A Week at a Conference with the Dell Sputnik

I attended DjangoCon a couple of weeks ago (which was awesome!) so that was my first opportunity to spend some concentrated quality time with the Dell Sputnik and put it through its paces.

As you’ve probably guessed from my previous posts I’m pretty enamored with the Sputnik, and using it full-time for a week straight didn’t change my opinion. It’s a particularly great machine to travel with since it’s the ideal combination of light but still powerful enough to use for “real” work. In years past I’ve traveled with only a 10.1″ netbook and that was a miserable experience, but the 13″ screen and fantastic battery life of the Sputnik make it the ideal conference companion and I could still catch up on work in the evenings without feeling like I had one hand tied behind my back.

Battery Life

Day one of DjangoCon was a full day of extended tutorials so I used the Sputnik all day to take notes in Zim. There was no wi-fi available so I ran the Sputnik with wi-fi disabled (had there been a decent wi-fi signal I probably would have taken notes in Google Docs), and I did disable Bluetooth as well since I wasn’t using it. I also dimmed the screen to its lowest level since the room was dimly lit anyway and that brightness setting was more than enough to be usable.

In the second tutorial of the day I did enable wi-fi and used my Verizon hotspot since there were some materials to download for the second tutorial. I also close the lid putting the Sputnik into suspend mode when there were breaks, which accounted for a total of an hour of suspend time, and I powered it down completely during the lunch break.

Note that this is a bit of a contrast in my previous battery test when I ran the Sputnik with all the default settings and didn’t even try to conserve battery life, and in that case I still got more than 8 hours out of the battery.

All told the clock time for the day spanned about 7.5 hours including lunch and breaks, and in using the Sputnik with wi-fi on for about 3 hours of that, suspending during breaks, and powering off during lunch, I ended the day with nearly 50% of the battery remaining. Nice.

On the other days of the conference I followed a similar pattern but only powered down during lunch and didn’t ever shut the lid otherwise, and I was using wi-fi most of the day. The schedule on these days ran from 9 am – 6 pm, and even with this longer time span and wi-fi enabled all day, I’d still end each day with about 25% of my battery remaining.

In short, the battery life is darn impressive and beyond up to the task of living through a conference without having access to power during the day.

General Usability

Since I got the Sputnik right before I left for DjangoCon, this also gave me my first opportunity to use the Sputnik as my only machine for a week straight.

I won’t repeat what I said in my previous “initial impressions” post but I will say all those initial impressions held up during the week. The Sputnik is an exceptionally well built machine and is a real pleasure to use. I continued to be impressed with the vividness of the screen and the keyboard is absolutely fantastic.

The only complaint I have from using the Sputnik more heavily for a week is the trackpad. I’m sure this can be resolved through a bit of additional driver work and some setting tweaking, but I did find on occasion that even though I had “tap to click” disabled, and “disable trackpad while typing” turned on, the cursor would occasionally jump around the screen while I was typing, or inadvertently fire click events while I was using the trackpad.

Note there are some setting changes recommended in the Sputnik forums that I enabled which helped quite a bit, but it was still a bit of an issue. On an annoyance scale of 1 – 10 I’d put it at maybe a 3, so not a huge thing but was noticeable. There are also some active bug reports on this issue so I suspect with some driver updates (Sputnik is technically in beta, remember!) they’ll get this resolved.

Summary

After living with the Sputnik as my only machine for a week I continue to be extremely impressed. Particularly in a developer conference situation where power isn’t available at every seat and you have to fight for the few outlets that are available, the Sputnik’s fantastic battery life let me focus on the conference instead of worrying about whether or not my laptop was going to conk out.

Other than the occasional issues with the trackpad I thoroughly enjoyed using the Sputnik at DjangoCon — it makes a great conference companion!

Dell Sputnik: Battery Life Test

After I got the Sputnik set up the way I wanted I figured it was time to test the battery life, so yesterday afternoon I unplugged the power cord and did normal “work stuff” to see how much time I’d get out of the battery under normal working conditions.

Note that I’m not a professional hardware tester or benchmarker, so this was not a scientific experiment resulting in reams of data that can be sliced and diced 100 different ways. To me those charts and graphs always seem artificial anyway (though I suspect it’s quite efficient to do things that way if you test hardware for a living), so my methodology was, quite simply, to use the laptop unplugged until the battery ran out.

Applications Running During Testing

As far as specifically what I was doing and what applications I had running, I was doing Python/Django development yesterday, so here’s what I had running:
  • Emacs
  • Sublime Text 2
  • MySQL
  • Chrome with 6-10 tabs open
  • Terminal with 3-4 tabs open
  • Pidgin IM client
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth (I didn’t use this, but it’s on by default so it was running)
I intentionally did not dim the screen to its lowest usable setting since I didn’t want to skew the results too much. I just left the screen brightness at the default setting and let it automatically increase and decrease the brightness based on the default power settings.
I also did not (and I don’t even know if you can do this now that I think about it) disable the backlighting on the keyboard, so it would turn on and off depending on the ambient lighting at any given time.

Testing Process

As I alluded to above you won’t find a lot of scientific methodology here, but I figured I’d say a couple of words about what I did specifically during the battery drain period.
If you’re a developer you’ll already know the gist of this, but basically I was hopping back and forth between Emacs and Sublime Text 2 (I was working on converting a CFML application to Python and it was easier to have the CFML app up in Sublime and do the Python work in Emacs), the browser, and the terminal to run scripts or do something in MySQL. I also would start/stop the Django application, which is basically a little web server. (I did not install Apache on this machine yet since I’m pondering switching over to Nginx anyway.)
Also I’d occasional get up to get a cup of coffee, etc. so there were brief periods here and there when I wasn’t using the machine at all, but not so long that it went into hibernation mode.
That’s about it for the process discussion — I just used the thing as I normally would any computer on a normal work day.

Observations

With the default power settings the Sputnik did a great job of being efficient without being annoying. The screen would dim after a couple of minutes if I was reading something and not typing or using the touchpad and it would raise the brightness again once I moved the mouse or typed. I mention this because some machines I’ve had in the past were extremely aggressive with power-saving functionality (constantly “strobing” or adjusting the screen brightness, for example) to the point of me having to turn off the power management altogether which kind of defeats the purpose. So the default settings on this machine with Ubuntu work quite well.
Taken on balance the time remaining in the battery monitor was quite accurate, though I did notice it would jump up when I was doing something like reading and not interacting with the machine. For example I’d bring up a tab in Chrome with something I needed to read, and immediately after doing that I’d check the time remaining and let’s say it said I had 3 hours left. After reading something (i.e. not typing or moving the mouse) I’d check the time remaining again and it’d say I had 6 hours left. Then after using the machine for a minute I’d check again, and it’d be back to the original number of about 3 hours.
I have no engineering rationale to back this up, but as I was seeing this behavior I likened it in my head to the real-time gas mileage gauge in a car. If I’m braking down a hill in my Prius, it’ll tell me I’m getting “infinite” miles per gallon, which is basically a projection based on what’s going on at that point in time. The battery meter seemed to be behaving similarly, projecting battery life based on the activity at a given moment.
Taking the high estimation outliers out of the equation, however, it was quite accurate, even down to the warnings at the end when the battery meter (and the light on the front of the computer, which is a nice touch) turned red. On some machines I’ve had in the past when it says you have 20 minutes left, that may turn to a “plug it in right now” message in about 5 minutes, but that didn’t happen here. When it said I had 17 minutes left, it meant I had 17 minutes left.

Hibernation

If you know anything about running GNU/Linux on laptops you’ll know that hibernation working correctly can be a bit of a problem if the hardware and drivers don’t play nicely together.
I’m happy to report that the hibernation function on the Sputnik works exactly as you’d expect — you simply close the lid, and a few seconds later the light on the front of the machine will start flashing slowly, indicating it’s in hibernation mode. When you re-open the screen things come back quite quickly including reconnecting to WiFi, so there are no problems at all with hibernation.

Results

One more proclamation of how unscientific this was — I didn’t run a stopwatch while doing this. I just checked the time when I started and checked it again when the battery was more or less dead.
The results are quite impressive, with a run time of about 8 hours 20 minutes in my usage. The marketing materials for this machine claim between 8 and 9 hours so these numbers are quite legitimate in comparison to my usage, and if you disabled WiFi and Bluetooth and dimmed the screen, I can see pushing 9 hours of run time pretty easily.
This is all the more impressive when I compare it to my old Asus Eee netbook, which was a vastly less capable machine and would get 10 hours of battery life only with the larger 9-cell battery that not only stuck out the back of the machine like a tumor but also greatly added to the weight of the machine. So for the Sputnik to get this kind of battery life in normal usage in such a small, light package is really great.
Another big plus for the Sputnik!
I still haven’t covered installation and some settings tweaks so I’ll do that in another post soon.

Dell Sputnik Ultrabook: Initial Impressions

I got word a couple of days ago that I got into the Dell “Sputnik” beta program, which is Dell’s incubation project to bring a GNU/Linux-based (specifically Ubuntu-based) XPS 13 Ultrabook to market as a product, specifically as a machine aimed at developers. (We developers, lone wolves though we tend to be, do like a little attention now and then!)

As a huge free software and Linux proponent I have been watching this project closely so I was really excited to get an invite to the beta, and I received the machine today. General Disclaimer: The machine was not free. Dell did offer a discount for beta program participants but is heavily encouraging everyone to be very transparent and honest with their impressions of the machine.

In another blog post I’ll cover how I went about installing Ubuntu and the Sputnik-specific PPAs, but in this post I’ll share my initial impressions of the machine. (tl;dr version: With one minor exception, this is an absolutely beautiful, exceedingly well-built ultrabook that’s an absolute pleasure to use.)

This is a DELL?

As I said above I’ll cover Ubuntu installation in another post, but as a very quick aside — the machine does ship with Windows 7, the explanation being they didn’t want to delay shipping the beta machines to get the logistics of pre-installing Ubuntu worked out. On first boot I booted to an Ubuntu USB stick so I never let Windows see the light of day.
As the heading above indicates, to be perfectly honest I was shocked that this is a Dell. Admittedly I haven’t owned a Dell in many years though I’ve had several Dell laptops and desktops in the past, but everything about this machine screams high-end quality. (You can see my quick, too dark unboxing photos on Google+) From the packaging to the machine itself, they clearly put a lot of thought into the design from top to bottom.
The first thing I noticed is how unbelievably solid it feels for such a small, light machine. The machined aluminum lid opens smoothly and firmly to an extremely nice backlit keyboard with a really nice, solid feel. The 13.3″ HD screen is extremely sharp, running at a native 1366×768 pixels. Note that some 13″ ultrabooks have a slightly higher screen resolution, but for me this resolution is perfect for this size screen, striking a good balance between screen real estate and readability.
The bottom of the machine is carbon fiber which is quite cool to the touch for the most part (particularly given that there’s an Intel i7 chip inside), save for one warm spot towards the back of the machine (presumably right where the processor is). There is a bit of faint fan noise as the machine is running but it’s very, very quiet compared to a couple other ultrabooks I’ve had so they’ve put some nice thought into cooling such a small little package without copping out and constantly running a loud fan full speed.
I feel like I should say a bit more about the keyboard since I’m typing this blog post on it — it’s incredibly nice to type on. The keys have a really great, firm action and as you depress the keys the machine body doesn’t “give” as with some ultrabooks, so it doesn’t feel flimsy in any way or like you’ll break it if you get to typing incredibly quickly (which I have a tendency to do).
Even just picking up the machine and carrying it around everything feels amazingly tight and solid. This is a far cry from the Dells I’ve had in the past, and I would think even the most ardent Mac proponent would have to admit the quality of the hardware rivals, if not exceeds, that of Apple.

Tech Specs

You can see and read more about the XPS 13 in general on Dell’s web site, but the Sputnik developer machine is the high-end model, specifically with the following specs:
  • 13.3″ HD (720p) Corning Gorilla Glass WLED screen, 1366×768 resolution
  • Intel i7 processor running at 1.7GHz (with TurboBoost up to 2.8GHz)
  • Intel HD Graphics 3000
  • 256GB SSD
  • 4GB of dual-channel DDR3 RAM (1333MHz)
  • Backlit keyboard
  • Two USB ports, 1 USB 2, 1 USB 3
  • Mini display port
  • Headphone jack
  • Marketing claim on battery life: 8 – 9 hours (I’ll test this to see what real-world battery life is)
In my estimation they did a good job of keeping things very minimalistic while focusing on what’s important. Adding things like more USB ports, multiple (and potentially large in size) display output options, and even wired ethernet would have cause the machine to lose its singular focus which is a small, light, high quality ultrabook.
What this machine doesn’t have, that you should be aware of if these things matter to you, are an optical drive and the aforementioned wired ethernet, and if you want to output to VGA or HDMI you need to pick up a dongle. None of these things matter to me personally; in fact on my other new, larger laptop I got a couple of weeks ago I opted for a second hard drive in place of an optical drive because I can’t even remember the last time I used an optical drive.
The lack of wired ethernet also doesn’t bother me because I personally never used a wired connection, and since this machine is so incredibly thin (and I mean incredibly thin) there isn’t space for an ethernet jack anyway. If you absolutely have to have wired ethernet in an office setting or somewhere without wi-fi you can always get a USB ethernet adapter.
Overall, this is an impressively equipped little powerhouse.

One Minor Potential Downside: Memory

On balance Dell made very smart decisions about what to put into the machine, with the one question mark in my mind being why they chose not to put more than 4GB of RAM in the machine. (It’s worth noting at this point that the machine is not user-upgradeable.) I can’t imagine it was for cost or size reasons, so I have to guess that it was a necessary design/engineering decision for some other reason.
Granted, for many users 4GB of RAM is plenty, and if nothing else putting Ubuntu on the machine will make it run a lot more efficiently than Windows 7. That said, for a machine targeted at developers 4GB seems a tad on the low side these days, so although I’d certainly stop well short of calling it a show-stopper for me at least, it’s something to be aware of and given your situation that may or may not work for you. (Note that Dell makes a slightly larger XPS 14 in which you can get 8GB of RAM.)

Sputnik as a Developer Machine

I’ll find out a lot more about what the Sputnik can and can’t handle next week when I take it to DjangoCon, but the i7 chip is extremely zippy, and my guess is that I’ll find 4GB to be adequate for most of my needs. Ubuntu, Chrome with my usual 12-15 tabs open, and Emacs or Sublime Text are running quite happily and responsively. (Note that I have not yet installed and tried a heavier IDE like PyCharm or Eclipse.)
If you’re a big user of VMs, given my experience on another ultrabook with 4GB of RAM I can say Windows 7 runs decently in 2GB of RAM in VirtualBox on Ubuntu. I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time in it with only 2GB, but if you need to test something in IE or jump into Windows to run a specific application (e.g. I have to get into Windows on rare occasions to run the VMWare console app to manage our VMs since their web-based console tool is abysmal), it should be a decent experience. Not as nice as on my laptop with 16GB of RAM certainly, and you won’t be able to get away with running multiple VMs at once, but running a VM is certainly possible.
If you’re a Java or CFML developer, I fired up some Java-based applications on Tomcat on this machine, giving Tomcat 1GB and then 2GB of heap space. Things ran fine, though if like me you abuse the heck out of memory if you have it available, I suspect you’re not going to be able to get away running dozens of webapps simultaneously under Tomcat on this machine.
That said I’m moving away from the Java/CFML world into the Python/Django world which is much more memory-friendly, so for Python development this machine should be really excellent. Most of the time when I’m doing Python development I don’t see my memory or CPU monitors even act like much is going on, which is quite a different experience than I was used to with Java and CFML.
The CPU is certainly up to practically any development task, just be aware that depending on the type of development you’re doing and your development style, you might need to think a little bit about the RAM limitation.
Bottom line on Sputnik as a developer machine is I see this as being an absolutely fantastic developer machine, with a minor caveat about the RAM.

Conclusions

The Dell XPS 13 is a huge winner in my book. It’s exceedingly well built, light, quiet, and has all the bells and whistles you need in an ultrabook — particularly one aimed at developers — and Dell made intelligent omissions across the board with the possible exception of the amount of RAM pre-installed.
If like me you’ve had Dells in the past and hadn’t thought about Dell in a while, this machine may well change your mind about Dell. After only a few hours of using it it’s certainly starting to change mine, and I can already see myself gravitating to the Sputnik as my go-to machine.