Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dell Sputnik Ultrabook: Initial Impressions

I got word a couple of days ago that I got into the Dell "Sputnik" beta program, which is Dell's incubation project to bring a GNU/Linux-based (specifically Ubuntu-based) XPS 13 Ultrabook to market as a product, specifically as a machine aimed at developers. (We developers, lone wolves though we tend to be, do like a little attention now and then!)

As a huge free software and Linux proponent I have been watching this project closely so I was really excited to get an invite to the beta, and I received the machine today. General Disclaimer: The machine was not free. Dell did offer a discount for beta program participants but is heavily encouraging everyone to be very transparent and honest with their impressions of the machine.

In another blog post I'll cover how I went about installing Ubuntu and the Sputnik-specific PPAs, but in this post I'll share my initial impressions of the machine. (tl;dr version: With one minor exception, this is an absolutely beautiful, exceedingly well-built ultrabook that's an absolute pleasure to use.)

This is a DELL?

As I said above I'll cover Ubuntu installation in another post, but as a very quick aside -- the machine does ship with Windows 7, the explanation being they didn't want to delay shipping the beta machines to get the logistics of pre-installing Ubuntu worked out. On first boot I booted to an Ubuntu USB stick so I never let Windows see the light of day.

As the heading above indicates, to be perfectly honest I was shocked that this is a Dell. Admittedly I haven't owned a Dell in many years though I've had several Dell laptops and desktops in the past, but everything about this machine screams high-end quality. (You can see my quick, too dark unboxing photos on Google+) From the packaging to the machine itself, they clearly put a lot of thought into the design from top to bottom.

The first thing I noticed is how unbelievably solid it feels for such a small, light machine. The machined aluminum lid opens smoothly and firmly to an extremely nice backlit keyboard with a really nice, solid feel. The 13.3" HD screen is extremely sharp, running at a native 1366x768 pixels. Note that some 13" ultrabooks have a slightly higher screen resolution, but for me this resolution is perfect for this size screen, striking a good balance between screen real estate and readability.

The bottom of the machine is carbon fiber which is quite cool to the touch for the most part (particularly given that there's an Intel i7 chip inside), save for one warm spot towards the back of the machine (presumably right where the processor is). There is a bit of faint fan noise as the machine is running but it's very, very quiet compared to a couple other ultrabooks I've had so they've put some nice thought into cooling such a small little package without copping out and constantly running a loud fan full speed.

I feel like I should say a bit more about the keyboard since I'm typing this blog post on it -- it's incredibly nice to type on. The keys have a really great, firm action and as you depress the keys the machine body doesn't "give" as with some ultrabooks, so it doesn't feel flimsy in any way or like you'll break it if you get to typing incredibly quickly (which I have a tendency to do).

Even just picking up the machine and carrying it around everything feels amazingly tight and solid. This is a far cry from the Dells I've had in the past, and I would think even the most ardent Mac proponent would have to admit the quality of the hardware rivals, if not exceeds, that of Apple.

Tech Specs

You can see and read more about the XPS 13 in general on Dell's web site, but the Sputnik developer machine is the high-end model, specifically with the following specs:
  • 13.3" HD (720p) Corning Gorilla Glass WLED screen, 1366x768 resolution
  • Intel i7 processor running at 1.7GHz (with TurboBoost up to 2.8GHz)
  • Intel HD Graphics 3000
  • 256GB SSD
  • 4GB of dual-channel DDR3 RAM (1333MHz)
  • Backlit keyboard
  • Two USB ports, 1 USB 2, 1 USB 3
  • Mini display port
  • Headphone jack
  • Marketing claim on battery life: 8 - 9 hours (I'll test this to see what real-world battery life is)
In my estimation they did a good job of keeping things very minimalistic while focusing on what's important. Adding things like more USB ports, multiple (and potentially large in size) display output options, and even wired ethernet would have cause the machine to lose its singular focus which is a small, light, high quality ultrabook.

What this machine doesn't have, that you should be aware of if these things matter to you, are an optical drive and the aforementioned wired ethernet, and if you want to output to VGA or HDMI you need to pick up a dongle. None of these things matter to me personally; in fact on my other new, larger laptop I got a couple of weeks ago I opted for a second hard drive in place of an optical drive because I can't even remember the last time I used an optical drive.

The lack of wired ethernet also doesn't bother me because I personally never used a wired connection, and since this machine is so incredibly thin (and I mean incredibly thin) there isn't space for an ethernet jack anyway. If you absolutely have to have wired ethernet in an office setting or somewhere without wi-fi you can always get a USB ethernet adapter.

Overall, this is an impressively equipped little powerhouse.

One Minor Potential Downside: Memory

On balance Dell made very smart decisions about what to put into the machine, with the one question mark in my mind being why they chose not to put more than 4GB of RAM in the machine. (It's worth noting at this point that the machine is not user-upgradeable.) I can't imagine it was for cost or size reasons, so I have to guess that it was a necessary design/engineering decision for some other reason.

Granted, for many users 4GB of RAM is plenty, and if nothing else putting Ubuntu on the machine will make it run a lot more efficiently than Windows 7. That said, for a machine targeted at developers 4GB seems a tad on the low side these days, so although I'd certainly stop well short of calling it a show-stopper for me at least, it's something to be aware of and given your situation that may or may not work for you. (Note that Dell makes a slightly larger XPS 14 in which you can get 8GB of RAM.)

Sputnik as a Developer Machine

I'll find out a lot more about what the Sputnik can and can't handle next week when I take it to DjangoCon, but the i7 chip is extremely zippy, and my guess is that I'll find 4GB to be adequate for most of my needs. Ubuntu, Chrome with my usual 12-15 tabs open, and Emacs or Sublime Text are running quite happily and responsively. (Note that I have not yet installed and tried a heavier IDE like PyCharm or Eclipse.)

If you're a big user of VMs, given my experience on another ultrabook with 4GB of RAM I can say Windows 7 runs decently in 2GB of RAM in VirtualBox on Ubuntu. I wouldn't want to spend a lot of time in it with only 2GB, but if you need to test something in IE or jump into Windows to run a specific application (e.g. I have to get into Windows on rare occasions to run the VMWare console app to manage our VMs since their web-based console tool is abysmal), it should be a decent experience. Not as nice as on my laptop with 16GB of RAM certainly, and you won't be able to get away with running multiple VMs at once, but running a VM is certainly possible.

If you're a Java or CFML developer, I fired up some Java-based applications on Tomcat on this machine, giving Tomcat 1GB and then 2GB of heap space. Things ran fine, though if like me you abuse the heck out of memory if you have it available, I suspect you're not going to be able to get away running dozens of webapps simultaneously under Tomcat on this machine.

That said I'm moving away from the Java/CFML world into the Python/Django world which is much more memory-friendly, so for Python development this machine should be really excellent. Most of the time when I'm doing Python development I don't see my memory or CPU monitors even act like much is going on, which is quite a different experience than I was used to with Java and CFML.

The CPU is certainly up to practically any development task, just be aware that depending on the type of development you're doing and your development style, you might need to think a little bit about the RAM limitation.

Bottom line on Sputnik as a developer machine is I see this as being an absolutely fantastic developer machine, with a minor caveat about the RAM.

Conclusions

The Dell XPS 13 is a huge winner in my book. It's exceedingly well built, light, quiet, and has all the bells and whistles you need in an ultrabook -- particularly one aimed at developers -- and Dell made intelligent omissions across the board with the possible exception of the amount of RAM pre-installed.

If like me you've had Dells in the past and hadn't thought about Dell in a while, this machine may well change your mind about Dell. After only a few hours of using it it's certainly starting to change mine, and I can already see myself gravitating to the Sputnik as my go-to machine.

5 comments:

G.B. said...

Waiting for the Dell XPS 13 with native Ubuntu. We are november, 22 and we do not have infos about Sputnik. Lost in the space?

priyank kapasi said...

really helpful post..!

I am planning on buying a dell XPS 13 or XPS 14.. but really confused in choosing one..

- Will be installing Ubuntu along side windows 8(dual boot)

- Main purpose - web & mobile app development.

It seems XPS 13 ( only pre-installed Ubuntu - project sputnik) is Ubuntu certified and XPS 14 is not.

Which one, out of the 2 laptops has better Ubuntu ( vanilla ) compatibility and most apt for web development?

Any help will be appreciated.

Matt Woodward said...

I don't have any experience with the XPS 14. My *guess* is that it's the same machine with a bigger screen so there shouldn't be any issues running Ubuntu on it.

Personally I absolutely love the XPS 13 and find that for me it's great for development. As a general statement more screen real estate is better but I don't find myself annoyed by the screen size when I'm using the XPS 13 for development. I typically use it when I travel or just want to work away from my desk and have been overwhelmingly happy with it.

Fregard Mosform said...

A few more tweaks and that ultrabook may already be a good addition to an iphone application developer's arsenal. That RAM issue seems to be a serious problem though.

Fregard Mosform

Brandon Hudson said...

Very dashing and attractive woody vases. Creativity is clearly showing. Nice work.

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