I loved my old Dell XPS 13. It was my primary laptop until 2013 when we moved from Europe to the U.S. and it started to show its age. By that time Apple had popularized the HiDPI displays that they called retina. I wanted something with HiDPI, great battery life and good trackpad. So I went ahead and bought my first Mac.
Now, once again, I am planning to upgrade my hardware. Can a dual-booting MacBook user return to non-Apple hardware? We're about to find out.
Dell recently sent me a review unit of the Dell XPS 13 (2016) model [ Find it on Amazon – *What’s this?* ]. It’s lighter than my MacBook Pro. It’s a bit smaller, too, without any compromise on display size. And it has both USB Type-C 3.1 and USB 3.0 ports. It has good specs and looks good on paper. But how good is it in real life for a Linux user?
I spent 4 weeks with the laptop. I installed different Linux distributions. I tested the battery life. I tested applications. And then I sat down to write this review. Here is what I think about Dell XPS 13 Skylake.
This is the best Linux hardware I have ever seen. The polish, the feel, the look, the components ... everything about it is great. The device is powered by Intel’s 6th generation CPU i7-6560U and comes with Intel Iris 540 graphics. It has 16GB of RAM and comes with a 500GB PCI Solid State Drive. It has more than enough power to run a couple of virtual machines for testing. It’s a dream machine.
The device comes with one USB 3.1 Type-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, two USB 3.0 ports and one SD card slot. Dell XPS 13 doesn’t come with any Ethernet or HDMI ports. But you can use USB Type-C with an adapter for HDMI out. You can also use a USB-Ethernet adapter if you need it.
Dell XPS 13 features a stunning HiDPI display at 3200x1800 resolution with 5.7 million pixels (276 ppi). It’s an IGZO IPS panel so the color, sharpness and brightness is amazing from every angle. It’s an edge-to-edge display so you have the entire width of the device at your disposal.
And it’s a touchscreen. Although, I find that touch is not that usable on laptops and Linux doesn’t have very good support for touch. (Note: You can save yourself some money by going with the non-touch version.)
The touchpad, by comparison is extremely useful and usable on the Dell XPS 13. Touchpads have always been a weakness on non-Apple hardware, but the Dell XPS 13 has a glass touchpad that not only feels buttery smooth but is also very precise and accurate.
The XPS 13 comes with a 56 WHr battery that gives decent battery life. During my testing, I was getting around 5-6 hours of battery life on average. I am sure I could increase battery life beyond that with some optimization.
One OS to rule them all?
Dell XPS 13 came pre-installed with a custom version of Ubuntu 14.04. On the first boot I was greeted by the typical OEM screen where I had to create a user account for the machine. Everything worked fine, but I wanted to upgrade to Ubuntu 16.04 and try other distributions.
I checked with Dell and they told me that I can freely use any distro of my choice without voiding the hardware warranty.
I spent a considerable amount of time testing different Linux distributions on it. Here's a look at what worked and what didn’t.
The laptop came with Ubuntu Unity, but I had to adjust the display settings to optimize it for the HiDPI screen. Everything worked flawlessly.
(I am not a huge fan of Unity. I feel Canonical needs to hire some great graphics designer to work on the UI elements of Ubuntu. The UI doesn’t do justice to the greatness of Ubuntu and this hardware.)
Since I was going to try other distros, I partitioned the hard drive and installed Ubuntu 16.04; everything worked great.
Ubuntu Gnome offered a much better out-of-the-box experience on Dell XPS 13 because Gnome automatically scales everything so you don’t have to do any work at all.
While everything worked great from the live USB, Ubuntu Gnome failed to install on the device due to a bug.
The next distro that I tried was KDE neon. It booted fine from the live USB but like Ubuntu Gnome it also failed to install.
Unfortunately Plasma doesn’t scale everything automatically. You have to do a lot of work to get things right, and even then there will likely be some components that don't scale very well.
Unlike Ubuntu Gnome and KDE neon,LinuxMint did install. But Cinnamon didn’t scale for the HiDPI screen and I had to bring the resolution down to 1920x1080 in order to make everything look ok.
But then I hit a major deal breaker. Linux Mint Cinnamon 17.3 failed to detect the wireless. I tethered it with my iPhone so that I could download and install the required drivers, but Linux Mint’s ‘additional driver’ tool failed to find them. The drivers are available in the latest Linux kernel but these distros are still using an older kernel so I can’t take advantage of it.
Gnome is the default DE of Fedora 23 and as expected it worked great. I could have stopped at Fedora, but I haven’t used the distro on my main system for a very long time so I moved to the next distro that I really like.
I very much wanted to run elementary OS on this device, but Freya was plagued with the same issue as Linux Mint. No wireless. Elementary OS gave me early access to Loki for testing as it has the latest kernel. Wifi worked, but there were other issues that made elementary OS unusable on the device.
Arch Linux (along with openSUSE) is my daily distro. I booted into the Arch Linux text-based install. It detected the wireless card. I connected to the wireless and went ahead to install it. The only hiccup in the install process was with NVMe, the PCI-based SSD that Dell is using in the device. But thanks to the Arch Linux community and their excellent wiki I was able to get it fixed within moments. I installed Gnome on it as I love the way Gnome works on HiDPI. Everything worked great. I also tried KDE, but the scaling issues remained.
Unfortunately openSUSE Leap 42.1 failed to boot on the device. It just won’t boot.
Richard Brown, a member of the openSUSE board, pointed me to the Tumbleweed and Leap 42.2 alpha that he said was being used by many openSUSE developers on this machine.
Both Leap 42.2 alpha and Tumbleweed installed on this laptop without a hitch. Everything worked as expected: wifi, bluetooth, touchpad, touch … all of it worked.
Even though openSUSE offers KDE as the default DE, with Gnome as an optional choice during installation, I went with Gnome due to known issues with Plasma on HiDPI machines. The dark themed openSUSE Leap 42.2 looked great on this device.
Is Linux desktop ready for HiDPI?
As a Macbook retina user I was kind of disappointed with desktop Linux on a HiDPI machine. While DEs like Gnome offer a great out-of-the-box experience, others, like Plasma, still need some extra work.
The same is true of many third-party applications, like GIMP. While GIMP looks great on a retina MacBook, it doesn’t scale on Linux and Windows. Thankfully apps like LibreOffice, Firefox and Chrome worked great.
My takeaway is that you won't get a great Linux experience on HiDPI displays until a majority of desktop Linux developers are using HiDPI laptops for their own work.
A brief comparison with Macbook
In addition to scaling problems, there is no true gesture support in Linux, as far as I know. And that’s something I use extensively on my MacBook. But that is a limitation of software, not hardware. The Dell XPS 13 has a better processor, more RAM, a USB Type-C port and a touchscreen. It’s a better laptop than my MacBook.
If there is one complaint I have with this otherwise awesome hardware it’s the placement of the webcam. Because of the extremely thin bezel there is literally no room for a webcam on the top of the screen, so Dell moved it to the bottom left. Now when I am doing video calls it looks like I am chatting from some hidden camera. That’s the only thing I would like to change in this otherwise awesome device.
In the end I decided to put openSUSE on the laptop as it worked the best for me. I installed Arch Linux and couple of other distros in VirtualBox so I can play with them. I can run two VMs at the same time without any compromise on speed.
As far as the laptop goes, I love it. And I'll give it serious consideration when it comes time to replace my MacBook. The only issue that may hold me back is the lack of HiDPI support by many apps. But that will change with time.
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