the week. Oh, and you'll get a Quad-Core CPU at the same clock rate or better instead of this Dual-Core, out of date nonsense. I'm very disappointed to see this being discussed at all. SMH.

Author

I don't know AMD CPU well. Did the AMD A10 really compete well with a dual-core Intel i7 with hyperthreating?

For what I quickly see, the AMD A10 particularly shines for its graphical performance compared to Intel Graphics. But not for CPU intensive applications. But once again, I'm certainly not an AMD specialist.

Elementary OS / Pantheon DE feels slow and counter intuitive to me, I try it every couple of years but I cant think of anything it does better than other DE's like Budgie, Cinnamon, MATE etc. Just clunky with an extra bit of time to do basic tasks.

Bilal Elmoussaoui

Are they shipping Numix Circle as the default theme?

Alpha Universal LLC

Yes

Thanks for the review!

Maybe the microphone port was the same as the headphone jack, like the Thinkpad t440p (and many others)?

Author

I didn't even think about that! Thank you for mentioning it.

If they can come up with a laptop with a 3:2 aspect ratio, I would pick one up. Their laptops provide good 'bang for the buck'.

Based on other threads, this 2nd iteration of laptops are also much more friendly with general Linux distros and that's a big plus (and a deal-breaker if that wasn't the case - I'm in no mood in buying a "Linux" laptop and having to jump through hoops getting the basics to work). Personally, I would opt for Linux Mint but enjoy distro-hopping.

So, Alpha... please distance yourselves a little further from the growing list of Linux-vendors. You already have great pricing. Let's get a document-friendly laptop at 3:2 running the (arguably) most popular distro for transitioners. (PS: I recently tested 30 or so distros and Elementary didn't even make my top 20 - they still have tons of work to do).

Author

Yes, *general* distro support is a must. The Laptop comes with Elementary pre-installed, but hopefully, you can now install the distribution of your choice (something was not possible with the previous generation apparently).

This was my first experience with Elementary, and I'm not necessary a big fan (I like my "old school" Debian+Xfce desktop). But I lent the laptop to some Windows-addicted people, and I must admit they find it easy to use.

But I agree, Linux is about freedom and we don't have all the same needs and tastes. Maybe it would be nice to have the choice between several distributions when ordering the laptop?

The MIT scratch v2.0 is online only and is available at https://scratch.mit.edu/. That is, no installation is needed.

Author

Yes, I realized that only a couple of day ago while searching it for my little boy :D

Nice article, nice piece of hardware. Some more pictures would be great.

Thanks for the suggestion. I'll check with Sylvain and see if we can add more pictures. We plan to do a video review as well.

Touchpad: if this touchpad is like the Dell Precision's one that I'm using - and from your description it does sound like that - then the touchpad is hinged at the top and has about a millimeter of movement available at the bottom. That means you can illicit a click with a soft touch at the bottom and a harder press the more you get towards the top. The bottom 20% is meant to simulate the left and right hard buttons of older laptops by having the bottom split into two halves (which is more or less clearly marked on the Precision by a delineating line drawn in the middle bottom 20% of the touchpad). If you can get a click on the top part, it also simulates a left click, I guess for no better reason than "why not". There's no "hard" middle click, no even with clicking both sides at the same time (a-la "emulate 3rd mouse button" of old).

Networking: I would be surprised with Wireless is indeed the only networking option. I would guess that also like the Precision - that also doesn't have an RJ45 port - you're expected to use the Thunderbolt port (what you call a USB type C, note the weird thunderbolt icon added to the USB one near the port) with an appropriate adapter. The Precision came with one bundled, I'm assuming the Alpha didn't.

Author

+1 +1 +1 @Oded!

I think your description of the trackpad is perfect. Apparently, the Dell Precision and Centurion have the same trackpad design (or maybe even the same model). As I mentioned in the article, the manufacturer said he made some improvement in that area, but I don't know exactly what was changed.

Concerning the thunderbolt--I didn't even notice the little spark next to the USB symbol. :/

Actually, that's a very good news if confirmed: not necessary for the network as this requires an adaptor, but that means one might add an external video card (eGPU) to run graphical intensive tasks when the laptop is "docked" at home.

Thanks a lot for your comment Oded!

Somewere at the beginning it says compnay where it should say company. :p

Thanks for mentioning that. I have updated the article.

Thank you for the review, i have been wondering if I should purchase one for my wife (who currently has a MacBook Air). Could you clarify which parts of the laptop are plastic and which are metal? Also, is the trackpad glass? It would be helpful to know how the feel compares to the MacBook's trackpad. Thanks again for your review!

Author

I can't compare with the MacBook as know no one around me having (they are pretty expensive here in France). And the trackpad was modified by the manufacturer after I receive the testing device, and I don't know how/why. *My* trackpad was plastic.

The keyboard is plastic too and finally feel like the cheapest part.

Concerning the case though, from what I can feel, the shell is aluminum. Only the inner screen framing seems a different material. Plastic, maybe with an aluminum coating or paint? I didn't disassemble it to check.