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laptop week 2013
xps 13

Laptop Week Review: The Dell XPS 13 Developers Edition With Ubuntu

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Welcome To Laptop Week

Features:

Pros:

  • Excellent Ubuntu performance out of the box
  • Thin and light
  • 12 second boot time

Cons:

  • No SD card slot
  • Limited software choices
  • Graphics card slightly underpowered

Dude, you got a Linux-powered Dell! In all the years I’ve reviewed laptops I’ve never been as pleasantly surprised by an Ultrabook as I was with the Dell XPS 13 Developers Edition. This ultrathin, ultralight SSD laptop originally came in Windows flavor but, much to my surprise, I far prefer the Ubuntu edition of this device. It is solidly built, acceptably priced given the solid state drive, and surprisingly powerful.

Rewind

I’ve been using some form of POSIX-compliant operating system for over a decade but I must admit that I have been remiss in my Ubuntu installations. Whereas I was once a KDE kid with some Gnome leanings, my distro knowledge stopped at about Mandrake and picked up again as Ubuntu began its rise to glory. That said, I was curious to see what Linux looks like these days. In short, it looks great.

The laptop itself is well-made. An aluminum top and pane of Gorilla Glass protects the 13-inch screen and it weighs a little less than 3 pounds. The entire package is self-contained, solid, and quite portable.

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The laptop, codenamed Sputnik, is a concerted effort by Dell to make sure everything on the device works well. It includes a number of Dell-specific packages – you can see a list here – but it supports most updates to the OS and attendant software and seamlessly upgraded to the latest version, 13.04, on top of the stock 12.04 Dell provides.

If you haven’t used Linux on a desktop you’ll be surprised at how uneventful it is. Everything “just works,” from the camera to the disk encryption to the update downloads, and there is little of the traditional futzing around with scripts and drivers when attempting to add hardware or fix broken peripherals. As a non-power-user who once wrote a script to re-initialize my audio chip every time I woke my computer from sleep, it was a pleasure to see the XPS 13 boot up without issue and worked quite seamlessly with most devices I tried with it. Arguably, with only two USB ports (one 3.0, one 2.0) and a DisplayPort jack, you’re not going to be adding much to the mix.
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The GeekBench score for this particular model hovered at around 5,500, which is solid performance. The MacBook Air, for example, gets about 6,600 on a good day and the Core i7 hits about 7,000 although it can top out at about 10,000 depending on the machine. 5,500, while not ideal, is still solid. The laptop lasted for 7 hours of standard use, about par for the course for a laptop of this size.

Using the laptop was a dream. I was able to set up my environment quite quickly and seamlessly and after a few hours I quickly picked up a workflow that allowed me to write, edit photos, and post from the field. The lack of an SD card was quite disheartening, to be sure, but an external dongle helped me make short work of that issue. I used GIMP to crop and resize photos, Vim to edit my posts and writing, and connected to web-based versions of my favorite cloud services if I needed access to files or social media.

The best part about the XPS 13 Developers Edition, however, is Dell’s own support offerings. It’s clear that releasing an Ubuntu into the wild without good support would be suicide for the product. To that end, the company is offering one year of “ProSupport” that includes round-the-clock North American tech support and next-day on-site servicing. While Dell Hell is still a fresh memory in my mind, at least, this offering is more in line with corporate support than end-user Windows management.
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Who is it for?

artist

Designers

No. Unless you’re a GIMP master, this probably isn’t the laptop for you. To be fair it’s surprisingly thin and light but it has no SD card slot, making it a hard sell for the designers among you. Working solely on the web? Sure, you could feasibly get away with doing a little CSS or HTML on this thing, but you’re probably better served with a laptop running more photo-editing applications.

Writers will also be a little put off by the lack of native support for some of their tools. However, if you’re a markdown/plain text editor kind of person, this laptop connected with a revision control system could be a winner. It obviously depends on your workflow and, although I was able to pick it up fairly quickly, Ubuntu might not be the place to look for absolute ease-of-use.

entrepreneur

Founders

Yes. To paraphrase Justin Timberlake, a laptop isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? An Ubuntu laptop. While you may annoy most of your co-workers with your insistence on running LibreOffice, this laptop is more than enough to run a few spreadsheets on and, in addition, build a business with. Seamless connectivity to most cloud services is a large benefit and thanks to Dell’s CloudLauncher app you can quickly and easily spin up nodes with a few keystrokes. Best of all, you’re not going to be another me-too entrepreneur with a MacBook Air and a dream (and you don’t have to use Windows 8), which is a great feeling

programmer

Programmers

Yes. This is a more-than-capable programmer’s machine and all of the care Dell put into this laptop really helps it shine as a developer’s device. For example, Dell has added Profile Tool, a method for “cloning” a workspace between laptops. This allows you to manage dependencies, preferred system tools, and tool chains. An Ars reviewer notes that these Profiles could become a way to “share” setups between programmers as well as a method to see how programming “superstars” have set up their machines. In short, Dell wants to make it clear that they care about developers with this device.

Bottom Line

It doesn’t get much cooler than the XPS 13 – and that’s high praise coming from an unreformed Apple addict. While I’m not sure this would become my everyday carry laptop, I could definitely see it replacing a similarly outfitted Windows machine and, if I ever felt the need to go full Doctorow when it comes to encryption, open software, and paranoia, this is the device I’d choose.

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