Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition

My review of the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition laptop. My two previous laptops were the Macbook Pro 15″ (Late 2013), and Thinkpad X1 Carbon (2012, 1st gen). So much of the comparisons will be to those two.

My main debate was between the XPS 13 and Thinkpad X1 Carbon, a few reasons I ended up going for the XPS was the smaller size, better screen, and the Developer Edition model, I like that Dell supports and ships with Linux.

For reference, I’ve been using the XPS for two months running the latest Ubuntu GNOME.

Screen

The screen is great, the XPS resolution at 3200×1800 looks better than the MBP Retina, I tend to like Linux fonts better than Mac, they look even better retina-ized. There is no comparison to the X1 Carbon which was far from retina at 1366×768 resolution, and now only 1920×1080.

The XPS includes a touch screen which is pretty cool to be able to scroll, pinch and zoom in Chromium, much easier interface than key commands.

Keyboard

I have big hands, the keyboard is a touch on the small size for me; not terribly so but definitely more cramped than a Thinkpad keyboard. It almost fills the whole case so mostly just be a function of the overall laptop size.

The function key is placed where I’m used to the Control key normally being so requires a minor adjustment, I mapped the CapsLock key to Control which makes it much better now. I now use this for all my keyboards.

The PageUp and PageDown keys are mapped to the arrows requiring the Fn key to
use, it’s a minor annoyance, I like the Thinkpad keyboard which include PageUp/Down as two extra keys flanking the top arrow key.

The keyboard keys have a good feel, I’ve read people gripe about them but to me they feel fine. Again the Thinkpad keys are better, but not a big difference.

A couple times a key gets stuck, not quite sure if its a hardware or software, and I don’t think I’ve gunked anything up yet. Something I’m keeping an eye on.

Trackpad

I’ve read the XPS has a new high precision touchpad I don’t really notice any difference between it and the MBP. For laptop I actually prefer the Thinkpad nubbin, but not a big difference. The multi-touch functionality works as expected, I don’t realize when I’m using it, everything just behaves the same as MBP. I do things and things happen. Though three finger scrolling between Workspaces or Expose does not, though I didn’t really use the feature often so don’t miss it.

GNOME’s “Expose” works with the Windows key and integrated in with the app launcher, so no need for a separate function.

Camera

Also, be aware the camera is placed in the bottom left corner, which is a dumb placement. It gives a horrible view, shows your hands if you’re typing, it’s just dumb. All so the bevel at the top could be thin, a pretty poor design trade off.

Build

The build quality is pretty good on the XPS, it feels like a good solid laptop. I really like the rubberized feel, its not as cold and sharp as the MBP. One issue with my unit is there is a slight wobble, the bottom right corner doesn’t sit flush. The issue was easily fixed by affixing a little bumper to it, but something that really shouldn’t be needed.

Performance

The XPS performs much better than the MBP, but not really a fair comparison considering the MBP was almost 3.5 years old. It is a jump of 2-3 Intel architectures, the XPS has the newest Kaby Lake processor and graphics, 16gb RAM and 512gb SSD.

Performance was never really an issue anyways. Computers are now pretty much at such a peak point that any incremental gain is barely noticeable.

Battery performance is another one a bit unfair to test against since the MBP was pretty old the battery life wasn’t great. The XPS battery is pretty good, I’m seeing around 6-8 hours of usage, not quite the 13 hours I’ve seen mentioned but still good enough to take to a cafe and work without bringing a charger.

Operating System

I’ll leave the full comparison of OS X and Linux discussion for another article. You can read my 4-year-old article Ubuntu Guide for Mac converts which has some software alternatives and a few setup tips.

Basically, for my software development work it’s a non-issue, Linux tends to be easier to setup a dev environment and all tools I use are cross-platform already.

The two bits that I miss are Adobe products, Photoshop and Lightroom for my personal photography; and on the rare occasion Sketch, which I use infrequently, usually to make silly icons.

Conclusion

The XPS 13 Developer Edition laptop is a pretty great machine, it has a few quirks which my previous Thinkpad didn’t have – mainly keyboard layout and the slight wobble. However, the smaller size and better screen makes up for it. If you are considering a small Linux laptop, the XPS gets my recommendation. If a larger size and non-retina screen is fine, the Thinkpad is a good choice.