Dell Sputnik XPS 13 Critiques

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently picked up an XPS 13 at a discount from Dell for the Sputnik beta project. When I say "recently," I actually mean about two months ago, which means this is not a "first look" post. This has been my main computer ever since it arrived, which means I have some thoughts to share. Mostly critiques, at least for this post.

Hardware Design

Google pictures of this thing. It's really quite pretty. It's also light, and it has a backlit keyboard, which is still difficult to find even though Apple started doing it ages ago. It's also pretty gutsy inside with an i7, while still retaining pretty good battery life (I have not explicitly tested battery performance). The annoying thing is that it only has 4GB of memory. Of course, now that Sputnik is officially released, it has 8. Too bad us beta testers don't get a taste.

Another detractor from the design is the glossy display. That was the only option. I hate gloss. Who likes it? Who started that idea? Some narcissist who likes staring at his reflection? Give me a matte display any day. The only upside of this is that it's Gorilla glass, which is pretty tough stuff.

But those few detractors don't hold a candle to this one:

Notice the vents behind the hinge, kinda like every other computer you've seen. But this laptop is different-- its intake is on the bottom. Seriously. The fan-powered intake for the vents is right where one would normally place the laptop on one's lap. In fact, if you wear shorts and you have hairy legs (I do), you have to hold this laptop in a very special way not just because the intake fan starts screaming due to starvation, but because it starts grinding on your legs hairs! Who designed this?

This doesn't even work well sitting on a table! There's simply not enough space between a flat tabletop and the intake to get enough air if you're running full-tilt. Compile a kernel or something and you'll quickly realize the only way to get rid of the screaming fan is to set it teetering off the edge of the table:

This is a truly awful design, and would have caused me to pass this laptop up if it weren't for the Sputnik program. However, these complaints relate only to the XPS 13 hardware, so let's see where we stand on the Sputnik software.

Software

Out of the box (using the Ubuntu 12.04 Sputnik-specific ISO), this thing ran Ubuntu well. The only issue I had was with the touchpad, which worked embarrassingly badly. I hate tap-to-click, and the first thing I always do on a laptop is disable it. I just have big hands, and my palms always cause taps to occur. So: I disabled tap-to-click. But it was only honored for the top 3/4 of the touchpad-- the bottom 1/4 still turned taps into clicks! This driver was incredibly untested. I knew I was using a beta and did what any beta tester should do-- I posted a bug on the Sputnik Launchpad page and the Sputnik Forums.

Fast forward two weeks. No activity.

I'm not sure what deal Dell has with Canonical, but Dell does not seem to support this at all from a software standpoint. It seems that they just handed it off to Canonical and/or the community, and expected the "beta participants" to be their developers. I ended up fixing that bug myself. I don't actually mind so much that Dell isn't messing with it, but I think it's indicative of their motives for this project.

Summary

After working with this platform for a while, it's my belief that if this project succeeds, it will be due to the efforts of Kamal Mostafa and the folks at Canonical more than Dell. That said, I do hope it succeeds. I just wish the XPS 13 was a better hardware platform than it is. Fix the ventilation issues, and this platform is a contender. Fix that and the glossy-display-only stuff, and this thing is a winner.

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