Review: Star Labs StarBook Mk V

It’s finally here! I’ve long run a combination of a custom built ATX gaming PC and also a Dell XPS 9360 laptop. Both have served me well but both are overdue a replacement after a long lockdown. I had previously seen Star Labs’ StarBook MkV mentioned on OMG! Ubuntu! and I was very keen to give it a try.

I placed an order for the StarBook Mk V back in August 2021 and after a patient wait it was finally delivered early December. I’ve now had an opportunity to use the laptop for a decent amount of time so here’s the review!

Star Labs StarBook Mk V
Undressed on my coffee table. Candle for mood.

Specification as reviewed:

  • Screen: 14″ IPS, 1920 x 1080 (16:9 ratio) @ 157 ppi, 60Hz refresh rate
  • CPU: Intel “Tiger Lake” Core i7 1165G7 (4 core) with Intel Xe Graphics
  • Memory: 64GB (2 x 32GB) G.Skill Ripjaws DDR4-3200
  • Storage: StarDrive 1000GB PCIe Gen 4 SSD
  • Wireless & Bluetooth: Intel AX201
  • Webcam: 720p
  • Battery: 65Whr (quoted at up to 11 hours battery life)
  • Keyboard: UK
  • Warranty: 1 year limited

For the full details check out the Star Book specification page.

I also added in a StartPort adapter (£69) and USB Recovery Drive (£9) to bring the total cost including an early order discount to £1,511. Given Star Labs are a smaller scale manufacturer than the likes of Dell the price versus specification didn’t seem too bad to me. I considered another Dell XPS 13 on the shortlist and didn’t feel that the StarBook Mk V was poor value by any stretch.

There are quite the many choices of Linux distributions available. For selected distributions Star Labs will also contribute some of the sale price to the maintainers. If you really want it for some reason you can also have Windows but that would arguably break the spirit of the product. For my laptop I chose Ubuntu 20.04 LTS combined with coreboot firmware.

Packaging & First Looks

The StarBook Mk V arrives in some seriously sublime packaging that’s been custom designed for the job. The outer carton is even branded Star Labs. Inside the box I found the laptop securely packaged with foam bumpers with the accessories packaged in two separate boxes. Unfortunately I did not have a Cat available to thoroughly test the packaging but I am sure they’d be impressed too.

Packaging
All safe and secure.

The actual box for the laptop features schematics of the device at each respective elevation. It’s another great finish to the product and oozes that due care and attention to detail I’m craving.

Inner Packaging
Want it.

Plastics report: I hate unboxing but here it’s worth mentioning that the laptop comes in a blue Star Labs sleeve and a screen protector cloth in place of any plastic on the trackpad or screen. Whilst the sleeve isn’t suitable as a day-to-day carry case it is very useful to have. I keep the sleeve on the laptop then put it into a carry case to protect from scratches from other accessories.

There were plastic bags for the shipping document, USB recovery drive, charger, charging cable and the UK plug adapter. These along with the foam bumpers are the only plastic you’ll receive in the box. Considerably better than quite the many PCs I have unboxed.

Charger, UK Plug, USB to barrel connector, recovery drive.
Hello! I’m a 12-port USB-C hub.

Around The Chassis: Screen, Webcam, Keyboard & Trackpad

The Star Book Mk V features a matte black anodised aluminium chassis housing a 14″ IPS screen and your choice of keyboard (UK, US, German, Spanish, French and Nordic are available). The lid has the Star Labs logo embossed on there and it looks seriously classy. It’s a very fine looking laptop with a premium feel to it.

At last! We meet in person.

Connectivity wise you’ll find the following ports on the StarBook Mk V (from nearest to furthest from you):

Left

  • 2 x status LEDs
  • Thunderbolt 4 / USB 3.0 – Type C with Power Delivery
  • HDMI
  • USB 3.0 – Type A
  • DC Charging Jack

Right

  • 3.5mm Combination Jack
  • USB 2.0 – Type A
  • Micro SD Memory Card Reader
  • USB 3.0 – Type A

Should I have been let loose designing this laptop I would have definitely sacrificed a USB Type-A port or perhaps even the charging port for a Type-C port so I can keep a Yubikey connected with the docking station at the same time but each to their own on that regard.

One of the things I had a hard time deciding upon was the screen versus the Dell XPS 9360. Dell packed out the 2016 XPS 13 with a very good QHD+ IPS screen and that was something difficult to let go of. The Star Book Mk V screen next to the XPS 13 is not quite as impressive 1080p IPS screen but still it’s very good. It’s actually surprisingly bright and colours don’t seem washed out at all. Supposedly this screen works out at 400nits average brightness according to Star Labs. I have to acknowledge here that if you are looking at other laptops at a similar price point you’ll probably more screen choices such as higher resolutions, different ratios but unless you need a screen for high end graphic design the Star Book Mk V should surely fit your requirements. One thing I do not miss from the XPS 13 is a touchscreen; that’s got no place on a laptop as far as I’m concerned.

Desk hero. The StarPort USB-C hub is also plugged in here.

A non-descript 720p webcam is included. The positive change from the XPS 13 is the position! On the XPS 13 Dell placed the camera bottom left of the screen. People would often comment about the weird angle and being able to see my fingers as I typed on video calls. Returning to a top and centre webcam is definitely a welcome change although it’s not a very wide angle lens and doesn’t have a privacy shield if that’s your thing (you can disable it in coreboot configurator but more on that later). Like most laptop webcams it’s good-not-great but will more than suffice for day to day video calls.

Chuffin’ ‘eck I’m live on t’internet!

Next to the keyboard on both the left and right flanks you’ll find 4 x 4 Ohm speakers which are more than adequate as far as laptop speakers go. Certainly not studio quality but for any serious listening or gaming you’ll definitely want headphones. I found them very much acceptable for watching some tutorial videos and I’m sure they’ll be fine for TV and Films on the go as well.

Keyboard wise this laptop also delivers. The backlit keys are generously large, well spaced out and smoothly finished to the touch. Typing on the keyboard you’ll find firm but forgiving resistance. There is slight flex in some places on the chassis but you’ll have to look closely for it so nothing to worry about. Star Labs have added an Fn key with the usual stable of F key controls as well. One mild bit of entertainment for me is that there is no Windows key! On this keyboard it’s the “super” key and that’s not something I’ve ever seen before except with Macs.

At the bottom of the chassis the StarBook Mk V features a smooth glass trackpad with separate left and right clicks. There is a bit of a gap between left and right which does take a little bit of getting used to. Again I found the trackpad very responsive and easy to use. It also supports mouse gestures such as double finger scrolling which is a welcome feature. The glass does tend to pick up some oil as you use it so I’ll probably refrain from scoffing snacks whilst working with this laptop.

Performance, Battery Life & Storage

Inside the Star Book Mk V you’ll find an 11th generation Core i3-1110G4 dual-core with UHD graphics or i7-1165G7 quad-core processor with Xe graphics. The Core i3 variant wasn’t available at the time of ordering but that’s OK because I wanted speed not steadiness. With the configurable TDP (Thermal Design Power) profile set to Performance (28W) I returned the following Geekbench 5 result which compared quite well to other results I found such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 8:

1607 single-core, 5516 multi-core.

One interesting thing about this laptop is that you may opt for a standard American Megatrends firmware or use coreboot instead. Initially I thought coreboot was perhaps not the right choice for me but eventually decided to give it a go. Opt for coreboot and you can use the nifty coreboot configurator app from the StarLabs PPA to tweak the laptop. Everything can be tweaked here from disabling devices, configuring the processor TDP and adjusting the keyboard backlight timeout:

Coreboot
No more Intel Management Engine to bother you sir/madam.

Thanks to the supply crisis we find ourselves in a fortunate situation regarding the battery. The specification was upgraded for free to a 65WHr battery. That did incur a few weeks delay for certification but generously received non the less. Under Ubuntu 20.04 with the balanced power profile set in coreboot I have found battery life at 50% display brightness doing a variety of tasks I’m getting probably around 6-8 hours out of the laptop without TLP or Powertop in use. That’s a bit short on the up to 11 hours claim (who’s isn’t) but it’s comfortable figure for day to day work.

For whatever reason at the time I decided to opt for 64GB of DDR4 memory despite having no real use case for it. Configurations ranging from 8GB all the way up to 64GB are available and – unusually for many notebooks these days – you can replace the memory if you need an upgrade.

A small note on the memory configuration. A manufacturer using this and similar CPUs can configure it with DDR4 SO-DIMMS like the StarBook which maxes out at 3200Mhz or it can be configured with LPXDDR4 at 4277Mhz. Whilst the advantage of using SO-DIMMS is that they are replaceable it should be noted that the LPXDDR4 brings overall higher memory bandwidth. If you are buying a laptop with Intel Iris Xe then you should know that memory bandwidth is everything and that SO-DIMMS work out slower so watch out for that in any benchmarks you see out there.

The laptop comes with an Intel AX201 WiFi & Bluetooth module. Connected to my AMV Fritz!Box 7530 (WiFi 5) I have found it to maintain a solid signal with no drop-outs. Sadly with a 26 Mb/s internet connection I will be unable to fully stretch it however for any HD streaming from your NAS this will do the job. I have had some concerns raised to me privately about WiFi. I contacted the team at Star Labs who suggested some tests and we were unable to find any fault.

The Star Drive SSD is worth a mention independently. I did some digging on the specifications page and found that the SSD uses a Phison PS5018 controller with 96 layer Micron B27B memory. KDiskMark returned the following results with the default 5 passes of a 1GiB file:

KDiskMark Results
Faster than I can do spreadsheets at least.

Conclusion

It’s taken a while to get this notebook but it’s definitely been worth the wait. It’s been a very pleasurable experience using the StarBook Mk V with very little to disagree about. Overall the Star Labs StarBook Mk V is a solid contender for your shortlist and I’d recommend it for Linux users.

Price and availability: from £779 at https://starlabs.systems.

Pros

  • Excellent packaging and accessories.
  • Premium feel chassis with strong keyboard and trackpad.
  • Lots of customisation options available: CPUs, memory, OS and even the firmware.

Cons

  • Competent but arguably not so impressive screen specifications compared to other laptops.
  • One more USB-C port would be nice.

The Summer 2016 Build

This summer I had the opportunity to build my next gaming PC. I had previously had a Shuttle SX58J3, Intel Core i7-930, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460 1GB build for an impressive 6 years (!!!) before deciding the time was right to go for a new build.

I had moved out of the parent’s place about a year back and left behind the small box room where anything bigger than an ITX build would have cramped the desk. Now I have my own ‘office’ I have much more room to use.

The end build comprises of…

  • Corsair Obsidian 450D case.
  • Corsair  RM650i
  • Intel Core i7-6800k cooled by a Corsair H100i v2.
  • ASUS STRIX X99
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Founders’ Edition.
  • Crucial Ballistix 32GB DDR4-2400 RAM
  • Crucial MX300 750GB SSD.
  • ASUS PG279Q 27″ Monitor
  • Corsair K70 LUX RGB Cherry Red Keyboard

20160716_080241961_ios
Pile ‘o parts.

20160716_080335697_ios
Smaller pile ‘o parts.

20160716_204259318_ios
First POST…

20160914_210706149_ios
The completed item.

The only real challenge the build posed was the radiator. I had initially chosen the Corsair H110i to fit to the top of the case. Whilst building it became apparent that it was just too wide to fit in the Corsair 450D. I solved this by exchanging for the narrower but just as capable corsair H100i v2.(Thank you to CCL Computers, Bradford for allowing the return).

The build is an absolute dream. Transitioning to an SSD is the biggest key benefit as I was previously on a SSHD build which was nowhere near as responsive.

At the moment I am playing Total War: Warhammer as well as Doom. Of course, I am also working hard with SQL Developer edition to hone my SQL skills.