Project Sputnik has done an admirable job over the years of bringing a “just works” Linux experience to Dell Ultrabooks like the XPS 13 Developer Edition—in fact, we’ve tested and largely enjoyed those experiences multiple times now. But while the XPS 13 is a great machine that I would not hesitate to recommend for most Linux users, it does have its shortcomings. The biggest problem in my view has long been the limited amount of RAM; the XPS 13 tops out at 16GB. While that’s enough for most users, there are those (software developers compiling large projects, video editors, even photographers) who would easily benefit from more.
Normally to get more RAM from a Dell, you’d pick up one of the various Precision laptops. These lack the svelteness of the XPS series, but the line can pack in more RAM and larger hard drives. Unfortunately, the availability of the Ubuntu-based Precision machines has traditionally been somewhat spotty. Luckily with this latest refresh, though, that’s no longer the case: you can get Ubuntu-based Precision laptops in a variety of configurations from the Dell site.
Dell isn’t the only manufacturer producing great Linux machines. And in fact the Oryx Pro from System 76 is another great machine that earned my previous recommendation for anyone who needed more RAM and didn’t mind the additional size and weight. Naturally, Linux will probably work just fine on plenty of hardware not specifically tailored to running Linux, but, if you want a “just works” experience, I’ve usually suggested staying away from bleeding-edge hardware that sometimes lacks drivers.
This is precisely where efforts like Dell’s Project Sputnik come in handy. The hardware is already vetted, and the drivers come pre-installed and configured for a great out-of-the-box experience. Today with the revamped Sputnik lineup, you can get your “just works” rig plus all the power and RAM of a bigger laptop in the form of the Dell Precision 7520.
The machine Dell sent for testing was a Dell 7520 Developer Edition with an Intel Xeon E3-1505M v6 (Quad Core Xeon 3.00GHz, 4.00GHz Turbo, 8MB 45W, with an Intel HD Graphics 630), 32 GB RAM, 512 GB of SSD space, an NVIDIA Quadro M2200 with a 4GB GDDR5 graphics card, and a brilliant 15.6″ UHD IGZO (3840×2160) LED-backlit non-touch screen.
The Xeon is the top-of-the-line chip for Precision 7520s, though you can get a Radeon Pro graphics card, up to 64GB of memory, and up to 3TB of hard drive space. The model I tested maxed out the SSD (512GB), but you can ditch the SSD in favor of a 1TB 7200rpm spinning drive and add a second spinning drive up to 2TB in size. Other customization options include a different fingerprint reader and an option to have a PCIe drive as the second drive.
The 7520 boasts a full-size keyboard complete with number pad, though the arrow keys, page up/down, and home/end keys are all half-size keys, which some may find annoying. There’s also a “nub” cursor controller in the middle of the keyboard, which would be great were it not so stiff. The really brilliant piece of engineering in the keyboard is the mouse buttons—separate left, middle, and right—just below the spacebar. This arrangement makes it possible to, for example, right-click with your thumb without ever taking your fingers off the home row or otherwise interrupting your typing.
I like this bit so much I’ve had some trouble going back to my Lenovo—I still routinely tap my right thumb just below the space bar only to find there’s nothing there. That said, I can see where some people might not like this feature since, especially at first, there’s a tendency to accidentally hit the mouse buttons when you meant to hit the space bar. In my case it only took about half an hour of typing for that to go away, but it might be worth heading to a brick-and-mortar store to try out the keyboard before you rush off to order one.
The keys themselves are your basic chiclet-style keys. As with other Dell laptops I’ve tested, they manage to have a rather solid, satisfying feeling and a good bit of give. If you tend to pound on your keys like you’re still using a Model M (like I do), Dell offers one of the better keyboard experiences in a laptop today.
The trackpad is less remarkable, though it’s plenty responsive and smooth enough with separate buttons just below it. With Ubuntu’s stock trackpad drivers, you can configure the trackpad to respond to taps if you don’t like the separate buttons. Note, however, there is no Apple-style “click” anywhere on the trackpad to left-click.
For ports, the Precision 7520 offers 4 USB 3.0 ports with PowerShare (three on the left side, one on the right). Also on the left is a Thunderbolt 3 type C port, HDMI, and Mini display port connector. On the right along with the three USB ports, there’s a memory card reader, headphone jack, and security lock. The back of the Precision 7520 sports an RJ45 port and the power adapter port. There’s also a fingerprint reader and an optional smart card slot.
The case of the Precision 7520 is a somewhat soft dark finish. It looks nice, but it does show fingerprints quite a bit. The body is built around a very sturdy metal chassis that doesn’t flex much even when you carry it open with one hand… which you shouldn’t do because this thing is pretty heavy. It’s not off the charts, but at around six-and-half pounds (exact weight varies according to customizations) it’s definitely a two-hander, at least when it’s open. It’s worth noting, though, that the hinge is quite smooth, and opening it up with one hand isn’t difficult.
The Precision 7520 is just under 15 inches wide, 10.38 inches deep, and a little over an inch thick, tapering from the back to the front. In other words, it’s neither a massive beast nor the most svelte thing on the market. Personally, the extra bulk is nothing compared to the power gained by having the bulk.
The Xeon processor in the machine I tested handled everything I ever threw at it without breaking a sweat. I was able to edit, color, and render a backlog of video editing that I had been dreading trying to do on my i5 8GB Lenovo (yes, I’m one of those weirdos that edits video using FOSS software on Linux).
What would have been hours of rendering time on the Lenovo took, by comparison, hardly any time at all on the Dell. I crunched through several hours’ worth of footage, compiled and rendered out my edits, and the Dell hardly even spun up its fans. A note on those fans, however: they didn’t run very often in normal use, but when I pushed it, they did kick in. They’re not the quietest things around, but the fans did, however, do an excellent job of keeping things cool even when I was rendering video while sitting in the afternoon sun camping in Louisiana swamps in June. And while the model I tested had 32GB of RAM, you can, for a price, push that up to 64GB of RAM.
The last hardware bit of note is the screen, which offers 3840×2160 pixel resolution in a 15.6-inch package. The screen itself looks amazing, and I found the color rendering to be excellent, especially with regard to nice, deep blacks. Unfortunately, some Linux apps (GIMP I’m looking at you) have really poor HiDPI support. The HiDPI support is getting better—certainly Unity itself is almost flawless, as is GNOME, which I also tested—but there are enough apps that have tiny, illegible UIs on a HiDPI screen that it’s worth double-checking to make sure all your favorites work before you spend the money on the high-end screen. The Precision 7520 can also be configured to use a 1920×1080 IPS screen for those who don’t want to mess with the HiDPI version.
As with the rest of Dell’s Sputnik offerings, the Precision 7520 Developer Edition ships with Ubuntu 16.04 LTS. That’ll be the base of Dell’s machines for the next few years at a minimum, despite the fact that, in the midst of my testing, Ubuntu announced it would no longer develop the Unity interface that has been its default desktop since 2010. At any rate, the combination of screen size and hardware specs of the Precision 7520 make for the best Unity machine I’ve ever used, period.
Still, fate can be cruel. Just when I was thinking, ‘hey, Unity isn’t so bad on a nice big screen with plenty of RAM to spare,’ Canonical announced it was stopping the development of Unity. Instead, the organization will adopt a mostly stock GNOME interface for future releases.
Since Dell ships with LTS releases, the earliest you’ll likely see GNOME on a Dell machine is 18.04, which will arrive in April 2018. And given adoption time in the past, a GNOME Dell machine won’t likely ship until 2019. That might be slightly disappointing to those who want bleeding-edge software, but it’s the main reason Dell machines don’t have hardware issues. It takes time to test and fix bugs.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from updating your system yourself or installing any other distro you might like. I stuck with Ubuntu on this machine, but in the past I have run Fedora, Arch, and Mint on Dell machines without encountering any problems (quite a few Fedora developers seem to use XPS 13s, too. Fixes for Dell-specific issues seem to get pushed out very quickly in Fedora). This time around I wanted to spend some time with Ubuntu GNOME on high-end hardware, since that, like it or not, is the future of the Ubuntu Desktop.
That’s not to say that Unity is abandonware. It will live on in the Universe repos for anyone who’d like to continue using it, and it’s certainly alive and well in Dell machines. If you’re fond of the Unity interface, there’s no need to panic just yet. There have already been stirrings of a community around it that would like to continue development. Even if there are just a couple of people fixing bugs and keeping the lights on, you should be able to get a good five more years out of it (Canonical is committed to maintenance for the five-year release cycle of 16.04, which lasts until April of 2021).
“Dell has been working with Canonical on Unity transition plans,” says Jared Domínguez, software principal engineer at Dell. For those buying a 7520 (or other Dell with Ubuntu install), Domínguez says, “we understand the need to keep a consistent experience, especially considering the large corporate Ubuntu desktop deployments that depend on Dell.” Once GNOME starts shipping by default on Ubuntu, “I personally anticipate that everyone will benefit from the combined GNOME effort of Canonical and Red Hat on Ubuntu and RHEL, both of which we ship.”
I went ahead and tested Ubuntu GNOME 17.04 quite extensively and didn’t run into any problems, hardware or otherwise. The near-stock GNOME that ships with Ubuntu GNOME 17.04 looks really nice on the HiDPI screen. There are even some nice tools starting to emerge that add some of the best features of Unity to GNOME. For example, this GNOME extension takes the idea of Unity’s HUD menu (a search interface for application menu items) and uses the very fast dmenu to get the same functionality in GNOME. As an added bonus, dmenu is even faster and more responsive than Unity’s HUD, albeit not quite as pretty to look at. I should also note that it doesn’t work with Firefox or Chromium.
There are also quite a few GNOME themes out there. In conjunction with GNOME Shell extensions, these can do an admirable job of impersonating the Unity desktop in both function and form. It’s also worth noting that Ubuntu hasn’t formally released a GNOME version just yet, and it may well ship with some customizations to make the transition from Unity to GNOME a little easier on users.
Whether you opt to stick with Ubuntu 16.04 as it ships with the Precision 7520, upgrade to 17.04, switch to Ubuntu GNOME, or use an entirely different distro, you’re unlikely to encounter any issues with this hardware. That’s part of what you’re paying for when you get the Precision 7520. Yes, there are some cheaper options out there, but few, if any, will work as flawlessly as this Dell.
Perhaps the best comparison machine to the Precision 7520 is System76’s Oryx Pro. The Oryx Pro has since been updated, and you can configure it to more or less match the Dell Precision 7520. The Dell has the Oryx Pro beat on size and weight, though not by much. On the other hand, the Oryx Pro can (for an additional price) pack in up to 6TB of drive space. Both are great machines, and which is better suited for you may be something too personal to generalize into a recommendation. But based on my experience, you won’t be disappointed by either.
I enjoyed my time with the Dell Precision 7520 and would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who needs the power. That said, if your primary use-case is browsing the Web, chat/Skype, light photo editing, and the like, then this thing is likely overkill. If you don’t need the power, it’s hard to justify the additional size and weight over the XPS developer edition line. On the other hand, if the XPS machines have always left you feeling underpowered, the Precision 7520 is for you.
When it comes to making a decision, however, I need to voice my biggest gripe with this machine: its battery life sucks. As Confucius once said, with great power comes crappy battery life. That’s certainly the case with the 7520, which manages to eke out about fours hours doing light-duty Web browsing and similar activity, but it quickly drops off to less than two hours if you start pushing it.
Combining the size and weight with the battery life, suffice to say that the happiest user will be the one that primarily has it sitting on a desk at home or work and only occasionally ventures out to tax the battery. The more you leave this on the desk—chained to a couple of 4K displays via Dell’s Thunderbolt docking station would be definitely nice—the more your back will thank you anyway.
- Trouble-free Linux on good hardware.
- Excellent screen with great resolution.
- Plenty of RAM to handle whatever you throw at it.
- Price is competitive for the hardware you get.
- Screen resolution of HiDPI models can cause problems with some apps.
- It’s not the lightest thing around.
- Charger is also quite large.
- It’s not Dell’s fault, but if you stick with Ubuntu, eventually you’re going to wake up one day to GNOME rather than Unity.