Thoughts on my new laptop (Dell XPS 13 with Windows 10)

I love computers. Unlike many people, who stick to one brand and one operating system, I like to use many different systems. I own several game consoles, several types of tablets and so forth.

My primary laptop for many years has been an inexpensive and light MacBook Air. It is nearly perfect.

I also have a Thinkpad. My first Thinkpad did not even have wifi. I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on a Thinkpad. The one I have by my desk looks like it was made in the 1990s. And using it feels quite retro too! Anyhow, it is not a serious machine for me.

Here are my general requirements:

  • I do not need powerful laptops. For compute intensive tasks, I use remote servers. I do play games, but not on laptops. However, a laptop should be fast enough to run a modern IDE and compile C++ code without falling apart. If I need to run serious computations, I will use a server.
  • I expect my machines to be perfectly silent.
  • I carry around my laptops all the time. If I need a stationary machine, I will use a desktop. So I want my laptops to be lightweight.

I recently acquired a somewhat expensive Dell XPS 13. These are Dell’s flagship laptops, the best of the best. It is a serious machine.

Pros:

  • Windows 10 is a good operating system. The usability is as good as macOS. This wasn’t always true.
  • The Windows Subsystem for Linux really does work. You have “something” like a bash shell with the common Unix tools running within a hidden directory on your machine.
  • The Dell XPS looks good. The screen is gorgeous and the fonts look good. I must admit that it is much better than my aging MacBook Air.
  • I like that Microsoft is offering a decent and free version of Visual Studio. On weaker machines, Visual Studio 2015 works really poorly, but on the XPS 13, it is fast enough.
  • I really like the work that the GitHub crew has been doing. GitHub Desktop for Windows is great. Throw in the Atom editor and you are good.
  • Though it is not nearly as easy as it should, you can generate Visual-Studio “solution files” with CMake, make it possible to build your macOS/Linux C/C++ code on Windows without too much fuss.

Neither positive nor negative:

  • Once booted up, the XPS 13 feels quite fast. It has a significantly better (and more recent) CPU than my MacBook Air… but I would have a hard time telling them apart.
  • For what I use them for, Cortana and Siri appears to be on par. Both of them can give me the weather. It is rather amazing that we can take for granted speech recognition in 2017.

Cons:

  • Maybe I am crazy, or maybe my machine was hacked, but it feels like Microsoft is showing me ads?
  • On a MacBook, you just lift the lid and the machine awakes, instantly. On my XPS, I have to enter a passcode, wait several seconds for the machine to “boot up” and I can resume my work. It is annoying when you are used to better.
  • Windows 10 seems to suffer from random Wifi dropouts. I have had something like it on the new laptop: after rebooting, the Wifi might randomly fail to reconnect automatically. It is a mere nuisance, but I find it surprisingly amateurish. How hard can it be to connect to a Wifi network? Why do I have to manually do it?
  • Windows definitively feels like it needs to clean the house. I have a “settings” application along with a “control panel” application. Both appear to have closely related functions, but the layout is drastically different. Windows 10 feels like it was added to Windows 7.
  • I spend a lot of time copying and pasting. The ctrl-c and ctrl-v shortcuts are fine, but Dell put the left ctrl key to the extreme left of the keyboard, beyond the useless “Fn” key. I will probably have to remap the keys at some point, somehow.
  • I find it unacceptably hard to grab a Window and move it or to scroll down a web page. Thankfully, I have a touch screen and I can just put my finger on the window and slide it. It often works fine.
  • Though the Windows Subsystem for Linux works well, it is poorly integrated into Windows. You can’t (or shouldn’t) edit Linux files using your Windows text editor. The two systems run different file systems and there are (apparently) synchronization issues. This is probably fine.
  • The webcam is located at the bottom of the screen so that it will point to the underside of your nose during a video conference. It feels like it was designed by monkeys.
  • There is more plastic than I’d like on the Dell laptop, and I can already see some wear, but I suppose it is fine if you plan on replacing the machine regularly.
  • Soon after getting the machine, I had a bad case of screen flickering and tearing. I found out on posting boards and YouTube that it has been common for years with Dell XPS machines. For a time, I thought that my hardware was broken, but a common recommendation (turning off “Hyper-V”) solved the problem. It was simple enough, but how can it escape quality testing considering that the Dell support forums are filled with people complaining about screen flickering?
  • I can “hear” the machine read and write on disk. I did not know that SSDs could make noise!
  • There is “coil whining” (the computer makes high-pitch sounds). Most of the time (99%), it is unaudible (you have to put your hear to the machine to hear something), but it can randomly become quite audible whether the machine is under load or not.

Conclusion:

I like the XPS 13 well enough as a secondary laptop. If I had to use it as a primary laptop, I’d invest in noise-cancelling headphones.

21 thoughts on “Thoughts on my new laptop (Dell XPS 13 with Windows 10)”

  1. Had I read this before, maybe I would not have purchased the Inspiron I got (7566). I still have to find a brand with good quality/price ratio, though (maybe I just need more money). I’m particularly concerned about durability and thermal management (this was a big factor in my decision, still need to check in summer).

    In my case, the requirements are different. A server or a desktop would have a significant cost, and so I want a laptop that can handle significant workloads, before I need to move to something more powerful (and pay for it). Desktop+laptop is always better, but as usual, better means more expensive. Sometimes cheap means expensive, I hope I didn’t make that mistake.

  2. The XPS is what Dell sells to people who don’t *really* care about their machine but want something that looks cool and is reasonably fast. Dell mobile workstations cost a bit more but the build quality is better and they have higher end options (more RAM, newer components, etc) to choose from. I looked at quite a few machines before settling on a Dell M3800 a couple of years ago and it’s still a power mad beast.

    1. I looked at quite a few machines before settling on a Dell M3800 a couple of years ago and it’s still a power mad beast.

      It is a larger, heavier and probably noisier machine than an XPS 13.

      I have owned powerful and heavy laptops in the past. I had them in addition to thinner and lighter laptops, and I know from experience that I prefer the latter.

  3. I look forward to the Samsung Chromebook Plus or Pro, with Linux (via routon) installed. Right now I have that on my aging Chromebook 2, but it is still my go-to computer unless I want real horsepower (and then I ssh into a server).

    1. I look forward to the Samsung Chromebook Plus or Pro, with Linux (via routon) installed. Right now I have that on my aging Chromebook 2, but it is still my go-to computer unless I want real horsepower (and then I ssh into a server).

      I still own a Chromebook and there is a lot of to like. I have not tried to install Linux on it. I like Linux, but I like it on servers.

        1. As another Chromebook owner (but as my primary computing device), I can tell you there’s much to like in current desktop Linux.

          When Linux works, it does offer a great desktop experience. But it is all the little things that do not quite work that get to me. The faulty standby mode, the trouble getting the right drivers and so forth. For example, people still stumble on this post of mine from 2005… http://lemire.me/blog/2005/09/28/strange-kde-bug-cant-resize-or-move-windows/ The issue has still not been resolved, despite being around for over ten years.

          I should point out that I work with Linux every day… but not as a desktop environment.

  4. The bash shell for Windows 10 has one major short coming for emacs users: it doesn’t forward Control-Space.
    I have Windows 10 on a new Acer laptop, and I’ve noticed the same thing about the ads.

  5. > Maybe I am crazy, or maybe my machine was hacked, but it feels like Microsoft is showing me ads?

    I won’t claim you’re not crazy – but having ads in Win 10 is not in indication that you are. There are all kinds of ads (and tracking) in Win 10 – other that crap it’s actually a fairly decent OS.

    There are numerous tools developed to disable the various tracking features (http://bgr.com/2015/08/14/windows-10-spying-prevention-privacy-tools/) – although don’t know how trust-worthy any of them are. For example the “DoNotSpy 10” one on that list seems to install its own ads – so seems to defeat the purpose to me. Haven’t researched them enough to have one to recommend.

    http://www.windowscentral.com/how-remove-advertising-windows-10 – that page shows you how to disable several sources of ads that have configuration options built into windows.

  6. > The Windows Subsystem for Linux really does work. [..]

    To add on that. I can recommend adding a “Bash Here” context menu in the registry, so you can Shift+RightClick any folder and open a bash shell there. I have the necessary registry file here:

    https://gist.github.com/LordMike/5d7036bae1d8f76252985873a6601206

    > I find it unacceptably hard to grab a Window and move [..]

    I did so too. Then I saw the alt-dragging features in Ubuntu/Linux, and wanted the same. Luckily, this guy (https://stefansundin.github.io/altdrag/) created a tool for Windows that does the same. I configure it to start on logon, and change the keys from “Left Alt” and “Right Alt” to only “Left Windows key”, as I find that “Alt” has a number of other functions which interfere.

    I can now hold the left Windows key, and then drag or resize any window using my mouse, by clicking anywhere on the window itself.

    > Though the Windows Subsystem for Linux works well, it is poorly integrated into Windows [..] run different file systems {..].

    All drives available to Windows are mounted on /mnt/. Is this what you meant?

    1. All drives available to Windows are mounted on /mnt/. Is this what you meant?

      I don’t know exactly what is going on under the hood, but it is my impression that it is not safe to read/write files from both Windows and Windows Subsystem for Linux.

      1. Ok. It /was/ my impression that the linux subsystem simply called Win32 API’s behind the scenes.. I checked with Sysinternals Procmon for changes in a specific folder, and did _not_ see an event when I f.ex. ran “touch test”.

        I can see why someone would think it could be an issue. If we’re not calling Win32, then all bets are off. 😐

        1. Ok. So I got curious and checked it out. I found this very informative blog post.

          https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/wsl/2016/06/15/wsl-file-system-support/

          To answer your question. You must /not/ alter files in the special Bash root folder (%LocalAppData%\lxss\*), as the WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux) will put special properties on files there (using NTFS EA attributes).

          However. Files on /mnt/c (etc.) are handled by Windows itself. So these special properties are *not* used, and files therefore “work as they use to”. The tl;dr can be found by looking at the two sectios named “Interoperability with Windows” under VolFs and DrvFs respectively.

          VolFs is the linux-specific filesystems which uses special properties in Windows, used for /root, /home, /etc and so on. It represents a filesystem stored in the Windows users Appdata folder.

          DrvFs is the compatibility layer/driver that mounts the Windows drives (C:, D: etc..) under /mnt/ in Bash.

          1. Thanks. So I think that what I wrote is reasonably accurate:

            You can’t (or shouldn’t) edit Linux files using your Windows text editor. The two systems run different file systems and there are (apparently) synchronization issues. This is probably fine.

            It is a negative, but not a major limitation. Moreover, there may be a way to overcome it in the future.

  7. SSD are solid state so should make no noise. Here are my ideas: Your SSD power draw could fluctuate with read/write operations. Motherboard inductors, if they are not rigidly sealed can make a sound that might vary with load. Alternatively if the laptop has a speaker, then it could be possible that some crosstalk with the SSD creates noise in the audio output.

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