Installing Linux on a laptop is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to adoption of the OS. After all, taking a perfectly good PC, nuking Windows, and replacing it with an unfamiliar OS can seem a lot like performing open-heart surgery to an inexperienced user. When you take into account that there are precious few laptops with Linux preinstalled, it’s no wonder that desktop Linux adoption numbers are so grim. (There are other reasons too, but I won’t go into those here.)
One of the few laptops to come correct with a Linux OS is Dell’s XPS 13 Developer Edition. I got a chance to benchmark the 2015 model a few months ago, and really enjoyed playing with the little ultrabook. Physically, it’s virtually identical to the consumer version of the XPS 13, only it came loaded with Ubuntu 14.04. Flash forward, and Dell has updated its Developer Edition with Intel’s Kaby Lake CPU and Ubuntu 16.04. I have to say, there’s not much to dislike about the revamp.
(If you’re curious, Gordon Ung put a Core i5-equipped Windows model of the 2016 XPS 13 through its paces, too.)
The move to Intel’s Kaby Lake line of CPUs is the most notable hardware change in the new XPS 13. The model I tested came with an i7-7500U, which out of the box offers a 500MHz jump in base frequency over the i7-6560U Skylake-based CPU in the previous model, and 300MHz more in turbo frequency, while staying at a cool 15W of TDP (or thermal output). What’s interesting to note is that you get this extra power at the high-end with extra efficiency.
When the CPU isn’t under heavy load, it’s able to pull back on the throttle to save power. (This is called configurable TDP-down.) Using this technology, the 6560U in the previous model could be set to sip power with a TDP of 9.5W. The 7500U in the new model goes down even further to 7.5W, netting 2W of efficiency.
The other big hardware shift worth noting is the move away from Intel’s Wi-Fi to Qualcomm’s. The previous model had an Intel 8260 wireless card, for good reason: Intel’s Wi-Fi implementations have been well-supported in the Linux kernel for some time. And that’s no small thing. Wireless hardware support on Linux was still a headache as recently as 2014 (and a target of ridicule from Windows users I know), which made hardware (read: laptop) selection a big deal back then. Seeing as the older XPS 13 model shipped with Ubuntu 14.04 and the 3.19 kernel, the Intel wireless card made sense.
The new XPS 13 ships with Ubuntu 16.04 and the 4.4 kernel. The Linux 4.4 kernel has better support for the ath10k driver, which opened more choices for Dell, hence Qualcomm’s Atheros QCA6174. Unless you’re getting a really exotic laptop, there’s a very good chance that any laptop you buy has either a Qualcomm or Intel Wireless chip in it. Improved support for newer Qualcomm hardware means that Linux users can feel a lot more confident in their choices of wireless hardware.
When it came time to test the new XPS 13, I opened up Phoronix Test Suite to run the same tests I did with the 2015 machine. In just about every test, the Kaby Lake model outperformed its Skylake-based sibling, as should be expected given the extra 300MHz it has to work with in its turbo range.
I was most surprised by its performance in Unigine Heaven, which tests game-like graphics rendering. (For the record, 3DMark is DirectX-based and won’t run natively in Linux.) The XPS 13 is not billed as a gaming PC, and only managed 8.1 frames per second on average in my testing. As bad as that sounds, that’s about 2.3 frames per second faster than the older model. What’s surprising here is that the i7-7500U’s integrated graphics are inferior to the i7-6560U’s on paper. (The 7500U has HD Graphics 620, while the 6560U has Iris Graphics 540.) I also noticed that the actual render quality of the 7500U had fewer errors and looked a lot better.
In more mainstream computing tasks, the updated XPS 13 did very well. While playing (decoding) H.264 video, the new XPS 13 had slightly less CPU utilization than the previous model. When encoding, the two CPUs performed about the same.
In number-crunching tests, the Kaby Lake CPU showed some really good numbers. The laptop compressed a 2GB file with Gzip about 12.7 percent (around 2 seconds) faster than the previous model. Compiling the Linux kernel and encoding a WAV file to FLAC was 12 percent (about 30 seconds) and 25 percent (about 1.9 seconds) faster, respectively.
I ran a basic battery rundown test as well by playing a 1080p H.264 file on a loop with VLC. On the first run, I left the brightness at full (about 400 nits). Even with the screen pushing out photons at full power and the Wi-Fi enabled, the battery held out for 321 minutes (about 5 hours, 21 minutes)—nothing special, but long enough for a flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta. I ran the same test again with PowerTop installed and the screen brightness reduced by half (about 200 nits), which yielded 392 minutes (about 6 hours, 32 minutes), or an additional hour of time. At 200 nits, the screen is still plenty bright, and could be usable at even lower settings.
You can get yet longer life by enabling screen dimming and other power-saving options if you like, but I turned off those options for testing. (It’s a bit pointless to run a movie on loop with the screen dimmed or turned off.) I also had to keep the Wi-Fi radio up and running for the test, which was run by having another PC ping the XPS 13 until its IP became unreachable.
One of the great things about Linux is that you can run it on old hardware. But that doesn’t mean Linux users can’t have great new PCs too. The Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition is a fantastic little PC that is a joy to work on, and is designed to run Linux. If you’ve wanted a Linux laptop but can’t stand fighting with unsupported hardware, the XPS 13 is the best (dare I say, only?) Linux laptop you’ll find from a mainstream manufacturer.
While the Skylake-based XPS 13 from a couple years ago is still a great PC, the 2016 model offers a little more efficiency and power in the same package.
This article has been updated to include results from a battery run-down test with power-saving settings enabled and reduced screen brightness.