Dell XPS 13 – Developer Edition vs System76 Galago UltraPro

Summary

I had been using an Asus Timeline M5 for a couple years but the laptop’s resolution (1366×768) and smallish battery life (~3hrs) was something I was not happy with anymore.  I wanted a laptop that ran linux ‘out of the box’ (if at all possible) since I didn’t want to muck with installation and making everything work 100% (i.e. media keys, sleep/resume, etc).  My requirements were solid battery life (ideally > 4hrs), good resolution (ideally 1080p), and linux support with minimal (aka zero) fuss.

(Update 12/2014 – This post is sort of confusing because of how the timeline went down. The short story is I returned the XPS 13 because of the coil whine and Dell has a serious problem on their hands with how they’ve handled this. I bought the Galago UltraPro and I’m as happy as I could possibly be, it’s an amazing machine in all aspects. Please keep reading for the timeline of events and sorry for the confusion, it was a very confusing time for me too :).

My Background

To give some background on me and my computing/hardware history, I’ve been running Linux since my college days around ’95. There was a brief time when I didn’t have linux on SOMETHING, but it’s been my daily driver for a LONG time. I used to be a pretty hard core KDE person, went onto Ubuntu/Unity for quite a few years, then recently I tried Gnome 3.x and LOVED it.   I went back to Ubuntu/Unity when I got the dell XPS 13 [*spoiler*! :)].

The Requirements

I wanted a laptop for hacking around for programming, general web browsing, and I MAY play a game or two on it in Steam but I have a Windows Steam machine for that with a beefy GPU so this was not a deciding factor really.  I wanted a nice footprint (ultrabook-like) and I really wanted long battery life, I was sick of the 3hrs (at best) that I would get with my Acer.

The Contenders

The list of laptops that run linux, have good battery life, have good screen sizes, and have a nice footprint is pretty …. thin (to say the least).  LUCKILY the list has 2 REALLY nice laptops on the list.

It came down to the Dell XPS13 and System76’s Galago UltraPro.

System76

I had been following System76 for quite some time and really love their company involvement.  They have a good social media presence, they support their products very well, and they are an up and comer.  Their Galago UltraPro is a POWER machine.  It’s got a SUPER CPU/GPU in it, but it comes at the cost of battery life.  The screen is a matte screen which appealed to me a lot, I really didn’t need the screen to be a touch screen and didn’t want to pay for this feature since I’d rarely (if ever) use it.  My wife has a Yoga2 with a touchscreen and she NEVER uses the touchscreen (she loves that laptop BTW, hates win8).

Dell

Dell has also committed lots of resources to drivers and making sure linux ‘just works’ on their XPS 13 as well.  They have stuck with their Sputnik program for years, which is tasked to fully support a developer edition of the XPS 13.

The Decision

Price wasn’t cheap for either laptop, they were both pretty similar once you configured the options.  The dell couldn’t go higher than 8GB ram, but with an SSD swap partition, things aren’t too terrible there.  The CPU on the dell isn’t as powerful (I got the i5), but I’m not compiling millions of lines of code , mostly just hacking around.  So the deciding factors  came down to the footprint of the laptop and the battery life.  The XPS13 is a true ultrabook and the battery life is OUTSTANDING. The Galago UltraPro runs at less than half the battery life of the XPS and the XPS form factor is absolutely outstanding – it’s a PREMIUM feeling machine through and through.

I decided on the XPS13 because of the footprint and the battery life.  I didn’t need the extra horsepower the System76 machine provided and I DID want the extra battery life.  The footprint was an added bonus (a really nice looking bonus).

THE FLAW

I was REALLY excited to get the laptop, it took a few weeks from when I ordered it to arrive.  I unpacked it and turned it on and there’s an AWESOME boot animation they’ve done .. really nice opening presentation.  I connected to my wifi and things were a little less awesome, I was getting connection disconnects.  I also noticed a high pitched electrical sound coming from the laptop, seemingly from just under the usb port on the top right of the keyboard.  If I played with the backlit keyboard settings I could get it to go away. I also found that if I plugged in a USB stick on that port it would quiet down.  But depending on system load, what the fan was doing, maybe the chance of rain that day, the ‘coil whine’ would start up again.  I have ALWAYS been able to silence it 100% by toggling the backlit keyboard to 1 of the 3 settings (it’s always a different one that silences it depending on the other factors going on with the power draw at the time).

I contacted dell support the next day and had a VERY positive experience.  They were on the problem right away and within literally 5 minutes I had an appointment with a tech specialist to come to my house in the next 2 days to swap the motherboard to try to fix the coil whine and the wifi dropouts.  I was really impressed.

Before the technician arrived I decided to try 14.04LTS on it (it came with 12.04LTS) to see if that helped the WiFi, it had a drastic effect and after the upgrade I had no WiFi issues at all.  I also upgraded my router at home (a week or so later) to an Asus RT-AC66U, the XPS connected flawlessly to this and now has amazing throughput and signal coverage (btw: can’t say enough positive things about this router.  the signal coverage is amazing [way better than my juiced dd-wrt buffalo router before it] and the features are the best I’ve ever seen).

I started doing some more research into the coil whine and came across this thread on the dell support site.  After reading through the forum, the coil whine appears to me to be a design defect.  If you read through the thread, you’ll find tech support seemingly admitting to the defect and most recently stating the motherboard is being redesigned to eliminate the noise (as of end of May 2014). I’m hoping that means they’ll send out free replacements to their current customers – honestly if they fixed this problem this is about the perfect machine for me.

UPDATE 12/2014 – Dell has an updated motherboard with the same problem. They are not going to fix this anymore and have stated this. The thread I linked above has massive amounts of complaints and I would STRONGLY advise against buying the XPS. Dell has just lost all credibility on this laptop and strung people along with the promise of a fix for too long.

The EXPERIENCE

So with that out of the way, my feelings on the product are that it’s OUTSTANDING.  I’ve had it now for a little over a month and I love it. The drivers dell worked on for 12.04LTS have been pushed upstream and the upgrade to 14.04LTS went without a hitch. Every aspect of the machine ‘just works’ (except the coil whine obviously).  Ubuntu looks GORGEOUS on it.  Unity absolutely SHINES.  I also have a Dell UltraSharp U2711 27″ monitor (resolution 2560 x 1440, omg i love this monitor) which can only be driven PROPERLY by a Display Port connector and it connected flawlessly (you can use HDMI but it’s a rotten experience, I went through it with my Acer). The multi-monitor support in Ubuntu’s Unity is bar-none the best I have experienced.  At work I use a windows 7 machine in a docking station and every now and again it’ll go wonky or windows will go off screen, not often but it happens, but Unity has been flawless.

The speed of the laptop is pretty much instantaneous.  I don’t wait for anything, everything ‘just works’, I was able to set the function keys to be ‘media’ keys in the BIOS (i.e. hit the Fn button to use them as function keys) which is how I prefer to have it .. the ONLY thing I needed to do (again, in the BIOS) was disable Intel’s “Smart Connect” so the laptop STAYED asleep when I shut the lid, otherwise it would wakeup sometimes even with the lid shut. This behavior happens to me on my Windows Steam machine too, so I blame the stupid Intel SmartConnect feature and not the laptop. Shutting this off in the BIOS prevented the laptop from accidental wakeups 100% of the time.

The Bottom Line

So after all of the above I have to say I’m tickled beyond belief with this laptop.  Ubuntu/Unity has been a wonderful experience, Unity is such a mature environment and it does what I need it to do and gets out of my way.  The workflow is outstanding.  The laptop hardware OOZES premium feel, the touchpad behavior is the best I’ve ever felt on linux (far beyond windows, not quite up the the level of mac but close enough and still an excellent experience).  The battery life is also outstanding at 7-8hrs. I also REALLY appreciate that the bottom of the laptop is carbon fiber instead of metal.  Metal under a laptop gets either hot OR VERY COLD, I am not a fan of metal laptops UNDERNEATH (on top I think it looks sharp).

Dell has designed damn near a perfect laptop here for Linux users/developers.  They have GOT to solve the coil whine though.  It’s damaging to their reputation, it’s frustrating on such a premium product, and it’s just something they need to get beyond.  They should look to how System76 handled their keyboard debacle, and to be fair to Dell it took System76 quite some time to ‘admit’ to this issue but at this point they’ve taken the high road and are much better off for it due to customer loyalty and satisfaction.

Checklist of things to do

In summary the things to do with this laptop if you do get one:

  1. Update to 14.04 LTS.  It’s painless and a much better experience.
  2. Disable Intel SmartConnect in the BIOS.  It’s dumb and it wakes the laptop up when it’s sleeping.
  3. Realize the laptop WILL make the coil whine sound, it’s not terribly loud but you can hear it in a silent room.  Also realize you can make it stop by flipping through your 3 settings on the keyboard backlight, 1 of the settings will make it stop.
  4. Adjust the ‘media keys’ or ‘function keys’ behavior in the BIOS as well.  I love media keys personally since I use them MUCH more than Fn keys and Fn keys aren’t hard to use with the Fn button.
  5. ENJOY IT!!  It’s such a nice machine and Unity is such a nice desktop environment.  I’m so happy to be able to buy linux on premium hardware and not have to fiddle with it – hopefully there’s more of this to come. 🙂

If you are in the market for a laptop with great battery life, great form factor, and premium feel – consider the xps 13.  I’m glad I did. (UPDATE: As stated above, I returned the XPS 13 – just to be clear)

For my next post I’m going to focus on Spring Boot and their profile support.  I’d like to start a series on Spring Boot based on lessons I’ve learned for little things that highlight sections of their documentation.

Thanks for reading!

Jim

(UPDATE: I had to disable the tap click for the touchpad.  Somewhere around mid-May I started getting clicks on the touchpad when I lifted up my finger on the touchpad.  I don’t know why, and I fiddled with xinput and synaptic settings and couldn’t get it to go away.  As of right now I have to physically ‘click’ the touchpad … it’s not terrible but it’s not what I wanted).

(UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: I finally bit the bullet and returned the XPS 13.  It took hours on the phone with Dell and quite a few support people but Dell was a good enough company to finally take the return for their flaw in the laptop.  I ordered a Galago UltraPro and I’m very happy.  The battery life is around 4 hrs or so, but the Iris Pro is REALLY killing it.  I bought with a HDD to save a couple bucks and while bootup is certainly slower, once it’s running the i7 really shows its power.  I’m happy to have the ability to play Steam games and the laptop itself is quiet, NO pop on the headphones, very very solid).

12/2014 update – I’m still in love with the system76 laptop. It’s a beast in CPU/GPU and with the SSD I feel like this laptop is capable of anything I could reasonably want to do with it. I couldn’t be happier. Maybe I’ll make a dedicated blog post to just the system76 since this blog post evolved so much with my experience on the Dell and may be confusing.