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.
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