Last month, Ars Associate Reviewer Valentina Palladino treated us to a thorough hands-on review of HP’s ultra-sleek, ultra-chic Dragonfly Elite G1. Shortly afterward at CES, HP announced a second-generation Dragonfly Elite, the G2, with Ice Lake CPU, optional LTE modem, and more.
We haven’t had a chance to get our hands on the G2 yet—but while we wait, we wanted to evaluate the Elite G1 not only with the OEM Windows it ships with, but with a fresh Linux installation.
We can’t evaluate a laptop with every possible Linux distribution, but in the case of noteworthy designs like the Dragonfly Elite, we want to at least see if one of the more popular distros installs cleanly, detects all the hardware, and is a good daily driver. Our first try was Ubuntu 18.04.3, “Bionic Beaver,” the most recent Long Term Support release of Ubuntu. For the most part, the installation went well—the keyboard and touchpad were responsive, the screen looked fine, and so forth—but unfortunately, the Intel Wi-Fi chipset used in the Dragonfly Elite is new enough that 18.04.3 doesn’t have an in-kernel driver.
If you’re a hardcore Linux type, that might not be enough to stop you—you have many possible options, such as installing a backported newer version of the Linux kernel—but we wanted to see if we could get a “just works” experience rather than a “percussive maintenance required” experience, so we regretfully shelved Ubuntu 18.04.3 and went to the newest interim Ubuntu release—October 2019’s 19.10 “Eoan Ermine.” Again, the actual installation went fine—but this time, we have Wi-Fi as well without touching a thing. Success!
Configuring Secure Boot
There is one rather weird part about installing the distro, and that’s the need to enroll a new UEFI certificate if you want to be able to run third-party drivers—either initially or later down the road. This is because the Dragonfly Elite G1 uses Secure Boot; a “virgin” Ubuntu installation can pass Secure Boot without any fiddling, but if you want to taint it with proprietary drivers, you need to convince the UEFI firmware that everything’s on the up-and-up.
The process isn’t hard—but it’s not particularly friendly, either. The Ubuntu side of things is fine—the installer asks if you’d like to be able to install third-party drivers and explains that if you do, you’ll need to configure Secure Boot, by entering in a password now and entering it again when you reboot—but the Dragonfly Elite’s UEFI firmware isn’t so friendly. After the reboot, you’re presented with a plain blue screen that says “Press any key to perform MOK management,” and you have five seconds to do so before it decides you didn’t mean it and conventionally boots the system.
From here, you’ve got to select “Enroll MOK” from an equally bare-bones menu, offering that choice along with “Continue boot,” “Enroll key from disk,” and “Enroll hash from disk.” This brings you to “View key 0” or “Continue,” from which you should pick “Continue.” Then it’s “Yes” from no or yes, and finally you’re presented with a “Password:” prompt, at which you type in the password you created when opting to configure Secure Boot back at the Ubuntu installer. The whole process is over in a few seconds, if you’ve got the courage of your convictions about you, but there’s certainly no hand-holding along the way. We’d really like to see more attention than this paid to the UI in modern firmware.
Everything works—including the stylus!
After entering in the password, the UEFI firmware offers you a reboot prompt, and from there, you’re into a fully functional desktop. Dropping to a terminal, the lshw command shows all of the device’s hardware functional, with drivers installed. Wi-Fi works, the touchpad is nice and responsive, the screen looks great, and the keyboard backlight both comes on and turns off again as it should. The touchscreen was also responsive and accurate when using a finger to select or activate controls and objects. This left one final hurdle: the included stylus, which didn’t appear to do anything.
The stylus also works fine, as it turns out—but as a decided non-stylus-expert, I had to get hold of Valentina and ask her a couple of questions about it first. Neither the included quick setup guide for the laptop nor any of the docs I found online in a quick search told me how to get it to register. What I didn’t realize is that it’s an active stylus, which needs both charging—via a hidden USB-C port—and Bluetooth pairing to the laptop itself. After peeling loose the dust cover and giving it fifteen minutes of charging time whether it needed it or not, it was time to get it paired.
Clicking the bluetooth icon in the upper-right corner of the Ubuntu desktop drops down a system menu, from which you can select “Bluetooth settings.” The stylus isn’t visible yet, but pressing and holding the “eraser” button for two seconds puts it into pairing mode, and then it shows up as “HP Active Pen G3” in Ubuntu. That’s all it takes; from there your stylus is functional—or the tip is, at least. The thumb buttons didn’t seem to do anything, either on the Ubuntu desktop or in the GIMP when we fired that up later.
I wasn’t particularly excited about the stylus, but my ten-year-old daughter Jane certainly was. When she saw what I was doing, she shouldered me aside, installed GIMP, and started drawing—first randomly doodling, then wiping the doodles, starting fresh with a black canvas, and in short order producing a Grinch/Probe Alien hybrid. The stylus is quite precise, and if held just barely above the screen, Ubuntu produces a cursor (either on the desktop, or in GIMP) where the stylus is focused, without actually activating the area with a “touch.”
Battery life on the Dragonfly Elite looks great, even in Linux. With the screen at 100% brightness, we ran BBC Earth’s YouTube video Ten Hours of Relaxing Oceanscapes in full screen for a little over an hour, and the system estimated we had another five and a half hours left. Pulling the video out of full-screen mode and letting it play for another forty minutes revised the estimate back upward to nearly seven hours remaining. If you’re willing to drop the screen brightness, of course, you’ll get even more time out of the system than we did—and you’ll probably want to consider turning off Bluetooth while you’re at it, since the stylus seems to be eating ten percent or more of the battery while it’s active.
If you’re looking for the easiest possible experience in procuring a Linux laptop, you just can’t argue with an OEM experience like Dell’s XPS 13 Developer Edition, or System76’s Galago Pro. But it’s nice having the option to retrofit Linux onto a laptop you just plain like rather than being limited to the ones sold with it—and if you like the Dragonfly Elite, it makes a great Linux laptop. We didn’t face any significant hurdles getting Ubuntu 19.10 installed (we were completely done in well under ten minutes), and the laptop was completely and immediately functional, without the need to mess around with anything.
The Dragonfly Elite is a great performer. Everything from booting to opening applications to running them felt quick and crisp; for more detail, refer to Valentina’s original review. The important thing from our perspective is that changing operating systems didn’t slow the system down or make anything get perceptibly clunky—it’s still a well-behaved eighth generation i7 system with 16GB of RAM and fast solid state storage, and it behaves just as you’d expect such a system to.
The battery life is also excellent, with a solid six to seven hours of full-screen, online 720P YouTube watching at screen brightness. If you’re watching offline media and willing to drop the screen brightness down to 50%, you could almost certainly watch movies on the Dragonfly Elite for a full ten-hour plane ride across the Atlantic.