Dell XPS 13 (L321X) - The review one year in the making

7 minute read

Around one year ago I was toying around with the idea of getting one of those Ultrabooks Intel was so much touting about. After a bit of research I decided to settle on the Dell XPS 13 because I was already a Dell customer and generally liked the build quality of their laptops and relatively friendly customer service.

Let me get this straight: the Dell XPS 13 is one of the most beautiful pieces of equipment around but it is executed the worst possible way an hardware company can do. It is plagued with problems and it will make you reflect whether you participated in an expensive pilot program or where downright scammed.

But first a word of caution: if you are in the market looking to shop for an Ultrabook be advised that there exist two major “revisions” of the Dell XPS 13: the L321X, the one I bought, and the L322X which at the time of writing ships with a 1080p IPS screen, 256 GB SSD, 8 Gb of Ram and an i7 Ivy Bridge CPU for roughly the same price. The one I’m talking about is the L321X (it is not a Sputnik) or as I like to call it: the hapless cousin of a good laptop.

I spent 1158.49 € to bring this sucker home, shipping and VAT included.

First impression matters

The XPS 13 certainly makes for a very good first impression. The amount of fit and finish and the choice of materials is remarkable for an high-end non-Apple product, even though it’s clear where they took inspiration from. Being the “I won’t buy Apple stuff” guy I was met with puzzled looks by my friends at this year’s FOSDEM, until they realized my laptop really wasn’t a Macbook Air.

The lid is made of brushed aluminum with a non-backlit Dell logo right in the centre, while the base is made of carbon fiber contributing to its overall freshness during operation. You will hardly notice heat if you keep it on your lap.

The palm rest and keyboard area are made of a rubberized and black material which is very comfortable to the touch even if really prone to catch smears and fingerprints and it’s one the main reasons I carry around a microfiber cloth. The same applies to the touch-pad which shares the colours with its surroundings even though it is made of glass.

The backlit keyboard is really one of the best I have ever used and in my opinion it matches the one found on those Lenovo Thinkpads. Keys are sculpted and spaced nicely and they have a nice feeling and spring to them. The keyboard never ever flexed while I was using it.

The monitor area is gorgeous with edge to edge Gorilla Glass and small holes at the top for a camera and two microphones, one of which is used for noise cancellation.

Over all, build quality is superb. Even though it inherits from Apple’s design school, the choice of materials and colours gives it a unique look and its a nice departure from “high end laptops” made of polycarbonate.

… Only to let you down in the end

As you turn it on, however, all its defects become apparent.

Let’s start with the display. It is so bad it feels like a joke. I would have expected something more than a TN display with a ridiculous resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels. Viewing angles are bad, only matched by my previous off-the-shelf HP dv6 laptop. Brightness and contrast are even worse, especially if you factor in that after some time, brighter spots appeared in various areas of the display, a clear sign that the backlight matrix was slowly starting to fall apart.

Next is the wireless card. It’s either awful or badly configured. My model came with a Centrino Wireless Advanced-N 6320 module which kinda works but has a difficult time keeping a stable connection to a WiFi AP. For example, at my workplace, I would experience between 100ms - 4000ms RTT pinging Google’s DNS servers. Needless to say, I’m the only one in the office experiencing these problems. My colleagues with the L322X tell me it just works for them.

Additionally, you’ll experience problems with thermal management and the BIOS. Its first revision made the fan spin continuously, producing a lot of noise. Dell published several updates culminating in the A05 revision which resulted in 768 MB of RAM out of 4 GB apparently being reserved to the GPU. As of today, at revision A08, the problem is still not fixed and I’m either left with a noisy laptop or one unusable for software development. I had to downgrade to version A04 because I value the ability to run PyCharm a little more than quietness, though I’d like to have both since this is really a stupid bug in their BIOS code.

Another problem seems to stem from broken ACPI tables or whatever dreadful thing lives in their BIOS code: backlight buttons don’t work by default unless a patch is applied to the Linux kernel or an ugly work-around is performed at each power/suspend-resume cycle. I would like to note that Windows 8 is even in a worse position here: the buttons work but it cycles between only three brightness levels without ever reaching maximum brightness.

But problems don’t end here: the Cypress trackpad is badly supported both in Linux and Windows and for a while you had to use a Linux kernel package coming from a PPA, thus, you had to choose between a working trackpad or improved battery life (since newer kernels usually had some more power saving tweaks).

EDIT: The two problems above were resolved in Ubuntu’s 3.8 kernel which ships with all the required patches back-ported from mainline Linux and will be installed by default starting with Ubuntu 12.04.3 (and of course 13.04, upon which the backported kernel is based). Also the trackpad driver is so much better on Ubuntu than Windows.

As a closing remark I would like to add that, despite claims, the battery doesn’t last the 8 hours as shown on Dell website. On a good day I get around 3:30-4 hours but I can squeeze around 5 hours of lightweight browsing with a dim light and a plethora of power saving tricks (thanks to laptop- mode-tools and powertop). On Windows the battery performs roughly the same, so Linux is not to blame here.

Broken promises

I bought this laptop expecting excellent Linux (Ubuntu 12.04) support. Canonical and Dell marketed their Sputnik initiative with so much fanfare that I was convinced to buy it.

What I found out instead was a laptop which suffered all kind of problems and incompatibilities with Linux. I feel like a guinea pig which paid to enter an expensive laptop beta testing program, which resulted in the Sputnik 2, aka the “Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition”, the L322X revision I mentioned multiple times now, which is now certified to run Ubuntu.

Anyhow, I feel ripped off and scammed. The sour taste in my mouth is still there and I will think again about trusting Canonical and Dell in the future. Had I bought the MacBook Air, I would have saved so much frustration and time and would have had a much better laptop. I estimated that, with all the pain I endured and the time I wasted fixing its idiosyncrasies, the XPS 13 costed me around 400€ more than the equivalent Air available at the time.

Positive side notes

The laptop is very hackable and user-serviceable: almost every component, except for the RAM, can be swapped out and replaced. I had opened it and messed around multiple times with no problems whatsoever. They even tell you how to do so with a dedicated manual.

Conclusion

If you are shopping around for an Ultrabook and don’t want to give money to Apple, make sure to grab the L322X, it’s a much better laptop than the L321X I bought.

Otherwise, if you are going to spend more than one thousand Euros on an laptop, the MacBook Air is certainly a better value proposition, even more now that they have released the Haswell-equipped models with the incredible battery life that comes with them.

Friendly advice to laptop makers (Dell included)

You are supposed to thoroughly test your stuff before selling it, regardless of whether it runs Linux or Windows. Given the glaring problems your laptop had with Windows, too, it is clear that you didn’t do your homework. C-