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New laptop: Dell XPS 13 9360 “Developer Edition”

Since, as I announced some time ago, I’m moving to London in a few months, I’ve been spending the past few weeks organizing the move, deciding what I’ll be bringing with me and what I won’t. One of the things I decided to do was trying to figure out which hardware I would want with me, as I keep collecting hardware both for my own special projects and just out of curiosity.

I decided that having so many laptops as I have right now is a bad idea, and it is due time to consolidate on one or two machines if possible. In particular, my ZenBook has been showing its age, with only 4GB of RAM, and my older Latitude which is now over seven years old does not have a working battery anymore (but with 8GB of RAM it would actually been quite usable!), plus it’s way too bulky for me to keep travelling with, given my usual schedule. Indeed, to be able to have something I can play with on the road, I ended up buying an IdeaPad last year.

So thanks to the lowered value of the Sterling (which I won’t be particularly happy about once I start living there), I decided to get myself a new laptop. I decided for the Dell XPS 13, which is not quite an Ultrabook but it’s also quite handy and small. The killer feature of it for me has been having a USB-C connector and being able to charge through it, since my work laptop is a HP Chromebook 13, which also charges over USB-C, and that gives me the ability to travel with a single power brick.

I ordered it from Dell UK, delivered it to Northern Ireland then reshipped to me, and it arrived this past Friday. The configuration I bought is the i7, 16GB, QHD (3200×1800) display with Ubuntu (rather than Windows 10). I turned it on at the office, as I wanted to make sure it was all in one piece and working, and the first surprise was the musical intro that it started up with. I’m not sure if it’s Ubuntu’s or Dell’s but it’s annoying. I couldn’t skip it with the Esc button, and I didn’t figure out how to make it shut the heck up (although that may have been me not figuring out yet that the function keys are bound to special meanings first).

I also found myself confused by the fact that Dell only provided the BIOS (well, EFI) update file in MS-DOS/Windows format. Turns out that not only the firmware itself can read the file natively (after all EFI uses PE itself), but also Dells is providing the firmware through the LVFS service, that you may remember from Richard Hughes’s blog. The latest firmware for this device is not currently available, but it should be relatively soon.

Update (2017-07-26): The new firmware was release on LVFS and I tried updating it with the fwupd tool. Unfortunately the Arch Linux package does not work at all on my Antergos install. I’m not sure if it’s because the Antergos install changes some subtle parameter from the EFI install of Arch Linux itself, or because the package is completely broken. In particular it looks like the expected paths within the EFI System Partition (ESP) are completely messed up, and fwupd does not appear to identify them dynamically. Sigh.

The hardware of the laptop is pretty impressive, although I’m not a fan of the empty space near the top, that looks to me like an easy catch for cables and ties, which make me afraid for its integrity. The device is also quite denser than I was expecting: it’s quite heavier than the Zenbook, although it packs much more of a punch. The borderless screen is gorgeous but it also means the webcam is in the bottom corner of the screen rather than at the top, likely making it awkward to have a videocall. The keyboard is a bit tricky to get used to, because it’s not quite as good as the one in the ZenBook, but it’s still fairly good quality.

By the way, one of the first thing I did was replacing the Ubuntu install with an install of Antergos (which is effectively Arch Linux with an easier installer). This did mean disabling Secure Boot, but I guess I’ll have to live with it until we get a better idea of how to do Secure Boot properly on Linux and full-disk encryption.

Once I got home, I did what I do with my work laptop too: I connected it to my Anker USB-C dock, and it seemed to work alright. Except for some video corruption here and there, particularly on Konsole. Then I started noticing the lack of sound — but that turned out to be a red herring. The answer is that both the on-board speakers and the HDMI audio output are wired through the same sound interface, just appear as different “profiles”.

It wasn’t until I was already compiling webkitgtk for an hour that I noticed that the laptop wasn’t actually charging, and I thought the problem was with the dock. Instead the answered turned out to be that the HP Chromebook 13 charger is not compatible with the XPS 13, while the Chromebook Pixel charger worked fine. Why the difference? I’m not sure, I guess I need to figure out a way to inspect what is seen by the USB-C bus to figure out what the problem is with that charger. It should not be a problem of wattage, as both the HP charger and the original Dell charger provided with the laptop are 45W.

Speaking of the USB-C dock, there is a funny situation: if the laptop boots with it connected, and the lid closed, it does not appear to return the monitor on (all is fine if it boots with it disconnected). Also, it looks like the default DM provided by Antergos only shows the login page on the laptop’s screen, making it hard to log in at all. And in the usual mess that multi-screen support is with modern Linux desktops, Plasma needs to be killed and restarted to switch between the two monitors. Sigh!

As for the screen corruption that I have noted earlier, it seems to be fixed by one of these two options: upgrading to Linux 4.12 (from Arch Linux testing repository) or changing the compositor’s setting from OpenGL 2.0 to OpenGL 3.1. I think it may be the latter but I have no intention to try this out yet.

It looks like I’ll be very happy with this laptop, I just need to figure out some new workflows so that I don’t feel out of place not having Gentoo on my “workstation”.

Also, to keep with my usual Star Trek host naming, this new laptop is named everett after the (non-canon) USS Everett, which is the same class (Nova-class) as my previous laptop, which was named equinox.

Comments 16
  1. Nice! I considered this laptop for a while before going for a mac. You are making me reconsider my choice 🙂

  2. The HP USB-C power supplies are known not to work with non-HP hardware – so in this case it’s actually the power supply’s fault.The 9360 is a nice piece of hardware and with the most recent 4.12 Kernel power management also seems to have improved quite a bit.Have fun!

  3. I’m sure you’ll be happy with what you’ve got, but I would have chosen (and did choose) the Lenovo T470 over the sexier XPS series.- Webcam in the normal place- Better keyboard- Better performance profile (heat dissipation, mostly)- Two batteries means it runs for literally 24 hours on a charge- No-nonsense BIOS/UEFI- Hardware mute button with its own LED to tell you sound is off… and so on, and so forth. It’s just a great business computer and still has the advantages you’re talking about like being able to charge via a type-C. Doing secure boot these days on Linux actually isn’t hard, just be really sure you’re not going to want to boot something unsigned before you lock things down.

  4. I have honestly bad experience Lenovos to the point that I really would not have been happy to get a personal one at this point. The keyboard in the Dell is not great, but honestly I didn’t like the new Lenovo keyboard every time I used it.But the most important part is that Dell service actually works well globally. I have used them back in Italy many many times. Whereas Lenovo effectively made it impossible to talk with them over there.

  5. So I presume you didn’t know about the coil whine problem…Would be interesting to know if your model has it, too.It’s keeping me off the current generation machines and making me stick with the trusty old E7440 until they figure the electronics vs acoustics out.While Bryan’s T470 battery life value prop is definitely attractive, after seeing Dell’s InfinityEdge, I probably won’t be buying a bulky fat-edge laptop screen again.

  6. I have heard of it, and I have heard it, but to be honest, it’s not a big deal at all for me. I never leave the laptop on in the same room as me when I’m sleeping, and most of the time if I’m using it on a charger it’s on a noisy environment (lounge, airport, airplane) or with music, TV or audiobooks playing.Also it’s significantly less noisy than the Zenbook when charged and changing the content of the screen. That one actually could be heard on top of TVs.

  7. Alles klar. I otoh require silence (or at most a light fan hum) in a quiet room, definitely can’t deal with any electronic noise. Hopefully they figure it out soon.

  8. Yeah in that case it can be a problem. It’s not very loud but it’s clearly audible. I did notice it even behind the hotel A/C.

  9. PS another reason keeping me off the last-to-current gen XPS13s is the sad state of new-age Linux docking solutions for them. I believe, based on following Dell forum threads, the TB15 was an utter disaster where the hardware/firmware combo was already borked (even Windows had trouble). TB16 might be better, but I haven’t done the research yet.EDIT I have the USB-C WD15 now, and it seems to work nicely with the 7480. My i5 machine doesn’t have Thunderbolt adapter integrated, so I won’t be able to test TB16 any time soon.

  10. I have updated but I have not tired listening to the coil. I’ll try that later tonight when there’s a bit more quiet around me and I’ll let you know!

  11. I can confirm that with the firmware update the noise has reduced quite a bit. I can still hear, it if I come near the board with my ear, but not in a quiet room.

  12. > 1.3.7 is no longer available. You’ll now use 2.1.0.Looks like they posted a major version bump…Also got a positive forum report about TD16 dock. Perhaps it’s time to go check the 9360 out somewhere.

  13. It looks like version 2 is fixing up the Intel Management Engine for the known issues it had before.I don’t see anything else but that changing right now. Noise is still well under control.

  14. How is the battery ? I have the XPS 9550 with the FHD display and lasts 4-6 hours depending on what type of development you do (usually running Rails + Ember). With just browsing lasts ~7 hours. How is yours? I am suspecting QHD display will drain more battery.

  15. I had no problem playing Thimbleweed Park, without charging the laptop, for the whole duration of AMS-YVR flight, that they allowed me to (count around 8 hours then). Of course that was without WiFi.

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