Dell XPS 13 Thoughts

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So I decided finally (finally!) that I was going to invest in a new device in preparation for my upcoming move to Germany. I've never really been much of a hardware person, if I'm honest. Hardware has always just been a means to an end to get me working with software as efficiently as possible be it productivity software, games, or media software. For this reason my computers have always been a bit off the mark; I will nearly always pick something over-specced or under-specced, something too big or something too small, etc.

Whatever the case, I owned my last desktop computer back in university (until its liquid cooling unit burst and flooded the motherboard 🙃). My experience with it was that it essentially anchored me to a desk, and I would always need to have a more portable device around to do anything elsewhere. So, for my next major investment I decided to plump for a decently powerful Lenovo Ideapad u410, with a dedicated Nvidia card for gaming.

Big mistake. One you'd think I'd remember. In particular, discrete graphics cards are a nightmare to manage on Linux (my primary OS at the time), so I spent a huge amount of time trying to figure out why the battery would drain in just under two hours. Predictably, the gaming performance was... well, bad. I could play certain games but never at a high quality or a good framerate. Bum gravy.

So next, thinks I, I'll build a laptop with a really powerful GPU and a really big chassis. That way it should be able to handle these pesky games while still being a portable device right? Well, no. Not at all. The GPU was definitely a big step up from the old machine but the laptop was too big and heavy to be carted anywhere, so for the last four years on the desk it has sat, just a poor man's replacement for a desktop computer, always charging and never discharging. Always ready to play games but never powerful enough to do so satisfactorily.

So something has to change.

The Criteria

My biggest gripe with my old computer was its shear heft.

My heft!

Its enormous size and weight (not to mention the weight of the power brick it required) was simply not practical for the purposes of travel. While having a powerful machine capable of handling most anything you can throw at it is good, it is not worth the price of your back.

My wishlist looked a little like the following when I started out:

  1. Lightweight
  2. Relatively powerful (good enough to play PS2 era games since gaming stopped improving there, let's be honest)
  3. Compact
  4. A good battery life
  5. No discrete GPU
  6. Good screen, but not 4k or above (for battery reasons)
  7. Premium feel (all of my earlier laptops had been somewhat cheap and I ended up paying for it with plastic splinters)
  8. Not a mac
  9. Not a 2-in-1 (the hinges will break)

I wasn't entirely sure about my budget, but since my dad was going to be buying my old machine off me and my company had bought back most of the leave I didn't end up taking, I had a little more to play with than previously.

The Competition

The XPS 13 was always a contender from the start. It consistently topped the list of modern-day ultrabooks and got pretty solid reviews across the board. The new M1-powered macs came out ahead a lot of the time but quite frankly I don't believe the hype (I love ARM but let's not kid ourselves here, we're a ways off). Besides these two, a couple of others would pop their heads up occasionally such as the HP Spectre, a few Yogas, and the XPS 13's big brother, the XPS 15. The 15" display seemed a bit overkill for the price hike and since portability was more important to me than screen real estate I opted to focus on the 13 for the XPS line. The Yogas and Spectre both dropped to the bottom of the list due to their transforming and touchscreen nature.

In all honesty, the only other machine that even came close to beating out the XPS was the Microsoft Surface Pro 7. I used to use a Surface Pro for work and remember heartily enjoying its 3:2 screen and excellent peripherals. However, sitting with one is a miserable experience. They're great machines to use at a desk or as a tablet, but as a laptop they fall significantly short. Also, we're likely to see a redesign soon-ish so if I were to buy one I'd hang on. Ditto for the Surface Book, which looked a better laptop but a significantly less interesting tablet.

On Paper

So on paper what does the XPS 13 have to work with? Well, in honesty I'm not really too au fait with spec sheets, so a lot of this is just numbers to me:

And that is about it. You can look up the specs in more detail online, but for the purposes of this post this is all I'm really going to talk about.

The Bad

Okay, so let's work through this and take stock of the problems. The biggest one is the same as any bloody ultrabook on the market: repairability. If anything happens to this machine at any point I'm going to have to return it to the store and get it replaced because every single part is soldered in place. This is the polar opposite of my tiny, underpowered ThinkPad x201s (God bless it) which can be repaired by anyone with a screwdriver and a go-get-em attitude. But such is the trend of the industry, and it's a price you pay for portability.

The same goes for the ports. This is a dismal port selection, and one that has already irritated me somewhat after a day of use. Very little in this house connects to USB-C, so I need an adapter for everything. With some foresight I purchased a hub which can handle my USB-A and HDMI peripherals so I have been able to get everything up-and-running pretty easily, but what happens if I am handed a suspicious USB stick on the street? How am I supposed to infect my computer then, hmm?

In all honesty I can see that USB-C is the future and I will admit the fast charge is great, but to only have one port free when charging is frankly madness. I am going to endeavour not to leave the machine plugged in all the time to preserve the battery, however, so this might actually keep me on that path. I will say I'm glad they kept the 3.5mm jack. Doing away with that would have been a deal breaker.

Apart from that, the machine is fine to me on paper. As I say I'm not a hardware buff, so I know that some will scoff at that but it seemed like a reasonable trade-off. The Intel Iris integrated GPU has been reviewed as running older games pretty well, which is all I needed to hear.

The Good

There are a few really nice things about this laptop right off the bat:

None of this is mind blowing in any way, but in all honesty it made the machine come across a really good, solid all-rounder. No fancy peripherals or transformations, no extravagant parts, just a sleek and simple laptop with just enough oomph to get it done.

My Experience

Setup

Okay, let me just get this of the way: I had a nightmare setting this machine up and it's not the machine's fault.

It's Microsoft's.

I had bought myself a Windows 10 Professional license key in anticipation of getting this machine (like nearly all others it comes with Windows 10 Home, which I refuse to use because I will not be advertised to after paying a license fee). Stupidly, I'd forgotten to check whether or not the key could upgrade an existing edition so when it came to trying to use the key it just refused to take.

Note to self: write a post on how stupid Windows licensing is

"Never mind," thinks I, "I'll just perform a reinstall and put the key in that way." Oh what a foolish child I was. Every single time I would boot into the recovery media using a dongle-connected drive, it would tell me that the SSD could not be loaded due to a missing driver (apparently Microsoft in their infinite wisdom decided not to include it in the recovery ISO). After a bit of digging I tried exporting my device's drivers to load in the recovery media using the following Powershell cmdlet:

Export-WindowsDriver -Online -Destination E:\Drivers

No dice. These drivers, it complained, were unsigned. So I try downloading direct from the source and unzipping the resulting driver to the drive. Uh-uh, this won't work either.

To be honest with you I got so fed up I just bought an upgrade license. It won't hurt to have another activation key hanging around. But I'm somewhat absolutely furious because I fought this issue for over an hour. This would never happen with Linux. Linux waits until you've booted into the live system to give you bad news.

Anyway, once I got my licensing issue sorted out I set about removing the usual guff that gets installed. To Dell's credit not much was theirs, most was just plain old Microsoft gunk such as that Solitaire game they want me to pay a subscription fee for (lolwot). At this point I turned to winget and started installing my normal packages. Given all my data is backed up on the cloud the actual setup of the machine at this point took only a few minutes.

Peripherals

The USB-C ➡ USB-A adapter packaged with the machine is a sham which drops connection constantly. It caused me no end of blind fury when trying to burn a recovery disk because it simply kept disconnecting. Having now thrown that to the side in favour of my USB-C hub I have found the connections to be stable and reliable. HDMI works well as does the device's fast charging. They weren't lying, you really can get to 80% in an hour. Nothing else to report here really (there's only two ports after all).

The Sights and the Sound

I'm not going to go so far as to say the XPS 13 has a gorgeous screen - it doesn't hold a candle to the likes of Apple's Retina displays - but it does have good colour quality and brightness. The image is crisp and sharp and text is easily readable, which suits me fine as somebody who works mostly in text. I do find myself missing my larger screen when I'm sat away from my desk, but considering the fact that there isn't a 1.200kg behemoth spitting superheated air onto my shattered legs as I'm used to I'll put up with it.

I am, however, shocked at how good the speakers are. I rarely if ever use speakers as I prefer to shut the world out when I'm working, but these speakers are phenomenal for a device this tiny. They easily eclipse the volume and quality of any other built in speakers I've had before, which is a great addition to the overall package.

Unlimited Power?

Not quite, but the battery does hold up pretty well. With a few things running and a lot of browser tabs open I can work in my editor for around 6-7 hours without needing to charge, although as mentioned I'm trying not to run the battery down so I'm not going all the way to 0 or all the way to 100. The battery saver mode is very frugal but the device doesn't grind to a halt as some I've used have. It's a perfectly comfortable coasting experience.

The Heft

Okay, so this machine is not exactly beefy, but what can one expect in a 1,2kg machine? 16GB of RAM is plenty to get done what I usually do in a day and the CPU is barely registering load most of the time. I can play most of the games I played before including Sauerbraten (a.k.a. the only FPS that matters) at a good framerate, so I'm pretty happy with that.

Importantly this machine runs incredibly quiet. My old laptop roared into live when you hit the button and continued to wheeze and sputter throughout the day which hindered video conferencing something rotten. Unless I'm hitting the XPS pretty hard with some taxing task, it sits perfectly quiet and lets me get on with it.

Let's be honest, I'm not putting the machine through any real benchmarks, I'm not compiling code or rendering videos like I used to, but for a day-to-day workload it's more than powerful enough.

The Software

Okay, so this isn't really a Dell thing (although Dell has a part to play), but the software on display in Windows 10 has come on hugely since last I used it. I'm normally not one for things like biometrics but given that I had a computer with a fingerprint sensor (and given that also I have a great disdain for passwords) I decided to set up Windows Hello. In addition to the fingerprint, I can use the built-in webcam to use facial recognition. This is kind of insane to me. My startup process now goes:

Beginning to end this takes just shy of 9 seconds.

WHAT

I have to be honest: in my years of computing I've never experienced anything that smooth. That is goddamn butter coming straight from the sanded teat of an oiled Greek God smooth.

The introduction of winget and a few other productivity tools such as the new Microsoft terminal has made using Windows much closer to using Linux (i.e. it's going the right way). I can now quite happily get on with what I want to do in a day and not have to worry about the weirdness of working on a Windows machine. Git just works, vim just works, the entirety of Linux itself just works. It's astonishing how far we've come really.

Overall Thoughts

The Dell XPS 13 is a peppy little machine which packs a lot into a very, very small frame. Its (lack of) port selection is very disappointing but not exactly abnormal nowadays, and if you live an always-online life you should be fine with it. It's very comfortable to type on for long periods which makes it ideal for me, and its all-round solid quality makes me think I'll be able to rely on it for a while to come.