Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dell XPS 15 with Ubuntu

There are some exciting things going on at Dell and Canonical. Project Sputnik is going well and one of my comrades at work is thoroughly enjoying his Dell XPS 13 with Ubuntu 12.04 on it. As he says "it just works". He's not a big fan of Unity but he's getting old and questions change (^_^ love you man!). I don't mind Unity. It's getting better but that is a discussion for another time.

So Sputnik has done something that I have been dying for, they have looked at getting the Dell touch pads working sanely. They have pretty much accomplished this with the XPS13. However the XPS13 is a small laptop. Great portability and power for it's size but frankly not something I would consider a work horse like my Dell E6420. I like the larger screen and tend to have a lot going on in various windows and work spaces. For single minded tasks the XPS13 is great and works great for running two terminals side by side but doesn't fit my needs. So I am tackling the XPS15 (L521x).

Meet the Dell XPS 15:
The XPS15 is a rather powerful slim laptop. It has various configurations for purchase of which I have the high end Enterprise version but I am ordering a high end small business lappy as well due to my needs with VMs. In short more cores better option than faster cores.
NOTE: If you look at the Dell website you have to be careful as the XPS 15 is listed under large business and small business both of which have different processor options. The large enterprise version offers the i5-3320M and i7-3520M where as the small business version has the i5-3120M and i7-3612QM. (See comparison at There is also the consumer/home version is the XPS 15Z so make sure you look at all locations when you are looking for the one you want.
Overall Anandtech has done a nice write up on the small business version and I would suggest giving it a read.

Ubuntu and XPS 15.
Ubuntu 12.04 "Precise Pangolin" installed with out a hitch. Recognized wireless right away and had no issues with the Intel 4000 gpu. Working with the Nvidia GeForce GT 640M gpu was a littl more involved but I will get to that in a moment. Overall the Ubuntu install was flawless, fast, and free from major issues like I have experienced before. That said there were some small issues that were quickly remedied by having the right drivers.

One big issue that you will probably notice right away is that the track pad is on ludicras speed. It took some steady slow fingers to go through some menu's. The track pad issue was resolved thanks to Project Sputnik mentioned earlier. The XPS 13 and 15 essentially use the same mouse drivers so I added the ppa for Sputnik and this made the track pad much more resonable. The pad does take some getting used to as it is a full click pad and does away with the middle button. Depending on you mouse settings you may need to use one finger clicks to do left click and two finger click to do right click. Oh and almost forgot, two finger scrolling works both vertically and horizontally  This was a feature lacking on my E6420 that could only do vertical scrolling with two fingers.

Your next major hurdle, and it is time consuming, is dealing with Nvidia's Optimus technology. I was a little ticked at first about having to work with it and that the bios doesn't let you disable it like previous version did. However the technology has progressed and so has Linux thus making Optimus viable and helpful. What is Optimus you ask? "Optimus" allows non-3d intense apps to run on the local gpu while programs needing more power can use the Nvidia card. Thus power demand decreases based on usage. It also helps for Linux because most the Intel graphic drivers just work, especially when adding external monitors.

To get Optimus to run in Linux you currently need an application called "Bumblebee" which adds Optimus support to Linux. Ultimately Bumblebee will be included in the kernel but until then it is a separate project. Once installed there are some configuration things that need to be done all of which are covered in "Bumblebee's" documentation/FAQ for how to install it. Once in place you should be able to run "$ optirun {command} " and that application will render using the Nvidia card instead of the Intel 4000.

One gotcha I ran into is that you essentially have to remove "bumblebee" and install it again should the kernel change. Hopefully that will all be taken care of in future versions.

Pain Point and Deal Breakers
There is some setup that you need to do to get Ubuntu to run correctly on the XPS15. It is a little more than what you would do with E6420, however it is doable and once done the system works well and I had few issues. However, the two issues I did run into are show stoppers.

While typing I would often send the mouse flying or inadvertently click on something. After using the XPS15 for some time I switched back to my E6420 only to suddenly realize why I had such issue. The XPS15 essentially centers the larger trackpad on the "H" key thus shifting the normal location over and with the added size means it is constantly near my palm. If you use proper typing techniques with the home keys then hitting the 6,7,y,h has the strong potential of hitting the trackpad and causing an inadvertent click. The "disable as you type" feature helps some but not enough.

The second issue is with the heat generation. This comes in two forms; cpu and gpu, both caused by pushing the graphic's capabilities of the system even slightly. Minecraft and League of Legends work well on my E6420 but slaughtered the XPS15 due to heat. The only fixes I found for this was a firmware updated that essentially clocks the GPU down which invalidates any reason to purchase such hardware.

On paper this system has great CPU, GPU, and memory capabilities. Regretfully it doesn't survive the real world which is to bad because I really wanted to like this laptop, but given the track pad placement and heat issue I will have to wait till the next model from Dell to see if the correct the issues.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dell? a software company? Frankly I'm torn.

ZDNet's Glenn ODonnel tells us "Suddenly, Dell is a Software Company!"

About two weeks ago, Dell announced it formed a new software group. In itself, this is not necessarily big news, but what gets us excited about Dell’s potential to finally become a serious software player lies in the man they hired to lead this new group. The new President of Dell Software Group is none other than John Swainson, the same guy who rescued CA from the brink of collapse and turned it into a truly good software company. When John left CA, it was the best it had been in its entire history. It continues to be a strong company because he built it to endure.

I cannot say I am surprised at Dell's move. Dell wishes to compete with HP who competes with IBM and Oracle all of whom have vast software and service portfolio's. Not to mention the hardware business is become more and more of a commodity market. Only the high end systems offers good margins and that seems to get smaller and smaller.

On the one had this move will be a good move for Dell, John Swainson has a good track record and has Gleen pointed out if Dell's culture is compatible what what John brings then it could be very successful. On the other hand I have to ask is this really a good move for the customers? One thing I have liked about Dell is they have been the most vendor agnostic. IBM is network agnostic as is Oracle but HP has been trying to claim the entire hardware stack for a while which has put pressure on Dell to do likewise. I think IBM and Oracle have been wise to stay out of the network space but both are heavy in the storage market. Cisco has entered the server market but honestly I have not seen anything from them that has been very compelling. Only thing I do see between HP and Cisco is that their building of the stack has just lead to a proprietary stack.

Personally I have not been happy with the hardware stack all in one vendor approach. It seems to be an "all eggs in one basket" approach. I am not saying this doesn't work, but I question how good it is for the industry as a whole and for customers in-particular. HP pushes their stack hard. Yes they will work with you if you bring up another solution but it is generally a HP first mentality. Oracle seems to be moving to the "we are the only one" route. IBM seems to be the most willing to work with people and build good hardware stack, but IBM has a problem with the image (true or not) of being costly. So Dell has played and good role in value and service. Frankly their equipment hardware is as good or better than HP servers. Dell's DCS team is a great boom but I wish they were a little more public with what they do as they have great solutions that might actually fit other people but no-knows that is going on behind their closed doors. (BTW, I really like the concept behind the C6100 and C5000 are great. Just wish acquisition cost would come down more.)

Building out more software solutions for Dell may be seen as a good competitive strategy when comparing Dell to HP but I can see where one time business partners are now software rivals. We saw the same thing happen between HP and Cisco which in turn changed things between Dell and Cisco. HP started making more advanced 10G switch gear and made their "VirtualConnect" which offered something more than Cisco offered for the HP Blade Enclosures. Soon we find out that Cisco is going to make their own server hardware and blade enclosure and the only "Cisco" blade-switch you can have for your C7000 is the Cisco 3120, 3020. None of which have 10G connectivity to the blade. Your only option is to use 10G pass=through to a Cisco switch. You have a similar situation with Dell.

In the end if Dell can show the same customer service with software that it does with it's hardware and do a good job with implementation then I see them doing well in this new initiative. But it still begs the question is this good for customer and the industry or are we starting to hedge towards more proprietary hardware stacks?