Sunday, March 24, 2013

Windows 8 XPS 12 Review

The Review

So I've had my XPS for about 2 weeks now, and I think its a pretty great computer overall. It feels well built, it's super fast; even though I got the base model with the i5 not the i7, and is quickly becoming my most used piece of hardware. But it's not perfect.  The default track pad gestures can be confusing, random input devices become unresponsive, and battery is good, but not fantastic.

The Good

This thing is fast. Very fast. It boots up so quickly I first though the computer might be waking from sleep, not powering on from a cold start. And when it does start from sleep? Its like pressing unlock on a smart phone, its just running suddenly ready to go again. Hell it takes me longer to get past the lock screen than it does for me to boot the computer up. It just that fast at booting. The rest of the system is zippy as well. The SSD makes application launching almost instantly, but that's to be expected with any ultra book or any laptop over $1000 really. 

At 3.35lbs, this fits well into my bag and it's comfortable enough to hold and use while standing up, in short bursts anyway. The selling point of this convertible, the swiveling screen, is a really nice feature. It has a solid secure click in either laptop or tablet mode, and it doesn't feel like it's gonna break off at any moment. With the screen up and the lid closed, it actually feels like a tablet should, not something that happens to work as a tablet. The speakers on the side sound good no matter how the device is sitting; making it's tablet mode great for watching movies. The touchscreen is a beautiful 1080p display so watching Netflix on this is sharp and clear. It also, for some odd reason, can recognize 10 fingers at once. Now I have NO idea when I would want to use all 10 fingers on the screen at the same time, but its nice to know I can. The back-lit keyboard is very comfortable to type on, and the track pad is one of the best I've used. The track pad also works with Windows 8 gestures, which allows for a very nice way to access the "Metro" side of Windows 8, one that can't be accessed as easily on a traditional keyboard and mouse setup. It has two USB 3.0 ports on the right side of the computer, one of which is powered even when the computer is off. I can't get over that feature. My USB DVD drive works with the computer off, so I can eject and insert my boot cd's without having to press start, jam F12, and try to insert a cd before the computer boots. 

When it comes to software, you can tell Windows 8 was really made to be used on a device like this, not a standard desktop. On a proper touchscreen and track pad, like this computer has, many of the design decisions in Windows 8 start to make sense. The charms bar becomes useful, and swiping from the right to switch between apps is fluid and instant. And because the same gestures work on the track pad, I don't have to reach up and touch the screen to get to the tablet side of windows 8. 

The Bad

The track pad supports Windows 8 gestures! While this was also in the good section, this is a double edged sword. If you're like me, you just want to move the cursor to the right to click on a link, and next thing you know you're in a different application. I put my finger on the far right edge of the track pad when I move the cursor, so I don't have to do tons of little movements, but Windows 8 reads this as the app switch gesture. For anybody not used to Windows 8, or anybody who doesn't know this gesture, this is almost a deal breaker. I had to go turn it off in the settings just because I was accidentally switching apps whenever I tried to move the mouse. The rest of the gestures were handy though and were never an issue like this one. It was infuriating. 

The battery life on this was a little disappointing to me. I tend to get about 4-6 hours of life out of it, and all considering that what I should be getting on a device like this, but I've been so spoiled by my 8+ hour chrome book that getting a low battery notification so "early" in the day is annoying. With the computer is power saving mode, I get closer to the 6 hour range, but I could tell there was a slight hit to performance  Again this is really just me being way to picky but I felt I should bring it up.

At the software level, there aren't enough apps that work well with touch screen. Google Chrome and Firefox don't work well with pinch zoom, only zooming in bursts like ctrl + scrolling will do, and often I can't use the touchscreen to scroll down on a page if it isn't fully loaded let. This was really annoying when I was on a slow connection. When you try to scroll to early, it doesn't do anything, but once the page is loaded, it finally scrolls down with no warning. On IE 10  pinch zoom was fluid and fast, but I've used Chrome and Firefox for so long I couldn't make the switch.

Lastly, sometimes things just stop working. I go to move the cursor with the track pad and nothing happens. I drag my finger across the track pad in 100 different was but it won't move. I even made sure things like the touch guard wasn't ignoring my input. The only way I ever got it working again was to unlatch the screen, forcing the system into tablet mode, and then clicking it back to laptop. And sometimes, the exact opposite would happen. The touchscreen would stop working all together in laptop mode. The keyboard worked, the track pad was fine, and the system was completely response, but the touchscreen was useless. Again the only way I was able to fix this was by converting it to tablet then back to laptop mode. Now I'm not sure if this is a hardware problem or a software one, but it is a majorly annoying one.


Fantastic. I use thing computer all the time, as both a laptop and a tablet. I find I use it most in laptop mode when I want to get work done. But the touchscreen is so great, I don't use the track pad much. I type on the keyboard and when I need to click a link or open a tab, I just touch the screen rather than finding where the mouse is on the screen and moving it. When I'm just surfing the web or watching Netflix, it really works well in tablet mode. It's easy to navigate and the onscreen keyboard is just fine for tapping in a quick web address, and even short comments on a blog or posting on a forum. Overall I think this works best as a touchscreen laptop than a tablet. 

For anybody who is considering getting a convertible, this is definitely the one to get. When i was thinking about getting one, I though the price tag might have been to high, but I don't regret this purchase at all.

Regarding my last post: The decision

My last post was basically a overly long question about Ubuntu vs Arch and Unity vs Gnome 3, and after some testing in live environments and VM's, I think I've made my choice. Unity. I much as I hated Unity when it came out and used Gnome 3, I feel that Unity is growing into something great, much more so then Gnome 3 has been. Now when I picked Unity I still felt that Arch Linux was the better choice in VM's, but when I set up Unity in Arch Linux... I was disappointed. As far as I could tell, everything was functional, but it really lacked the ingratiation I got on Ubuntu. There were a few X related software packages I couldn't upgrade because they would break Unity, and everything I loved about Arch became downsides. I had to dig to make simple things work again, and while I normally love that, I felt like the system was an old car held together with duct tape and glue, not a light weight, no frills sports car that I normally get out of my Arch builds. So with that, I choose Ubuntu. Maybe this Mir thing will turn out well, and if it doesn't there wasn't anything wrong, per say, with my arch builds.

Now this decision isn't finalized  I promised myself I would keep this on Windows 8 for at least a month so I could really give a good review of the way windows 8 is supposed to work. I want to keep it so I can feel really comfortable recommending this computer to somebody with the software it came with, not just saying its great hardware; Windows 8 may or may not demand your first born. Maybe something will change in this time. Maybe the Unity-For-Arch project will be better setup with the system, with better support for a rolling release style distro that is Arch Linux.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dell XPS 12, OS Rant, and Questions.

First things first. Haven't posted in a while. Only really posting because I felt this was way to long for a Google+ Status. Will I post more in the future? Maybe! Anyway posting time!

New Computer Setup?

I'm getting a new computer! A Dell XPS 12 to be exact! In case you don't know already, the XPS 12 is Dell's (quite good IMO) idea of an Ultrabook convertible. It can be used as a standard touch screen laptop, but can also pivot 180° over the horizontal axis for use as a pretty sweet tablet. It's a great computer, but it ships with Windows 8, which can be seen as good or bad.

Windows 8

Say what you will about Windows 8, its actually isn't that bad of an OS, if you have a touch screen. The "metro" interface is awkward on a traditional desktop environment, but with a touchscreen or a tablet it actually starts to click. I plan on using Windows 8 on this computer for about a month, so I can really use Windows 8 the way it was meant to be used. Besides I help people with computers all the time; the more I know about Windows 8, the easier it will be to help. However, Windows 8 isn't open source software and I don't want to run it on my computer forever, which brings me to my next question:

What OS Should I use?

Clearly I want this to be open source. I'm talking good old GNU/Linux. But I don't really know what distro I should use. What desktop environment will work best with a touchscreen? Being a creature of habit, I go right to two distros, Ubuntu and Arch Linux.

Ubuntu (TL;DR I don't like Mir)

Probably one of the best known Linux distros made, Ubuntu (and its parent company Canonical) aim to be the ones to put Linux in the limelight; to really get the word out and get people using Linux. It's one of the easier distros to install and use. With the addition of things like Ubuntu touch going to coming out at the end of the year, Ubuntu may be a good choice just for the ecosystem it will create with its sibling Ubuntu Phablets.

But I don't like the choices Canonical is making. One of the things I like the most about Linux is the way open source technology spreads around. The whole Linux community gets together and improvements made on one distro are often moved upstream and everybody benefits. This is how it should have been with Wayland. For some reason Ubuntu went its own way by creating Mir. Now Ubuntu can make its own choices of course, but I can't see why Ubuntu wouldn't use the progress already made with Wayland. Wayland isn't new, but it can still be improved upon. Instead of working with current Wayland developers to adapt  and improve Wayland to fit their needs, they assumed it would have all the problems X has and started from scratch. So with two standards, and with no clear "better" standard, compatibility issues start to arise at support and driver levels. If Ubuntu is successful with talking to hardware vendors to get good Mir support, it is possible that these hardware vendors won't work with the rest of the Linux community to get Wayland support. And I don't blame them; who can? If I was a hardware vendor, I wouldn't want to publish tons of different drivers for Linux.  The problem is there was no reason for them to choose at all before Mir entered the picture. With Canonical and the whole Linux community supporting Wayland, there wouldn't be any fragmentation and hardware vendors would be more willing to write one driver to support most all of the Linux community  If Ubuntu found something with Wayland that was a problem, they should have fixed it not thrown it out the window.

Anyway besides all of that, Ubuntu is easy to set up and use. Installation wouldn't take long, things like Encryption would be set up no problem, and there would be a how to guide for EVERYTHING I could want to know how to do. Ubuntu PPA's can be found for most all Linux software, and if not a ppa, a guide for installing it on Ubuntu. It's supported.

Arch Linux

I'm gonna start with this: I LOVE Arch Linux. I just love taking a basic shell running on a live cd (usb) and building Linux the way I want it from the ground up. But why I love it is also why I might not want to use it. To set up an eCrytpfs on Ubuntu I just select "encrypt home directory" when I'm installing it. To do it on Arch Linux I have to do a lot more sets, like how it is outlined here.

Now I consider myself an advanced Linux user. No part of the eCryptfs set up looks to difficult or complicated to me, and I feel I could set it up and have it running just as well, if not better, than Ubuntu. But do I want to do this for every part of the system? What about systemd vs upstart boot times? What about encrypted swap? Hibernation? Touch-Screen driver support? Touch-screen drivers are included in the Ubuntu 13.04 kernel, but I don't know if they have been ported upstream. If not I would have to patch the kernel myself; I'm not using an Ultrabook convertible without touchscreen support.

Arch Linux is by far a better OS to me, but it is worth the extra work to set up? Is it worth the work setting up Arch Linux because I don't like Mir? And then there is the Desktop Environment.

Unity? Gnome 3?

Regardless of what distro I use, I need a good Desktop Environment based for touchscreens. If I'm gonna use my computer as a tablet, I should be able to do almost everything by touch in a natural way. Basis aide, both are actually make for good usable shells. Unity had its problems at first but after using it for a while, it's fast and has some neat integration, even it wasn't the best looking. Gnome Shell, on the other hand, has always looked great to me; I'm a big fan on minimal interfaces. But I don't know how well it would work with only touch, and I think I would miss the HUD Unity has. (When you press alt and type print or save and you access that command as if you went File -> Whatever) I've grown to love that feature because of how fast I can access menus. Unity will (read: should) also tie in well with Ubuntu Touch devices when Unity Next is released. Even if Gnome shell is better, using the same shell setup on my Nexus devices and on my XPS would great. Having one gesture and app work across all form factors? That's hard to beat.

Wrapping it up*

I was gonna post about more concerns I have with encryption and things like Intel Rapid Start, but this is a long blog post as it is, so I'll think I'll save that for another day. 

So if you made it this far in the post, what do think? Is Arch Linux worth the extra effort? Is Unity the best touch based shell? Gnome 3? Something I haven't even thought or heard of?

Whatever I decide though, I think I'm gonna document my experience with my XPS on this blog. I've always liked blogging, just always been to busy (read: lazy) to post more. I hope this post or future ones will help somebody out someday.

*Oh and side note, should headings be capitalized like titles? I like grammar but I'm far from a NAZI.