Niall’s virtual diary archives – Saturday 08 June 2019

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Saturday 8 June 2019: 00:54. My new Dell XPS 13 9380 arrived earlier this week. Interestingly, they are manufactured to order, so literally minutes after they take payment from you on the Dell website, your new laptop according to your chosen spec goes into production, and a few hours later after QA testing, it gets dispatched straight to a courier to deliver it to you. You can watch the tracking, straight from the Chinese factory (Compal is the ODM manufacturer for the Dell XPS 13), right to your door. Food for thought, given recent rising trade war tensions!

I bought the Ubuntu rather than Windows edition, as it’s €100 cheaper and I have a licensed Windows I’ll be taking off this Macbook on which I am currently typing, probably for one of the last times (its contents are currently being duplicated onto my ZFS storage array, from where it will be copied onto the Dell). I was also aware, from research, that the Ubuntu edition has a higher chance of arriving with Samsung rather than Toshiba NVMe storage (you really want the Samsung), and the Sharp rather than OU Optronics 4k display panel (again, you really want the Sharp panel). What you lose is the fingerprint reader built into the power button, which doesn’t work in Linux anyway because the assholes encrypted the USB stream and refuse to let anyone use it. So as much as fingerprint login would indeed have been nice, I expect I’ll be awaiting a few years more yet (the fingerprint reader on the MacBook didn’t work in Windows).

I’m glad to report that my Dell does indeed have a 512Gb Samsung NVMe drive, and the 4k Sharp panel. The Samsung drive is an OEM edition of the 970 EVO, and it is very fast indeed, at least for the first 20Gb of sustained writes. As for the 4k Sharp panel, when I first logged into Ubuntu I found it deliberately drops the resolution to 1080p, which is exactly one quarter of the 4k panel (video still renders at 4k). This turns out to be the fault of GNOME, which I dislike anyway, so upon installing KDE and telling KDE to triple the size of the fonts, voilà, there is my 4k GUI.

And it looks very nice indeed. I downloaded some 4k HDR content, played it back, noticed that it does struggle a little with keeping the framerate smooth for 4k content @ 60 fps. Probably fixable if I tinkered with the Intel drivers, the video is actually being decoded and rendered in hardware by the onboard Intel graphics chip, and I’m very sure it’s a driver issue. 4k content @ 30 fps is absolutely fine.

However, the content doesn’t actually render in HDR. Turns out that Linux is still not capable of rendering HDR content, unless you’re on Wayland instead of Xorg. I tried Wayland, and it was a disaster. Far too slow to keep up, at least in Ubuntu 18.04.

That prompted me to install Windows which I needed to do anyway, and after a lot of head scratching I discovered that Microsoft have removed the HDR video codecs from the latest Windows, if you install it clean. If you upgraded, the HDR codecs remain. Arse, and hardly intuitive. No helpful error messages, just a black screen. Thank you Microsoft. I ended up falling back to VideoLAN, whose latest version has direct support for Intel onboard graphics decode of HEVC HDR 4k content, and the HDR videos there played just fine, and in glorious HDR.

What looked merely very nice indeed in Linux now looks glorious. This is a better display, by quite some margin, than my 2016 MacBook. It’s not just the colours, and the ‘pop’ of the HDR video. It’s also simple stuff like text – the MacBook is no slouch with its 2.5k resolution panel. But text, and fonts, on the 3.8k Dell panel are noticeably sharper and clearer, as much as the +50% extra pixels would suggest. Text looks like a printed page, whereas on the MacBook text looks quite fuzzy in comparison, even when not comparing side by side.

So on the display panel at least, the Dell wins by a long shot, though it is much less verticially high, 16:9 ratio instead of 16:10, which is a noticeable regression. Using the machine I find it noticeably snappier, whether that’s simply a fresh Windows installation, or the four core CPU rather than two core CPU, I cannot say. But on every other factor, the Dell is inferior. Wifi is 2x2 11ac rather than 3x3, so bulk transfers over Wifi take a good bit longer. The keyboard backlighting has two stops, 100% or 50%, unlike the graduated MacBook backlighting. The Dell screen won’t drop anything like as low in brightness, making it annoyingly bright to use in a dark room. The keyboard, whilst better than average, isn’t as nice to type on as the MacBook’s, though undoubtedly much more reliable. The touchpad isn’t a patch on the MacBook’s world class pressure sensitive huge area with its famous faked ‘clicking’. Battery life is perhaps seven hours, instead of nine hours.

And perhaps the biggest delta of them all is the laptop speakers. The Dell’s are not awful speakers. But they’re in a different league to the MacBook’s speakers. Even in Bootcamp Windows where the bass mysteriously disappears, the MacBook has far better speakers than the Dell. And if booted into MacOS, it’s not even a meaningful comparison between the two, the MacBook’s speakers are a world away from the Dell’s, particularly in the bass and high ends, which the Dell’s speakers don’t appear to emit at all. Don’t get me wrong, the Dell’s speakers sound as good as a high end phone, like my HTC 10. They are good speakers, for a laptop. But they’re night and day to the MacBook Pro’s speakers, which make an honest attempt at actually replicating faithfully the source audio, even if falling far short of headphones.

So, as anticipated before purchase, the Dell XPS 9380 is indeed inferior to the MacBook Pro on most counts, even a 2016 MacBook Pro. But, then again, it does cost 60% less.

Returning to Ubuntu, when I first started using it on the Dell I was like “wow hasn’t Linux become so mature”. But then I used Windows on the same hardware, and yes, Linux is better on a laptop than it has ever been. But it’s still inferior to Windows on the same hardware. 4k HDR video @ 60 fps after all, but also Windows got the 4k display correct out of the box. That said, Linux power efficiency is finally commensurate with Windows. I spent a fair few hours trying to tweak the Linux config for improved power consumption, i915.enable_psr and all that, and I actually found all the internet advice (for older editions of the XPS) is actually a pessimisation. The only kernel setting which is worth applying, according to my empirical testing, is “mem_sleep_default=deep” which forces S3 rather than S1 for sleeping the laptop. This reduces battery drain when the laptop is ‘off’ in Linux very markedly, perhaps roughly half by my measurements. Not as good as on Windows, but not dissimilar. And far away from the battery draining completely within a day, like it was before.

Other than that, all the other parameters I fiddled with didn’t seem to make any empirical difference. Well done Dell on finally shipping an Ubuntu with your laptops that is reasonably customised to the hardware quirks that you are shipping!

This MacBook Pro, after being securely wiped and factory reset, shall be heading off back to Apple to get its keyboard and panel display power cable replaced under Apple’s product defect remediation programme. After that, it’ll be heading to eBay to recoup as much money as I can get for it to offset the purchase of the Dell laptop.

I don’t regret buying the MacBook. I got three years of a pretty good laptop experience for about €1000 of depreciation. It was the best ultra portable laptop at the time, and probably still is today. But as mentioned in my previous posts on this topic, the Dell XPS 13 is far, far closer to a MacBook Pro than it was, and for much less money. From my first week with the XPS 13 9380, I am currently finding the downgrade to be eminently worth the money saved. The Dell is a better bang for the buck laptop. And oh my, that 4k display really is quite something to behold, even with its dire impact on battery life and graphics performance. After all, most of what you do with a laptop other than typing and touchpadding is looking at the thing. Plus no more paranoid hygine around the keyboard, I just ate a slice of toast there two meters away from the MacBook keyboard, for fear of jamming the thing up again. Once I’m onto the Dell, I can return to relaxation, eat when watching movies etc. For an estimated €700 of depreciation over the next three years, so far all is looking well!

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