Dell XPS 13 Review

Recently it was time to buy a new laptop, and this time around I wanted something that was powerful, but ultraportable. I ended up settling on a Dell XPS 13 and have been very happy with it so far.

Weighing in at just 3 pounds and just 0.71 inches thick, it certainly has the ultraportable criteria covered. Dell makes a ton of different versions of the XPS 13. The version I bought has a 1920 x 1080 touch screen, 8gb of RAM, a 128gb SSD and a core i7 processor.

OS

The Dell XPS 13 ships with Windows 8. The first thing I did was wipe that and replace it with Linux Mint 16. Dell makes an Ubuntu developer version of the XPS 13, and a lot of the work Dell has done there carried over to the consumer version of the XPS 13. The laptop worked perfectly out of the box with Linux Mint. Everything from the WiFi to the keyboard backlight to the touchscreen just worked without any effort on my part. In fact, the geekiest configuration change I had to make was figuring out how to completely disable the trackpad (I simply despise trackpads on all laptops).

Screen

The screen is a glossy touchscreen coated in Gorilla Glass. This is not the worst glossy screen I’ve used, but I’m not a fan of non-matte screens in general. A matte version would have been nice. I also think touchscreens on laptops are a gimmick and turned that feature off immediately.

Keyboard and Trackpad

I’m used to the awesome keyboard on my Lenovo T420. The XPS 13 keyboard isn’t that good, but it is surprisingly nice to type on. It is much better than most non-Lenovo laptops I’ve used, including other Dell models. As I mentioned above, I despise trackpads and the first thing I do on any laptop I own is completely disable them. If you’re into trackpads, I’d say the XPS 13 trackpad was about as crappy as every other trackpad on every other laptop I’ve used.

Performance and Battery Life

The laptop’s performance under Linux Mint is very good. You’re not going to be able to do any serious gaming on this, but I get more than acceptable frame rates from Minecraft.

Obviously with ultraportables, the battery life is one of the major tradeoffs. I turn up the brightness on the screen as far as it will go, and I tend to get 4-5 hours of battery life doing normal browsing and text editing. More intensive applications, such as video encoding, are going to reduce that significantly.

The XPS 13 seems to manage heat fairly well. After extended use, the machine does get a little warm, but much less so than other laptops I’ve used. Occasionally the internal fan kicks on, and the noise is noticeable but typical for what I’d expect in a laptop.

Ports

One of the major compromises Dell made in creating the XPS 13 was reducing and eliminating the port options.

For USB, there are only two USB 3.0 ports–one on each side of the laptop. Two on each side would have been ideal, as this is really too few USB ports for a contemporary laptop.

For connecting to an external display, the only option is a Mini-Display port. The laptop’s small size probably precluded an HDMI port or VGA port.

Finally, there is no Ethernet port on the XPS 13 at all. The laptop is WiFi only unless you have a USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

One Minor Annoyance

There is one other minor annoyance I have with the XPS 13. I prefer laptops that have hardware latches that lock and unlock to allow the laptop to be opened up. The XPS 13 does not have such a latch, relying on the hinge to keep the laptop closed.

This creates two problems. First, opening up the laptop is a bit awkward as the user has to wedge a finger underneath the LCD and then pull the panel upward in order to open the laptop. Second, I’m extremely skeptical as to how well the hinge will hold up over a couple years of opening and closing.

Overall

Overall, this is a very good laptop for the price. I had some concerns when buying it and planned to gift it to one of my kids if it didn’t work out for me, but the Dell XPS 13 has become the PC I use for all of my non-gaming PC needs.

ASUS G75VW-DH72 Gaming Laptop Review

ASUS G75VWBack in the Summer of 2009, my desktop computer died and rather than replace it with another desktop computer I bought a Gateway P-7809u FX Edition 17″ gaming laptop. It wasn’t going to run new games on ultra settings at playable FPS, but it was good enough for the games I played (in fact I passed them on to my kids recently who use them to play World of Warcraft and a few older games).

Last October, I replaced my Gateway with a more portable and business-oriented Lenovo T420. The T420 is a portable workhorse that lets me do everything I need to do on a daily basis including video editing and multimedia content creation. It will even play World of Warcraft and older games at decent frame rates, but more recent games are largely unplayable on it. So after paying off the T420 I went shopping for a gaming laptop, and ended up purchasing an ASUS G75VW-DH72 last month.

ASUS sells what seems like hundreds of variants of the G75VW. The DH72 features a Core i7 3630QM / 2.4 GHz CPU, 16gb of RAM, a 256gb SSD, a 750gb 7200RPM hard drive, and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670M.

Storage

I really don’t care what technical reason they have for doing it — shipping a laptop partitioned like that is idiotic. A quick Google search led me to a freeware tool that made it easy to combine those partitions so I have a C: drive with 256gb of space and a D: drive with 750gb of space, but I shouldn’t have had to even worry about that.

This is the first laptop I’ve had with an SSD drive and it is extremely fast. There were actually a few times when I would reboot the machine and assume that I was looking at a shutdown screen graphic when in fact the machine had already finished rebooting.

I’ve installed most Windows applications to the SSD, except for games which I’ve installed to the hard drive. In general, the system runs extremely fast and smooth.

Graphics

ASUS sells variations of the G75VW that feature more powerful graphics cards, but for me the GeForce GTX 670M was in the performance vs. price sweet spot. With the 16gb of RAM and Core i7 3630QM it runs all of the games I want to run at a consistent 45-60 frames per second in 1080p. On the other hand, someone who is really into the very latest FPS shooter might find this a bit underpowered and would have to scale back the resolution or visual effects. Here’s a video of me playing WoW at 1920x1080p on the ASUS G75VW (I did have to turn down some of the graphic settings to get 60fps while using FRAPS).

A big difference between this and many other gaming laptops I’ve seen is that the screen on the G75VW is a matte LCD. The one thing I hated about the Gateway P-7809u was the constant glare from its glossy screen.

The other thing I am very impressed about is how the G75VW-DH72 manages heat. The Gateway P-7809u would get noticeably hot very quickly during gaming sessions and the side fan would rev up as if it were trying to shout over my vacuum.

The G75VW-DH72 has rear-mounted fans that I literally never hear going. Moreover, the laptop stays ridiculously cool even in intense gaming situations. If it would actually fit, you could play games with this thing resting on your lap without any problem.

Expansion, Keyboard, Etc.

For expansion, the G75VW-DH72 features four USB 3.0 ports, with two on the right front of the laptop and two on the rear left of the laptop. I bought an external Vantec USB 3.0 hard drive enclosure and threw in a Western Digital Caviar Black 1tb drive to some FRAPS recording of games. The USB 3.0 connected hard drive easily reaches 125+ mb/s on sequential read and writes, which is fast enough for what I’m doing (unlike the Gateway laptop, the G75VW-DH72 does not have an eSATA port).

The keyboard/trackpad has also gotten some negative reviews. It is your typical POS chicklet-style keyboard that you’ll see on a lot of Windows laptops. It and the trackpad are certainly serviceable, but I wouldn’t want to have to do serious work using them (then again, pretty much any laptop keyboard that isn’t made by Lenovo is shit IMO). I almost always use an external USB keyboard and trackball with my laptops, so keyboard and trackpad quality are the very last things I care about.

Also be aware that the G75VW-DH72 is freaking huge. I thought the Gateway 17″ gaming laptop as large, but the ASUS laptop is significantly larger (and the build quality appears to be significantly better as well). This will simply not fit in almost all cases designed for 17″ laptops — you’ll need to find a case that accommodates 18″ laptops if you plan to take this with you.

Windows 8

Yes, this laptop ships with Windows 8 64-bit. It is also the Home version so you can’t downgrade to Windows 7 for free as you can with the Professional version.

So here’s my take on Windows 8 after using it for a month. The Windows 8 OS is actually a fairly decent improvement on Windows 7. The problem is that Microsoft saddled it with that piece of shit they used to call Metro. As far as I’m concerned that is essentially unusable on a non-tablet/touch screen interface.

I purchased Stardock’s Start8 for $5 which does two things to dramatically improve Windows 8. First, it puts the Start button, etc. back on the Desktop. Once that’s done, the Windows 8 Desktop acts pretty much like the Windows 7 Desktop. The second thing that Start8 does is let you boot directly to the Desktop, skipping over those crappy Metro tiles.

After I set that up, I really don’t notice the difference between Windows 7 and Windows 8 in day to day usage. Microsoft would do itself a big favor by implementing something like Start8 by default and making Metro optional for folks who have touch screens and might find it useful.

Bottom Line

There is one more difference between the Gateway laptop and this one. When I bought the Gateway I paid $1300 for it which at the time I thought was a lot to pay for a laptop. The ASUS G75VW-DH72 set me back $2000 (you can find it some places for about $1900). For me, after using it extensively for a month, it is definitely worth the price. Obviously you could get more power for less money in a desktop and there are more powerful (and more expensive) gaming laptops out there, but this is everything I expected out of a $2,000 gaming laptop.

External Laptop Batteries – The PowerPad 130

Web Worker Daily has nice things to say about Electrovaya’s PowerPad 130, an external add-on laptop battery that promises upwards of 10 hours of additional run-time on a single charge. Reviewing the device, Samuel Dean says he got an additional 6.5 hours of battery life on his Thinkpad X40.

The PowerPad certainly has a lot of interesting features, including a small LCD display that depicts how much juice it has left and a couple of USB ports so cell phones, MP3 players and other USB-rechargeable device can be recharged directly from it.

On the other hand, this will set you back $299 and adds and additional 2 pounds to whatever other gear you’re toting.