Over the course of its four-year lifespan, Dell’s extremely popular XPS 13 Developer Edition line has become known for one thing—bringing a “just works” Linux experience to the company’s Ultrabooks.
Of course, today Dell is just one of many manufacturers producing great Linux machines. System76 makes the Oryx Pro (still my top pick for anyone who needs massive power), and companies like Purism and ZaReason produce solid offerings that also work with Linux out of the box. Even hardware not explicitly made for Linux tends to work out of the box these days. I recently installed Fedora on a Sony Vaio and was shocked that the only problem I encountered was that the default trackpad configuration was terribly slow.
Admittedly, the Vaio is a few years old, which means there has been time for hardware issues to be addressed. Getting Linux to run on bleeding edge hardware in 2017 remains tricky—or it requires running a bleeding edge distro like Arch. That’s where efforts like Dell’s Project Sputnik, led by developer Barton George, come in handy. With the XPS 13 Developers Edition, the hardware is already vetted. Drivers are pre-installed and configured for a great out-of-the-box experience.
The latest Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition, released in late 2016 and tested in the home office last month, is an exceptionally well-built, great-looking piece of hardware. Yet again, if you want your Linux rig to “just work,” this is for you. But if you also want a powerful, svelte package that weighs under 3lbs, this is the XPS 13 you’ve been waiting for.
Dell’s most recent Linux laptop even features Intel’s new Kaby Lake chip, which bumps the clock speed by about 10 percent. The more impressive side of the chipset upgrade is the graphics architecture, which is supposed to improve performance in 3D graphics and 4K video. Playback, especially 4K video, is incredibly smooth and not nearly as battery-draining as previous models.
Outwardly there’s nothing new to see here. The 7th generation Dell XPS 13 DE uses the same wonderful InfinityEdge display that manages to pack a 13-inch screen into a body that looks and feels like an 11-inch laptop. The model I tested came with the 3200×1800 IPS touch panel. There’s also a version with a 1920×1080 IPS non-touch panel, but I think the higher res display is worth the extra money.
The new XPS 13 has simply the best-looking display I’ve seen in a laptop. Naturally the HiDPI model suffers a little in battery life compared to the lower res model. I’ve never used the lower res version, so I can’t compare battery life times, but more pixels always takes more power. If battery life is your top priority, don’t go with the HiDPI model. That said, I find the brightest setting (400 nit brightness) to be a bit much indoors. It’s great for working outside and goes a long way to compensate for the inevitable glare on glossy screens. But I rarely push the brightness past 60 percent when I’m inside, which improves battery life considerably.
The model Dell sent me featured an i7-7500U Kaby Lake chip with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB solid state drive. As configured, the whole enchilada would set you back $1,799. The lowest model—which has the 1920×1080 display, an i5 chip, 128GB SSD, and only 8GB of RAM—can be had for $975. For an extra $375, you can step up to the higher res screen and a 256GB SSD. There’s also a new option for what Dell calls a “Rose Gold” exterior.
The laptop I tested had the same full aluminum exterior as previous models. Underneath it is an aluminum frame, which makes the XPS line feel solid even at its minimal weight. As has been my experience with most Dell machines, the construction is excellent. I used the previous model for over six months, shoving it in and out of my bag several times a day, every day. It doesn’t have a scratch on it. I can see no reason to think the latest model would be any different.
Also unchanged in this release are the ports and layout. There are still two USB 3.0 ports, one with PowerShare for charging your devices (note that USB charging generally requires a trip into the BIOS settings to enable; see Dell’s support site for more info). There’s also a Thunderbolt port that supports charging, a 3-in-1 card reader, DisplayPort 1.2 video output, VGA, and HDMI. As with any laptop this thin, Ethernet requires an adapter (sold separately).
The 720p webcam is the same one that has been in the last couple of models, and it’s still at the bottom of the lid. Yes, it still sucks that it’s down there, although in fairness to Dell, there is nowhere else to put it. The InfinityEdge display comes within 1/8-inch of the edge of the lid. Nevertheless, like fellow Ars reviewer Peter Bright, I find this decision irritating. Why not just move the display panel down an 1/8 inch and put the camera at the top so it’s usable? Or, why not stop pretending that the bottom camera is useful and just ditch the camera altogether?
The palm rests are made of a carbon fiber composite that I found very comfortable. The keyboard also appears to be the same as previous models. It’s a very thin chiclet-style keyboard that works just fine, although coming from the ThinkPad world I still find these keyboards disappointing. What’s more disappointing for some Linux fans is the fact Dell still uses the Windows logo on the super key.
The touchpad is reportedly the same, although using the testing model next to the previous edition I felt a noticeable difference with the newer model being somewhat “stickier.” That doesn’t sound good, but I found my movements were actually more precise with the new trackpad. This was particularly noticeable in Darktable, a photo editing app with some of the tiniest imaginable control elements. Usually that can be a real pain to adjust, especially on such a HiDPI screen like the one the XPS 13 uses. The problem I experienced previously, where the trackpad would unaccountably freeze at times, appears to have been related to something in Ubuntu 14.04, because the new XPS, which comes with Ubuntu 16.04, did nothing of the sort.
Another common complaint about the XPS 13 is a high-pitched coil whine that plagues some models, according to some Reddit threads. In the three models I’ve used, I’ve never encountered this issue. It’s possible that the whine comes from something related to Windows drivers (some people report fixing the problem by reinstalling drivers), although I have seen reports of the whine being present on the Ubuntu-based models as well.