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Dell’s 2019 XPS 13 DE: As close as we currently get to Linux-computing nirvana

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Dell’s XPS 13 Developer Edition, the company’s flagship “just works” Ubuntu-based machine, was recently refreshed. These days Dell’s XPS line is not the cheapest Linux option, nor is it the most configurable or user-upgradable. And if any of those factors are a big part of your criteria, this is likely not the laptop for you.

On top of that, many Linux users still have a strong DIY streak and will turn up their noses at the XPS 13. After all, in a day and age when just about every laptop I test seems to run Linux fairly well right out of the box, do you need official support? If you know what you’re doing and don’t mind troubleshooting your own problems, the answer is probably not.

Yet after spending a few weeks with the latest XPS 13 (the fourth refresh I’ve tested), it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is the closest any company has come to Linux-computing nirvana. The XPS 13 Developer Edition makes an excellent choice for anyone who prefers Linux but wants hardware support from the manufacturer. All these years into its Linux odyssey, Dell continues to stand behind the operating system on these machines in a way that, in my experience, few other computer makers do.

So if you want a computer that runs smoothly and for which you can pick up the phone and get help should you need it, the Dell XPS 13 remains one of the best options out there (maybe regardless of your OS preference). It doesn’t hurt, either, that the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition is also a great-looking, solidly built piece of hardware. If you dream of a Linux rig that “just works” and comes in a powerful, minimalist package that weighs a mere 2.7lbs, the XPS 13 Developer Edition fits the bill.

But wait, which XPS 13 DE to get?

In early 2020, the decision gets confusing as to which Dell XPS 13 to consider. To judge by the number of machines and models available, Dell’s Project Sputnik—the company’s long-running effort to bring Ubuntu-based hardware to the masses—has been an unqualified success. Not only are there more models and configurations than ever, Dell keeps churning out hardware updates, usually on pace with the Windows models.

That’s no small feat considering that this hardware has to undergo a completely different set of compatibility tests from the Windows machines. To be fair, some features have lagged behind in the Linux models; the fingerprint reader is a good example. The Windows version of the XPS 13 released in early 2019 features a fingerprint reader on the power button. The same feature has not been available in the Linux edition until now.

While I was testing the late 2019 Developer Edition update, Dell announced another update. The new 2020 version (the 10th-gen XPS 13 Developer Edition for those of you keeping track), gets Ice Lake processors with Gen11 graphics and a new larger screen. This 2020 Developer Edition will also be available with up to 32GB of RAM, up from 16GB in the model I tested. Better late than never, support for the fingerprint reader is also coming. It won’t be available at launch in mid-February, but Dell says that support will arrive soon after.

As the company has in the past, Dell will continue to sell both the new and previous XPS 13 DE releases this year—this time the two devices just happen to go live four months apart (the 2019 in November; the 2020 this month). Laptop seekers need to know their model numbers: the late 2019 release I primarily tested is the 7390, and the coming 2020 version is the 9300 (yes, Dell told me the model numbers start over at 9300 in 2020—the same model number used in 2016).

Luckily, I had a chance to play with the new 9300 hardware recently at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Linux fans will be happy to know: it had a prominent spot on the display, right next to the Windows version.) Even a small amount of in-person tinkering time allows me to make some notable comparisons with the 2019 model.

Enlarge / Dell’s 2020 CES lineup: two of the new XPS 13 laptops next to the new XPS 13 Developer Edition laptop (in black).

Valentina Palladino

What’s new: 2019 version v. 2020 version

The XPS 13 line has stuck with largely the same design since it launched. The bezel seems to always diminish by some nearly immeasurable amount, but otherwise the hardware has looked about the same for years now. The 2019 model is no exception to this trend. Side by, side it’s impossible to tell apart from the 2018 model I own, save for one little detail: no more nose cam.

As Ars noted last year when the Windows model was released, the webcam is no longer at the base of the screen staring straight up your nose. Instead the webcam is where it belongs, at the top of the screen.

The iteration of the XPS 13 line I’ve been testing features Intel’s Comet Lake 6-core i7-10710U processor. It’s a marginal step up from the previous version, but in outside benchmarks I haven’t really noticed a huge speed increase. What I have noticed is that this version runs consistently cooler than my 2018 version (both running Ubuntu 18.04).

So what of those two extra cores? It may not sound like much, but if you push your processor (whether editing video, gaming, or compiling software), you’re going to want six cores. I happened to be editing a video while reviewing this laptop, and, using Lightworks, what took 38 minutes to export on my 2018 XPS 13 took a mere 19 minutes on the Comet Lake chip.

The model Dell sent for testing had the max 16GB of RAM and a 1TB solid state drive. As configured, the test machine would set you back $1,899.99. The lowest model, which has the 1080p display, an i5 chip, 128GB SSD, and only 8GB of RAM, can be had for $975.

The build quality hasn’t changed, and the XPS 13 remains a solidly built machine. The construction is excellent, and the underlying aluminum frame provides a stiffness that makes it feel solid even though it’s so light. The finish holds up quite well, too. My 2018 model has bounced around in my bag, slid across many a table, and scraped over tile counters in the kitchen all without leaving many marks. I expect the same will be true of the latest model.

Though I’ve been using one for years now, the XPS 13’s InfinityEdge display still amazes me, too. No, it’s not OLED, but it manages to pack a 13-inch screen into a body that otherwise looks and feels more like an 11-inch laptop. Dell has always sent me the version with the 4K IPS touch panel. You can get the XPS 13 with a 1920×1080 screen, and it will get better battery life (more on that in a minute), but I think the higher res display is worth the extra money.

Previously there were quite a few pain points with HiDPI screens in Ubuntu, but that’s largely a thing of the past. The grub menu and boot screens are still impossibly small, and every now and then there’s an app that doesn’t scale properly—Zoom, I’m looking at you here. But by and large, the combination of work done by the GNOME project, Ubuntu, and Dell has sorted out these issues.

I do find the brightest setting to be overwhelming when working indoors (the XPS 13 maxes out at 472 nits brightness), though it does mitigate the glare somewhat if you’re working outside. For me, I’d say this is a screen you want to keep indoors—it’s very high gloss, and glare is an issue outside. I tend to keep the screen at 70-percent brightness, which helps with battery life and is still plenty bright.

As for the 2020 version of the XPS 13 Developer Edition, again it features 10th-generation Intel Core 10nm mobile processors along with a new, larger display.

That new screen is one of those “of course” changes. Once you see it, you’ll wonder why it wasn’t that way from the beginning. Gone is the Dell logo that used to grace the wider bottom bezel. Instead, you get more screen real estate with a new 16:10 aspect ratio (up from 16:9 on the 2019 and prior models).

It’s a small gain, but at this screen size, frankly, anything is welcome. For that alone, I would pick the 2020 model over the 2019 version (model 7390). But evidently the dimensions of the XPS 13 have been tweaked slightly as well. I couldn’t tell much difference holding it, but the keyboard keys are noticeably bigger. They’re also somewhat springier than previous versions (no, thankfully it’s not the same as the 2-in-1 model the Internet loves to hate on).

Listing image by Dell

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Chairs Technica: We review two new models from Anda Seat

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Last October, we reviewed a pair of gaming / home office chairs—Secretlab’s Omega and Anda Seat’s more explicitly gaming-themed Fnatic. After several weeks of daily use, the Anda Fnatic took the crown for “favorite chair in the Salter household”—so when Anda offered two more models for review, we snapped them up.

Those two models are the Kaiser 2 and T-Pro 2, neither of which has an explicit esports team affiliation like the Anda Fnatic’s. This means a more austere appearance—particularly in the case of the T-Pro 2, which doesn’t share the Fnatic and Kaiser 2’s neck-height “wings.” Much like the Fnatic, these are excellent chairs—but having all three on hand at once made it clear how important picking the right chair for you and your body really is.

Unboxing and assembly

Assembling the Fnatic, Kaiser 2, and T-Pro 2 chairs all follows the same, simple blueprint:

  • Stuff the wheels into the five-lobed star base
  • Drop the piston into the star base
  • Drop the piston dust cap onto the piston
  • Bolt the arms to the seat
  • Bolt the seat back to the seat
  • Bolt the soft plastic dust cover over the exposed seat back bolts
  • Bolt the height adjuster to the bottom of the seat base
  • Drop the assembled seat onto the piston in the base
  • c h a i r

This is a simple process, and none of it is physically demanding; I completed it without a helper in 10 minutes or less, including picture-taking, for each of the three Anda models I assembled. The included hex key is a sufficient tool for the job—although it’s a little annoying that each end is a different size, due to the different heads on the dust cover bolts versus the rest of them. If you’ve got your own set of hex keys / Allen wrenches, you may prefer to use it for the bolts on the seat back to avoid nudging the seat arms.

If Anda has more than one version of their assembly manual, I haven’t seen it—despite looking nothing like the Kaiser 2 or Fnatic, the T-Pro 2 came with the same manual, showing a chair with neck-level “wings.” This doesn’t get in the way of actually assembling the chair, but it gave me a nasty moment thinking I’d received the wrong chair!

Minor shipping issues

The Fnatic arrived intact, but both T-Pro 2 and Kaiser 2 had minor shipping related issues on arrival. One of the arms on the Kaiser 2 had torn entirely through the shipping box—happily, there was no actual damage done.

The T-Pro 2 arrived in an intact box, but it was a little more disassembled than it should have been. These chairs have a two-piece dust cover that fits over the junction between seat and back—a triangular cover that goes over the recline mechanism, and a separate bolt cover that hides the bolts connecting the back to the brackets attached to the seat. The triangular recline mechanism cap is installed at the factory and should not come off; it’s further locked into place by a tab on the bolt cover once the chair is fully assembled.

On the right side of the T-Pro 2, the recline mechanism cover was missing, which I didn’t notice until it came time to attach the bolt cover on that side. Rummaging through the box produced the missing cap, which snapped onto the mechanism after a little fumbling. By itself, the recline mechanism cover didn’t snap on very securely—it tended to pop back off easily. Adding the bolt cover—which has a tab that snaps into a recess on the recline mechanism cover—solved that issue.

Once fully assembled, I had no further issues with the T-Pro 2’s originally iffy dust cover.

Goldilocks and the Three Chairs

Anda Seat Kaiser 2 & Anda Seat T-Pro 2

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Although the Fnatic and Kaiser 2 share the same frame, they have significantly different upholstery—the padding and “vegan leather” covering in the Kaiser 2 is considerably firmer than that in the Fnatic. The pillows in the Kaiser 2 are the same vegan leather as the chair and share its firmness; the pillows on the Fnatic are covered in a velour-like cloth and are significantly “squooshier.”

The T-Pro 2 stands out considerably farther, with a different frame, cloth covering instead of vegan leather, and even firmer padding than the Kaiser 2. It’s not quite as firm as the Secretlab Omega in my office—but it’s close. Its pillows are soft with velour-like covering, similar to the Fnatic’s.

Opinion one—5’11”

Having all three chairs on hand at once makes very clear that size matters. At 5’11”, all three chairs fit me reasonably well—but I needed to adjust the neck pillow on the Fnatic and Kaiser 2 up an inch or two, in order to get the support where I needed it. The T-Pro 2 had the opposite problem—on it, I needed to adjust the neck pillow down by about an inch.

The T-Pro 2 required less actual adjustment to get where it needed to be for my frame, but I found myself missing the pass-through “wings” on the Kaiser 2 and Fnatic. It was much easier and more comfortable to adjust the height of a pillow whose straps were run through pass-through holes, than yanking on one just sort of slid onto the neck area of the T-Pro 2.

After spending plenty of time in all three chairs, I like the Kaiser 2 the most, followed closely by the Fnatic. Styling issues aside, I appreciate the greater firmness and all-vegan-leather covering of the Kaiser 2 over the Fnatic. The T-Pro 2 came in last place, for me—wrestling with the neck pillow felt obnoxious, and I just plain prefer spill-resistant vegan leather to cloth.

With that said, all three chairs worked well for me—I’d choose any of the three over the Secretlab Omega in my office; and I like that one better than anything which came before it.

Opinion two—5’6”

My wife joined me in trying out all three chairs. The Fnatic has been her office chair for several months now, and she’s praised it pretty thoroughly—she describes it as “too big for [her], but in a good way.” She appreciates its generous but soft covering and padding, and she occasionally sits criss-cross applesauce in it when she’s tired of the standard, upright “srs bzness” seat position.

She was initially excited about the T-Pro 2, due to its cloth covering—but she couldn’t make its much higher neck pillow position work for her, she didn’t like its extra-firm padding, and her feet didn’t sit flat on the floor, even with the height adjusted all the way down and the seat incline fully vertical. After we spent five or 10 minutes going through every ergonomic adjustment possible—she pronounced it “usable” but still not something she felt truly comfortable with.

The Kaiser 2 met with considerably more approval—which wasn’t surprising, since it shares the same chassis as the Fnatic. She still greatly preferred the Fnatic, to my surprise, and despite spending as much time on ergonomic adjustment as we had with the T-Pro 2. The Kaiser 2’s firmer padding changed her perception of the chair as “too big, but in a good way” to just plain “too big.” She also wasn’t able to comfortably sit criss-cross in the firmer chair.

Despite her strong and unhesitating preference for the Fnatic, Janis declared that it’s better than anything she’d been given in an office job, and she’d have been thrilled to get one—if she hadn’t tried the Fnatic first.

Ergonomic adjustments

All three Anda chairs feature the same overall set of adjustments:

  • Seat height adjustment (via gas piston)
  • Seat recline adjustment (angle of seat to back, via lever)
  • Seat tilt adjustment (angle of seat+back as a unit to the floor, via rocking)
  • Seat tilt lock (can be locked at any angle desired)
  • Seat arm height
  • Seat arm depth (they can be slid forward away from the body, or closer toward the body)
  • Seat arm width (adjustable by rectangular bolthole during installation)
  • Seat arm width (further adjustable by button on arms, during usage)
  • Seat arm pivot (can be rotated horizontally, e.g., to support hands resting atop one another on the desk)
  • Removable lumbar support pillow, with removable washable cover
  • Removable neck pillow, with elastic support band and removable washable cover

To achieve the ideal posture and support, you’ll likely need to fiddle with every single one of these adjustments—particularly if you spend many hours a day seated. This isn’t unique to Anda chairs; it’s true of any chair. If you don’t feel that there’s much difference between the various adjustments on a chair, the odds are good that it simply fits you so poorly that nothing works.

One thing that I appreciate about all three of these Anda models is that the removable pillows work for me. Although I generally want to adjust the position of the lumbar and neck pillows manually by an inch or so each time I sit down, it doesn’t take any real work to get them where they need to go, and they feel good once there.

By contrast, I can’t make my Secretlab Omega’s lumbar support pillow work for me, no matter what I try—or its neck pillow. I actually ended up pulling the neck pillow off the Omega and using it as a lumbar support pillow instead—which works, but it’s considerably more of a fiddly annoyance each time I sit down, since it falls down entirely instead of staying largely in place like the proper lumbar pillows do on the Anda chairs.

Conclusions

I’ve learned several things in the last six months’ gaming-chair experimentation. One is that gaming chairs are not “just a meme”—while I’ve never personally owned an Aeron or Steelcase chair, I’ve been supplied with Aerons in office jobs, and failed to be impressed. There are certainly crappy gaming chairs, just as there are crappy office chairs—but the good ones are quite good, and they’re significantly less expensive.

Another is that size matters. As a 5’11” dude at 200 pounds and change, this was an easy distinction to miss—pretty much everything out there is designed for people sized and shaped reasonably like me. My wife—who, at 5’6″, is slightly taller than average for American women—had a much less forgiving experience finding the right chair for her, whether in office or gaming chairs.

Knowing all this, I think the biggest advantage that “proper” office chairs have is the ability to go sit in one in a showroom and find one that actually fits your frame properly. The difference between a chair that accommodates you properly and one that doesn’t is enormous. If you’re shorter than 5’8″, this goes double—and I strongly recommend that you at least seek out specific reviews from other folks your size, if you can’t seek out demo chairs to physically test for yourself.

If you’re 5’8″ or under, the Anda T-Pro 2 is not going to be for you—particularly not if you want the neck pillow installed. If you’re 5’8″ or taller, either the Kaiser 2 or Fnatic will likely be a good fit—though I’m not sure how well either would work for folks much taller than 6’1″. If you’re 6’2″ or taller, I’d recommend skipping the Kaiser and Fnatic, and taking a look at the T-Pro 2.

One final, cautionary word about height: just checking the backrest height on a chair won’t tell you what you need to know. The Fnatic, Kaiser 2, T-Pro all share a backrest height of 34.2″—not much different from Secretlab Titan XL 2020’s backrest height of 33.5″. But the curvature of the backrest—and the position of the neck pillow, if installed—makes an enormous difference.

Listing image by Jim Salter

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Apple clarifies iOS default music app feature, and it’s not what people thought

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Enlarge / Siri in iOS 14.

Samuel Axon

Over the past several weeks, there have been several reports (including one of our own) on a feature found in recent beta releases of iOS 14.5 that appeared to allow users to change the default music app on their iPhones. However, Apple just clarified to TechCrunch that the feature is not as it first seemed.

In the initial reports, users claimed that they were prompted to select a preferred music app, such as Spotify or Apple Music, when they asked Siri to play a song. They then found that Siri seemed to honor that choice on future requests.

Further, they noticed that using the usual command “Hey Siri, play [song name] on Spotify” would cause Siri to use Spotify again in the future when they spoke the same request sans the “on Spotify” part. (In the current public version of iOS, users must say “on Spotify” every single time to play songs in that app instead of Apple Music.)

But Apple told TechCrunch that this behavior is not actually setting the default player and that it will not do so when iOS 14.5 releases to the public in the coming weeks, either. Rather, this behavior is a question Siri may periodically ask in order to intelligently pick apps on your behalf based on the nature of the content you’re asking for.

Among other things, this means that Siri might serve you a different app when you ask for a podcast than it might when you request a pop song. But in any case, it’s not a default app selection, per se, and Siri could decide to pick an app based on any number of factors beyond that. Siri may also ask you which app to use again periodically to further clarify or refine its choices.

Users of the beta did experience Siri asking a second or third time, but most interpreted that as a bug that caused the software to forget a default setting rather than an intended behavior.

Apple also told TechCrunch that there will be no place in the Settings app to set a default music player, as there is for email or browser apps since iOS 14 launched late last year.

That change in policy and functionality regarding email and browser apps was a surprise from Apple, as the company has long insisted that its own apps be the defaults on its mobile operating system, much to the frustration of users who wanted more control. It is unclear whether Apple made the change to provide a better user experience, to undermine current and future antitrust accusations and investigations, or a little of both.

But if the goal was to battle antitrust arguments, any continual preferential treatment for Apple Music is prickly. While antitrust investigations into the company have to do with more than just music apps, one of the most threatening investigations is the one in the EU instigated by Spotify, which claims that Apple unfairly gives preference to Apple Music in numerous parts of the iOS user experience.

That said, the new way Siri is said by Apple to handle music streaming services may actually be service-agnostic in terms of how it will pick services to respond to user requests based on past user behavior. But as is the case with many of these AI assistant features, it’s not likely to be all that clear to users exactly how Siri will make its judgments.

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The Realme GT 5G is the world’s cheapest Snapdragon 888 phone

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It’s time for a yearly reminder of how much better the smartphone market is when you live in a hyper-competitive area like India or China. The new Realme GT 5G is now the world’s cheapest Snapdragon 888 smartphone, sporting nearly everything you would expect from a ~$1,000 flagship smartphone, for the low price of CNY 2,799, or ~$433. Naturally, the phone is for sale only in China right now.

The specs here look fantastic for the price: a 120 Hz, 6.43-inch, 2400×1080 Samsung OLED panel; a Snapdragon 88 SoC; 8GB of RAM; 128GB of UFS; a 4500 mAh battery; 65 W wired fast charging; an under-screen fingerprint reader; NFC; a USB-C slot; and a headphone jack. There’s also a higher-tier version with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage for CNY 3,299, or ~$510. The OS is Android 11 with a “Realme UI 2.0” skin. If you really want to pick nits, there are some cut corners here, like the lack of wireless charging and water resistance. For $430, though, this is a spectacular package.

Realme is playing some games with the pricing. The $430 and $510 price tags are “first sale” prices. At some point in the future, they will go up to CNY 2,899 (~$448) and CNY 3,399 (~$525). That still makes this the cheapest Snapdragon 888 phone on the market, but slightly less cheap.

The cameras aren’t in the flagship tier; the phone sports a mid-range 64 MP Sony IMX682 as the main camera, an 8 MP ultrawide, and a just-for-looks 2 MP “macro” camera. But Realme actually has an interesting take on phone cameras. The company says it is taking a “dual flagship strategy” with a “performance flagship” (this phone) and a “camera flagship” (some other, unannounced phone). I fully endorse the idea of a phone for people who don’t care about tiny phone cameras, but the company should commit to the idea and only have one rear camera for basic stuff and use the space it saves for a bigger battery. This supposedly non-camera-focused phone still has three rear cameras (a ridiculous amount of cameras!), and one of them is a barely functional 2 MP junker.

We’re getting some design flair with the GT 5G, too. The yellow version has a faux-leather back, and the dark and light blue versions are glass.

Realme is a sub-brand of the Chinese smartphone giant BBK, the same company that owns Oppo, OnePlus, Vivo, and iQoo. Realme mainly does business in India and China, though it has started to creep into the European market. For now, this phone is only in China, but any of Realme’s usual stomping grounds have a chance at getting it in the future. The phone ships March 10.

Listing image by Realme

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