Best Linux Laptop? Dell XPS13 Developer Edition (“Sputnik”) Review

1-month update! See the bottom of the post.

6-month update! See the bottom again.

1-year update! Seriously, see the bottom.

2-year update at the bottom!

Finally, a 3-year update!

Criteria

As a programmer I needed a laptop that was powerful, lightweight, had a keyboard I liked, and ran Linux well (no driver issues especially with WiFi.)

The Dell caught my eye because it’s almost exactly on par, price and specs wise, with a Macbook Air. (The big difference being battery life: Apple is boasting 12 hour stats that nobody else can touch. But I don’t mind carrying around a charger.)

I considered the competitors: Lenovo X1 Carbon, ASUS Zenbook UX301, System76 Galago UltraPro, Chromebook, but either the keyboard layout or Linux compatibility seemed iffy; the Dell is the only one that comes with Linux out of the box aside from System76. It’s obvious that Dell has put significant work into making their laptop compatible with Ubuntu, so I figured I’d support that effort and try it out. The others may work just fine with Linux, or you may be alright with their keyboards/trackpads; up to you! I just can’t stand nub-mice, trackpads that require effort to click, mushy keyboards, layouts that omit function keys, or layouts that place navigation keys in weird places.

Ordering

Firstly, Dell’s website leaves a lot to be desired. The only way to find the XPS13 Developer Edition is to filter by OS and choose Linux; otherwise you’ll only be able to see the XPS13 with Windows. Way to make Linux feel like a second-class citizen!

When narrowing down my final ultrabook options a Dell chat representative popped up, so I asked some questions about the 21 day return policy. The rep’s answers were good enough to convince me to try the Dell out, but he quoted me a system with an Atheros AR9462 a/b/g/n Bluetooth 4.0 network card instead of the Intel® Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 + Bluetooth 4.0 quoted on the website. He assured me that this was an upgrade, but in hindsight I think there’s a reason the Atheros was cheaper. Many reports online of Dell Support exchanging defective Atheros cards for Intel cards.

Finally, the rep asked me for my credit card info via chat; which, according to my tests, was not encrypted via HTTPS. My warning bells rang all over the place; that can’t be acceptable business/security practice. Finally, my billing address is different than my shipping address, but the quote I received via email didn’t reflect this; I asked about it and the rep assured me my correct shipping address was entered correctly. The order also said it’d take two solid months to ship, but the rep assured me he’d expedite the order and I’d get it much sooner. He finally called me to complete the order (cell phones are more encrypted than HTTP, I guess) but the whole affair felt very shoddy, and my gut was telling me something would go wrong.

A few weeks later (hey, fast!) I got a Fedex tracking number and sure enough it had the destination of my billing address, not my shipping address. Great, so much for promises. Good thing I can forward stuff between addresses without too much pain. None of the rep’s other promised communications happened, just the chat, invoice, and tracking number. Oh well. All’s well that ends well I guess, except I can’t shake the feeling that I’d have been better off trusting my gut and ordering from the website instead of via a representative, and I can imagine some horror scenarios where everything didn’t turn out fine. Definitely go with the website instead.

Update: looks like I saved a few hundred dollars because the Dell rep ordered me an XPS without a touchscreen; so while all the options on the website are expensive models with touchscreens, mine isn’t. Can’t complain, I’m not big on the idea of touchscreen laptops anyway (especially in Linux.)

Update update: looks like I actually got sold the prior-year’s model for a few hundred bucks off. Shitty bait-and-switch, but then again I’m happy with the end result? QUIT PULLING MY HEARTSTRINGS, DELL.

Unboxing

IMG_20140113_153802img_20140113_155318-1IMG_20140113_155239IMG_20140113_155246IMG_20140113_155257

I was worried at first because the shipping box was pretty beat up from its two trips, but the actual product box was unscratched and very sleek. Apple-inspired plastic wrapping around the laptop itself, fabric scratch-resistant sheets, recycled paperboard, etc.

Initial Impressions

IMG_20140113_155449IMG_20140113_155551 IMG_20140114_142821 IMG_20140114_142709

  • The laptop booted up surprisingly fast, and presented me with an Out-Of-Box Experience setup wizard! The choices for a user icon were pretty silly though. Never understood the whole “stock photo of a butterfly” thing that every OS seems to do now.
  • The screen is bright, sharp, and pretty! Glossy, though, which might not be your thing.
  • There was one issue where the animated portion of the slideshow during initial setup flickered oddly, making me worry about videocard issues. Haven’t encountered it since, though.
  • Detected specs are: Ubuntu 12.04 x64, with a Intel® Core™ i7-3537U CPU @ 2.00GHz × 4  cpu and 7.4 GiB of memory. The HDD shows up as 232.5 GB and there’s a DELLUTILITY partition mounted as well.
  • Upon bootup, Ubuntu asked me to print my home directory encryption passphrase (I selected to encrypt my home directory) and the Dell Recovery utility asked me to create recovery media. There is one issue, however: it needed about 2.3GB despite claiming it only needed 2GB, so I had to use a 4GB USB drive instead. Also, it encountered various errors mounting/formatting/imaging the drive; google said the fix was to reboot (with the USB drive inserted), which worked.
  • The keyboard gets a bit warm! I can feel the hot air wafting up from the keys. This is a nice feature in the winter when my fingers can get too cold to type, but hopefully it’s not a sweaty-fingers issue in the Phoenix summer.

WiFi, Bluetooth

  • At first, I couldn’t stay connected to a WPA-TKIP (or mixed) WiFi network for more than a few seconds at a time, but following the instructions here fixed it: http://en.community.dell.com/techcenter/os-applications/f/4613/p/19515554/20475862.aspx
  • Bluetooth didn’t appear to work, either (the icon appears in the taskbar, but Bluetooth appears to be disabled. Syslog mentions issues with “Atheros AR30xx Patch file not found” and “Patch file not found ar3k/AthrBT_0x11020000.dfu”. However, running sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade fixed that.
  • I suspect that simply running the apt-get commands above would take care of both issues, however it’s kinda hard to install software updates when your wifi keeps dropping. Dell really should not be shipping $1500 laptops that need user intervention in order to work correctly, especially when fixes have been released for months, and especially when that’s the whole point of releasing an Ubuntu-OEM device. Not if they want to get any love from the Macbook-toting-developer crowd anyway. Mildly infuriating.

Keyboard, Mouse

  • Out of all the ones I tested, the only keyboard I prefer more is Acer. You may prefer Lenovo (Thinkpad) keyboards, but I don’t like their key placement or new trackpad “tactile click.” My only complaint so far is the somewhat hard edge of the front of the laptop where your wrist rests. It’s metal, so hanging your wrist off the edge of the table is a bit carpal-tunnel-inducing. I predict a lot of resting my elbows on the table.
  • The “chiclet” keys may take a bit of getting used to and the travel is a bit more than I’m used to, but I don’t immediately hate it like testing other keyboards: weird home/end/pgup/pgdown/ctrl placement isn’t acceptable for me; sticking those functions on top of the arrow keys is what I’m used to. Your preferences may vary, but as someone whose job is to type I’m not in favor of typing on something I have a visceral reaction to right away.
  • Minor thing I appreciate: the F1-F12 keys work normally; special functions like wifi/brightness/volume are only activated when you hold down the Fn key. Again, as a programmer the F-keys are used daily, so I’d rather not have to do anything special to use them.
  • The trackpad is, as far as I can tell, a Macbook trackpad. It supports tap-click, two-finger right-click, two-finger scroll, and some cool gestures like three-finger scroll (move window and/or bring up resize controls), three-finger shake (maximize window), and four-finger tap (open/close the Ubuntu menu/”dash”). There’s the occasional accidental scroll when two-finger clicking, and mouse movement during typing isn’t perfectly suppressed, but overall I’m pleased compared to other, simpler touchpads. No left/right click issues or massive travel like in other competing (new) ultrabooks, and no “oh, you’re done typing?” lag like on old touchpads.
  • Minor complaint: the trackpad is big enough that accidentally tapping it during typing can result in unintentional clicks, and the typing-versus-tapping detection isn’t the best so often I’ll try to click something right after typing and have to wait a second (or click physically) and a few times I’ve been typing and pause/tap just long enough to register a click. There’s probably no fix for this aside from turning off tap-to-click, but it’s not that big of a deal.

Speed

  • The main reason for this upgrade was to go from my Acer Aspire 1410 (Celeron) to something that can handle running the automated tests and VMs needed in my development job (basically running a web server and then opening Google Chrome and running through every single feature of the whole website. It can take awhile.) I’m pleased to report that, without a maxed-out Macbook side-by-side to compare to, I can’t tell the difference. This is probably as zippy as it can get, and the processor isn’t even breaking 40% usage. The memory is at 3.5GB though, so maybe more RAM is in my future. I might add that I’ve got Gmail and chat.meatspac.es open while I’m running this test, which by itself would max the CPU of my old computer, so that’s nice. The entire test suite for my web project took about 20 minutes to run, which is on par with much-more-expensive computers.

Screen

  • Beautiful 1920x1080p (full HD) goodness, shockingly sharp although not quite Apple “retina” quality (2560×1600). But even looking back at my 1366×768 netbook screen is shocking, and the Macbook Air (non-retina) screen is noticeably lower-rez (1440×900). I can’t imagine being disappointed by this screen, but then again I haven’t used any Retina Macbooks yet.
  • The keyboard controls for screen brightness and keyboard backlight seem to work fine, but don’t seem to save on reboot: the first few seconds after startup are somewhat blinding. Not sure if this is an Ubuntu thing or a Dell thing. Good news is the screen can be quite bright!

Sound

  • LOUD! Or at least, adequate. I’d put my last computer to my ear to hear stuff in a coffee shop; pretty sure I can turn up the volume to impolite levels with the XPS.
  • THE MICROPHONE WORKS. Finally. A major issue with my last laptop.
  • To use a wired microphone (headset) you’ll need the single-barrel type commonly used for cell phones (technically, a 3.5mm TRRS connector) but in my tests the Apple iPhone headset did not work as a microphone; there’s unfortunately no standard for detecting microphones on headsets, and manufacturers differ. My Samsung Galaxy Nexus headset did work, however.

Misc

  • Boot time is fast! At first I was disappointed, seeing the normal Ubuntu bootup sequence, but honestly it’s just a few seconds until the login prompt appears. Closing the screen appears to suspend the computer, and it resumes promptly including the password prompt and wifi reconnection. It seems a bunch of work went into this.
  • The charger is cute, and kinda wraps up with an integrated clip, but there must be a patent on Apple’s design because this isn’t quite there: how am I supposed to store the high-voltage side, and why no magnetic power connector or regular (non-hip) strain relief that won’t crack (a major problem with Apple cables, I might add.)
  • Ventilation would probably be an issue on a lap or blanket; it looks like a hard flat surface is needed in order to not cover the fan grille on bottom.
  • Battery life appears to be around 4.5 hours, according to the meter. Maybe 5-6, max, in ideal conditions. According to the Ubuntu Power Statistics, my initial charge lasted about 4.5 hours before I felt the need to plug in. It also took about 4 hours to fully recharge, though the slope is slightly steeper at the beginning of the curve which is nice. (I was also doing power-intensive things most of the day.)
  • Dell supposedly included “developer edition” programs/tools but evidence of them is scarce. You have to click through a number of websites to find it: There’s the Sputnik Project website, which links to a PDF with the Dell Developer address, which directs you to Dell TechCenter for Sputnik, which finally mentions the software list (which doesn’t include vim or git, amazingly. But it does have ruby-1.8, joy!) Their much-touted profile tool seems to be getting a remake. The CloudLauncher seems interesting. Hunting down all those disparate websites via extensive googlefu was kinda exhausting though. You’d expect some sort of greeting or resource guide on the desktop or during the ordering process.
  • The funky setups with network adapters (looks like lxcbr0 and virbr0 interfaces for LXC/Virtualbox virtualization?) and resolv.conf settings (nameserver 127.0.0.1, domain buildd, nameserver 10.122.37.1, managed by puppet?) aren’t entirely appreciated — I didn’t set these things up or really ask for them, so I’m not likely to use them, and indeed can break “normal” network setups in interesting ways. There’s also some kind of Dell security profile reminiscent of SELinux that asks for additional confirmation for various tasks. Fishy, more investigation is needed.
  • Finally, it’d kinda be nice for Dell to include USB-to-Ethernet and Mini-Displayport-to-VGA adapters with the computer. I know it’s not par for the course, but I feel a bit naked with only two USB ports and a headset port usable out-of-the-box. The good news, however, is that Mac Mini-Displayport adapters (Macbook/Air equivalent) appear to work just fine, so there’s a chance you’ll encounter the right adapter in the wild.

Overall

I think if Dell ran an apt-get upgrade before shipping this, it’d be a wonderful initial experience. As it is, the first few hours have some self-doubt unless your WiFi happens to work long enough for updates to install. For such a simple oversight, plus the dumb purchasing experience I chose, I can’t help but question what’s going on over there. But I’m happy with the product after the first day and would recommend it to anyone (so far) including Mac users. 9/10, happy to have a snappy Linux-OEM ultrabook. Dell is so close, I can almost taste it.

1-month Update:

I have only two lasting issues:

  • Suspending/hibernating, wherein the computer will sometimes fail to resume and I’ll lose whatever I had open, but I think this might be an issue with Ubuntu 12.04 and using an encrypted home directory.
  • Occasional hard freezes (can’t move mouse, can’t press ctrl+alt+f1, might recover itself if I wait a few minutes but usually not.) This is pretty unacceptable (thank FSM for Sublime auto-save) but it looks like others with the same issue (http://en.community.dell.com/techcenter/os-applications/f/4613/t/19506155.aspx) suggest upgrading Ubuntu so I may try that next.

Also I wish backlight brightness would persist, and I’ve had a few hard freezes (which are likely OS related, not hardware.) Overall, I’m happy with the purchase according to my criteria and plan to install a newer Ubuntu soon to test that out.

Oh, and the Dell-specific stuff that comes with the machine, and the Dell Ubuntu/opensource project overall, seems a bit lacking. It’s as though Sputnik is just a pet project of a few Dell employees and doesn’t have anyone’s full attention though I’d love to be proven wrong.

6-month Update:

One issue that got worse over time, causing me to finally contact Dell Support, was frequent wireless disconnects. It got so bad that sometimes I’d be pressing Fn+F2 (“Airplane mode”) every five minutes to reset the wireless card, and I even programmed my own system tray ping graph to let me know when I’d lost a connection.

But, Dell Linux Support was great, and suggested the following two fixes which I applied and seem to have improved wireless stability tenfold (note, I have an Atheros wireless card; if you don’t, this may not help. Contact Dell Support and they should get you fixed up):

1) Create/edit the file /etc/modprobe.d/ath9k.conf and add the line:

options ath9k nohwcrypt=1

2) Disable power management for the Wireless card:

sudo iwconfig wlan0 power off

3) Finally, consider disabling IPv6 for the wifi network in question (Edit Connections under your wifi menu, Wireless tab, choose your network, edit, IPv6 Settings, set Method to Ignore.

If none of these help, the Dell tech also suggested using the Ubuntu LTS Enablement Stack, or upgrading to Ubuntu 14.04. I haven’t tried either of these yet though (still on 12.04 with kernel 3.2.0-63-generic.)

1-year Update:

Whoa, it’s already been a year? Well, I upgraded to Ubuntu 14.04 and I gotta say that wireless is solidly acceptable now. At this point it’s difficult to tell whether disconnects are due to my laptop, or just the environment or access point. I can’t think of any other complaints right now other than Ubuntu-specific complaints like “my bluetooth mouse disconnects after 5 minutes of inactivity.”

Battery life seems to be diminished a bit after a year (Ubuntu says it’s at about 70% of its rated capacity) but I also constantly have a dozen tabs open, use Youtube for music, stay plugged in all day, average 30-40 hours per week, and rarely let it charge all the way. Again I carry a charger anyway, so it’s not a big deal.

Oh, speaking of charger, my original charger randomly decided to break one day. Maybe a loose connection inside the laptop-side cord? I haven’t taken it apart to troubleshoot, just bought a new one. Note to self, brick-and-mortar stores do not typically carry the right “universal” power tip for this laptop, so if the laptop is critical then having a spare on-hand is probably worth the $50.

I’m sure a new revision of the XPS13 will be in stores by now, but as far as my model, with the Atheros card, all seems well. (The same cannot be said for the Intel cards in a friend’s Dell and Lenovo; not sure what’s up with them, but they just don’t seem happy. Go figure.)

2-year Update:

Well, good news and bad news. The good news is that the laptop is still running strong and I definitely don’t regret my purchase. Also, the newer XPS13s seem pretty sweet. The bad news, however, is:

1)

While playing Polybridge, a relatively lightweight bridge-building videogame, the laptop either overheated or exceeded its maximum power draw and turned off (which happens sometimes.) But upon reboot, pretty much any sort of serious graphics card rendering would freeze the application in question.
So no Youtube, no significant Javascript (gotta use Gmail in HTML mode), no playing video files in VLC, etc. After much troubleshooting (worrying that maybe I blew up the graphics card) it seems that some file must’ve become corrupted somewhere, because booting from a USB stick and reinstalling worked.
It was a pain, but I’m now on my second Ubuntu install (created using the recovery USB that I created when I got the laptop; highly recommend it, because of the Dell customizations that are built in for stuff like the touchpad.) It was a pain in the butt to recover the encrypted home directory, though.
Practice your backup and recovery routines! Did you know the XPS13 uses an m.2 style SSD hard drive, so plugging into a SATA port for recovery isn’t a thing that’s going to happen? I lost a 4-day weekend to recovery, just copying and extracting gigantic archives.

2)

After awhile, my battery life was low enough that I looked around for replacements. But it turns out if you don’t have Dell’s warranty (and probably even if you do) your ability to buy OEM replacement batteries is extremely limited. Dell said they were completely out, last time I called, though I don’t have a warranty so maybe they’re lying.
It also turns out that the non-OEM / refurbished batteries pretty much suck. The connector doesn’t sit very well in the motherboard so it takes some skillful and gentle wiggling to avoid breaking anything, and even if you do everything perfectly it seems like these batteries have a maximum current draw or relatively-low charging rate because after 1-14 days of use I get the dreaded “blinking amber / white charging LED” problem which will send you around in circles on Google for days. (It’s 4 amber blinks followed by the normal white steady light followed by darkness; repeat.)
If you unplug the charger during this blinking, the computer will instantly lose power. My interpretation of the light is “the BIOS has detected a charging irregularity and has decided that the battery is defective” and the only solution I’ve found is to open up the laptop, unplug the battery for a few seconds, and re-plug.
The issue seems to happen most often when I am using the laptop and also charging my phone, a Nexus 5x, via USB. Either USB port seems to cause the problem, but I feel like the high-amperage port on the left causes it more often. I feel like I could go weeks without the blinking if I just never connected my phone, but unfortunately sometimes I really need to — for charging purposes or for USB tethering. C’est la vie.

So, final word for now, GET EXTENDED DELL WARRANTIES. Apparently it’s near-impossible / super-expensive to get parts from Dell without one, and refurbished is all crap.

3-year Update:

The replacement battery has been holding up, but over the last year maybe every week or month on average I’ve had to unscrew the bottom cover and unplug/replug the battery’s power connector in order for the laptop to recognize that it has a battery again. Not sure if that’s a problem with the battery controller or the battery itself.

Ironically, after an incident where I was caught without a charger or screwdriver, I simply took off all the screws and started toting the laptop with the bottom cover attached only by friction. Since then, the battery has behaved flawlessly. Maybe the threat of imminent disconnection has scared it into compliance.

The update to Ubuntu 16.04 seems to have gone as fine as any OS update can go, and although I’ll probably want to buy a new laptop one of these months it’s certainly been a worthwhile purchase.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Best Linux Laptop? Dell XPS13 Developer Edition (“Sputnik”) Review

  1. Herman Weisang says:

    I think the reason you saved a few hundred Dollars is because Dell seems to have sold you the Ivy Bridge version of this laptop for some reason. Did you order it a while ago or just recently, if I may ask?
    Yours has the i7-3537U CPU (3rd gen). That also explains the lack of a touchscreen, since this older version of the XPS 13 didn’t have it.
    The current version of this machine (which is the one you can currently see on their website, it was introduced in November 2013) has a 4th gen Haswell CPU (i7-4500U), slightly better integrated graphics and a touchscreen. They also no longer offer the Atheros WiFi card as an option (I guess they learned).

  2. Andrew says:

    Will, how’s the 3 month update? I’m looking at the XPS 13 versus the Lenovo T440. Had any experience with Lenovos? That’s what I’ve been running Ubuntu on for the last 6 yrs with no major issues but I’m open to something else. Also, how’s the keyboard treating you?

  3. Hey there! Thanks for asking. I’m still quite pleased; for awhile Ubuntu 12.04 was unstable enough that multiple times a week it would hard-freeze requiring a reboot and potentially losing data, but using Sublime / Google Docs / remote screen sessions this actually wasn’t a dealbreaker because I’d get all/most of my data back. Still, quite concerning.

    Lately it’s only happened once every few weeks. I intend to upgrade to the latest Ubuntu, possibly using a fresh install, to see if this improves anything. (Allegedly there’s some kind of Compiz issue with this hardware on older kernels.) Keep in mind I’m using the previous-generation XPS13, so if you buy the latest one it may behave differently/better. Either way having an OEM explicitly support Linux is a nice thing and I’m glad I was able to vote with my dollars.

    I haven’t had much experience with Lenovo, but their new clicky touchpad gave me carpal tunnel on the second press so that was the main dealbreaker. I know my friends had suggested Lenovo. The nice thing about the XPS13 is that its features and construction are very on-par with Macbook Airs; the touchpad works and feels similarly, it’s light and thin, etc. In the end it all depends on what your priorities are though.

    Keyboard-wise, it’s not quite as awesome tactile-wise as a high-grade desktop keyboard, but the Fn key and other layouts suit me perfectly.

  4. daemon says:

    i am very happy with Dell XPS13-9333
    after upgrading step by step from 12.04 LTS to 14.04 LTS.
    –> the best i ever had ! and no problems!

  5. bO-Shmo says:

    About the mouse pointer getting stuck, and getting no result from Ctrl + Alt + F1 : Did these issues suddenly disappear when you upgraded to Ubunto 14.04? I have installed 14.04, and have these same problems

  6. Yeah, since upgrading to 14.04 stability has improved dramatically. If you still have issues, make sure you’ve followed the other troubleshooting steps I mentioned and/or contact Dell Linux Support. They’ve been pretty good to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s