Monday, December 30, 2013

Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition review (Haswell, late 2013 model)

Please note: I've updated this review in several spots and have highlighted these updates like this. Please also check out the comments-section below, there are some very good remarks and suggestions.

The XPS 13 Developer Edition, aka "Project Sputnik", is a laptop with a FullHD 13-inch screen, backlit keyboard, SSD, 4th gen intel CPU and comes pre-installed with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. What makes this machine so interesting is not so much that Ubuntu comes pre-installed on it (it would be easy for anybody to install it him/herself, after all), but rather that Dell put some extra-work in making sure everything works right out of the box and supports running Ubuntu on it. WiFi, keyboard backlight, screen brightness control, sleepmode, etc. are guaranteed to work. Additionally, you save a few bucks on the Windows license.
I had been interested in this machine before and since it was updated with the new Intel Haswell processors in November (official announcement by the project lead), I jumped on it (The alternative I thought about was the System76 Galago Ultrapro).

I placed my order on December 6th. Dell had a special promotion that day (and maybe also a pricing error? Not sure). The laptop was $ 1469 (instead of the usual $ 1549) and there was a $ 50 coupon on their website, bringing the whole thing down to $ 1419 before tax, including 3-day shipping. The estimated delivery date was January 16th at the time I placed my order (It seems they were having some supply issues).
However, on December 19th, I received a shipping notification and I had the package in my hands 2 days later.

The hardware specs:

CPU: Intel i7-4500U (dual core, 1.8 GHz, up to 3 GHz with TurboBoost, 4 MB cache)
Screen: 13.3 inch, 1920x1080
RAM: 8GB Dual Channel DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz
GFX: Intel HD 4400

It has two USB 3.0 ports (one on each side), a headphone/headset port and a mini Displayport. That's it (other than the power-port, of course). The lack of an SD card reader is a bit disappointing, but something I can live with.

One thing worth mentioning:
There is a different version of this laptop which comes with an i7-4650U CPU and HD 5000 graphics. Unfortunately, Dell USA only offers this version to corporate customers (through corporate channels). In other countries (like in the UK and France, for instance), you can see this higher-end version on Dell's website and you can order it from there. It's a pity that Dell keeps this version from consumers in the US. I don't understand why they're doing that, but it is what it is.

The laptop comes in a sleek black box, very stylish. The contents are as minimalistic as the box: Laptop, power supply and quick-start manual (for the Windows-version of the machine). The power-supply was a positive surprise: it's very small. Here it is next to the power-supply from a 13inch MacBook Pro:

In the picture above, you can see that the top-portion of the black powersupply can be taken off and replaced with cable (which is included in the box) in case you're further away from the wall-plug.

The plug which connects to the laptop has white LEDs on it. They light up when the power supply is plugged in to an outlet (regardless of whether or it's plugged in to the laptop). If the laptop is turned off (or sleeping) and the battery is charging, there's no way for you to tell whether the batter is full or not based on the color of the LED. (Update: Turns out there is a way to tell, see below) It stays white. But on the right side of the laptop there is a little button which activates some battery-level-indicator LEDs on the laptop. That will show you the charge-level (see photo below).

Update! "While the color of the charger LED doesn't change, the LED at the middle of the bottom/front edge (below the trackpad) goes from orange to white when charged." (quote from davb in the comments of this post. Thanks for pointing this out.)

First boot: Ubuntu animation, Dell User Agreement, then the standard Ubuntu installer. The WiFi connection worked right away without issues (I'm mentioning this because the WiFi connectivity of the Ivy Bridge XPS 13 DE had some significant issues with WiFi). I've had no lag, no disconnects, no hiccups so far (if this changes, I'll update this post). The only thing I noticed is that the WiFi-signal indicator at the top right of the screen shows 3 out of 4 bars. The router is only 3 or 4 meters away from the laptop, so this is weird. All other devices in my household show full bars when they're in the same room as the router. My experience has been fine, though. A speedtest showed normal results, I ran some FTP-transfers, downloads, SSH connections, all worked just fine.

The keyboard's backlight is on by default and can be switched on and off via Fn + F6. There doesn't seem to be a regulator for the brightness of the backlight, but that's not a problem for me. (Update: There are, in fact, 3 brightness settings and I initially didn't notice it: Fn + F6 switches between 3 modes: Full brightness, lower brightness and off) The keyboard itself is very nice to type on. Compared to a 13inch MacBook Pro, which I have here next to me, I'd say the keys of the XPS 13 feel a bit "stiffer", meaning it requires a little more force to push a key down than on the MBP. It is by no means hard to press a key, though, don't get me wrong. I like this "stiffness" and it makes for a comfortable typing-experience. For those familiar with the different Cherry MX-switches in mechanical keyboards, I'd say that the MBP keyboard compares to a MX-red and the XPS 13 keyboard compares to a MX-black (when I say "compares", I mean "veeeery loosely compares". It's just the best description I could come up with to give you an idea). After having used the XPS 13 for a few days and then going back to the MBP, I like the XPS's keyboard better.

Screen brightness control: Worked right away witout a hitch (via Fn + F4 / F5). I'm fine with one of the lower screen brightness levels most of the time. The lowest brightness setting on the MacBook Pro (which is too dark for me to use) is definitely darker than on the XPS 13. The lowest setting on the Dell works just fine for me and it will probably save me some battery as well. One thing I noticed was that the screen brightness sometimes resets itself to the default brightness after rebooting or waking up from suspend. (In that case, I simply have to set it back down. No biggie, but I wanted to mention it.)

Screen: I was a little worried that 1920x1080 would be a bit of a problem for me on a 13inch screen. But it isn't too small at all for me, I like it. The display quality looks fantastic, very crisp and the viewing angles are awesome.
As I'm writing this I'm realizing I should probably say something about the touch-functionality of the screen. I'm not really interested in this feature and I will most likely not use it at all. But it's there. I touch-clicked around a little bit just now and it seems to work.

Battery life: I find this one a bit hard to judge and give a number that will hold true for everybody, since everybody's usage patterns are different. But after having used the XPS for a full week now, here's how it's been for me: Great.
I get about 6 hours of usage from a full charge (or more if I leave my desk for breaks and the screen shuts off after 5 minutes, which saves battery). As I mentioned earlier, that's usually on the lowest (or second to lowest) screen brightness setting (and keep in mind that the lowest brightness on the XPS is brighter than the lowest on the rMBP, so it's not EXTREMELY dark), with the keyboard backlight enabled for about 50-75% of the time, and having Firefox open with 5-10 tabs, sometimes YouTube running in the background for some music, some Terminal windows open, Steam open in the background, Skype running in the background and a few text editor windows open.
Running games will of course reduce the battery-time. For example, if I start up "Starbound" when the battery is full, the indicator tells me I have about 3 to 3:30 h left. It's about the same when I start a Skype-video-call with a full battery.

Update: After installing TLP (advanced power management for Linux), my battery life got a bit better: it went up to about six-and-a-half to seven hours (that's in the scenario where I previously got 6 hours)

Touchpad: It has a nice soft-feel to it and I've been able to use it without issues so far. I like to tap-click as opposed to actually clicking down the physical button. This works fine, as well as two-finger-tapping for a right-click. Two-finger-scrolling works fine as well. (If one prefers to click down the physical button: this works perfectly fine as well, for both left and right clicks)
I noticed one thing which doesn't matter at all to me, but maybe it matters to some: Getting a right-click by one-finger-tapping (not clicking) on the pad requires you to tap at the very very very lower right corner of the pad, which I find impossible to get right on the first try. So much so that I'm actually wondering whether this is done on purpose to avoid accidental right-click-taps.
Update: An issue came up down in the comments section below this post and so did a potential solution: If you like to rest one finger (your thumb, for instance) on the bottom of the trackpad while moving the pointer with another finger (your index finger, for instance), then you're going to have a problem on this machine: The pointer will not move and/or your window will start to scroll up/down. But someone posted way to make things better. Here's a link to the thread in the comments. (Thank you, anonymous poster :)

Default partitioning:

(At the point I took this screenshot all I had done were the system updates and the installation of Chrome)

Update: Someone pointed out in the comments that this only shows the mounted partitions and that I should run fdisk -l instead. So here goes:

$ sudo fdisk -l /dev/sda

Disk /dev/sda: 256.1 GB, 256060514304 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 31130 cylinders, total 500118192 sectors
Units = sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
Disk identifier: 0x0cba9796

   Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
/dev/sda1            2048      718847      358400   de  Dell Utility
/dev/sda2          718848     7010303     3145728    c  W95 FAT32 (LBA)
/dev/sda3   *     7010304   468539391   230764544   83  Linux
/dev/sda4       468541438   500117503    15788033    5  Extended
/dev/sda5       468541440   500117503    15788032   82  Linux swap / Solaris
What did I configure / install so far?
- Set up automatic TRIM for the SSD via daily cron-job (used this tutorial for "Scheduled TRIM")
- Ran all system updates for Ubuntu 12.04 LTS
- Chrome
- Firefox
- Steam and several games (through Steam)
- Dropbox
- SpiderOak
- Copy
- Some indicators (for CPU/network activity and CPU temperature)
- Skype
- KeePassX
- TrueCrypt

I'll install OpenShot and Blender in the next few days and play around with those.

Here's the output of lspci:

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Haswell-ULT DRAM Controller (rev 09)
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Haswell-ULT Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 09)
00:03.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation Device 0a0c (rev 09)
00:14.0 USB controller: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP USB xHCI HC (rev 04)
00:16.0 Communication controller: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP HECI #0 (rev 04)
00:1b.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP HD Audio Controller (rev 04)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP PCI Express Root Port 1 (rev e4)
00:1c.2 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP PCI Express Root Port 3 (rev e4)
00:1d.0 USB controller: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP USB EHCI #1 (rev 04)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP LPC Controller (rev 04)
00:1f.2 SATA controller: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP SATA Controller 1 [AHCI mode] (rev 04)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP SMBus Controller (rev 04)
02:00.0 Network controller: Intel Corporation Wireless 7260 (rev 6b)
Below are a few shots of the XPS next to a late 2013 retina MacBook Pro 13inch.

Temperature and noise: While surfing / writing / YouTube-ing / terminal-ing I felt the laptop getting warm towards the center/top of the keyboard. The fan kicked in very rarely. When it did, it didn't stay on for long and the noise was okay. When the fan is off, the machine is absolutely silent. I installed a temperature indicator and while idle, the CPU temp is about 50 degrees Celsius. (I originally wrote that it's 53 degrees, but that's wrong. I just checked it again and I must have had it wrong in my notes. It's definitely 49-50.)

A few scenarios:

- YouTube running on a background tab in Firefox while typing this review in another tab, Skype running, Terminal running, Text Editor running
CPU load is between 10 and 20 % and the temperature is 60 degrees Celsius. Fan is off (or at least inaudible)

- Same scenario as before, without YouTube, but with Starbound running through Steam
CPU load is about 36% and the temperature is about 72 degrees Celsius. Fan is on and audible, but rather low. Having the game's sound on (normal level) is louder than the fan-noise.

- To bring the CPU load up, I installed "pi" (sudo apt-get install pi) and ran instances of it in terminals by entering "pi 200000000". Each time, I let it run for about 2 minutes before writing down the result.

2 instances of pi: approx. 54% CPU, 65 degrees C, fan kicked in audibly at first, but then went to a lower level (it's still on, but I have to bring my ear very close to the laptop to actually hear it.

3 instances of pi: approx. 78% CPU, 68-69 degrees C, same fan behaviour as the previous test

4 instances of pi: approx. 100% CPU, 68-69 degrees C, same fan behviour as the previous test

Build-quality / finish: I find it great. The top of the lid is aluminium and the bottom is carbon fiber, as pictured below. Nothing is wiggling, rattling or bending.

I had noticed beforehand that the headphone port was listed as "headset port". So I was wondering if that meant headphones with an integrated microphone (such as wired headsets for cellphones) would work. Answer: Yes, they do. I plugged in an iPhone wired headset and the mic works, plug and play, no fiddling required.

Overall, this little laptop has a high quality feel to it and everything I tried worked. I'd say my experience was similar to that of a MacBook Pro. I really like the overall concept of the XPS 13 DE. It's minimalistic, yet powerful, but kind of off the mainstream. And this concept shines through from A to Z: From the packaging, the hardware (please read the update at the bottom of the review), the software and the overall experience.
Update from March 28th 2014: Unfortunately some issues arised and those can be quite annoying. Please read on for the details.

Getting things done in Ubuntu has been painless. Before this, I was using Windows 7 and OSX. I wasn't unhappy with those, but I really liked the concept behind "Project Sputnik". I'm willing to put a little effort into making things work, but I already have a day-job and so I'm not looking for a laptop that will require a few hours every day just to get things to work the way I expect. I want to *use* it, I don't want to have to put work into *making it useful*. And that's what this device does: It works.

Initial conclusion: For now (after a week of usage), I'm very happy with my purchase and would absolutely recommend this laptop to anybody looking for a solid, painless Ubuntu experience on a very nice laptop where things just work out of the box.
Update from March 28th 2014: HOWEVER, some issues came up and I no longer feel I can fully recommend this machine. There is the coil-whine issue (more details below), which is very annoying, and then the laptop sometimes (randomly) wakes up from sleep while the lid is closed and stays on. I'm not going to return the laptop, but these little (or not-so-little) problems get on my nerves and I *almost* regret (I'm not quite there yet) not having bought a 13" MBP. Quite a few people also complained about the touchpad. For me this hasn't been an issue, but it sounds like this is definitely something one should be aware of before buying.

I've updated this post regarding issues (and I'll continue to do so) and have highlighted updates like this. Please also check out the comments-section below, there are some very good remarks and suggestions.

Update (February 10th 2014): I noticed an issue and it seems quite a few owners of this new XPS 13 are in the same boat. There is a whizzing / whirring noise (some people also call it "coil whine") that is sometimes emitted by the laptop. While some users say that for them, the noise only occurs when the keyboard's backlight is on, it seems to be random for me. I've had the noise with and without the kb backlight. I only notice the noise if the room I'm in is absolutely quiet. So I'm not sure if the issue has just started happening or if I just didn't notice this before (I often have music on, or people around me talking). This sucks, especially on a new device. Here's the link to the Dell support forums about this problem. It seems like there is no solution for now, Dell is investigating.
I don't think I'll send mine in to Dell. The problem is pretty annoying but it doesn't bother me enough to warrant not having the laptop for a few weeks. I'll certainly keep an eye on the issue and if there's a fix for it, I'll look into it. But for now it's uncertain if there will be a fix.
Knowing about these issues, do I still recommend this laptop? Honestly, no. One shouldn't buy something that has such an annoying problem and hope for a fix.

If this review was helpful to you and you want to check out (cloud-storage provider), then feel free to use this referral-link which will give you 5 extra GBs of space (for free, total of 20 GB).

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Dark Room (flash game)

Came across this game (runs on your browser) called "A Dark Room". It's a text-adventure. You start in a dark room, light a fire, a stranger walks in and the story unfolds from there.
There's an iOS version as well.

Friday, September 6, 2013


My idea of a backup is as follows:

- I have an external hard drive (same size or bigger than the drive in my live-system)
- Once a week or once a month, I plug that drive in to my computer and run a backup-command or click on a button in my backup-program
- The backup is incremental, meaning the very first time it runs it will take a long time and every subsequent time it will only copy the data which changed
- Once the backup is complete, the external drive goes back into its drawer/shelf
- If the drive in my live-system dies, I replace it as soon as possible and will be able to retrieve my data from the external drive.
- I don't really care whether the external drive is bootable or not. If it is, that's nice, but it doesn't have to.

Back when I had a Mac, I used this method to run backups. It worked like a charm and if I still had a Mac, I'd probably still do it that way.

I currently use Windows 7 and Linux (and may add a Mac again at some point), so I was looking for *one* program that could accomplish what I need, regardless of the OS. At first I thought I'd use a cloud-service like Crashplan, BackBlaze or SpiderOak, or possibly OwnCloud. But I decided to keep it "in house" and simple, so I looked into some command-line tools, since the command-line seemed like the lowest common denominator between all OSes. Linux and OSX are both Unix-based and Cygwin is an acceptable solution for me when using Windows, so that gives me the option of using some open source tools like rsync, for instance.

I ended up deciding to go with rdiff-backup. Here's how to use it:

rdiff-backup source destination

It's that simple and it does exactly what it looks like.
One can add an "exclude" parameter and more options, if needed.

I format my external backup-drive as NTFS. I find NTFS the best cross-platform solution, since it's readable and writable by Windows, Linux and OSX (some tweaking is needed under OSX, but it's easy).

Here are some tutorials / documentation that helped me run rdiff-backup:

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Friday, July 26, 2013

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Raspberry Pi Updates

A couple of interesting things came out since I bought my Raspberry Pi. (old post here)

A camera for RPi is now available.
It doesn't connect to the GPIO port (which most cases leave accessible), but to the connector located behind the ethernet port (which most cases do *not* leave accessible, sadly).

This case, the "OpenBox" (or a remix thereof), allows to plug in the camera module. Above is the "Sweetbox II", which is currently benig kickstartered. This is a case with an optional camera holder.

For future reference, here are some cool RPi projects I came across:

- RPi seedbox with LCD output of torrent status
- Getting a headless Raspberry Pi to speak its IP address on boot
- RPi as SNES emulator with Xbox 360 wired controller
- PiMAME, a pre-built RPi OS for gaming/emulation

Last but not least, some potentially useful info:

How to auto-mount an external USB hard drive on boot (found here):

For me, it came down to plugging my hard drive (named "BLABLA") in to the RPi (it got auto-mounted) and adding this line to /etc/fstab:
/dev/sda1       /media/BLABLA    ntfs-3g defaults         0       0
(my drive is formatted as NTFS. If it was FAT32, one would use "vfat" instead of "ntfs-3g")

How to set up OwnCloud on the RPi

Found a nice tutorial here, a tutorial video here and an all-in-one-install-script here. Setting up OwnCloud requires the installation of a webserver, PHP, a database and some configuration steps, so this all-in-one script is a welcome alternative. The author wrote a blog-post about the script here.

Can a Raspberry Pi be powered by a USB-hub?

Yes, it may, if your USB hub has its own power supply.
If it doesn't have its own power supply, then forget about it.
If it does, then check this list of peripherals and see if you can find your hub listed and what the notes say. I use a Belkin "4-Port Ultra-Slim Desktop Hub" (model # F4U040v) and it works great.

Can a Raspberry Pi be powered by the same USB hub that its peripherals are connected to?

Yes! (but also read the point above)
I'm currently powering my RPi from my USB hub and also have my wireless keyboard's dongle as well as a USB hard drive (USB powered) plugged in to the hub and it all works.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition

I've been looking at ultrabooks capable of running Linux these last few days and Dell's XPS 13 Developer Edition seems like a pretty nice package.

Some articles with useful information about the machine and the out-of-the-box experience:

Divorcing Apple, trying WIndows 7 and Ubuntu on Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Back On Linux – Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition

My Review of the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition (a.k.a. Sputnik)

Putting Dell's Ubuntu Ultrabook to the test

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Free text to speech solutions

Looking around for free text to speech software (or web-based solutions), I found these: - Best one I came across. It's completely free and offers several different languages.

YAKiToMe - Not bad, I found the pronounciation of slightly lesser quality than the previous site. But YAKiToMe allows you to upload PDFs (if you have an eBook in PDF format, for instance) and it will read the whole thing to you. Registration is free.

Mac OSX comes with a command-line tool "say". There's not really an equivalent that comes with Windows, but I found this Windows-executable which does the same thing. It uses the built-in Windows voice. (in case that previous link ever stops working: Here's a perma-link to the executable and here's the source code)

Cepstral - This one is not free (even though there's a demo on their website) but the voices and pronounciation are very good.