A brief review of the Dell XPS 13 (2015) Developer's Edition (and Ubuntu 15.04)18 May 2015
I felt like this would be an appropriate subject for my first blog post, given that my purchase of the XPS 13 was motivated in part by wanting a better machine for working on side projects (including my blog). In the last couple of months I’d started to get various ideas about useful patterns, best practices, etc, in C++ (and a bit in python). I also had some ideas for writing some open source C++ libraries that would be useful in quantitative analysis.
The problem was that my old Lenovo x220 was no longer up to snuff. It’s several years old, and the battery has badly degraded, and the power plug was quite janky (i.e. did not stay in place, and would quietly just come out of place and stop charging). This was quite a bad combination, and resulted in the laptop being dead quite often at random times. The repairs probably would have run $200, which didn’t seem worthwhile for such an old laptop. The idea of working on this stuff in my spare time on such a crappy machine didn’t thrill me, so, here I am, typing my first post on my XPS 13.
The reasons I say this review will be brief in the title are two-fold: first, this review will be incremental, in the sense that I will assume you have read other reviews of the XPS 13 (Such as Engadget or Ars); second, I’m not going to provide any detailed metrics or benchmarks. I will talk a bit about the hardware, and also about how well Linux works; anyone who’s used Linux on a laptop before knows this isn’t a trivial subject. I’ll also talk a bit about Ubuntu 15.04.
All of the wonderful things you’ve read about the XPS 13’s hardware are true. The laptop is small and sleek, yet feels sturdy. The materials feel great. The display is amazing; I got the non-touchscreen model which has plenty of pixels for me, and has a nice matte coating. I was worried about the keyboard going into the purchase, as there was relatively little travel. However the keyboard feels nice and quality, the keys have a good spring to them. The webcam placement isn’t awesome; if you tilt the display less than 20 or so degrees upward, the camera will include a good chunk of the keyboard. It’s still usable though, you’ll just have to be a little more particular about your setup when you Skype someone.
One thing that’s a bit annoying is that the Developer’s Edition had substantially fewer configuration options compared to the Windows model. Thus, to avoid the touch screen (more expensive, worse battery life, more glossy) I was forced to get the lowest level model. This was mostly alright, but it had a 128 gig SSD. Given how easy it was to install Ubuntu (more on that later) you might want to consider just getting the Windows version and installing Ubuntu on it.
When the machine arrived, there were a couple of minor annoying issues, the worst of which was that the touchpad would become non-responsive about once a minute for a second. This led me to contact Dell’s technical support by email. They forwarded my email to the Linux team, and within a couple of days I was in a running dialog with their support people, who were extremely helpful and seemed to know their business. I ended up installing Ubuntu 15.04, with the help of a detailed step by step guide the Dell team provided to make sure some settings in the BIOS were correct.
Since this upgrade, and with an additional minor tweak the Dell team suggested, the laptop has been working pretty well perfectly. Touchpad, wifi, all the function keys, suspend, hibernate, sound, etc. It all works. The touchpad is quite nice, two finger scrolling, click and drag, regular button presses are all excellent. I still need to set up middle button click. The battery life is quite good, but I honestly was a little disappointed after the amazing things I’d heard about it. In normal, real world usage—screen brightness moderate, wifi on, occasionally but not mostly watching videos—I get about 6 hours. I consider this very good, but I was hoping for more. I suspect though that it will be hard to do much better with Linux; the OS still seems to lag in battery life.
As for Ubuntu itself, it’s still quite nice. It’s very stable, and it does what I’d want a GUI to do: give me nice, elegant ways to launch and switch between applications, and otherwise quietly do its job. The RAM usage is very low as well, which is nice as this machine has 8 gigs, which is good but not amazing. What’s disappointing is how difficult some very simple things still are. You need to search in forums and download third party utilities to resolve issues as simple as making text size suitable on a high resolution display, and getting your touchpad setup (the System Settings dialog offers only a few touchpad settings, and some of them don’t even work properly). I’ve been using Linux for so many years and seen it improve a great deal, but it seems like it is plateauing shy of its goal of becoming the OS that grandma could use.
If you’re a Linux person who’s in the market for a laptop that’s compact, this is the laptop to get. The hardware is stellar, the compatibility with Linux is good, and Dell takes the support seriously.
Edit: here is a link to the guide that Dell sent me for installing Ubuntu from scratch. If you take a look, you’ll see the overhead added beyond doing a normal install is just a few minutes of extra work.