2015 Dell XPS 13 Review

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Almost three years ago now I made a major, speculative purchase when I put my money where my mouth was and bought a 2013 Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition. As it happens, this was the best computer purchase I’d made in years. Three years on the machine remains a delight. I upgraded the internal drive to a 480GB mSATA drive a year ago; it’s just been fantastic. I had no plans to upgrade the machine, but then happened across a bargain I just couldn’t pass up. I managed to find a 2015 Dell XPS 13 9343 at a local store for $870CDN. The machine as configured is:

  • 13″ QHD Touchscreen IPS Infinity Display at 3200×1800
  • 8GB RAM
  • Core i7-5500U 2.4GHz CPU
  • Intel HD 5500 integrated GPU
  • 500GB SSD m.SATA drive
  • UK keyboard layout (Sadly.)

As near as I can see, this machine was likely around $2400 when originally purchased. Of course I leapt at the opportunity. I’ve had it for almost a week now; it’s awesome. This is not the Developer Edition, so I did have to fiddle with the terrible Dell-branded wireless card, but drivers are available through standard Ubuntu repositories so this wasn’t a difficult thing to remedy.

General Linux Compatibility

The laptop arrived to me with Windows 10 installed. I quickly installed the last beta of Ubuntu 16.04. It’s running kernel 4.4. Everything worked perfectly out of the box except for the Dell 1560 Wireless/BT card. The Broadcom WLAN card needed a binary driver that’s been working perfectly since I installed it, so no big deal. However, the integrated BT 4 support of this card was more problematic. I’ve ordered what looks to be a compatible Intel card for less than $20 on eBay and will report back when it’s installed. There is a better Intel 7265 card that combines both BT and WLAN at much faster speeds than the supplied Dell-branded Broadcom card. I’ll likely eventually install it, but thought I’d start with the very affordable option shipped from Toronto to see how that works.

From reading a few excellent blogs and posts, it looks like this laptop was a bit quirky when it first shipped. With the upgraded A07 BIOS and Ubuntu 16.04, almost all hardware quirks appear to be addressed. There are absolutely still advantages to buying slightly older hardware when it comes to Linux compatibility.

Screen

The QHD touch-screen is an interesting trade-off. As it is in Windows, HiDPI in Linux is a mess. Thankfully, everything somehow looks crisp and native at alternate resolutions. 1920×1080 is great, but I’ve taken to upping it a bit to 2048×1152. As long as you stick to 16:9 things look fantastic. This is a nice display.

Touch works as expected. I wouldn’t have bothered if I’d bought it, as it makes the laptop a little heavier and cuts in on battery life a bit. However, it’s not a drawback, so I’m happy to have it. It does make the machine seem more future-proof. Only time will tell if it’s an actual advantage.

At any rate, the Infinity Display (read: small bezel) is really nice. This display is at least as good to my eyes as what you get with an rMBP and the Mac isn’t available in a sub-3lb configuration with a touch screen. Honestly, I’d take this Dell over a similar rMBP any day of the week.

Battery Life

With brightness down and under light load, I can get 11 hours on a charge. Remarkable. Even under a heavy load, I can certainly go a whole day.  After using it for a week, it looks like I’ll get about 8 hours of average use on a charge.  This is up from about six hours/charge on the 2013 XPS 13. Energy efficiency is something else these day.

Noise

It’s silent for much of the time. Even when the fan runs, I can barely hear it and I am incredibly picky.  Again, considering the CPU power, this is simply remarkable. I briefly owned an Asus Core M Ultrabook with no fan at all. I’d love that, but the i7 CPU is so much faster that I’d happily sacrifice a small occasional sound. The 2013 XPS 13 was quiet, the 2015 model is better. The fan rarely kicks on under average use. When it does, it’s less noticeable than the old model. Outstanding. The machine is virtually silent, even in very quiet environments.

Sound

The sound card works out of the box in Linux. This was apparently not the case when it first shipped. Between newer kernels and BIOS, everything has been peachy for me.  It’s also worth noting that the Dell’s speakers are among the best laptop speakers I’ve heard. I’m very impressed with both the volume and dynamic range. It won’t replace a proper stereo, but I’m very happy with this.  I’ve been spoiled for a while now. The aforementioned Asus, which featured absolutely appalling sound that apparently was B&O-approved, has shown me just how bad speakers can be on the quest for ever-thinner designs. The XPS 13 speakers are just fantastic. Well done, Dell.

Keyboard and Trackpad

I’m not sure why, but I like the trackpad better on the 2015 XPS 13. It’s great.  The keyboard is also practically perfect, though mine is diminished by having a UK layout rather than the US layout that I’ve come to expect. Still, it’s pretty great. I may try to replace the keyboard but I would also have to replace the entire top assembly, this looks to be about a $150 change if I buy parts from eBay. I can absolutely live with the layout as-is.

Ports etc.

This laptop has two USB three ports, a MiniDisplay port, and, crucially, an SD slot. All ports appear to work perfectly. I missed having an SD slot, the external display still works great with my 2010 27″ iMac. Ethernet would be nice, but the machine is too thin, and I haven’t actually needed a hard connection in years. Should I need one for work, there are many USB options that work great with Linux.

My 2013 Dell XPS 13 had two USB ports. One always worked perfectly, the other was fiddly with USB 3 devices. I always chalked this up to bad drivers, now I’m not so sure, as both ports work perfectly with this new XPS 13.

One last note, the AC adapter is the same for the 2015 and 2013 XPS 13s. If you’re upgrading, you won’t have to buy replacement spares. Bonus.

Hardware Impressions

I am shocked to say this, but I firmly believe that Dell’s XPS line are the best built laptops available on the market right now. I am now recommending them over ThinkPads for almost all users. With the 2015 and 2016 XPS 13, Dell has created a machine that is much, much smaller than a 13″ MacBook Air, that has a display better than an rMBP, and weighs between 2.6 (non-touch FHD) and 3 (QHD touch) lbs. It is simply remarkable. They are absolutely stellar machines. This is my second XPS 13. The 2013 Developer Edition was a great system, this 2015 upgrade is a significant refinement on an already top-notch design.

It is light, fast, has stellar battery life, the best screen I’ve seen, and manages all of this in a repairable, upgradeable frame. Apple designers should take note.

Update: New Intel wireless and BT M.2 card

As mentioned, I purchased an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160 3160NGW 802.11ac BT4.0 M.2 card to replace the terrible Dell-branded 1560, which was a Broadcom card. With the Dell card, the wireless mostly worked with closed-source drivers, and bluetooth would pair but was unusable. The Intel card, which cost me less than $15 delivered, has completely fixed this and is a complete no-brainer for anyone using a 2015 Dell XPS 13 in Linux. Opening the case and replacing the card took me all of a few minutes and only required patience, a pair of tweezers, and the smallest torque screwdriver bit I owned. Just do it.

GoSaBe Blog - Apr 15, 2016 | GoSaBe News, Hardware, Linux