A few past reviews just for context of my general working fleet of computers and why and what led me to this review and this new laptop purchase.
- The Latest 5th Generation Dell XPS 13 (Which isn’t exactly the latest generation now, but was when I wrote the review)
- Dell XPS 13 Re-review of Existing Laptop
- Buying a Leopard! (The System76 Leopard Workstation beast!)
Important! Do take note, I’m not paid by Dell, or System76, or anybody to write up reviews of laptops or hardware for that matter. These are my observations with these systems. I’m also not paid to use these systems for software development, but am only paid for the software development I produce with these machines. In other words, I very much roll Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) style and develop routinely without an assigned machine. I do what I can to stick to BYOD and such as it is, write up reviews of what I choose to use.
The Setting & Context for Purchase
Over the last year I’ve been pondering getting a Linux based laptop. At least a laptop that can run Linux native on the metal as the sole OS or at least a clean dual boot option. I wanted this for several specific reasons. The final decision to move forward occurred at this very tweet moment.
Alright y'all. Best linux laptops.
…and yes, this is gonna end up being a grand blog entry at some point of anguish, suffering, battles, troubleshooting, defeat, and a return to victory!
— Adron (@Adron) December 22, 2018
Here’s the short list of why I wanted a new laptop, that has good Linux support.
- Most of my gaming is in Linux these days. Thanks Steam OS!
- Most of my server workloads, server coding, internet coding, back-end work, and related coding is all for Linux. I haven’t deployed something to another OS in production for at least a decade now. As for front end apps, that’s also basically stuff that runs on Linux or MacOS. Web interfaces or usually just some simple CLI’s. I did write a Windows 8 “Metro UI” App, but it’s long gone and dead already along with the database (Riak) that it was an interface for.
- Most of my automation work and related site reliability coding, ops hacking, my metasoftware engineering (great words for a title from Katie Keel @akatiekeel, see tweet below), and all that good fun is often done on MacOS but always ends up being deployed to run on a Linux machine in the end.
- I’ve already got two Linux machines that I do a huge percentage of work on. The Dell XPS 13 and System 76 Leopard Workstation. However, the Leopard is in a bit of disrepair after a disturbingly wicked power surge here in Ballard (Seattle). The XPS 13 is just a bit weak, old, and the keyboard is still the crappy keyboard I detailed in the past review.
- One of the big demands for this new laptop was that I wanted to be able to – at least with a somewhat efficient hardware performance level – edit video, stream video, run the virtual machines, the pertinent container ecosystems (i.e. distributed database stuff), of course lots of code, and play the few games I do play. This meant at basic some decent video – albeit I knew it wasn’t going to be what I had/have in my System76 machine – at least a terabyte of storage on my main drive, and 32 GB of RAM.
(probably not new) idea: since DevOps is a culture and not a person, let's call DevOps people metasoftware engineers instead.
We write software that runs software. We are software engineers just like devs, and we write apps for your apps.
— Katie Keel 🌹 (@akatiekeel) December 28, 2018
Alright, that was the setting, so I went about searching through a lot of different laptop options. One of the most promising was this Huawai Matebook that Jeff & Adam pointed me at. It looked so good from the website that I decided I wanted to go check out the physical Matebook Pro somewhere, if possible, and found that option here in Seattle at the Microsoft store in University Park (It’s an outdoor mall, yuck, but whatevers).
I rolled over via bus and a short walk, walked into the Microsoft store and made a beeline right to where one of the Matebooks sat. It was gorgeous, absolutely beautiful, flawless, and outright better bang for the hardware buck than one of the Apple products from across the street! I was instantly sold.
But there was an issue. Hardware specs for this thing sit at 2GB Video, 8 GB RAM, and a 512 GB SSD. That’s a problem. I checked the site again to make sure there weren’t other options. Nope, it didn’t get much more built up than that. It just wouldn’t do.
I felt pained, annoyed, and frustrated. Does anybody actually want some decent power in a slim, elegant, and easy to carry laptop? Am I the only one wanting something like this? I started strolling around the floor of the Microsoft store. Looking at hard drives and Xbox stuff. Which just to point out, these Microsoft stores really are Xbox stores as much or more than they are anything else!
NOTE: All Huawai images copyright of Huawai. I’m hoping they’re cool since I’m pointing out their awesome laptop.
The reason I bring up the Matebook, is because I really was impressed by the build quality. It exceeded my expectation and based on this research, trying it out, I would happily suggest this laptop as a prime choice if the specs meet what you need. For me, sadly, I wanted and needed a bit more RAM and some more oomf in other categories.
The Final Decision
I walked around the Microsoft store checking out the Lenovo and a number of other laptops. I played some racing game thing on Xbox for a second. I wasn’t in so much of a hurry that I just had to buy something right then. I had after all waited almost a year to get to this point. Maybe I’d just save the cash and wait a little longer? Surely something would come along.
Then I walked up to another table. I first looked at the spec list, which I had been doing at every table except when I had walked up to the Matebook. I see 1 TB option on this machine. That’s cool. Then I see 32 GB of RAM. Holy shit when did the selection on the floor leap out of the piddly 8 GB range?! Then I see 4 GB Video! Specifically a NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 1050Ti with 4GB GDDR5! Hell yeah. Alright, I’d looked and here’s the laptop that after months seemed to be the only ongoing choice to get this kind of specs in something that I sort of trusted the support for. So I started to play around with the keyboard and oh, looky there, it’s a touch screen too. Not that I cared, but it’s not a bad thing to have really, albeit a waste as I’ll likely never touch the screen.
So there it was, the decision was made, bagged, paid for, and out I walked with a brand new Dell XPS 15. Maybe I should have bought it from Dell, but meh, this will work. Support plan is nice, if anything fails I bring it into the store and they get me a new laptop too. Overall price $2499 for 3 years of coverage plus laptop. Also, yes, considering my unfortunate luck with hardware over the years – unless it’s a machine I’ve built myself – I get the coverage because I’ve got all of zero time to mess around with being my own technician.
New review to come! Of course, had to just go ahead and cope w/ the OS tax anyway.😱 pic.twitter.com/OqtPRlEcgf
— Adron (@Adron) December 28, 2018
The Dell XPS 15
Alright, so I set out to put this thing through some tasks as soon as I got home. Well, ok, not immediately cuz I had to shoot and put together this unboxing video. Here ya go, it’s a little long, but I also cover a lot of related topics of interest related to this machine.
First Test – Application Load
My first test was simply installing and setup of some standard software I use. That included Creative Cloud from Adobe, Jetbrains IDE’s and tooling, OBS for video streaming, Steam so I could pull down Cities: Skylines and Transport Fever, and some other miscellaneous software I would need. All this I would install while I get my Dropbox downloads going. With that I set out to install all of this stuff.
First I got Dropbox installed and began syncing. This would easily be about 380-400 Gig of files and video files. With that started I set out to install things I knew – or hoped – wouldn’t incur one of the required Windows reboots. First was Jetbrains IDE’s, which involves downloading their Toolbox and then clicking through every tool I’d want and letting it queue them all up. Then the same thing with Creative Cloud. Altogether that includes:
- ReSharper Ultimate w/ the pertinent tools it downloads.
- Premier Pro
- Premier Rush (eh? Never used it, but I’ll download it)
- After Effects
- Character Animator
- Media Encoder
- Fuse CC (Another tool I don’t know but hey, it’s there now!)
All of that downloaded and installed quickly. Having a gigabit connect really, REALLY, REALLY helps out massively to get this done! Between the solid connection, the SDD being pretty lightning fast, and the proc and memory not being a bottleneck, I lost track of timing this. Suffice it to say the hardware combination is pretty quick.
Second Test – Premiere Pro Rendering
With Premiere Pro installed I set about recollecting how to edit with this software. I’ve been using Screenflow for Mac and Kdenlive on Linux for so long I don’t remember a thing about how Premiere Pro works. However as I worked through transitions (building the above unboxing video) I started to recall how much power is in this software, and I also really got a feel for another thing, the trackpad, which I’ll add more about in a moment.
The rendering for MPG4 was a little faster than the Mac Book Pro I’ve got from almost ~5 years ago and above equivalent to performance with the next to latest generation Mac Book Pro laptops (i.e. It’s about ~2 years old that I’m comparing performance on). Overall, the performance of video rendering wasn’t super impressive. At least not like the leap from a MBP to my System76 Leopard Workstation, which screams through rendering at a reasonably large percentage (~25-40%) faster than my laptop machines. So the XPS 15 really is close or better – but just a little. I’d be curious to get hold of the latest MBP and compare the performance. Considering this has dedicated video, it has dedicated video, and both have similar processors and pretty hefty RAM.
Third Test – Trackpad
Ok, this is the closest I’ve ever used in usefulness, capability, and multi-finger touch as compared to an Apple product. The tactile feel in my opinion is better too with this fiber type material that Dell has used on the trackpad and the surrounding area around the trackpad and keyboard.
The first real test was the maneuvering one has to do when video editing with Premiere Pro. Lot’s of right clicking (double finger tap or the traditional bottom right of the trackpad!) swiping up and down but also side to side, and this Dell trackpad performed exceptionally well. Still not as transparently smooth as an Apple’s trackpad is, but it gets the job done and once I’m used to it, I’ll easily be just as fast as I was with an Apple trackpad. I give myself a day or two and I’ll be up to speed with it.
Fourth Test – Weight and Sizing
Here’s a few images of the XPS 15 compared to an older model (circa 2015) Mac Book Pro.
The build quality of the XPS 15, just like the XPS 13 I have from circa ~2015 is really good. There’s elements of it that don’t seem like they’re aligned correctly compared to the smooth feel and look of some of the other laptops, but overall it feels, and appears to be more egalitarian and functional focused versus many of the other laptop options. The edges are very smooth and the cover of the laptop is a single plate of aluminum, which gives it that feel when carrying it around similar to most of the modern laptops. The edges however aren’t there to look seemless or attractive, they’re there simply to provide side plates for USB, USB-C, Audio, HDMI, and related ports. No complaints but if you’re 100% focused on looks, this might not be an ideal option. Me… well I’m a funny looking fella and it’s probably noticeably I’m not staunchly focused on the appearance of anything. I’m all about function over form.
Further Tests – I’ll have more tests in the future, for now, that’s a wrap.
Other comments, observations, and notes on this laptop will be forthcoming. In a few months I’ll plan to write a follow up. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a relatively light (1.81 kg / 4 lbs), relatively powerful laptop (32 GB RAM, 4GB Video, 8th Gen i7 or i9 option) this is about as good as you’ll get for the price. If power isn’t your ultimate intent with a laptop purchase I highly suggest checking out the Matebook.
As for Windows 10. My verdict is still out on it, leaning toward “ugh, fuggidabout it I’m going back to MacOS/Linux land” but I’m going to give it a good go before I declare that. There’s definitely a few elements of the latest OS that I like and I also want to get a good feel for it’s Linux system before I write it off. Maybe I’ll stick with it after all? Until then, happy holiday hardware hacking!