Laptop Review: Dell XPS m1330n (Ubuntu Pre-Installed)
Well as many of you will know I finally got my shiny new Dell XPS m1330 laptop recently and I have to say I really love it. Not everything about it is positive and I hope this will prove to be a balanced review. It’s very nice to be able to order a new laptop from a large manufacturer with Linux pre-installed, especially as a home user, it’s been an easier option for enterprise customers for a while now I think. So without further ado here’s the low down on my new laptop, hope you enjoy it…
- Processor – Intel Core 2 Duo T7250 2Ghz
- Memory – 2GB Dual Channel 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM
- Display – 13.3″ WXGA White-LED Display (with TrueLife)
- Graphics Card – nVidia GeForce 8400M GS with 256MB VRAM
- Storage – 160GB SATA drive (@5400rpm)
- Optical – 8x DVD+/-RW slot-load drive
- Wireless – Intel® Pro Wireless 3945 802.11a/b/g
- Ports – Ethernet, 2x USB2.0, Firewire, HDMI, VGA, SD card reader
- Power – 6 Cell Lithium Ion Battery
- Operating System – Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon
Introduction, the story so far:
This whole journey started sometime before Christmas 2007 when I decided I should replace my clunky desktop with a nice new portable laptop. Now I’ve never really owned a laptop before, I’ve always been a desktop user. That’s pretty shocking in this day and age I know but that’s just the way it’s been, I’ve had work laptops provided by employers but never actually spent my own money on one. So this was quite a big step for me. The one overriding thing in my mind was that I wanted a fully Linux compatible machine and I would not pay for an unwanted Windows licence. I was absolutey clear on that and I can be pretty single minded when it comes to these things. I looked around at the different sellers and options I had on offer as a Linux user.
I live in the UK and I found that there were probably better options for those living in the US or Canada through the likes of System76, they won’t ship to the UK sadly and it would also make the warranty pretty useless. I had a look at the Linux Emporium who offer Lenovo Thinkpads with Ubuntu and SUSE, they’re very nice but not quite as portable as I wanted. Also the price for the kind of spec I wanted was £1250 and I just couldn’t fit that into my budget. I then looked at Efficient PC who offer their Anubis laptop with it’s ASUS barebones base. It’s a nice enough machine but wasn’t quite as portable as I wanted and just didn’t do it for me. I would urge you to look at them though if you’re interested in a new laptop and you’re in the UK, it’s a great little company and just cos it didn’t suit my taste, you shouldn’t rule them out.
In fact, if I’d wanted just a portable Linux device to check my emails and do basic stuff there’s no doubt I would have gone for a black ASUS eeePC from Efficient PC. They’re lovely but I needed a proper desktop replacement for rendering audio and other such tasks.
I knew Dell were offering some machines with Ubuntu so I went and had a look at the 6400n which was the only Ubuntu laptop available in the UK at the time. It suited my meagre budget but it was a bit of a hefty beast and not the most portable. I rang Dell at Christmas and asked them if they could do me an XPS M1330 with Ubuntu or no OS at least. They were great and shipped me a machine within about 3 weeks, unfortunately though when it arrived I realized I’d been stupid not to order the more expensive WLED screen and Nvidia graphics. I returned it and by that time the new Ubuntu range of M1330’s had been announced, maybe I was more persuasive on the phone than I’d realised hehehe 🙂
So that’s what I’ve got, I just went on the site and customized the machine as I wanted, ordering in the normal way. It arrived a couple of weeks back pre-loaded with Ubuntu and now that I’ve had a proper chance to play here’s my thoughts.
Damn that was a long into sorry 😉
So what can you expect to find in the box if you order an M1330 with Ubuntu? Well, as I discovered there are some things missing compared to the standard Vista package which pissed me off a little. I’ll come to those in a moment. Here’s what I found in the box:
1 x Dell m1330 laptop with Ubuntu installed
1 x Standard Dell UK Power Adapter
1 x Thin Magnetic Clasp Dell Carrying Pouch
1 x m1330 Owners Pack containing cleaning cloth & user manual
1 x Dell Drivers & Utilities CD
1 x Packaged Ubuntu 7.10 Install CD
1 x Quick Start Guide
That’s the lot. Now the reason I say I was a little pissed is because I know for a fact the Vista model ships with a nice pair of Creative In-Ear headphones, a multimedia remote control which slots in to the side of the machine for storage and a biometric fingerprint reader. I’d had these with the first machine I sent back and I also know from friends that all of them work perfectly with Ubuntu, even the fingerprint reader. I paid pretty much the same price as the Windows machine so why exclude these things? It was a little annoying but I got over it once I fired up the machine.
SEE THE FULL UNBOXING SLIDESHOW HERE
Giving It A Boot:
Upon booting the machine I was greeted by a Dell Licence Agreement which threw me a little, what’s the licence for I thought? I don’t have the Media Direct software you get with the Windows version, so I can only think it must be for the system BIOS or maybe some drivers. Next I reached an Ubuntu splash screen and a wizard for setting up my user account, location and so on. This was essentially just like the later stages of the Ubuntu installer and it’s not something I’ve seen before, having only ever installed Ubuntu from scratch myself. It worked fine and would be perfect for most home users, personally I like to have full control over an install, setting network host name, partitioning and a few other things but most home users wouldn’t worry about that. I completed the few short tasks and was then launched into a familar looking login prompt and an even more familiar Ubuntu desktop.
It’s been a while since I’ve used Ubuntu as my main OS but I felt at home again pretty quickly, I love the Gnome desktop and the feel of the distro, even if it is brown. I was prompted that my video and wireless cards needed to use restricted drivers. This means closed source proprietary drivers, I enabled them and downloaded the updates pretty quickly. After a quick restart of the x server I had full Compiz Fusion 3D effects and it all looked very slick. I installed all the extra software I like to use easily from the Ubuntu repositories, added Skype and also got a few extra peices from getdeb.net. I have to say that’s one of the best things about Ubuntu, the community, the amount of support and documentation out there. If anything, that’s Ubuntu’s killer app, it’s not so much technical dominance, it’s odrinary joes like you and me helping each other out.
The system comes intalled with an Ubuntu image customized by Dell and I was keen to see what differences there were, if any with standard Ubuntu. There’s a link on the desktop to a Dell Ubuntu Install disk image you could burn to DVD. The actual file is located in the “/home” folder not in “/home/username”, I presume this is because you only create your user account on the initial boot, so the folder wouldn’t exist before that. Anyway, this image weighs in at a pretty hefty 5gb in size and I have no idea what it contains. When you think that the standard Ubuntu install is only one 700mb CD the mind boggles as to what all the rest of that data can be. I can’t see any changes to the standard Ubuntu desktop really on the surface. There is the addition of LinDVD which allows for legal DVD playback if you’re in the US, other than that I can’t see much at all. Maybe there are some drivers or background things included who knows. You’ll need a dual-layer DVD-R to burn that image anyway if you want a hard copy.
The 160gb hard disk has been split into the following partitions:
/dev/sda1 – FAT32 – 1.09mb – No idea what this is
/dev/sda2 – FAT32 – 5gb – I’m guessing this is the Dell recovery partition, an Ubuntu install image
/dev/sda3 – EXT3 – 138gb – Ubuntu root partition “/” where your installation lives
/dev/sda4 – Extended Partition – 5.8gb
/dev/sda5 – Linux Swap – 5.8gb
When you boot the system you can choose to reinstall Ubuntu as one of the options from the GRUB boot loader menu. My theory is that this uses the Dell Ubuntu install image, which I assume is on sda2 judging by the size. It’s nice to see that Dell have taken the time to think about this kind of thing and set the system up so they can offer some proper support. I suspect a lot of calls to the Ubuntu support line with a serious problem would end in reinstalling the system from this partition. The good old Windows support model hey, “have you tried reinstalling Windows?” 😀
I’ll be repartioning the system when I reinstall with my usual separate “/home” and root “/” partitions. I find this a much better approach but I will probably keep a copy of the Dell install image just in case I ever want it. Everything seems to work perfectly with Ubuntu on this machine, suspend and hibernate both work. Although I’ve found that sometimes the wireless connection doesn’t wake up after hibernate and it took me a while to work out how to fix that without rebooting the machine. You have to use the following command to restart all network interfaces and it’s fine in a second or two.
“sudo /etc/init.d/networking restart”
I’ve made a shell script to do this for me and placed it on the destop so it’s nice and easy. There might even be a way to lauch it automatically after wake up but I haven’t really bothered looking into that as yet.
I like this system a lot I have to say, I’ve now got it set up so I can use it at my desk connected to the sound system, large LCD, power and Logitech wireless desktop. At the same time though it only takes a quick tweak of the Nvidia display settings to switch back to the mobile screen and I can be off. I did have to have a look around for some tips on doing this as I have my external screen at 1440×900 and the onboard one at 1280×800. I’ve created a link on the desktop to the command “nvidia-settings” which launches the tool for me, I can then enable or disable the external screen without an X server restart. I could use separate X sessions but I find this solution works well for me. One thing to be wary of is the fact that if you don’t have your external monitor connected before launching the tool, it won’t show up in the display window, just click “detect displays” to refresh, that caught me out a bit at first.
The price of my machine was £800 delivered, give or take a few quid and I think that’s pretty reasonable, you can get a similar or possibly even more powerful spec for less money I know but not in this kind of case. The machine runs very quietly and efficiently, it’s powerful with it’s two 2ghz Intel cores and can handle almost any task I throw at it, giving a good 3hrs battery life in standard operation. You can get a larger 9 cell battery that would last over 4hrs 30mins if you prefer, I’ve even seen them for sale on eBay.co.uk for £50, not bad. The machine is lightweight to carry around, great design and I love some of the little features like the media buttons which light up on the strip below the screen as you pass your finger over them. The in-built web cam also works great with Skype 2.0 on Ubuntu. Touches like this add to the overall feeling of a quality product and I’m very happy with it.
There are some negatives that I should highlight I think in interests of balance. Mainly the differences between the Ubuntu and Windows models and the lack of a real difference in the price. The Vista model comes with a media remote, Creative headphones and fingerprint reader which this version does not. I don’t understand the reason for this, we’re paying the same price and all those things work perfectly in Ubuntu, I know they do I’ve seen them. It’s a shame but cannot take away from the fact that overall I love this laptop. I also wish to support Linux and show Dell there is a market for it, so I don’t mind paying the same even without the extra frills. I realise that the company must be spending time and money on researching Linux and adding this option to their range, I think that’s great.
If you’re in the market for an ultra portable, stylish and powerful Linux laptop then this is well worth your time I think. It’s a very desirable machine, I saw a review recently of the Vista version which said “this is the best 13.3” notebook available without an Apple logo on it”… now with Ubuntu added I’d argue it’s actually far better than that hehe 🙂
You can checkout Dell’s Ubuntu offerings here if you’re interested
I have a fair bit of work to do moving things about and rebuilding my various machines in both software and hardware terms over the next week or so. I’m still intending to do that Arch Linux review though, it should be next week I hope. I’ll keep you updated. Thanks for reading, see you next time for another adventure…