Technology

Dell XPS 13 and XPS 13 Developer Edition—side-by-side review

Enlarge / On the left, we have the XPS 13 Developer Edition running Ubuntu 18.04. On the right, a regular XPS 13 running Windows 10 Pro.Jim Salter

We spent this weekend going hands-on with a pair of 2020 model Dell XPS 13 laptops—one standard edition running Windows 10 Pro, and one Developer Edition running Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. The XPS 13 is among Dell's most popular models, and for good reason—it's a sleek, solid-feeling laptop that usually has top-of-the-line hardware and good battery life.

Unfortunately, both of the XPS 13 models we tested had driver issues—particularly the Windows laptop, which has a Killer AX1650 Wi-Fi card.

Hardware

Specs at a glance: Dell XPS 13 2020 model, as reviewed
XPS 13XPS 13 Developer Edition
OSWindows 10 HomeUbuntu 18.04 LTS
Screen13.4-inch FHD+ (1920×1200) touchscreen13.4-inch UHD+ (3840×2400) touchscreen
CPUIntel Core i7-1065G7
GPUIntel Iris+
RAM16GiB32GiB
HDDIntel 512GB NVMe SSDHynix 512GB NVMe SSD
NetworkingKiller AX1650 Wi-Fi 6 (2×2),
Bluetooth 4.2
Ports2 x Thunderbolt 3, 1 x 3.5mm headphone jack,
1 x microSD card reader
Size11.6×7.8×0.58 inches (296×199×15mm)
Weight2.7 pounds (1.2kg)2.8 pounds (1.3kg)
Battery52Wh battery
Warranty1 year on-site (after remote diagnosis)
ExtrasFingerprint reader (in power button),
720P IR camera, backlit keyboard
Price as tested$1,617 at Dell$2,000 at Dell

The XPS 13 is a small, sleek, very solid-feeling laptop with a bright screen and very narrow bezels. It doesn't offer much in the way of connectivity—there's no Ethernet jack, no HDMI port, and no USB-A port either.

The laptop does offer one Thunderbolt port on either side, so you can get just about anything connected with the appropriate dongle—but unless you buy a Thunderbolt or USB-C dock, you'll only be able to connect one of whatever it is, since the other Thunderbolt port will be occupied by the charger.

There is a separate 3.5mm audio jack, so XPS 13 users will be able to connect a set of old-school wired headphones without eating up a Thunderbolt port in the process.

Both models we tested came with touchscreens, and they seem adequate—though we did not test with a stylus, since neither laptop came with one.

Impressions—Windows

  • Dell seems to be taking styling tips from Lando Calrissian—this laptop would fit right into the Cloud City of Bespin's decor. Jim Salter
  • The XPS 13 comes with a power adapter and cord, a choice of additional compact adapter or short additional cord, and a USB-C to USB-A dongle. Jim Salter
  • The right side of the XPS 13 offers one Thunderbolt port and one 3.5mm headphone jack. Jim Salter
  • On the left side, there's another Thunderbolt port, and a microSD card reader slot. Jim Salter

Dell XPS 13 (2020) and XPS 13 DE (2020) product image

Dell XPS 13 (2020) and XPS 13 DE (2020)

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This year's XPS 13 is the first Ice Lake laptop we've had the chance to go hands-on with. We started by testing the standard XPS 13 with Windows Home on it—and at first, the device seemed more like it was powered by an 8-year-old Celeron than a brand-new 10th generation Core i7.

Everything about operating the XPS 13 was sluggish—windows were reluctant to open, applications were glacially slow, and the fans went all the way up to 11, complete with a nasty metallic whine. Tracking down the problem drove us berserk—while Resource Monitor showed lots of CPU and disk activity, it didn't attribute the CPU activity to any process or service.

MS Office Click-to-Run went through a relatively brief spike of 1GiB/sec disk activity, which certainly didn't help—but after the Click-to-Run process had done its thing and settled down again, the CPU was still thrashing to 100 percent usage on all eight available threads of the Ice Lake CPU. It turns out that the problem was the "Killer Control Center"—a software application associated with the Killer AX1650 Wi-Fi card.

  • The Killer control center lets you set Quality of Service profiles for the network traffic on your laptop. In theory, this makes your games more responsive. Jim Salter
  • Can you spot the point in time at which we terminated the Killer Control Center process? Jim Salter
  • Downloading and running the Intel AX200 driver executable makes the driver available, but that doesn't replace the Killer driver. You need to do that manually. Jim Salter
  • Presto! Our Killer AX1650 Wi-Fi card is now a plain-old Intel AX200 Wi-Fi card, as far as our operating system knows or cares. Jim Salter
  • With the Killer driver replaced as well as the Killer Control Center stopped, CPU usage falls down to normal levels. Jim Salter

Killing the Killer Center took CPU usage down from 100 percent on all eight threads to about 30 percent total, spread across the four physical cores. This was enough for the fans to spin down considerably and make the laptop usable—but there was still more room for improvement.

Luckily, we already knew that the Killer AX1650 shares the same physical hardware with a simple Intel AX200. So after downloading the vanilla AX200 drivers from Intel's site and running the installer, we were able to forcibly replace the Killer driver with the Intel driver—which brought CPU usage the rest of the way down to what it should be, well under 10 percent.

With the Killer killed, the XPS 13 is a laptop transformed. The Ice Lake i7-1065G7 is a high-end CPU, and it feels that way—we think most people shopping Intel laptops should be looking for Ice Lake CPUs like the 1065G7 rather than their Comet Lake equivalents, which are hotter, consume more power, and have inferior graphics.

If your only experience with a new laptop this year is an Ice Lake laptop, you'll probably be impressed. But this wasn't our first 2020 laptop experience—and the i7-1065G7 is a far cry from the Ryzen 9 4800HS we tested last month in the ASUS Zephyrus G14.

The XPS 13 did score far better for battery life than the Zephyrus G14 did, though. It got a PCMark 10 Modern Office battery life score of 14 hours 11 minutes, comparing to the G14's 9 hours 35 minutes. This likely has a lot to do with this review unit's FHD+ display rather than 4K UHD+; with the 4K UHD+, we'd expect the Modern Office score to drop significantly.

Impressions—Ubuntu

  • It still feels a little odd being asked to accept corporate terms of service when starting Ubuntu on a new system. Jim Salter
  • If you skip through the creation of recovery media in the initial setup wizard, you can find Dell Recovery in the Launcher later. Jim Salter
  • Dell's OEM Ubuntu disk layout has a recovery partition for restoring your XPS 13 DE to factory state. Jim Salter

Physically, the only difference between the XPS 13 Developer Edition and the plain-vanilla XPS 13 we had already tested is the color—where the Windows system had the optional, $50 more expensive "Alpine White" interior, the Developer Edition system used the standard "Black."

In theory, the outsides are different, too—the Windows machine's exterior was "Frost White" and the Linux machine's is "Platinum Silver." But in most lighting, you'd be hard pressed to tell the two apart without opening them up.

There were some significant hardware differences, as well—you can't buy the regular XPS 13 with more than 16GiB RAM in it, while the XPS 13 Developer Edition can be spec'd up to 32GiB. Our particular XPS 13 DE also had a 4K UHD+ touchscreen, instead of the 1920×1200 FHD+ touchscreen on our Windows system—but that, like the color, can be configured the same on either version.

The XPS 13 Developer Edition came pre-loaded with Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, and for the most part, it's pretty standard and won't offer experienced Ubuntu users any surprises. It still feels strange to click through acceptance of Dell's corporate Terms of Service on first run—and seeing a 6GiB FAT32 recovery partition is a little odd, too.

  • Dell's "Linux Assistant" offers very basic hardware information and user registration. Jim Salter
  • The System Information isn't very informative. Ubuntu 18.04's "About" offers similar information. Jim Salter
  • We're not sure why user registration needed an app instead of just a link to a Web form. Jim Salter
  • Dell Recovery allows factory restore using the 6GiB restore partition, or creation of install media (USB or DVD). Jim Salter

Most users will likely never see the two Dell applications bundled with the XPS 13 DE—the "Dell Linux Assistant" and Dell Recovery. Dell Recovery allows the user to either roll the system back to a factory-fresh state using the 6GiB FAT32 partition at the top of the SSD, or it allows users to create a full set of OS installation media onto either USB disk or DVD.

The Dell Linux Assistant isn't particularly helpful, and why it was included is a bit of a mystery. It offers two options—System Information and User Registration—and clicking either option resulted in a 17-second wait (yes, we counted) during which nothing whatsoever happens. That gives you the opportunity to wonder if you mis-clicked or the app locked up. But no—it's just that slow.

After 17 Mississippis, you get either a terse set of hardware information—roughly equivalent to Ubuntu 18.04's About screen and inferior to 20.04's—or you get a simple form to fill in your information. We're not sure why this app is so sluggish, why it's limited to such a tiny amount of screen real estate, or why the User Registration wasn't just a shortcut to a website.

  • Google Chrome wasn't properly installed in the OEM loadout, as witnessed by the GPG error thrown during "apt update." Jim Salter
  • We fixed the error by browsing to Chrome's own download page and running the installer from there. Jim Salter Read More – Source

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