I’ve always been on the hunt for the perfect mobile companion, because I’ve always been someone that loved to get work done on the go or while relaxing on my appartment’s loggia, getting some Vitamin D in while I do my programming related work.
Sadly, this liking for mobile computing has always left me in somewhat of a troublesome situation… why you might ask? Well because I’m a Linux user and hardware support for the Linux platform has always been somewhat mediocre in the mobile computing department (Android phones, tablets and Chromebooks being the sole exception to the rule).
Most of the time you find yourself torn between being forced to use outdated (slow) hardware with horrible battery life or accepting that 50% of your built-in hardware will not work the way it was intended to.
Enter the Dell XPS 13 9343, aka. XPS 13 2015 Model.
Project Sputnik might be something that rings a bell for the more Linux-savy people here. For those that don’t know it though, or those that need a little refresher: Project Sputnik is a project that started as a experiment by Dell to evaluate the interest in products that ship with Linux (rather than Windows).
Essentially it is a line of products that is verified to work well with Linux, supported by people that actually know their business. A lot of the work created by Project Sputnik ends up in the mainline Linux kernel source to ensure that essentially every Linux distribution will (eventually) support their products.
The Dell XPS 13 9343 is the latest 13.3 inch screen size iteration in the Project Sputnik supported line of products and as expected, the device works wonders in Linux based operating systems, even though some things need fiddling to get them working right, but this might just be because I’m an Arch Linux nut, and Arch has always been somewhat of a DIY Building Block Thing.
Pricing & Specifications
Like with many other Dell products, you get to pick some of the components making up your device.
You can pick between a Full HD (matte, non-touch, 1920x1080px) and Quad HD (glossy, touch, 3200x1800px) screen, Intel i3 / i5 / i7 (5th Generation) CPUs (including shared memory GPU), 4GB or 8GB of RAM as well as 128GB, 256GB or 512GB of SSD storage space.
Sadly, not all of those parts can be configured independently from each other. The i7 CPU for example is only available in combination with the Quad HD touchscreen panel, which was a big disappointment for me as I have absolutely no use for a energy sucking QHD touchscreen, but more on this later.
Another rather annoying thing is that this Ultrabook gets shipped with random WLAN module configurations, one of them being the Dell DW1560 (actually a rebranded Broadcom BCM4352 module with horrible WLAN reception) while the other is a Intel 7265 (with amazing WLAN reception).
Sadly, from what I’ve read the DW1560 one is way more common to ship than the Intel 7265 one, which is a big disappointment because the rest of the hardware in this device is top-notch. Luckily though both the WLAN module and the M.2 SATA SSD are exchangable and available as separate purchases from Amazon, making it quite easy to rectify this “mistake” of the manufacturer (or upgrade your SSD for that matter). Sadly, this also means that you will have to dish out an additional 35$ in getting a NGFF M.2 Intel 7265 WLAN module from Amazon if you wish to have proper WLAN reception (should you be unlucky and get a device prefit with a DW1560 module).
As for the pricing, depending on which model you intend to get you can get it as low as 800$ for the i3 / Full HD / 4GB RAM / 128GB SSD variant, which (for an Ultrabook of this caliber) is a steal. I went for the i5 / Full HD / 8GB RAM / 256GB SSD variant as I am running virtual machines on this thing every once in a while to do kernel driver tests and / or networking tests.
Pretty much every reviewer out there is stunned with the build quality of this device and I too am just beating a dead horse here by repeating what other people already stated many times over and over again.
The Dell XPS 13 9343 feels and looks somewhat like a reverse Oreo cookie if you look at it from the side.
With its rather thick silver-colored aluminium top and bottom and its black (smooth to the touch) carbon fiber interior it is the perfect device to make some heads turn in our Apple-Design-Philosophy centric society.
There is something about this device that just shouts luxury. The cold touch of the metal and the warm smooth surface of the carbon fiber make for a very welcome contrast of materials and help in making the experience of working on this device a bliss.
The touchpad is decently sized (on the bigger side) and smooth to the touch just like the rest of the interior, with multi-finger scrolling gestures, tap to click and the usual hard-click buttons. The keyboard features full-size buttons allowing for comfortable typing even if you aren’t used to small form factor Notebooks, it’s also backlit, allowing for comfortable use in dark environments like man-caves and developer-dungeons.
The only thing people might find cumbersome to get used to is the rather small key-travel, but for me personally this wasn’t a problem as I am already used to half-length key-travel keyboards from my desktop computer’s wireless keyboard.
Also let’s not forget the nearly bezelless 13.3 inch screen, which makes the XPS 13 9343 the most portable 13.3 inch Ultrabook money can buy (at the time of writing).
Performance & Battery Runtime
Given as I am reviewing the i5 Full HD variant of the Dell XPS 13 9343 your mileage may vary, but overall the performance has been blazing on my unit.
I’ve used it to compile my own Linux kernels while doing web-service development, running Virtual Machines, listening to my playlist, powering three external Full HD monitors via a DisplayPort 1.2 Multistream Hub, etc. all without any hiccups whatsoever.
Oh and I also did some lightweight gaming on it to relax during my lunchbreak via Wine, so far so good.
As for the battery runtime, don’t fall for the usual marketing gags people throw at you, 15 hours is a runtime you will never achieve under realistic (working) conditions. Our current generation battery technology simply isn’t quite there yet and wont be for a long time, so if you fancy actually working on your machine rather than watching an empty desktop with your CPU in idle-state then you won’t be seeing anything close to the suggested 15 hour battery runtime Dell gives you.
Once you start doing “real” work you will be getting a battery runtime that’s somewhat closer to 7-8 hours.
By this I mean web-development, service programming, light compilation tasks, shoving files back and forth between servers, remote controlling some workstations via WLAN, having some YouTube stuff playing in the background for entertainment, etc.
Once you start hammering the CPU and GPU you will find that the real battery runtime will be somewhere around 4-5 hours, which is still good but nowhere close to the false promises Dell is making here.
All the mentioned battery runtimes here have been achieved on Arch Linux (in combination with TLP).
Ports & Connectivity
This might be the most controversial part of this review, given the nature of Ultrabooks, aiming for the smallest physical footprint and highest amount of mobility.
Due to this “requirement” of being thinner than the competition, most manufacturers cut down on the availables ports to save on costs and of course to slim down the Ultrabook’s thickness even further.
My biggest gripe here being the lack of a physical RJ45 Ethernet and secondary display port (this would have come in handy for multi monitor setups without a DisplayPort 1.2 Multistream Hub).
So if you require a oldschool Ethernet port for work like I do, you wont be able to get around using a USB Ethernet adapter, which in turn will clog up one of only two USB 3.0 ports on this device.
In total the device offers 2x USB 3.0, 1x 4-Pin 3.5mm Audio and 1x DisplayPort 1.2 (Multistream compatible) plugs as well as a full size SDXC card reader.
My long hunt for the perfect mobile Linux workstation might finally be at its end.
The Dell XPS 13 9343 is the best Linux supported Ultrabook I’ve seen to date, which doesn’t come as a surprise given its Project Sputnik background.
But even if you aren’t into Linux, this Ultrabook isn’t something you should dismiss too easily. Given it’s high performance components and rather low entry price it is a viable choice for both Windows and Linux users alike. Furthermore, you can pick up refurbished units at Dell every once in a while for as low as 500$ if you cash in rebate deals and coupons.
Hell, it even supports running Mac OS X Yosemite (if you are into Hackintoshing that is).
Supporting all “big three” Operating Systems out there aside, it also brings excellent performance and battery runtime to the table, combined with a marvelous 13.3 inch screen featuring minimal width bezels, making the device appear smaller than it actually is. In fact, the dimension of this Ultrabook are actually more in line with what you would expect from an 11 inch Ultrabook.
Whether you have been looking for the perfect Ultrabook to use with your favorite Linux distribution, a good base for a Hackintosh setup or just an extremely powerful and beautiful Windows Ultrabook, the Dell XPS 13 9343 fits like a glove for all three of those scenarios.
That is if you can live with the rather small amount of ports available on it.