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I recently replaced my aging Thinkpad with a Dell M3800. I selected it over the 15" MacBook Pro after spending almost a month with the MacBook. It is the nicest laptop I have ever had, and I am not the only one to highly recommend it as a Linux laptop for developers. My machine was actually shipped with Windows 8.1, as I received it about a month before Dell announced official Linux support.

This laptop is powerful enough to be used as a workstation (512 GB SSD, 16GB RAM, Intel i7-4712HQ CPU @ 2.30GHz, USB3, 15" screen), yet it is lighter than I expected and has a longer battery life (remember that my previous laptop was a Thinkpad). It has a solid construction, even compared to the venerable Thinkpad. Everything appears to work in Linux including hibernate, all the keyboard function keys, the touchpad, the touchscreen, 3D accelerated graphics, wireless, memory card reader, webcam etc.

However, there are some cautions with this machine. I'll summarize them here:

  • One of the USB ports on the right side of the machine is actually a USB2 port. If you plug a USB3 device in to it, expect strange behavior.
  • High DPI support is not as good as on OSX, especially with multi-monitors with different dot density. This is a limitation in X11 that should be addressed whenever Wayland is released (meaning in a long time). However, my second monitor is clear, and I have everything working even if it is a bit ugly at times. The AutoHiDPI plugin in Firefox helps, as does
    google-chrome -high-dpi-support=1 -force-device-scale-factor=1.5

    When I am using a TTY, I run `setfont sun12x22`.

  • The touch screen works great (unless a coworker points at my screen). But when a second monitor is attached, it thinks the touchscreen goes across the surface of both monitors. This isn't a problem, because I don't use the touchscreen when I'm standing at my desk. This is another X11 architectural limitation that Wayland is supposed to address.
  • I do miss the OSX gestures. There are some packages to add them to KDE, but I haven't bothered to try them. Theoretically, Wayland will help here too.
  • The open source NVIDIA drivers run great, but to get 3D acceleration without killing the battery life you need to use the Bumblebee package, which is a pain. Again, this sounds like an X11 problem that won't be fixed until Wayland.
  • And I have had trouble with the wireless card dropping for a few seconds every hour (enough to kill a Skype call). I have reason to suspect that this is resolved in the 3.19 Linux kernel, due in Fedora any day.

The last problem is the only one that bothers me on a regular basis, and the 3.19 kernel went into Fedora updates-testing today.

I am going to enjoy using this machine for the next three or four years.

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  1. aviriel

    aviriel on #

    > I selected it over the 15" MacBook Pro after spending almost a month with the MacBook.

    Why did you not stay with the MacBook? I think on where to go from Thinkpad, but I tend toward selecting MacBook. But to be clear, I search for the aluminum 12-13" laptop.

  2. aviriel

    aviriel on #

    already found a second post about this topic, sorry...

  3. Richard Esplin

    Richard Esplin on #

    Thanks for the comment!

    My other post focuses on the difference in software between OSX and Linux. But it is an interesting question how the Dell M3800 and MacBook Pro compare from a purely hardware perspective.

    If I were to compare an Ubuntu Dell M3800 against a MacBook Pro running Ubuntu, they are very similar though I think the Dell is a little cheaper. The only place where there is a tradeoff in the hardware is that the MacBook probably has a longer battery life, but the Dell has more ports. Ports matter to me more than battery because most of the time I am using my computer at my desk.

    After looking at this a bit closer, it appears that my three month old laptop does not have two features that are advertised on the Dell web site for the current M3800.

    * The screen is "only" 3200 x 1800, instead of full 4K 3840 x 2160 pixels. I don't miss the extra resolution, as my eyes aren't good enough to tell the difference on a 15.6" display. (See above section on HighDPI to see why a higher resolution could make things worse.)

    * My model has a Display Port instead of a Thunderbolt port. I don't currently have a need for a Thunderbolt port, but I expect I will within the next three years. So that is a bit of a shame. I would love to drive a series of 4K external monitors <me stops to daydream>.

    So these are areas where a MacBook Pro would be better than my laptop, though it looks like the current Dell M3800 addresses these issues.

  4. Sidney

    Sidney on #

    Thanks for great review (also the post about your OSX experience). I'm taking a back end web development course that calls for Mac or Linux. I started out running Ubuntu 14.02 in virtualbox on a Win 8.1 Dell XPS-12 but ran out of virtual disk space. I also had major issues with the Wifi connection in the guest machine.

    Out of 25 students, only 4 of us were using Linux, and I was the only one with real IT experience. That made me the de facto tech support for the other "Linux Guys" as we became known as. I ended up spending an average of 20 minutes per three-hour class tweaking other people's rigs. Also, the installation scripts to initially set up our environments were all written specifically for OSX, so there were a few configuration hurdles to get over from time to time.

    I had to take a hiatus from the class. I wanted to have a dedicated machine when I returned. I've been struggling with purchasing a Macbook Pro. True, the instructors only know OSX, but generally, I was able to get things working without them. I want a 15" rig. The MBR 15" is due for an upgrade this summer, but if I wait for that, I would have to miss the next cycle of the course.

    I've been reading all the blogs and forums about OSX vs Linux for devs. Your blog has tipped me towards the M3800. Thanks.

  5. aviriel

    aviriel on #

    Heh, your dreams are too dreams.. I like that Thinkpad has a VGA port. So I afraid of both Display Port and Thunderbolt port. And resolution 1920x1080 is absolutely fine for me :)
    The problem is that I understand that I do not want to install Fedora to Macbook Pro. If I have to pay for the software while I buy hardware, then I want to try to use it. In any case I use Gnome Shell, and I do not use so many custom applications as you do, so maybe it will not be a problem for me to work on Macbook. Web browsers, Alfresco, eclipse, Skype, LibreOffice, git and bash will be the same..

    I will take a more detailed look at the market before I will decide. Thank you for sharing your opinion.

  6. Richard Esplin

    Richard Esplin on #

    Sidney,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It can be a pain to be the one providing support to all the other Linux users, but it is also a great way to learn. And frequently the person I helped start with Linux ends up helping me one day in the future.

  7. Richard Esplin

    Richard Esplin on #

    aviriel,

    As an open protocol, Display Port doesn't have the annoying restrictions that HDMI forces. I haven't had any problem with it, though I do carry a Display Port to VGA converter. My limited understanding is that Thunderbolt is similarly open, but that it can also chain devices. It will be interesting to hear what you end up with.

  8. Richard Esplin

    Richard Esplin on #

    People keep asking me about this laptop, so I wanted to provide a few updates:

    * It has been a reliable machine for nearly two years.
    * It does run really hot.
    * If I were buying a laptop today, I would buy another Dell. The list of Dell's current Linux laptops is here:

    http://www.dell.com/learn/us/en/555/campaigns/xps-linux-laptop

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