XPS 13 9380 (2019) Review


For Linux users, this is almost perfect, except for one really annoying problem

1051 words · 5 min read

As a Linux user, using a recent model of MacBook Pro was nothing but a misadventure, especially given that the laptop I had prior to that was Dell XPS 13 9350, which had a Developer Edition with Linux pre-loaded, which meant it could run Linux without too much trouble. The problems with MacBook Pro were not limited to the difficulties in using Linux or the serious locking-down of macOS, but also the quality control, and their Idiot Genius Bar’s treating me like an idiot with a wallet that leaks money. When I finally had enough of the MacBook Pro and those idiots at the Idiot Genius Bar), I sold it and switched back to Dell XPS 13 9380, the model released just a little over a month ago.

I bought the machine from Dell Hong Kong website, which, unfortunately, didn’t offer the Developer Edition, which meant I had to purchase the machine with a Windows 10 license that I would never use. The pricing was much more expensive than the default option in the US at laungh, but the warranty included onsite support, which, if you purchase the machine in the US, requires an extra hundred US dollar. So all in all, the pricing wasn’t great, but it wasn’t outrageous either.

What is really outrageous, though, is the noise of the laptop. But before I get into that, let me talk about the positives first.

The Perfect Linux experience

My unit is an XPS 13 9380 with Intel Core i5-8265U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, 8GB RAM, and 256GB NVMe storage. The only colour option available for my configuration is the silver outer shell with black interior, which means there isn’t any big difference from the old design, though it is significantly thinner. The carbon-fibre palmrest is comfortable for extended keyboard use, but since it is a softer material, it is quite prone to breaking on the side of the palmrest assembly, especially when you take the laptop apart. The hard drive is a SK hynix drive, which is somewhat disappointing, as my bricked XPS 13 9350 uses a Samsung drive, but it does the job. The screen is a 1080p screen with a matt finish, which is nowhere as sharp and as colourful as the one on a MacBook Pro, but for a ultrabook, a 1080p screen is more than adequate, and it can get very bright. I don’t usually work under direct sunlight, so I have no way to tell if it’s bright enough for that use case. One of the biggest thing reviewers elsewhere seem to be most happy with is the decision to move the webcam from the bottom to the top bezel. While that may be a big deal for people who use the webcam, it doesn’t matter for me as I don’t use it at all.

The performance is a huge step up from the monstrosity that is the 2017 MacBook Pro (with a dual-core CPU instead of quad-core), which Apple still has the audacity to sell today at original prices, and one doesn’t even need to perform any benchmark to feel the performance improvements. The battery life is also quite good. With TLP installed, and with some more aggressive power-saving options enabled, the battery discharge rate, as reported by powertop, can go as low as 1.6 W on idle, giving me upward of 33 hours of idle battery run time at low brightness level, and can easily last more than a full day. The thermal solution is adequate. I have swapped out the stock thermal paste for some Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut, but I have not been able to observe any big difference. At idle and on battery, the CPU cores idle at around 32 degree celsius, while plugging it to the power supply increases the idle temperature to around 45 celsius, which I find respectable for a laptop as thin as this.

XPS 13 9380

XPS 13 9380

XPS 13 9380

XPS 13 9380

Coil Whine

Unfortunately, this laptop suffers from a problem that seems to have plagued the XPS line throughout the years: coil whine. Essentially, it is an electrical noise generated by electromagnetic forces from currents inside the circuitry of the laptop.

A lot of electric appliances generate this kind of noise, most notably fluorescent lamps, and many components inside a desktop computer can potentially generate such noise too. Often times though, those noises are not noticeable, since fan noises from CPU, GPU, and power supply are loud enough to mask the coil whine from other components. Since fan noises sound more like a low frequency hum (if you have good fans anyway), they are not usually as annoying as those periodic high-pitch screaming.

The problem with a laptop like XPS 13 9380, however, is that it has no moving parts apart from the fan, which doesn’t turn on until CPU temperature goes up. When the laptop isn’t under significant workload, the coil whine becomes very noticeable in a quiet room, and it doesn’t help that I often work through the night. Everytime something changes on the screen, the laptop screams a bit. Remarkably, sometimes I find it loud enough to be audible through a pair of open-back headphones.

To Dell’s credit, their technical support responded promptly by swapping out the motherboard, and neither the technician on the phone nor the onsite technician treated me in the way Apple’s employees at the Idiot Genius Bar treated customers, and when the new board didn’t solve the problem, I was offered to exchange the machine, yet, incredibly, the new machine, which I am using to type this review, produces the exact same noise.

To some, this noise may not be a big deal, but this is a laptop with the fans being the only moving parts, so why is it that it sounds as though there’s a mechanical hard drive inside? That is absurd.

Conclusion

Given that I have tested two machines and three motherboards, all with the same problem, the odds are that it will never get resolved. This is disappointing, as XPS 13 is otherwise a perfect laptop for Linux users (or Windows users if you are into Windows, or even Hackintosh users), and that the same coil whine issue continues to affect the XPS line of laptops after years of complaints is close to unacceptable at this point.

 Tech    11 Mar, 2019
 Laptop    Review    Linux  
Copyright © Peter Y. Chuang 2019

Peter Y. Chuang is a Hong Kong-born novelist, short story writer, and a music critic who has lived in London at a time and now goes to Berlin semi-regularly for no good reason. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s probably playing with his cat, or listening to classical music, either at home or at one of the opera houses and concert halls in Germany. He uses Linux (current distro of choice: Arch Linux). Read more about his Linux stuff.

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