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Dell XPS 13 Linux Developer Edition (2020) hands-on: A great laptop for hard-working developers

Like its ancestors before it, the latest Dell 13 Linux Developer Edition is an exceptional programmers' laptop.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Dell XPS 13 Linux Developer Edition
(Image: SJVN)

For years, most major computing manufacturers ignored Linux desktops. Oh, Dell kept selling them, and smaller Linux vendors like Purism, System76, and ZaReason kept the Linux desktop flame alive, but that was about it. Now, Lenovo has re-engaged with the Linux desktop, and Dell continues to sell -- year-after-year -- one of the best of all Linux laptops, the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition.

This year's Dell XPS 13 is better than ever. I had the last two earlier models at hand, so I could easily compare its evolution. I can't say it blew their doors off, but it's clearly a more powerful machine. 

That starts with its CPU heart. The XPS 13 is one of the first laptops to use an Ice Lake Intel Core i7-1065G7 processor. This quad-core, hyper-threading CPU averaged about 20% faster over its older brothers in a wide variety of test workloads. It's a real pleasure watching applications "pop" on to the screen. 

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Of course, all the credit doesn't go to the next-generation CPU. You can now get the Dell XPS 13 with 32GB of RAM. My test system came maxed out with memory, and that certainly helped my machine beat the older models.

The graphics, powered by the Ice Lake's built-in Intel Iris+, were also great. This showed up well with the laptop's 13.4-inch screen. This display comes with virtually no bezel and is aa Full High Definition+ (1920 x 1200) or 4K (3840 x 2400) touchscreen display. I must say, though, with my older eyes, the default fonts were a bit too small for comfort on my 4K screen.

If those screen's aspect ratios seem a little off to you, they are: Instead of the more standard 16:9 aspect ratio, the display has a 16:10 aspect ratio. According to Dell's leading Linux laptop pro, Barton George, "While this may seem like a small detail, the extra screen space is noticeable." After looking at the before and after models, I must agree, it gives you a bit more usable screen real estate.

The new XPS 13 also gets a speed bump from its Hynix 512GB NVMe Solid State Drive (SSD). There are faster SSDs out there, notably the Seagate FireCuda SSD family, but it's still a good performer. 

If you're the kind of person who used to subscribe to my old magazine, Computer Shopperand look over every last detail of a computer before buying it, you may have noticed something. The Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition isn't the same as the Dell XPS with Windows 10. Generally speaking, the Developer Edition has better hardware. For example, until recently you could only get 16GB of RAM with the Windows 10 model. You can now get up to 32GB like its Linux brother. Still, the Windows model's SSD is fine, Intel 512GB NVMe SSD, it's not as fast as the Linux's model.  

Both models come with only two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, and you must use one of those for power. If you run two or more peripherals regularly, you're going to need a Thunderbolt 3-compatible port hub such as the IOGEAR GUH3C22P or the Belkin USB-IF Certified 4-Port Mini USB-C Hub

There's also a 3.5mm audio jack, for those of you, like me, who still prefer wired headphones. The laptop also has a microSD card reader. It also comes with a 720p webcam. Unlike earlier models, this is positioned properly in the middle of the upper bezel, rather than the lower bezel, for better video-conferencing.  

For networking, your only choice is Wi-Fi using the XPS 13's Killer AX1650 Wi-Fi chipset. This supports both Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1. I've heard reports of people having trouble with this particular chipset, but the Wi-Fi worked just fine for me.

The XPS 13 comes outfitted with a 52Wh battery, which Dell claims can last as long as 19 hours. In my rough and ready tests -- running Netflix videos at 4K -- it only made it to 8 hours. Of course, you're not likely to be binge-watching in 4K for hours on this laptop. So, in real life, I expect I'd see around 10 hours of useful work time.

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This developer laptop comes with a customized older Ubuntu Linux Long Term Support (LTS) 18.04.4. It didn't arrive with the brand-new Ubuntu 20.04, because it was released in April, and the first of the 2020 XPS 13 units started shipping until March. 

It's an easy upgrade if you want Ubuntu's latest and greatest. On the other hand, you should also keep in mind that 18.04 will be supported until April 2028.  

The most noticeable difference between Dell's Ubuntu's take and vanilla Ubuntu is that Google Chrome, not Firefox, is the default web browser. If you want Firefox, you'll need to install it from Ubuntu's software center. The system does, however, include Mozilla Thunderbird as the standard email client. 

The XPS 13 also comes with one oddball application, which doesn't work at all: This is Dell's own Dell Linux Assistant. With it, in theory, you can register your machine and see your laptop's system information. I say, "in theory," because in practice, it failed every time I try to use it for either task. It's an ugly blemish on an otherwise lovely machine. 

And it really is a handsome, light -- 2.8 pounds -- machine. It's made of machined aluminum, carbon fiber, woven glass fiber, and hardened Corning Gorilla Glass.  

Pricing starts at $1,199.99 for an i5-based Developer Edition with 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, an FHD display, and Ubuntu 18.04.04 LTS preloaded. My everything-and-the-kitchen-sink model would cost $2,049.99. Frankly, if I were building it myself, I'd "downgrade" from the 4K display to the more comfortable to my eyes 1920 x 1200 display. This would bring the total to $1,749.99

All-in-all, except for that one weird program, it's a great laptop for programmers or power-users. But you don't have to take my word for it. Linus Torvalds, who knows a thing or two about Linux and computers, uses an XPS 13. Torvalds said: "Normally, I wouldn't name names, but I'm making an exception for the XPS 13 just because I liked it so much that I also ended up buying one for my daughter when she went off to college."

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