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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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Apple and Google’s AI wizardry promises privacy—at a cost

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Since the dawn of the iPhone, many of the smarts in smartphones have come from elsewhere: the corporate computers known as the cloud. Mobile apps sent user data cloudward for useful tasks like transcribing speech or suggesting message replies. Now Apple and Google say smartphones are smart enough to do some crucial and sensitive machine learning tasks like those on their own.

At Apple’s WWDC event this month, the company said its virtual assistant Siri will transcribe speech without tapping the cloud in some languages on recent and future iPhones and iPads. During its own I/O developer event last month, Google said the latest version of its Android operating system has a feature dedicated to secure, on-device processing of sensitive data, called the Private Compute Core. Its initial uses include powering the version of the company’s Smart Reply feature built into its mobile keyboard that can suggest responses to incoming messages.

Apple and Google both say on-device machine learning offers more privacy and snappier apps. Not transmitting personal data cuts the risk of exposure and saves time spent waiting for data to traverse the internet. At the same time, keeping data on devices aligns with the tech giants’ long-term interest in keeping consumers bound into their ecosystems. People that hear their data can be processed more privately might become more willing to agree to share more data.

The companies’ recent promotion of on-device machine learning comes after years of work on technology to constrain the data their clouds can “see.”

In 2014, Google started gathering some data on Chrome browser usage through a technique called differential privacy, which adds noise to harvested data in ways that restrict what those samples reveal about individuals. Apple has used the technique on data gathered from phones to inform emoji and typing predictions and for web browsing data.

More recently, both companies have adopted a technology called federated learning. It allows a cloud-based machine learning system to be updated without scooping in raw data; instead, individual devices process data locally and share only digested updates. As with differential privacy, the companies have discussed using federated learning only in limited cases. Google has used the technique to keep its mobile typing predictions up to date with language trends; Apple has published research on using it to update speech recognition models.

Rachel Cummings, an assistant professor at Columbia who has previously consulted on privacy for Apple, says the rapid shift to do some machine learning on phones has been striking. “It’s incredibly rare to see something going from the first conception to being deployed at scale in so few years,” she says.

That progress has required not just advances in computer science but for companies to take on the practical challenges of processing data on devices owned by consumers. Google has said that its federated learning system only taps users’ devices when they are plugged in, idle, and on a free internet connection. The technique was enabled in part by improvements in the power of mobile processors.

Beefier mobile hardware also contributed to Google’s 2019 announcement that voice recognition for its virtual assistant on Pixel devices would be wholly on-device, free from the crutch of the cloud. Apple’s new on-device voice recognition for Siri, announced at WWDC this month, will use the “neural engine” the company added to its mobile processorsto power up machine learning algorithms.

The technical feats are impressive. It’s debatable how much they will meaningfully change users’ relationship with tech giants.

Presenters at Apple’s WWDC said Siri’s new design was a “major update to privacy” that addressed the risk associated with accidentally transmitting audio to the cloud, saying that was users’ largest privacy concern about voice assistants. Some Siri commands—such as setting timers—can be recognized wholly locally, making for a speedy response. Yet in many cases transcribed commands to Siri—presumably including from accidental recordings—will be sent to Apple servers for software to decode and respond. Siri voice transcription will still be cloud-based for HomePod smart speakers commonly installed in bedrooms and kitchens, where accidental recording can be more concerning.

Google also promotes on-device data processing as a privacy win and has signaled it will expand the practice. The company expects partners such as Samsung that use its Android operating system to adopt the new Privacy Compute Core and use it for features that rely on sensitive data.

Google has also made local analysis of browsing data a feature of its proposal for reinventing online ad targeting, dubbed FLoC and claimed to be more private. Academics and some rival tech companies have said the design is likely to help Google consolidate its dominance of online ads by making targeting more difficult for other companies.

Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights at University College London, says on-device data processing can be a good thing but adds that the way tech companies promote it shows they are primarily motivated by a desire to keep people tied into lucrative digital ecosystems.

“Privacy gets confused with keeping data confidential, but it’s also about limiting power,” says Veale. “If you’re a big tech company and manage to reframe privacy as only confidentiality of data, that allows you to continue business as normal and gives you license to operate.”

A Google spokesperson said the company “builds for privacy everywhere computing happens” and that data sent to the Private Compute Core for processing “needs to be tied to user value.” Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Cummings of Columbia says new privacy techniques and the way companies market them add complexity to the trade-offs of digital life. Over recent years, as machine learning has become more widely deployed, tech companies have steadily expanded the range of data they collect and analyze. There is evidence some consumers misunderstand the privacy protections trumpeted by tech giants.

A forthcoming survey study from Cummings and collaborators at Boston University and the Max Planck Institute showed descriptions of differential privacy drawn from tech companies, media, and academics to 675 Americans. Hearing about the technique made people about twice as likely to report they would be willing to share data. But there was evidence that descriptions of differential privacy’s benefits also encouraged unrealistic expectations. One-fifth of respondents expected their data to be protected against law enforcement searches, something differential privacy does not do. Apple’s and Google’s latest proclamations about on-device data processing may bring new opportunities for misunderstandings.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Amazon joins Apple, Google by reducing its app store cut

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Enlarge / The Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet, which runs Amazon’s Fire OS.

Apparently following the lead of Apple and Google, Amazon has announced that it will take a smaller revenue cut from apps developed by teams earning less than $1 million annually from their apps on the Amazon Appstore. The same applies to developers who are brand-new to the marketplace.

The new program from Amazon, called the Amazon Appstore Small Business Accelerator Program, launches in Q4 of this year, and it will reduce the cut Amazon takes from app revenue, which was previously 30 percent. (Developers making over $1 million annually will continue to pay the original rate.) For some, it’s a slightly worse deal than Apple’s or Google’s, and for others, it’s better.

Amazon’s new indie-friendly rate is 20 percent, in contrast to Apple’s and Google’s 15 percent. Amazon seeks to offset this difference by granting developers 10 percent of their Appstore revenue in the form of a credit for AWS. For certain developers who use AWS, it could mean that Amazon’s effective cut is actually 10 percent, not 15 or 20 percent.

But for some, it amounts to something more like giving the developer a coupon on a purchase of services from Amazon than actually putting more cash in their pockets. It leaves small developers who aren’t spending a bunch of money on Amazon’s services with a worse deal than they’d get on Apple’s or Google’s marketplaces.

As with Apple’s program—but not Google’s—the lower rate applies to developers only if they made $1 million or less in total (in this case, the numbers assessed are those from the previous year). Crossing that threshold will lead developers to pay the older, higher rate on all of their earnings. In contrast, Google always takes a smaller cut of the first million in a given year and then applies the bigger cut to revenues after $1 million without changing the amount it took from the first million.

The Amazon Appstore primarily exists as the app store for Amazon’s Android-based Fire OS software that runs on tablets. It’s also offered as an alternative App Store for users of other Android-based operating systems.

All three companies are facing various forms of regulatory scrutiny, and that scrutiny was likely a factor in Apple’s decision to cut the fees it applies to apps released by small developers on the Apple App Store. Google followed shortly afterward for its Google Play marketplace.

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Microsoft’s Linux repositories were down for 18+ hours

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Enlarge / In 2017, Tux was sad that he had a Microsoft logo on his chest. In 2021, he’s mostly sad that Microsoft’s repositories were down for most of a day.

Jim Salter

Yesterday, packages.microsoft.com—the repository from which Microsoft serves software installers for Linux distributions including CentOS, Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE, and more—went down hard, and it stayed down for around 18 hours. The outage impacted users trying to install .NET Core, Microsoft Teams, Microsoft SQL Server for Linux (yes, that’s a thing) and more—as well as Azure’s own devops pipelines.

We first became aware of the problem Wednesday evening when we saw 404 errors in the output of apt update on an Ubuntu workstation with Microsoft Teams installed. The outage is somewhat better documented at this .NET Core-issue report on Github, with many users from all around the world sharing their experiences and theories.

The short version is, the entire repository cluster which serves all Linux packages for Microsoft was completely down—issuing a range of HTTP 404 (content not found) and 500 (Internal Server Error) messages for any URL—for roughly 18 hours. Microsoft engineer Rahul Bhandari confirmed the outage roughly five hours after it was initially reported, with a cryptic comment about the infrastructure team “running into some space issues.”

Eighteen hours after the issue was reported, Bhandari reported that the mirrors were once again available—although with temporarily degraded performance, likely due to cold caches. In this update, Bhandari said that the original cause of the outage was “a regression in [apt repositories] during some feature migration work that resulted in those packages becoming unavailable on the mirrors.”

We’re still waiting for a comprehensive incident report, since Bhandari’s status updates provide clues but no real explanations. The good news is, we can confirm that packages.microsoft.com is indeed up once again, and it is serving packages as it should.

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