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Dell’s 2019 XPS 13 DE: As close as we currently get to Linux-computing nirvana


Karlston
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Dell’s 2019 XPS 13 DE: As close as we currently get to Linux-computing nirvana

Dell is releasing the 2019 and 2020 editions of its Linux laptop just four months apart.

Dell's XPS 13 Developer Edition, the company's flagship "just works" Ubuntu-based machine, was recently refreshed. These days Dell's XPS line is not the cheapest Linux option, nor is it the most configurable or user-upgradable. And if any of those factors are a big part of your criteria, this is likely not the laptop for you.

 

On top of that, many Linux users still have a strong DIY streak and will turn up their noses at the XPS 13. After all, in a day and age when just about every laptop I test seems to run Linux fairly well right out of the box, do you need official support? If you know what you're doing and don't mind troubleshooting your own problems, the answer is probably not.

 

Yet after spending a few weeks with the latest XPS 13 (the fourth refresh I've tested), it's hard to shake the feeling that this is the closest any company has come to Linux-computing nirvana. The XPS 13 Developer Edition makes an excellent choice for anyone who prefers Linux but wants hardware support from the manufacturer. All these years into its Linux odyssey, Dell continues to stand behind the operating system on these machines in a way that, in my experience, few other computer makers do.

 

So if you want a computer that runs smoothly and for which you can pick up the phone and get help should you need it, the Dell XPS 13 remains one of the best options out there (maybe regardless of your OS preference). It doesn't hurt, either, that the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition is also a great-looking, solidly built piece of hardware. If you dream of a Linux rig that "just works" and comes in a powerful, minimalist package that weighs a mere 2.7lbs, the XPS 13 Developer Edition fits the bill.

But wait, which XPS 13 DE to get?

In early 2020, the decision gets confusing as to which Dell XPS 13 to consider. To judge by the number of machines and models available, Dell's Project Sputnik—the company's long-running effort to bring Ubuntu-based hardware to the masses—has been an unqualified success. Not only are there more models and configurations than ever, Dell keeps churning out hardware updates, usually on pace with the Windows models.

 

That's no small feat considering that this hardware has to undergo a completely different set of compatibility tests from the Windows machines. To be fair, some features have lagged behind in the Linux models; the fingerprint reader is a good example. The Windows version of the XPS 13 released in early 2019 features a fingerprint reader on the power button. The same feature has not been available in the Linux edition until now.

 

While I was testing the late 2019 Developer Edition update, Dell announced another update. The new 2020 version (the 10th-gen XPS 13 Developer Edition for those of you keeping track), gets Ice Lake processors with Gen11 graphics and a new larger screen. This 2020 Developer Edition will also be available with up to 32GB of RAM, up from 16GB in the model I tested. Better late than never, support for the fingerprint reader is also coming. It won't be available at launch in mid-February, but Dell says that support will arrive soon after.

 

As the company has in the past, Dell will continue to sell both the new and previous XPS 13 DE releases this year—this time the two devices just happen to go live four months apart (the 2019 in November; the 2020 this month). Laptop seekers need to know their model numbers: the late 2019 release I primarily tested is the 7390, and the coming 2020 version is the 9300 (yes, Dell told me the model numbers start over at 9300 in 2020—the same model number used in 2016).

 

Luckily, I had a chance to play with the new 9300 hardware recently at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Linux fans will be happy to know: it had a prominent spot on the display, right next to the Windows version.) Even a small amount of in-person tinkering time allows me to make some notable comparisons with the 2019 model.

Dell's 2020 CES lineup: two of the new XPS 13 laptops next to the new XPS 13 Developer Edition laptop (in black).
Enlarge / Dell's 2020 CES lineup: two of the new XPS 13 laptops next to the new XPS 13 Developer Edition laptop (in black).
Valentina Palladino

What's new: 2019 version v. 2020 version

The XPS 13 line has stuck with largely the same design since it launched. The bezel seems to always diminish by some nearly immeasurable amount, but otherwise the hardware has looked about the same for years now. The 2019 model is no exception to this trend. Side by, side it's impossible to tell apart from the 2018 model I own, save for one little detail: no more nose cam.

 

As Ars noted last year when the Windows model was released, the webcam is no longer at the base of the screen staring straight up your nose. Instead the webcam is where it belongs, at the top of the screen.

 

The iteration of the XPS 13 line I've been testing features Intel's Comet Lake 6-core i7-10710U processor. It's a marginal step up from the previous version, but in outside benchmarks I haven't really noticed a huge speed increase. What I have noticed is that this version runs consistently cooler than my 2018 version (both running Ubuntu 18.04).

 

So what of those two extra cores? It may not sound like much, but if you push your processor (whether editing video, gaming, or compiling software), you're going to want six cores. I happened to be editing a video while reviewing this laptop, and, using Lightworks, what took 38 minutes to export on my 2018 XPS 13 took a mere 19 minutes on the Comet Lake chip.

 

The model Dell sent for testing had the max 16GB of RAM and a 1TB solid state drive. As configured, the test machine would set you back $1,899.99. The lowest model, which has the 1080p display, an i5 chip, 128GB SSD, and only 8GB of RAM, can be had for $975.

 

The build quality hasn't changed, and the XPS 13 remains a solidly built machine. The construction is excellent, and the underlying aluminum frame provides a stiffness that makes it feel solid even though it's so light. The finish holds up quite well, too. My 2018 model has bounced around in my bag, slid across many a table, and scraped over tile counters in the kitchen all without leaving many marks. I expect the same will be true of the latest model.

 

Though I've been using one for years now, the XPS 13's InfinityEdge display still amazes me, too. No, it's not OLED, but it manages to pack a 13-inch screen into a body that otherwise looks and feels more like an 11-inch laptop. Dell has always sent me the version with the 4K IPS touch panel. You can get the XPS 13 with a 1920x1080 screen, and it will get better battery life (more on that in a minute), but I think the higher res display is worth the extra money.

 

Previously there were quite a few pain points with HiDPI screens in Ubuntu, but that's largely a thing of the past. The grub menu and boot screens are still impossibly small, and every now and then there's an app that doesn't scale properly—Zoom, I'm looking at you here. But by and large, the combination of work done by the GNOME project, Ubuntu, and Dell has sorted out these issues.

 

I do find the brightest setting to be overwhelming when working indoors (the XPS 13 maxes out at 472 nits brightness), though it does mitigate the glare somewhat if you're working outside. For me, I'd say this is a screen you want to keep indoors—it's very high gloss, and glare is an issue outside. I tend to keep the screen at 70-percent brightness, which helps with battery life and is still plenty bright.

 

As for the 2020 version of the XPS 13 Developer Edition, again it features 10th-generation Intel Core 10nm mobile processors along with a new, larger display.

 

That new screen is one of those "of course" changes. Once you see it, you'll wonder why it wasn't that way from the beginning. Gone is the Dell logo that used to grace the wider bottom bezel. Instead, you get more screen real estate with a new 16:10 aspect ratio (up from 16:9 on the 2019 and prior models).

 

It's a small gain, but at this screen size, frankly, anything is welcome. For that alone, I would pick the 2020 model over the 2019 version (model 7390). But evidently the dimensions of the XPS 13 have been tweaked slightly as well. I couldn't tell much difference holding it, but the keyboard keys are noticeably bigger. They're also somewhat springier than previous versions (no, thankfully it's not the same as the 2-in-1 model the Internet loves to hate on).

 

Performance upgrades

I can't speak to the performance of the 2020 model since my hands-on time was limited, but the 2019 version's 6-core Comet Lake i7 chip brings some speed improvements over prior releases. Another bit of welcome news is the option to get 32GB of RAM, because really, can you ever have too much RAM?

 

The other area of improvement is with battery life. Dell claims some crazy numbers for XPS battery life with these updates. The battery in the 1080p version of the XPS 13 purportedly lasts 18 hours. The 4K display must be a massive battery drain, because I did not get anywhere near that number in testing mine. Playing back a 1080p video full screen on the loop, the 2019 model managed just over nine hours. That's very good, especially for Linux, but it's nowhere near the claimed max life.

 

There are plenty of things you can do to squeeze some more life out of the battery, though. Under my normal work load—terminal running tmux with vim, mpd, and mutt, a Web browser (qutebrowser), and Slack—with the screen at 70 percent and Bluetooth off, I managed several hours more. So long as this laptop was fully charged in the morning, I never worried about running the battery low over the course of a workday.

 

That said, if you're compiling software, editing video, or otherwise pushing the CPU, your battery life will decline. In these use cases, it may be worth considering the 1080p model, though personally I'd rather carry a cord and have the 4K screen.

 

Another change worth noting is support for Wi-Fi 6. Yes, Wi-Fi has version numbers now. What's being called Wi-Fi 6 is actually 802.11ax and is already shipping in many routers. Unfortunately I didn't have one to test with, but in testing I've done separately I've seen about 20-30 percent speed boosts over 802.11ac. If you have or plan to upgrade your router in the near future, either of the new models will see the benefit.

What's not new: Ubuntu 18.04

If you want official support for Ubuntu, you're always going to be looking at LTS releases. For the XPS 13s shipping now and in the near future, that means Ubuntu 18.04 will be the default operating system.

 

While 18.04 is a solid release, recent updates (particularly 19.10, which arrived in October 2019) bring some huge performance improvements that would make these updated hardware profiles even better. I looked at Ubuntu 19.10 for Ars last year, and some of the highlights include a much snappier GNOME desktop, experimental support for ZFS, and more default applications shipped as self-contained Snap packages.

 

Shortly after the 2020 XPS 13 is available, Ubuntu 20.04 will arrive as Canonical's next LTS release. Everything that made 19.10 such a welcome update will be in 20.04, so at least there is that to look forward to. And quite frankly, Dell's hardware upgrades to the XPS 13 might well pale next to the software upgrade that 20.04 will bring. If previous Ubuntu/Dell upgrade cycles are anything to go by, look for 20.04 to come to the XPS line in late summer of 2020.

 

However... I am impatient. As I always do with new XPS machines, I attempted to bring my 2019 XPS 13 up to Ubuntu 19.10. Unfortunately, for the first time I can recall when upgrading an XPS 13, I failed. Or rather, I hit enough roadblocks that I gave up.

 

Somehow in the move from 18.04 to 19.04, the drivers for the Wi-Fi card disappeared, and while the drivers for Ethernet showed up and claimed to work, I could never actually connect to download any updates. I could download the drivers to another machine, copied them over, and then installed them, but honestly, it shouldn't have been that hard. I'd have a hard time suggesting anyone else attempt doing that.

 

Dell's selling point on the XPS 13 Developer Edition is that it "just works," and to achieve that Dell does not support anything other than Ubuntu 18.04 LTS at the moment.

 

I would suggest that, if you want that simplicity and the company guarantee, users should stick with 18.04 until the official upgrades arrive. If you are prepared to resolve "just doesn't work" scenarios, then you could try making the jump to 19.10. But if you do, my suggestion would be to do a clean install rather than trying to upgrade through Ubuntu Software.

 

I should note that I installed both Fedora 32 and Arch Linux without issue. And one thing I definitely think is worth pointing out is how trivially easy it is to re-install the original system thanks to Dell's recovery tools. The ability to recover so easily does make the XPS 13 a good system to experiment on, even if your experiments sometimes end in frustration.

So, upgrade or wait for the 2020 model?

At this point, I would wait the two or so weeks for the 2020 model to arrive. At the very least, whether or not you want the slightly larger screen and new keyboard, the 2019 model is likely to drop slightly in price when a new version hits the market.

 

Unfortunately, the price of this model may not drop much given it's also pretty new and contains some notable upgrades. And if you have the extra cash, I'd suggest going for the new screen anyway. It doesn't sound like much, but it surprised me in day-to-day usage. If you're used to working on a 16:9 screen, it really does give you a noticeable bump in headroom.

 

Whichever XPS 13 Developer Edition model you decide to get, ultimately you're going to have a lot more configuration options than you used to. Dell has been expanding its Ubuntu-based offerings with every release, and currently, the site offers no fewer than 18 different models and configurations for the XPS 13 Developer Edition. There's a lot more opportunity to customize and tailor the hardware to your needs than there used to be, and these two latest releases seem to address a lot of prior user demands.

 

 

Source: Dell’s 2019 XPS 13 DE: As close as we currently get to Linux-computing nirvana (Ars Technica) 

 

(To view the article's image galleries, please visit the above link)

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