Linux Format

Dell XPS 13 2017................

Dell refreshes its small and powerful Linux laptop with that oh-so-magical screen, but Jonni Bidwell is an impecuniou­s writer and can’t afford one.


The Linux laptop that Dell conquered the world with is back! Refreshed with the allnew Intel Kaby Lake powering it, sporting the same ultra-high resolution display and now with USB C for anyway-it-goes ports.

Behold the 4th generation of the Dell XPS 13 range. While from the outside it only seems to have received minor tweaks, such as USB C ports, its insides have been updated dramatical­ly.

The main thing to sing about in this outing is the migration to the Kaby Lake architectu­re. This promises about a 10% performanc­e increase, improved battery life and, thanks to the new Intel HD 620 graphics, accelerate­d VP9 and 10-bit HEVC video playback. Beyond that we have a larger battery and a newer “Killer” Wi-Fi chip from Qualcomm. Getting Linux to play nice with new and shiny hardware could potentiall­y be struggleso­me, but Dell has worked hard to ensure that, while some benchmarks lag behind Windows, everything works exactly as it should.

Ubuntu 14.04, which shipped with the previous Developer Edition, is getting a little long in the tooth, so the update to 16.04 this time around is most welcome. That said, Kaby Lake didn’t receive mainline kernel support until the 4.5 series, and 16.04 ships with 4.4. However, installing a 4.8 Kernel is easy using the recently pushed 16.04.2 Hardware Enablement Stack that has already been pushed out automatica­lly to desktop users.

Linux support

In days of old, Linux users were at a disadvanta­ge when it came to BIOS updates. Vendors used to supply DOS executable­s for updating the BIOS, which were meant to be run from Windows’ “Boot to command prompt option”. Now we live in a UEFI world and would much rather a cleaner way to freely freshen our firmwares. That way, dear readers, is the fwupd tool, and Dell has made enormous contributi­ons to its developmen­t. Dell has also provided some handy recovery tools in case things go south.

When Kaby Lake was introduced, there was some concern laptops on Linux were not entering the deepest sleep C-states, C8-C10. However, our tests with powerstat showed these states of near hibernatio­n were entered after relatively short idle time, and that idle power consumptio­n was a mere 6.5W. During our Phoronix Test Suite (PTS) benchmarki­ng, temperatur­es, as reported by lm_sensors anyway, did occasional­ly become worrying. In particular the FurMark benchmark (which scored a respectabl­e 473 points at 1080p) saw core temps rise as high as 85 degrees. There was some fan noise, but even at full power the fan is reasonably unobnoxiou­s. The CPU is only dual core, but still built a 4.9 Kernel in just under four minutes. PTS’ sparse matrix multiplica­tion test reported an impressive 1,029.63 Mflops.

Using dd with the conv=fdatasync, notrunc options reported write speeds of 567MB/s and read speeds (after clearing the cache) around 1.2GB/s. Using mpv with all radios disabled and at 50% brightness, we managed to get eight hours of fullscreen playback with the 720p version of Sintel, and five hours with the 4K version. The taxing Unigine Heaven benchmark at 1080p managed 17fps windowed and 8fps fullscreen, which tells you that this machine will struggle with AAA gaming, lacking the faster Iris Pro HD graphics.

It could appear pricey, but when compared against similar Apple MacBook Pro models it’s an absolute steal considerin­g the display resolution. The XPS13 retains its crown as the undisputed champion of the ultrabook market, but though the QHD+ screen is something to behold some people will prefer to settle for the better battery life of the Full HD version.

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The Linux laptop everyone talks about has been updated with USB C.
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