Tag Archives: xps 13

Got a New Laptop, Here’s The Review

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.

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

system76-leopard-16Over 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.

Here’s the short list of why I wanted a new laptop, that has good Linux support.

  1. Most of my gaming is in Linux these days. Thanks Steam OS!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Buy Time

huawei-matebook-x-pro-nvidia-geforce-mx-150Alright, 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).

huawei-matebook-x-pro-multiple-portsI 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.

huawei-matebook-x-pro-with-intel-cpuBut 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.

huawei-matebook-x-pro-thin-bodyI 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.

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:

  • IntelliJ
  • WebStorm
  • Goland
  • Pycharm
  • ReSharper Ultimate w/ the pertinent tools it downloads.
  • Photoshop
  • Illustrator
  • Indesign
  • Premier Pro
  • Premier Rush (eh? Never used it, but I’ll download it)
  • After Effects
  • Character Animator
  • Audition
  • Media Encoder
  • InCopy
  • Prelude
  • 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.

Summary

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!

The Latest 5th Generation Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition

Just about 4 weeks ago now I purchased a Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition directly from Dell. The reason I purchased this laptop is because of two needs I have while traveling and writing code.

  1. I wanted something smallcompact, that had reasonable power, and…
  2. It needed to run Linux (likely Ubuntu, but I’d have taken whatever) from the factory and have active support.

Here’s my experience with this machine so far. There are lots of good things, and some really lousy things about this laptop. This is the lowdown on all the plusses and minuses. But before I dive into the plusses and minuses, it is important to understand more of the context in which I’m doing this review.

  • Dell didn’t send me a free laptop. I paid $1869 for the laptop. Nobody has paid me to review this laptop. I purchased it and am reviewing it purely out of my own interest.
  • The XPS 13 Developer Edition that I have has 8GB RAM512 GB SSD, and the stunningly beautiful 13.3-inch UltraSharp™ QHD+ (3200 x 1800) InfinityEdge Touch Display.
  • Exterior Chassis Materials -> CNC machined aluminum w/ Edge-to-edge Corning® Gorilla® Glass NBT™ on QHD+ w/ Carbon fiber composite palm rest with soft touch paint.
  • Keyboard -> Full size, backlit chiclet keyboard; 1.3mm travel
  • Touchpad -> Precision touchpad, seamless glass integrated button

Negatives

The Freakin’ Keyboard and Trackpad

Let’s talk about the negatives first. This way, if you’re looking into purchasing, this will be a faster way to go through the decision tree. The first and the LARGEST negative is the keyboard. Let’s just talk about the keyboard for a moment. When I first tweeted about this laptop, one of the first responses I got in relation to this machine was a complaint – and a legitimate one at that – is the blasted keyboard.

There are plenty of complaints and issues listed herehere, and here via the Dell Support site. Twitter is flowing with such too about the keyboard. To summarise, the keyboard sticks. The trackpad, by association, also has some sticky behavior.

Now I’m going to say something that I’m sure some might fuss and hem and haw about. I don’t find the keyboard all that bad, considering it’s not an Apple chiclet keyboard and Apple trackpad, which basically make everything else on the market seem unresponsive and unable to deal with tactile response in a precise way. In that sense, the Dell keyboard is fine. I just have to be precise and understand how it behaves. So far, that seems to resolve the issue for me, same for the trackpad related issues. But if you’re someone who doesn’t type with distinct precision – just forget this laptop right now. It’s not even worth the effort. However, if you are precise, read on.

The Sleeping Issue

When I first received the laptop several weeks ago it had a sleeping issue. Approximately 1 out of every 3-5 times I’d put the computer to sleep it wouldn’t resume from sleep appropriately. It would either hang or not resume. This problem however, has a pretty clean fix available here.

Not Performant

Ok, so it has 8GB RAM, and SSD, and an i7 Proc. However it does not perform better than my 2 year old Mac Book Air (i7, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD). It’s horribly slow compared to my 15” Retina w/ 16GB RAM and i7 Proc. Matter of fact, it doesn’t measure up well against any of these Apple machines. Linux however has a dramatically smaller footprint and generally performs a lot of tasks as well or better than OS-X.

When I loaded Steam and tried a few games out, the machine wasn’t even as performant as my Dell 17” from 2006. That’s right, I didn’t mistype that, my Dell from 2006. So WTF you might ask – I can only guess that it’s the embedded video card and shared video card memory or something. I’m still trying to figure out what the deal is with some of these performance issues.

However… on to the positives. Because there is also positives about the performance it does have.

Positives

The Packaging

Well the first thing you’ll notice, that I found to be a positive, albeit an insignificant one but it did make for a nice first experience is the packaging. Dell has really upped their game in this regard, instead of being the low-end game, Dell seems to have gotten some style and design put together for the packaging.

01

The box was smooth, and seamless in most ways. Giving a very elegant feel. When I opened up the box the entire laptop was in the cut plastic wrap to protect all the surfaces.

02

03

Removing the cut plastic is easy enough. It is held together with just some simple stickiness (some type of clean glue).

04

Once off the glimmer of the machine starts to really show. The aluminum surface material is really really nice.

05

The beauty of an untainted machine running Ubuntu Linux. Check out that slick carbon fiber mesh too.

06

Here it is opened and unwrapped, not turned on yet and the glimmer of that glossy screen can be seen already.

07

Here’s a side by side comparison of the screens for the glossy hi res screen against the flat standard res screen. Both are absolutely gorgeous screens, regardless of which you get.

08

Booting up you can see the glimmer on my XPS 13.

09

The Screen

The screen, even during simple bootup and first configuration of Ubuntu like this it is evident that the screen is stunning. The retina quality screen on such a small form factor is worth the laptop alone. The working resolution is 1920×1080, but of course the real resolution is 3200×1800. Now, if you want, you could run things at this resolution at your own risk to blindness and eye strain, but it is possible.

The crispness of this screen is easily one of the best on the market today and rivals that of the retina screens on any of the 13” or 15” Apple machines. The other aspect of the screen, which isn’t super relevant when suing Ubuntu is that it is touch enabled. So you can poke things and certain things will happen, albeit Ubuntu isn’t exactly configured for touch display. In the end, it’s basically irrelevant that it is a touch screen too, except in the impressive idea that they got a touch screen of this depth on such a small machine!

10

Here’s a little more of the glimmer, as I download the necessary things to do some F# builds.

Setting up F#

Performance and Boot Time

Boot time is decent. I’m not going to go into the seconds it takes but it’s quick. Also when you get the update for sleep, that’s really quick too. So no issue there at all.

On the performance front, as I mentioned in the negatives there are some issues with performance. However, for many – if not most – everyday developer tasks like building C#, F#, C++, C, Java, and a host of other languages the machine is actually fairly performant.

In doing other tasks around Ruby, PHP (yes, I wrote a little bit of PHP just to check it out, but I did it safely and deleted it afterwards), JavaScript, Node.js, and related web tasks were also very smooth, quick, and performant. I installed Atom, Sublime 3, WebStorm, and Visual Studio Code and tried these out for most of the above web development. Everything loads really fast on the machine and after a few loads they even get more responsive, especially WebStorm since it seems to load Java plus the universe.

Overall, if you do web development or some pretty standard compilable code work then you’ll be all set with this machine. I’ve been very happy with it’s performance in these areas, just don’t expect to play any cool games with the machine.

Weight and Size

I’ll kick this positive feature off with some addition photos of the laptop compared to a Mac Book Pro 15” Retina and a Apple Air 13”.

First the 13” Air.

12

13

No the Mac Book Pro 15” Retina

14

…and then on top of the Mac Air 13”.

15

16

Of course there are smaller Mac Book Pros and Mac Book Air Laptops, but these are the two I had on hand (and still use regularly) to do a quick comparison with. The 13” Dell is considerably smaller in overall footprint and is as light or lighter than both of these laptops. The XPS makes for a great laptop for carrying around all the time, and really not even noticing its presence.

Battery Life

The new XPS 13 battery life, with Ubuntu, is a solid 6-12 hours depending on activity. I mention Ubuntu, because as anybody knows the Linux options on conserving battery life are a bit awkward. Namely, they don’t always do so well. But with managing the screen lighting, back light, and resource intensive applications it would be possible to even exceed the 12 hour lifespan of the batter with Ubuntu. I expect with Windows the lifespan is probably 10-15% better than under Ubuntu. That is, without any tweaks or manual management of Ubuntu.

So if you’re looking for a long batter life, and Apple options aren’t on the table, this is definitely a great option for working long hours without needing to be plugged in.

Summary

beer

Overall, a spectacular laptop in MOST ways. However that keyboard is a serious problem for most people. I can imagine most people will NOT want to deal with the keyboard. I’m ok with it, but I don’t mind typing with hands up and off the resting points on the laptop. If Dell can fix this I’d give it a 100% buy suggestion, but with the keyboard as buggy and flaky as it is, I give the laptop at 60% buy suggestion. If you’re looking for a machine with Ubuntu out of the box, I’d probably aim for a Lenovo until Dell fixes the keyboard situation. Then I’d even suggest this machine over the Lenovo options.

…and among all things, I’d still suggest running Linux on a MBA or MBP over any of these – the machines are just more solid in manufacturing quality, durability, and the tech (i.e. battery, screen, etc) are still tops in many ways. But if you don’t want to feed the Apple Nation’s Piggy Bank, dump them and go with this Dell or maybe a Lenovo option.

Happy hacking and cheers!