Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Laptop, Developer Edition in use.

I’ve been needing to upgrade my work system for a while, and recently heard about the Dell XPS-13 Developers Edition, preloaded with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. Normally I’ll buy a Windows machine, strip out Windows (or leave it as dual boot) and install Linux myself. However, the Dell setup sounded interesting. They’ve taken a standard Ubuntu 12.04 (Precise Pangolin) installation and added custom drivers for the XPS-13, added the Ubuntu label (and no Windows label) and made it available through their shop.

The project started a while back and was code-named Sputnik. It was a “scrappy skunkworks project” to produce a laptop based on the Dell XPS 13 and Ubuntu 12.04 LTS and would be focussed on developers. The feedback was so positive that the project soon became an official release product. You can read about some of the background here. The first release was in the summer of 2012 and was called the “XPS 13 Ultrabook Laptop, Developer Edition”, a moniker that has stayed with it. Note the absence of “Linux” or “Ubuntu” in the name, apparently one of the requirements of getting Microsoft licenses for their other laptops. You may also be hard put to find it on the website. But as the name states, it’s a 13” Ultrabook, it has an Intel Core !7 processor, 8Mb RAM, 256Gb SSD and 1080p graphics ability.

Dell have produced Linux laptops before, but really the “Linux” part was just Linux installed on top of a Windows machine and generally required a lot of futzing around to get the various drivers working for the hardware. In which case why not shop around for cheaper hardware (Asus for instance are quite Linux friendly)? Dell seem to have learnt their lesson and this time have sat some of their techs down with the Canonical/Ubuntu guys to get a system that really does work ‘out of the box’ and they’ve done a great job of it. Apart from a little tweaking of the touchpad everything really works, Dell have their own Ubuntu repository for updates and, of course, you have full access to all the other Ubuntu/Linux software. Dell have been good OSS people and most, if not all, of their code additions or improvements have been merged upstream into Ubuntu or into the kernel.

So, how has it been in use? First, I’m sold on SSD disks. Programs start so fast that it’s just as easy to close the program and reopen it when needed, rather than minimizing the app (and consuming memory) until needed. Having 8Gb of memory makes it less necessary to close apps… so win/win. I can easily be working with a Code Editor, have a few browsers open, run a full LAMP stack and open a VirtualBox session without breaking a sweat. Waking from sleep is almost instant and even starting from shutdown takes thirty seconds or less. I haven’t measure the battery life but it is very good, especially if you trim the screen brightness and don’t get distracted by playing videos or surfing on YouTube. The battery is, however, built in so there is no option to carry a spare battery. The screen, although shiny, is about 170ppi and looks beautiful. Given the state of my retinas, this is as good as a Retina display!

Dell advertises the fact that the XPS 13 comes with what it calls “DevOps”, some open source tools to help developers get things done. As far as I can tell, these are the “Profile Tool” and the “Cloud Launcher” (although there is no apps by those names). The Profile Tool has it’s own GitHub page (which confusingly refers to the tool as “Sputnik”) and it appears to be a way to create your own Developer profile that is portable between machines. CloudLauncher appears to be wrapper for the JuJu suite of scripts that are used for launching virtual machines as services. The VMs can be local or cloud based services.

I can find a few niggles with the laptop:

  • The screen, although excellent, is gloss and hard to use outdoors.* There is no function key to disable the touchpad (although it can be done in software, install ‘gpointing-device-settings’).

  • Strangely, although called the “Developers Edition”, there was no Vim installed on the machine (nor Emacs for that matter). However, it’s a standard Ubuntu installation so that was easy to deal with.

  • The battery is built in.

  • The power connector on the side is in the wrong place if you like to sit cross legged and work, as I do. It would be nice to replace it with an angle connector at least.

In short, this is a great laptop. If you are a sysadmin or a webdeveloper, this machine is pretty much an essential tool. If you’ve done some websearching on the XPS 13 then you’ll find some older web articles that have found some shortcomings or problems with the laptop, but in early spring 2013 Dell released a new version with 1080p screen resolution and some other improvements and most, if not all, of the software problems that I had read about seem to have been fixed. This is a good sign, as it shows Dell has some commitment to keeping the XPS 13 up to date.

Some links of interest: