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Dell's XPS 13 2016 Developer Edition Review

July 29, 2017

This is a review based on my experience in using Dell's XPS 13 Developer Edition for more than a month. I won't go much detail in the hardware specs and features as this has been greatly covered in other reviews which helped me in finalizing my decision to get XPS 13. My review is more focus on my experience as a programmer using the laptop with the actual hardwares and software that concerned me while using it.

I was personally using an old Toshiba laptop so I was checking out for a replacement laptop. I decided on continuing to use Ubuntu as my primary operating system. I also decided on purchasing a laptop that has Ubuntu pre-installed to support efforts on pushing Linux to mainstream desktop which is tricky because I live in Philippines and that meant it had to be purchase internationally. After researching, I chose Dell but I think I won't have regrets if I have chosen System76. It just came down to the consideration that my relatives in the U.S. will be more familiar in purchasing Dell.

I realized that the developer version or the Ubuntu operating system is not readily available or visible as a choice to XPS 13's main shopping page which made me a bit sad. Instead, it has its own page entry that I found through google search. So I had my relatives in the U.S. purchase it and bring it on their Christmas homecoming to save me money on international delivery. Unfortunately, it got delayed and was not able to arrive before my relatives trip. We reported it and Dell offered a 100$ off due to that inconvinence. That means I was only able to have the laptop in my hands this June.

Dell XPS 13 main shop page does not show Ubuntu as an option.
Dell XPS 13 developer page entry.

So it was a six long month of wait. When I finally received the laptop I was so excited, like a child receiving a Christmas gift. It came with a cool simple black box. I purchased a machine with 8GB RAM, i5 processor and a 128 GB SSD. I was hesitant at the disk size but I thought it might be enough as I'm not going to store large files like movies and games. I realize now that it might be a mistake and I should have gotten at least 256 GB of disk size. I'll talk about this issue more later in softwares.

My laptop's specs.

When I first saw it, I was worried as it seems small and I really thought the screen size was just 11 inch. I realized it was the illusion of thin borders around the screen. I have been using at least 15 inch screens but 13 inch screen size is not an issue at all even when splitting text editors. I was able to still cram the same amount of content in a screen due to 1920 x 1080 resolution. I actually loved it as I appreciated the lightness of smaller laptops specially during weekends when I bring my laptop with me.

Coding in XPS-13

The structure and material had a very solid feel for me especially compared to the plasticky creaky feel on cheaper laptops. It has a simple, streamlined and slim look. The keyboards are also great. I was initially a bit uncomfortable but I think it was just due to familiarity. Now, it feels great and I had no issue using it.

Rearview of XPS-13 showing a simple streamline finish.

I can't say the same for the trackpad though. It's not bad but it is not comparable to my experience with the keyboard where everything is just natural. I usually miss clicks. Cursor movement is not on pace with my finger I'm comfortable and I find my self lifting my finger when doing long scrolls. In fairness though, I'm comparing this experience to Macbook Pro which is the king of trackpad. Also, it's not really a big deal for me as I'm not a heavy mouse user and prefer my hands to always stay in the keyboard. Lastly, I'm emphasizing again that it's not that bad, its just that its not a perfectly smooth experience with Macbook trackpad as the level of comparison.

The weakest point though as also mentioned by other reviews is the webcam placement which is on the bottom left. This lends for weird viewing angle. I'm a heavy webcam user because my girlfriend is in other country but its not really something we're bothered when doing video calls. I guess for a more formal online meetings though, I'll have to consider using an external webcam.

Weird webcam view.

Upon first turning on the laptop, you will be greeted with a beautiful boot animation as shown in this video. Dell delivered on the promise of "it just works" and you will have a ready to use Ubuntu 16.04 operating system. I had no problems in major components; wifi, keyboard, video, sound and trackpad.

I had some minor issues though with shortcut keys specifically, the "windows" button opens the help search input text bar of the active application instead of the expected search hub. Changing the shortcut key in the default configuration page is not fixing it. I was able to fix it either by uninstalling the built in Dell package for shortcut keys or throguh Compiz (I forgot which one). I also proceeded on customizing the theme and looks of Unity using Compiz, Conky and Unity Tweak Tool.

Customized look of my desktop.

Additional change specific to Dell that I noticed is the use of Chrome instead of Firefox as the default browser. I think the decision is to cater on most web developer's preference to use Chrome as the main development browser due to better browser console. I was also pleasantly surprised that Vagrant was already installed.

As I'm writing this review, I have been using my laptop for two months now. My usual usages are watching videos, browsing the internet/email and web development. For the web development, I'm either using NodeJS natively or running a virtual machine using Vagrant for LEMP based stack. I'm using VIM as my text editor and firefox as my main browser. With those tools running while I'm developing, there is no noticable issue in terms of lags and slow downs that could affect my coding. I haven't used "heavy" editors like Eclipse and Android Studio yet. I'll hopefully be able to include those on my next timeline check review in the next months.

I experienced some lags in desktop though when using Chrome initally so I switched to Firefox. I didn't investigate much on that time but I'll try Chrome again to observe if there is really a related problem.

An important aspect that relates to my developer works is the battery as there are times I prefer programming in coffee shops and I don't want to rely on their power supply. One day, I estimated my Laptop's battery life by making sure it's always open. I alternate my activities to programming, browsing the net and watching videos. It had 7 hours before reaching to near 0% of battery from 100%. I'm satisfied with this as it is enough battery for my outdoor coding activities.

Hard disk is something I regret for getting just 128 GB instead of atleast 256 GB. I initially thought that since I'm not storing large files or playing video games, 128 GB is more than enough which I soon realize might not be the case. Between the tools that I'm installing and the Vafrant boxes, I now only have 70 GB. And that is without editors like Eclipse, Netbeans and Android Studio. It might actually be enough but its good to have leeway to stop worrying on it. I guess I'll just have to upgrade the SSD disk which might be a good article to write atleast.

Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition is a really solid laptop that delivers on promise of a great Linux desktop experience out of the box. I've been developing for a month now and I love the experience of using it. It has physical features of being light, compact, great battery life, solid construction and premium materials that made it worth the price. The keyboard is great while the trackpad is just OK. The screen size is also good enough for coding while having lighter and smaller size which makes it a joy to travel around. It is one of the best overall laptop that is available.

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