halting problem :: Laptop review

:: ~8 min read

For personal and work-related reasons I recently came into possession of two different laptops running Linux, and I decided to do a minimalistic review of both.

Dell XPS 13 (Developer Edition 2016)

After three and a half years with my trusty mid-2013 MacBook Air, I decided to get a new personal laptop. To be fair, my Air could have probably lasted another 12-18 months, even though its 8GB of RAM and Haswell Core i7 were starting to get pretty old for system development. The reason why I couldn’t keep using it reliably was that the SSD had already started showing SMART errors in January, and I already had to reset it and re-install from scratch once. Refurbishing the SSD out of warranty is still an option, if I decided to fork over a fair chunk of money and could live without a laptop for about a month1.

After getting recommendations for the previous XPS iterations by various other free software developers and Linux users, I waited until the new, Kaby Lake based model was available in the EU and ordered one. After struggling a bit with Dell’s website, I managed to get an XPS 13 with a US keyboard layout2 — which took about two weeks from order to delivery.

The hardware out of the box experience is pretty neat, with a nice, clean box; very Apple-like. The software’s first boot experience could be better, to say the least. Since I chose the Developer Edition, I got Ubuntu as the main OS instead of Windows, and I have been thoroughly underwhelmed by the effort spent by Dell and Canonical in polishing the software side of things. As soon as you boot the laptop, you’re greeted with an abstract video playing while the system does something. The video playback is not skippable, and does not have volume controls, so I got to “experience” it at full blast out of the speakers.

Ubuntu’s first boot experience UI to configure the machine is rudimentary, at best, and not really polished; it’s the installer UI without the actual installation bits, but it clearly hasn’t been refined for the HiDPI screen. The color scheme has progressively gone worse over the years; while all other OSes are trying to convey a theme of lightness using soft tones, the dark grey, purple, and dark orange tones used by Ubuntu make the whole UI seem heavier and oppressive.

After that, you get into Unity, and no matter how many times I try it, I still cannot enjoy using it. I also realized why various people coming from Ubuntu complain about the GNOME theme being too heavy on the whitespace: the Ubuntu default theme is super-compressed, with controls hugging together so closely that they almost seem to overlap. There is barely no affordance for the pointer, let alone for interacting through the touchscreen.

All in all, I resisted half a day on it, mostly to see what was the state of stock Ubuntu after many years of Fedora3. After that, I downloaded a Fedora 25 USB image and re-installed from scratch.

Sadly, I still have to report that Anaconda doesn’t shine at all. Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with dual booting, so I only needed to interact with the installer just enough to tell it to use the stock on disk layout and create the root user. Nevertheless, figuring out how to tell it to split my /home volume and encrypt it required me to go through the partitioning step three times because I couldn’t for the life of me understand how to commit to the layout I wanted.

After that, I was greeted by GNOME’s first boot experience — which is definitely more polished than Ubuntu’s, but it’s still a bit too “functional” and plain.

Fedora recognised the whole hardware platform out of the box: wifi, bluetooth, webcam, HiDPI screen. On the power management side, I was able to wring out about 8 hours of work (compilation, editing, web browsing, and a couple of Google hangouts) while on wifi, without having to plug in the AC.

Coming from years of Apple laptops, I was especially skeptical of the quality of the touchpad, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by its accuracy and feedback. It’s not MacBook-level, but it’s definitely the closest anyone has ever been to that slice of fried gold.

The only letdowns I can find are the position of the webcam, which is on the bottom of the panel and to the left, which makes for very dramatic angles when doing video calls, and requires you never type if you don’t want your fingers to be in the way; and the power brick, which has its own proprietary connector. There’s a USB-C port, though, so there may be provisions for powering the laptop through it.

The good

  • Fully supported hardware (Fedora 25)
  • Excellent battery life
  • Nice keyboard
  • Very good touchpad

The bad

  • The position of the webcam
  • Yet another power brick with custom connector I have to lug around

Lenovo Yoga

Thanks to my employer I now have a work laptop as well, in the shape of a Lenovo Yoga 900. I honestly crossed off Lenovo as a vendor after the vast amounts of stupidity they imposed on their clients — and that was after I decided to stop buying ThinkPad-branded laptops, given their declining build quality and bad technical choices. Nevertheless, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

The out of the box experience of the Yoga is very much on par with the one I had with the XPS, which is to say: fairly Apple-like.

The Yoga 900 is a fairly well made machine. It’s an Intel Sky Lake platform, with a nice screen and good components. The screen can fold and turn the whole thing into a “tablet”, except that the keyboard faces downward, so it’s weird to handle in that mode. Plus, a 13” tablet is a pretty big thing to carry around. On the other hand, folding the laptop into a “tent” and using an external keyboard and pointer device is a nice twist on the whole “home office” approach. The webcam is, thankfully, centered and placed at the top of the panel — something that Lenovo has apparently changed in the 910 model, when they realised that folding the laptop would put the webcam at the bottom of the panel.

On the software side, the first boot experience into Windows 10 was definitely less than stellar. The Lenovo FBE software was not HiDPI-aware, which posed interesting challenges to the user interaction. This is something that a simple bit of QA would have found out, but apparently QA is too much to ask when dealing with a £1000 laptop. Luckily, I had to deal with that only inasmuch as I needed to get and install the latest firmware updates before installing Linux on the machine. Again, I went for Fedora.

As in the case of the Dell XPS, Fedora recognised all components of the hardware plaform out of the box. Even the screen rotation and folding works out of the box — though it can still get into inconsistent states when you move the laptop around, so I kind of recommend you keep the screen rotation locked until you actually need it.

On the power management side, I was impressed by how well the sleep states conserve battery power; I’m able to leave the Yoga suspended for a week and still have power on resume. The power brick has a weird USB-like connector to the laptop which makes me wonder what on earth were Lenovo engineers thinking; on the other hand, the adapter has a USB port which means you can charge it from a battery pack or from a USB adapter as well. There’s also a USB-C port, but I still haven’t tested if I can put power through it.

The keyboard is probably the biggest let down; the travel distance and feel of the keys is definitely not up to par with the Dell XPS, or with the Apple keyboards. The 900 has an additional column of navigation keys on the right edge that invariably messes up my finger memory — though it seems that the 910 has moved them to Function key combinations.5 The power button is on the right side of the laptop, which makes for unintended suspend/resume cycles when trying to plug in the headphones, or when moving the laptop. The touchpad is, sadly, very much lacking, with ghost tap events that forced me to disable the middle-click emulation everywhere4.

The good

  • Fully supported hardware (Fedora 25)
  • Solid build
  • Nice flip action
  • Excellent power management

The bad

  • Keyboard is a toy
  • Touchpad is a pale imitation of a good pointing device

  1. Which may still happen, all things considered; I really like the Air as a travel laptop. 

  2. After almost a decade with US layouts I find the UK layout inferior to the point of inconvenience. 

  3. On my desktop machine/gaming rig I dual boot between Windows 10 and Ubuntu GNOME, mostly because of the nVidia GPU and Steam. 

  4. That also increased my hatred of the middle-click-to-paste-selection easter egg a thousandfold, and I already hated the damned thing so much that my rage burned with the intensity of a million suns. 

  5. Additionally, the keyboard layout is UK — see note 2 above. 

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