Thoughts on Dell XPS 13 as a developer laptop

Recently I started using a Dell XPS 13 9360. It has an i7 CPU and 256GB SSD so it seemed like it would be a great fit for doing development work and a significant upgrade over my old laptop which was a Lenovo Thinkpad Carbon X1 with an i5.

I chose the XPS 13 based on the pretty much unanimously glowing reviews to be found online:

Based on these reviews it seemed like a no-brainer to pick the XPS 13 over the equivalent Thinkpad Carbon X1 which was several hundred pounds more expensive.

The Dell sales experience is always pretty slick but once I got hold of the laptop and started trying to do real work with it my experience pretty quickly started to sour. Now I don’t want to suggest it’s a bad product, it clearly packs a lot of modern technology into a small package and is in many ways better specced than the Lenovo product I was looking at. The screen in particular is very nice, but beyond that I don’t have too much positive to say about it.

The Keyboard

This is the biggest problem for me. The keyboard is just nowhere near as good as the Lenovo. The key response is soft and the travel is low.

The two images above show the depth of the keys on the two laptops (Dell left, Lenovo right). The images don’t give an indication of the travel on the keys – the Lenovo is much firmer with a longer travel which to my hands is much more comfortable to type on. You can also see the Ctrl and Fn keys are swapped. This is an arbitrary choice but the Ctrl key on the Dell is also considerably smaller than the Lenovo and as an emacs user I really much prefer a larger Ctrl key as I’m hitting it a lot.

On the other side of the keyboard there is another awkward design choice. The PgUp and PgDn keys on the Dell require the Fn key to be pressed rather than standalone keys which makes them, in my opinion, quite useless. There’s even space on the keyboard that could have been used for physical keys like on the Thinkpad so this seems an odd choice.

When I’m working at home I use a Dell wireless keyboard which is something of an improvement over the laptop keyboard but still not in the same class as, for example, the Microsoft keyboards.

USB-C

The only graphical output available is USB-C. I bought a Dell monitor with the laptop but that doesn’t come with a usable cable. Adapter cables are available but they can be expensive so it seems unfortunate that Dell don’t help their customers with this. Technically USB-C is a more flexible connector than, for example, HDMI but this doesn’t seem to be practically useful with the current range of adapters on the market.

If you do presentations then you will also need to make sure you carry the right kind of adapter with you. Most venues will have adapters of HDMI and DisplayPort but I have yet to find anywhere that provides USB-C.

Webcam

The webcam is positioned underneath the screen, just above the Esc key. This is a really awkward place for a camera for video conferencing – it means that you will need to push your screen quite far back otherwise the picture is of your chest and even then the angle is quite odd with your correspondent getting the feeling of looking up your nose.

Performance

Going from a four year old laptop to a new one and switching from an i5 to i7 I was expecting a serious performance boost. However it doesn’t seem like in practical terms this actually happens, probably due to thermal throttling. My dmesg is full of messages like:

[1847368.552137] CPU1: Core temperature above threshold, cpu clock throttled (total events = 97580)
[1847368.552138] CPU3: Core temperature above threshold, cpu clock throttled (total events = 97581)
[1847368.552139] CPU2: Package temperature above threshold, cpu clock throttled (total events = 116408)
[1847368.552140] CPU0: Package temperature above threshold, cpu clock throttled (total events = 116405)
[1847368.552142] CPU3: Package temperature above threshold, cpu clock throttled (total events = 116407)
[1847368.552145] CPU1: Package temperature above threshold, cpu clock throttled (total events = 116405)

The fan is also very prone to coming on and is quite loud, so you have to get used to that noise if you’re going to do any number of builds.

Build Quality

Overall the Dell build quality feels weaker than the Lenovo. It starts with the body which is a mix of metal and plastic where the Carbon X1 feels like more of a single piece of material. The keys on the Dell are soft and slightly loose adding to the plasticky feel. The USB-C seems to be implicated in some singing capacitors – large amounts of output on the screen can be heard as a high-pitched tone.

I also am not much of a fan of the Dell power plugs (on the left, Lenovo right). For a UK plug they are very thin and the triangular shape makes them difficult to hold and apply any force to. It’s a small detail but I would much rather have the functional and solid plug that Lenovo supply.

Conclusion

I’ve raised a number of issues I have with the XPS 13 but it is still a decent laptop that packs a lot of modern tech in at a competitive price. However it still feels to me like a high-end mid-range laptop rather than a genuine contender to compete with the Thinkpad Carbon X1 or the Apple laptops and if you have the budget I would definitely recommend the Thinkpad even if the spec is a little bit lower.

 

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