Review of Xubuntu on Dell XPS13 Developer edition (2015)

This is an older post that was originally published elsewhere in August 2015

So I decided to post a review of my own Dell XPS13 developer edition, supplied running Ubuntu three weeks ago. I’m not going into great detail on the hardware, apart from where it has specific relevance to a Linux install as this has been covered by many reviewers save to say that the screen and its small bezel is a key selling point, as is the ‘Precision’ touchpad. Hardware reviews by other sites include Tech Radar review (Windows version with same hardware) and iFixit Teardown. There are many others.

Model

Dell XPS 13 Developer edition 2015 – model 9343- non touch, FHD Screen, 256 GB SSD, UK keyboard. Supplied Late July 2015. Broadwell i5 CPU

Rationale

I bought this machine because I wanted a highly portable 13” Ultrabook that I could run Ubuntu on without drama and could host several virtual machines running simultaneously. This machine does that. It looks good and essentially has a 13” screen in the body of an 11” laptop. I chose the FHD screen because a lot of people have described difficulty with the QHD version and getting a readable font size. Yes, this can be addressed but I would prefer not to have to, especially within a virtual machine. I have no interest in a touch screen and appreciate the longer battery life of the non-touch version. I got the Core i5 processor and 256GB SSD as a consequence. The performance difference with the i7 is minimal from benchmarks I have reviewed and I can live with the smaller SSD which I can always swap out later anyway.

A lot of people use non-Linux laptops to administer servers. MacBooks seem to be the most popular. I had a particular use case and preference for Ubuntu for my software environment, e.g. I use middle-mouse copy/paste in my shell.

I bought this machine to do RHCSA/RHCE to support a career change as my previous 15 years Linux experience has been largely non-commercial. Someone did ask me “If you did this to do RHCSA/RHCE, why not just install a triple boot Fedora/RedHat/CentOS? Or if you’re cheap, Fedora/CentOS. What’s the point of keeping Ubuntu?”.  I liked this question 🙂 RHCSA/RHCE is normally taught and examined using a virtual machine or machines rather than a hardware install. It is common to use CentOS for this. Ubuntu is my preferred software environment for daily use. I thought that I would probably need a Windows VM too for Office for résumé polishing for recruiters, supporting users running things in Windows etc.

Misconceptions

There seem to be a lot of these on some online threads. Yes you can buy cheaper 13” machines, typically either not as good or more expensive. I tried one from a boutique manufacturer made to order and it was awful- I sent it back after 2 hours use. I considered a MacBook Pro which was slightly more expensive than the Dell but not as good for running Ubuntu on. I also considered the Asus ZenBook UX305 but this was only available in the UK with 128GB SSD and Windows (which I’d have had to keep around for warranty, firmware upgrade etc) and I was put off by the performance of the Core M processor for my intended use. Yes you can buy a higher spec 14” or 15” machine for the same money or less. These are bigger and heavier.

Initial set up

Initial set up was ‘annoying’. System booted up without any onscreen menus and played apparently pointless Ubuntu animation on boot for 2 minutes. I was then asked to do the user configuration that you normally do at the start of an Ubuntu install- region, keyboard layout etc. I then had to wait several minutes for set up to finalise before system was ready to use. TBH it would have been quicker to just do a full install than this.
As part of the set up I was asked to make a system restore image on a USB device. This was unexpected and led to me scratching around to find one. It is disappointing that Dell could not simply include one given the price of this machine- it is not a budget model.
I had a brief look and saw a couple of ‘Dell’ branded applets in the system settings panel before I attempted to upgrade the supplied Ubuntu 14.04 to 15.04- system was set to ‘never upgrade’. Warnings that I had to upgrade to 14.10 first which is now unsupported. The upgrade in fact broke the install and made the machine unbootable. Went to use new system recovery USB and that did not work either (several attempts). So then installed Xubuntu 15.04 as a clean install via USB. It was difficult to find the correct options in the UEFI menu which is extensive but extremely confusing and not pleasantly laid out but I got there. Clean Install was quicker than initial user setup as factory supplied. Realised that Dell had allocate 3 GB to a system recovery partition. This makes no sense in Linux, this is not windows where a system install disk is not included. I went for use entire disk with LVM and accepted defaults. Install went smoothly and everything worked  apart from the Broadcom WiFi which requires a binary blob from BW_Firmware. I did know this in advance and simply used a ralink usb wifi dongle to install this through the restricted drivers utility and everything worked. I have heard of people using their mobile phone via Bluetooth as an access point for this also. I no longer have the ‘Dell’ icons in my system settings and putting my service tag in on the Dell site simply says ‘your current operating system is unsupported’. I’m presuming that they did not do anything important.

The Good

This is a very nice machine, near silent, very nice screen, quick, light. Battery life seems good. Everything works.

The Bad

Dell should simply have supplied a bootable USB with their patched setup image on it. I don’t want to give up 3GB of a 256GB Drive to a recovery partition that should not even need half that space, let alone mess around with a proprietary image restore process that does not work or have to scratch around for a USB drive that costs pennies.
Dell should make their add on bits from the standard distro available on their website, ideally as a PPA, but even if they used the same format as for their windows machines would work. I guess these addons did not do anything important because I don’t seem to be missing anything.
The UEFI is a 3 level menu in a very long list. Ugly and confusing in some areas, especially around boot options. Could be less confusing but then it does its job and you don’t usually have to look at it.
The Broadcom wifi is a pity- they could and should have gone with an Intel part for a linux machine. Some people have swapped the wifi card out for an Intel one- probably voids warranty but seems easy enough,

The strange

I spent ages clicking the touchpad trying to get middle click working and thinking that the touch was very heavy to click. There’s all sorts of complaints and custom configs around the web on this and they led me up many blind alleys before I realised:
This machine has been supplied with the A05 BIOS (and presumably latest touchpad firmware). This has apparently fixed many reported issues from earlier revisions. The touchpad is a ‘Precision’ model as promoted by Microsoft with their Precision Touchpad initiative. It does just work without special configuration but expects gestures. By default these are:

  • 1 finger tap: Left click
  • 2 finger tap: right click
  • 3 finger tap: middle click
  • 2 finger slide: scroll (vertical, I added horizontal also)
  • 2 second timeout for ‘disable touchpad whilst typing’

It should be possible to set up other gestures but I would only be interested in pinch zoom and am not that motivated to explore this. There are mechanical click areas bottom left and right that function as one would expect.

I don’t find the gestures weird. They are quite similar, although not as extensive, as the Logitech T605 which I have used under Windows in a previous job. The feel is generally very similar too (the Logitech is glass) although clicking is mechanical on the Dell. The touch is very gentle.

Final thoughts

Whilst an excellent machine that works well, the supplied Ubuntu install and recovery setup are pointless. You will want current software on such a machine. You will do better to do your own install . I do have 1 year next business day on site support included but I would not have purchased this as a separate option and I presume that it includes only hardware. I have not reviewed hardware here as there are many reviews of this model on the web and I have little to add to them. My battery life is about 8 hours, give or take.

I still consider this a better option than the MBP- The closest comparable Apple spec I could have used would be the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, Intel Core i5, 256GB Flash Storage, 8GB RAM, 13.3″. This a very similar machine although slightly wider and heavier but it would cost 20% more than the Dell. Although you could put Ubuntu on it, I am advised that so few people do that there are niggling issues with Apple-propietary bits not working properly and of course its’ not manufacturer supported.

I would say that the keyboard is not bad- it’s full width- but it is not quite as good as my Logitech K810. To be fair, I am not a touch typist and am mainly used to desktop or desktop replacement keyboards, I typed my review on it.