Hands-on: openSUSE Tumbleweed with Plasma on Dell XPS 13 (2016)

OpenSUSE and Plasma shine on this great hardware

dell opensuse
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

The hardware

This is the latest Dell XPS 13 laptop (2016 model). This review unit comes with i7-6560U processor, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD and QHD+ touch display. It has 2 USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) ports, one SD card reader, Thunderbolt 3 (40Gbps bi-directional) port. This unit costs around $2349.99. [ Find it on Amazon *What’s this?* ]

I disabled secure boot from the BIOS settings and all installations were done using UEFI. I have multiple distros installed on this machine to see if there are any issues with multiboot. So far, none.  And you can choose the boot order of distros from BIOS/UEFI settings.

openSUSE on Dell XPS 13

The last time I tried openSUSE Leap and Tumbleweed on this laptop there were serious issues and I couldn't get it running. The only thing that worked was alpha of Leap 42.2.

Since Tumbleweed is a rolling release distro, it gets better every day, so I decided to give it another try. This time, Tumbleweed installed without any problems. Everything, from Bluetooth to wireless, was detected and worked out of the box. No extra drivers were needed.

Plasma

I have not had a very good experience with Plasma on HiDPI systems in my earlier tests. But a new version of Plasma was released recently, so I decided to give it another try.

OpenSUSE, unlike many other distributions, is kind of desktop agnostic: it offers a choice of desktops during the installation process. So when I installed openSUSE Tumbleweed on my laptop, I chose KDE.

Plasma installed fine, but unlike Gnome it didn’t scale things automatically. So I went to display settings and increased scaling to 2. Then I went to fonts and changed the fonts size.  Another thing that I had to do was increase the height of the bottom panel. That’s it. Plasma was all set to work great.

Just three months ago Plasma looked terrible on this system. Fast forward from May to August and you have everything working perfect. It speaks volumes about the speed of the development cycle of these open source projects. It’s amazing. Kudos to KDE and openSUSE developers.

Apps on HiDPI

Almost all KDE apps worked great on the HiDPI display and they scaled fine. In fact, every Gnome app and most 3rd-party apps, including LibreOffice, Firefox, VLC and Handbake, worked just fine.

One exception, however, was GIMP, which didn't scale at all and is kind of unusable on this display.

Plasma really offered a great experience on this laptop. All of my previous complaints regarding Plasma not being ready on HiDPI are gone. It’s here.

A few issues

  • I have noticed across distributions, from Ubuntu and Linux Mint to Fedora and openSUSE, that when you close the lid and open it again, the touch screen stops working. It’s a known bug that hasn’t yet been fixed.
  • There is a background process, packagekit, that won’t let you perform any software management related tasks. Even if you tell it to quit, it doesn’t stop running. I had to resort to killall packagekit. OpenSUSE told me that it’s a known bug in the libzypp stack that is currently being worked on.
  • A couple of days ago I bought a b/w Brother HL-L2340DW printer. OpenSUSE wouldn't detect it. I tried different distributions, including Linux Mint, Ubuntu, Arch Linux and even Fedora that’s known to be an extremely conservative distro when it comes to non-free components, and they all detected the printer without any extra work.

Hardware notes

If there's anything that I would like to change in this hardware, it's this: the aspect ratio of the screen and the hard-to-open lid.

The display is good for watching 16:10 movies, but that’s not the primary purpose of a work laptop. As a writer I put a premium on vertical space, so I prefer the 3:2 aspect ratio of Chromebook Pixel.

The second flaw is the lack of any cut in the lid that would make it easier to open. Beyond these two things, this is the best hardware that I ever tested on Linux.

Bottom line

The openSUSE + Plasma combo worked great on this hardware. I am really impressed with this machine. I did some video editing work, some raw image processing work and some video conversion. Nothing crashed and Dell XPS 13 handled it gracefully. My MacBook kicked in fans when I used handbrake to transcode a 4K video that I shot from my Nexus 6P, but Dell remained silent. Impressive? Yes.

OpenSUSE and Plasma have been my favorite Linux desktop combo and finally I get an almost flawless system running on this almost flawless hardware.

If you are an openSUSE user, the Dell XPS 13 (2016) is the best laptop out there. Go and buy it now!

Author's note: This is the first in a weekly series testing different Linux distributions on Dell XPS 13 (2016). If you want me to try your favorite distro, let me know in the comments below. The basic idea is to review the out-of-the-box experience, to see how much work a new user needs to do in order to get their favorite distro running on this awesome hardware.

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