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Dell XPS 13, problems with WiFi

A couple of months ago I bought a Dell XPS 13. I’m still very happy with the laptop, particularly given the target use that I have for it, but I have started noticing a list of problems that do bother me more than a little bit.

The first problem is something that I have spoken of in the original post and updated a couple of times: the firmware (“BIOS”) update. While the firmware is actually published through LVFS by Dell, either Antergos or Arch Linux have some configuration issue with EFI and the System Partition, that cause the EFI shim not to be able to find the right capsule. I ended up just running the update manually twice now, since I didn’t want to spare time to fix the packaging of the firmware updater, and trying with different firmware updates is not easy.

Also, while the new firmware updates made the electrical whining noise effectively disappear, making the laptop very nice to use in quiet hotel rooms (not all hotel rooms are quiet), it seems to have triggered more WiFi problems. Indeed, it got to the point that I could not use the laptop at home at all. I’m not sure what exactly was the problem, but my Linksys WRT1900ACv2 seems to trigger known problems with the WiFi card on this model.

At first I thought it would be a problem with using Arch Linux rather than Dell’s own Ubuntu image, that appeared to have separate Qualcomm drivers for the ath10k card. But it turns out the same error pops up repeated in Dell forums and LaunchPad too. A colleague with the same laptop suggested to just replace the card, getting rid of the whole set of problems introduced by the ath10k driver. Indeed, even looking around the Windows users websites, the recommendation appear to be the same: just replace your card.

The funny bit is that I only really noticed this when I came back from my long August trips, because since I bought the laptop, I hadn’t spent more than a few days at home at that point. I have been in Helsinki, Vancouver and Seattle, used the laptop in airports, lounges, hotels and cafes, as well as my office. And none of those places had any issue with my laptop. I used the laptop extensively to livetweet SREcon Europe from the USENIX wireless at the hotel, and it had no problem whatsoever.

My current theory for this is that there is some mostly-unused feature that is triggered by high-performance access point like the one I have at home, that runs LEDE, and as such is not something you’ll encounter in the wild. This also would explain why the Windows sites that I found referencing the problem are suggesting the card replacement — your average Windows user is unlikely to know how to do so or interested in a solution that does not involve shipping the device back to Dell, and to be fair they probably have a point, why on earth are they selling laptops with crappy WiFi cards?

So anyway my solution to this was to order an Intel 8265 wireless card which includes the same 802.11ac dual-band support and Bluetooth 4.2, and is the same format as the ath10k that the laptop comes with. It feels a bit strange having to open up a new laptop to replace a component, but since this is the serviceable version of Dell, it was not a horrible experience (my Vostro laptop still has a terrible 802.11g 2.4GHz-only card on it, but I can’t replace it easily).

Moving onto something else, the USB-C dock is working great, although I found out the hard way that if you ask Plasma, or whatever else it is that I ended up asking it to, not to put the laptop to sleep the moment the lid is closed, if the power is connected (which I need to make sure I can use the laptop “docked” onto my usual work-from-home setup), it also does not go to sleep if the power is subsequently disconnected. So the short version is that I now usually run the laptop without the power connected unless it’s already running low, and I can easily stay a whole day at a conference without charging, which is great!

Speaking of charging, turns out that the Apple 65W USB-C charger also works great with the XPS 13. Unfortunately it comes without a cable, and particularly with Apple USB-C cable your mileage may vary. It seems to be fine with the Google Pixel phone cable though. I have not tried measuring how much power and which power mode it uses, among other things because I wouldn’t know how to query the USB-C controller to get that information. If you have suggestions I’m all ears.

Otherwise the laptop appears to be working great for me. I only wish I could wake it up from sleep without opening it, when using it docked, but that’s also a minor feature.

The remaining problems are software. For instance Plasma sometimes crashes when I dock the laptop, and the new monitor comes online. And I can’t reboot while docked because the external keyboard (connected on the USB-C dock) is not able to type in the password for the full-disk encryption. Again this is a bother but not a big deal.

Comments 5
  1. I think the same is happening in my father’s Toshiba laptop… it too has Atheros WiFi, not sure what model, and originally, it ran fine on the WiFi here, then about a month back he started getting lots of drop-outs. AP here is a Cisco WAP4410N running official firmware from Cisco, nothing changed on it firmware-wise.I know it’s not the AP as my laptops communicate with it fine, and the SSIDs for the two networks are set up identical: the AP hosts 4 SSIDs, one for my network (which has a VPN to my workplace), one for my father’s stuff, a guest network and an open network for older stuff that can’t do WPA2 (it just gets you as far as an OpenVPN tunnel endpoint, no direct Internet access from there), all of this on separate VLANs. The VLANs are transparent to the WiFi clients.The only thing I can think of is firmware or driver updates delivered via Windows Update (he’s running Windows 7).So far, we decided his room and mine were not that far apart, and since I have 2 GbE links to the two other switches on my network and the AP in my room, it was just easier to assign a spare port on the switch in my room to his VLAN then run an Ethernet cable from it to his room. At some point I’ll chase up some surface-mounted RJ-45 sockets and I’ll run a cable through proper, but this has worked around the problem nicely in our case. Still, I would like to nail this problem down once and for all, and while I’m not keen on swapping out WiFi cards (getting into this laptop is a pain; Toshiba’s standards have slipped badly), I’ll do it if I have to.

  2. To follow up on our last 9360 discussion, I went ahead and got the Latitude 7480 Kaby Lake + Dell WD15 dock (i5, no Thunderbolt.. maybe later). Fortunately no coil whine that I’m able to detect. Everything seems to be working nicely thus far. Several new kernel config options did need to be selected to get all hardware working, incl. the mouse (USB-C, HID Alps + I2C stuff).EDIT specifically asked them to stick Intel 8265 in, and throw out anything else that might’ve been there.

  3. Good idea on the Intel part, I should have done the same, I’m just a sucker for hating to call people on the phone ;)I was going to say I’m curious about the i2c part, but then I checked and indeed I also have an i2c touchpad which surprised me! But not too much, as I was hearing at RECON how Microsoft pushed an i2c HID specification for their Surfaces, so not too surprising.

  4. I bought the 8th gen xps 13 9360 just a few weeks ago while travelling. Wifi was fine in airports and hotels but the moment I came home it was a horrible experience. I immediately replaced the wireless card with the intel 8265 but this hasn’t fixed anything, I still lose connection regardless of whether I’m connected to a power supply or not and now I have no idea what else I can do to fix this issue..

  5. Hey.I bought my XPS 13 9360 just two days ago, and Wifi also was terrible.Only after updating the BIOS with the latest update the problem was solved.Would recommend you to check out this option.Good luck

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