Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake is the best laptop for Linux users

It comes with Ubuntu pre-installed.

Dell XPS 13
Swapnil Bhartiya

Last year when Dell came out with the XPS 13 Developer Edition, I found it to be the best laptop for Linux users. Dell released an upgraded version of the laptop with the latest Intel chip. Once again, Dell was kind enough to send me a review unit and I have been working with it for a few weeks now. Here are my thoughts...

Hardware specs

The review unit Dell sent me came with an Intel i7-7500U processor, 16GB of RAM, 512 GB SSD, and a 3200x1800 touchscreen display.

The laptop has one of the best displays that I have seen. It’s super bright, sharp and the colors are accurate.

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Developer Edition features the same form factor of the previous generation Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition laptop. However, the trackpad in the Kaby Lake version seems to be made from a different material. It feels rubbery, which in my experience, offers much better control over scrolling as compared to the glass trackpads where your fingers slip on the surface.

There are two legacy USB ports, one USB Type-C port, one SD Card slot, a 3.5 mm headphone jack and power slot. I am not a  fan of legacy USB and wish PC vendors would adopt USB Type-C as default so that we can get better support around USB Type-C. 

First impressions

Just like its predecessor, the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition (Kaby Lake) comes with Ubuntu 16.04 pre-installed. Dell has added its own repositories to offer drivers and other packages that are not available through stock Ubuntu repos.

As a result, you not only get a customized boot screen with neat animation, you also get a fully functional multi-touch screen. Everything worked out of the box, and that was expected given that Dell has taken extra pains to pre-load Ubuntu on this system. The trackpad also works flawlessly. I have yet to find a trackpad that matches the experience that Apple offers, but the trackpad on this laptop is quite good.

Dell is also offering a system recovery image for the laptop, which you can write on a USB drive to reinstall Ubuntu on the system in case you break it, which I did (on purpose). I created a restoration USB drive using the ISO image that Dell provided with the system before I wiped the hard drive to install other operating systems on it.

Beyond Ubuntu

I am becoming distro-agnostic, using different distributions for different purposes; I even use macOS and Windows 10 at times. I used to be a hardcore Arch Linux and openSUSE lover and I still am, but now I don’t mind anything that just works. That's what this laptop is all about: everything just works.

This machine came with Ubuntu 16.04 but I wiped the SSD to install different distributions on it to test how they perform. With most Linux distributions I had to disable the secure boot, but Fedora and openSUSE worked flawlessly with secure boot enabled, thanks to the work Fedora has done to support UEFI secure boot.

Let me make it clear that even though it comes with Ubuntu, wiping the SSD and installing your own distro will not affect the warranty. Barton George, senior principal engineer in the office of the CTO at Dell, confirmed that removing Ubuntu and installing other distributions will not void the hardware warranty.

So far I have tried Arch Linux, openSUSE Leap/Tumbleweed, Linux Mint, Fedora, Remix OS and elementary OS on it. Everything worked out of the box, including Bluetooth, wireless, touchscreen, trackpad, audio … everything.

As usual, Linux Mint’s Cinnamon and Gnome offered the best experience on the HiDPI display of this machine. Elementary OS also offered a decent experience. The most disappointing experience was with KDE’s Plasma desktop, which still leaves a lot to be desired on HiDPI systems. It needs way too much work to get scaling right, and you will still see inconsistency across different components of the desktop. So despite being a KDE user, I have been using Gnome with openSUSE and Arch Linux on the laptop.

I am getting over nine hours of battery life on Linux Mint with 100% screen brightness and backlight on with my regular work, which means a few Chrome tabs, a word processor, a text editor and GIMP. Under heavy usage of video playback and video editing I get around 5 hours, however, the battery is new and it’s too early to say what it will look like in one year. What I can verify is that I am still getting over 4 hours of battery life on my older Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition, which is almost eight months old now.

The only issue that I faced beyond Ubuntu was that multi-touch doesn’t work out of the box. It works only with the version of Ubuntu that Dell offers, thanks to drivers and packages that Dell bundled with the OS. I am pretty sure if I invest enough time I can get it to work, but neither do I have that much free time, nor do I have any desire to do so. I have not seen any real need for a touchscreen on desktop Linux since none of the image editing software supports it. Yes, if I am using Photoshop or LightRoom on Windows 10, the touchscreen comes in handy.

What I love the most

Out of the box support for desktop Linux! It comes with a Linux distribution pre-installed. It’s a Linux machine! That is what I love the most about this laptop.

I also love the extremely thin, almost nonexistent, bezel. All you see is your content.

I don’t have enough words to praise the keyboard of Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition. I am not a huge fan of those clunky, loud mechanical keyboards with high profiles. I prefer low-profile keyboards like that found in MacBook Pro, and the Dell XPS 13 offers a similar, if not better, experience. I love typing on this laptop. The rubbery palm rest offers a more comfy and warm feeling as compared to the ice cold, metallic feel of my MacBook Pro.

When comparing with MacBook Pro, my only gripe with Dell XPS 13 is the aspect ratio of the screen. I wish instead of a 16:9, screen it was 16:10 or closer to 4:3 so that I had more vertical space for reading and writing, which is my primary use. I don’t watch movies on laptops, and 16:9 resolution is really not suited for anything else.

You can’t go wrong

I have been looking for a successor of my MacBook for a very long time and I have checked all high-end brands. Thanks to the work done by the Linux community, especially Linux kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman, Linux-based operating systems support a majority of hardware out there, without any issues. There can be random wireless chips from vendors like Broadcom that may give you trouble, but in most cases you will get a great out-of-the-box experience.

I also like offerings by Lenovo and HP, but if I had to choose one, I would go with Dell’s Developer Edition. 

Why? 

It’s the only major brand, as far as I know, that comes with a desktop Linux distribution pre-installed. But does that really matter when you can buy any laptop out there and install Linux desktop on it? In my opinion, it does matter. It sends out a very strong message that desktop Linux users are going to give their money to companies that support desktop Linux out of the box, which may encourage more companies to offer Linux desktop on their systems.

Final Verdict

There is literally nothing in this laptop, besides the aspect ratio, that I don’t like. It’s an extremely beautiful laptop that I love to carry around, due to its great form factor. It’s powerful enough to even run 2-3 distributions in a virtual machine. I installed Virtual Box and ran Ubuntu and openSUSE inside Arch Linux. It worked without any issues. It handled everything that I threw at it gracefully. As expected, it outperformed my MacBook Pro when it comes to multimedia transcoding. I also tried Windows 10 on it and Adobe Premier offered a much smoother experience that I would get on my older MacBook Pro. That said, Premiere crashed twice on Windows 10. That reminded me why I went with macOS and not Windows 10 for my travel laptop.

After using it for a few weeks I have concluded that this is the best device for any Linux user. I think the only device that’s going to beat it is the next Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition.

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