Dell Precision 5520 is a beauty and a beast

This the best laptop for Linux power users.

Dell 5220
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

When I reviewed the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition, I concluded that it was the ‘best’ Linux laptop ever. I just found the big sister of that laptop — the Dell Precision 5520, one of five new Linux-powered systems that Dell recently announced. I have been using the Precision 5520 for over a week now and I have totally fallen in love with it.

And it is not mmerely love at the first sight or just specs deep.

Before I talk about my hands-on experience with this laptop, let’s get the specs out of the way. This unit comes with Intel Core Xeon E3 1505M v6 (Quad Core Xeon 3.00GHz, 4.00GHz Turbo, 8MB 45W, w/Intel HD Graphics 630, Nvidia Quadro M1200 w/4GB GDDR5, 15.6" UltraSharp UHD IGZO (3840x2160) Touch Wide View LED backlit, 32GB DDR4 RAM, and M.2 PCIe 512GB SSD.

It is the most powerful laptop I have ever used. I have been using a beefy assembled PC as my main computer and keep a 13" laptop purely for travel. But this one is a 15" laptop. So where does it fit?

It’s a lucky fluke that Dell announced these new laptops two weeks ago because currently I’m running an experiment where I have exclusively been using my laptop and haven’t turned the PC on for over a month now.

The reason is that I am so conditioned to working on my PC all the time, whenever I use my laptop my productivity goes down. Using the desktop PC also affects my mobility even if I work from a home office. So I wanted to rewire my brain. It has been working fairly great, minus one issue. As compared to the dual 27" monitor setup, the 13" HiDPI display of my laptop is way too small to have two windows open side by side and have good enough screen real estate to have readability.

That’s where I was looking at 15" or 17" laptops and was eyeing the 15" MacBook Pro with the touch bar because the latest 15" MacBook is almost as thin and as heavy as my 13" 2013 MacBook Pro. It’s not going to add any bulk or weight while giving me the display I needed. I never looked outside the Apple world because most ‘bigger’ laptops are ugly and heavy and are really not meant for travel; some come with chargers that are as big and heavy as bricks.

Not so the Dell 5520.

In fact, the Precision 5520 is almost the same weight as my 13" Macbook Pro. Dell weighs a mere 3.09 lbs. whereas my MacBook Pro 13 is 3.57 lbs, which makes the Dell 5520 extremely portable while giving me the much needed extra screen real estate.  Bulk wise Precision 5520 is almost as thin as the MacBook Pro so no extra bulk in comparison. However, the 15" screen with almost nonexistent bezel offers me the screen size of two 9.7" iPad pros. So screen size and weight issue are solved.

Dell 5220 Swapnil Bhartiya

The softer side of Dell 5520

Dell Precision 5520 comes with Ubuntu Linux with some extra packages added by Dell for out of the box support for touch screen (pinch to zoom, scroll, and other functions) and other components. Dell maintains a repository for Ubuntu. When you boot Precision 5520 for the first time, you are greeted with a neat animated boot screen and then it takes you through a very easy process of creating a username and password.

Ubuntu Dell Swapnil Bhartiya

I monitor many different Linux distributions and run them in a virtual machine (VM) so I can work on them simultaneously. With VMs you need a lot of RAM and processor cores. With 32 GB of RAM, I am easily running openSUSE, KDE neon, Windows 10, Linux Mint, Arch Linux and Fedora in VirtualBox, plus Ubuntu as the host machine. There is no effect on performance and this laptop is able to handle all of these distros without a hitch.

However, you don’t have to use Ubuntu as the host distro just because it came pre-installed. I talked to Dell and they made it clear that wiping the hard drive and installing your own Linux distribution on it won’t void the hardware warranty, but for obvious reasons, they cannot support the distro you are running. So feel free to go ahead and try every Linux distro out there. I will be testing some distributions on it and will be doing detailed reviews.

Thanks to Nvidia GPU, I have been playing high-end Steam Games without any issues whatsoever. Not only that, using image and video editing software is also a breeze. The touchscreen makes it easier to use Krita, the best image editing and drawing software out there. Kdenlive did a great job at editing my video projects, and transcoding was a non-issue. Darktable and DigiKam worked great for image processing. I often use Handbrake to transcode videos and that’s a real hardware crunching process but Precision 5520 tackled it like child's play.

It handled whatever I threw at it gracefully. If there were any issues it was more about the limitations of desktop Linux distributions and not the hardware.

Who is it for?

Anyone who has deep enough pockets and needs desktop-grade power with the portability of a laptop. It’s great for developers who can use this machine to actually compile packages. It’s perfect for those who use desktop Linux for image and video editing. It’s awesome for writers like me who want a lot of power and a bigger screen. In a nutshell, it’s for anyone who wants desktop grade performance with MacBook Pro 13" grade portability!

No one is perfect

The Precision 5520 features the same design as seen in the XPS 13 Developer edition. The biggest flaw is the lack of any lip or cut to make it easier to open the lid.

The second flaw is the placement of the webcam at the bottom of the laptop, which makes Hangout calls seem like they are coming from some hidden spy cam; it’s really bad if you are typing while chatting as your fingers cover the entire webcam.

The third minor flaw is a super bright white light on the power cord and it’s on both sides so if you are watching something on TV in a dark room or if you have the laptop on the bedside table, that bright light is distracting.

Beyond these few minor hardware flaws, there is nothing wrong about this hardware. On many counts, it’s actually the best laptop out there. If you are a hardcore Linux user and you are looking for a beast with beauty, go for the Dell Precision 5520.

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