Ubuntu 64-bit on a Dell XPS M1330
|Friday, 29 February 2008|
The following is a mini-review of the Dell XPS M1330 and my experience running Ubuntu 64-bit Gutsy 7.10 on this laptop over the past two months. Before getting the XPS M1330, I had been using Ubuntu 32-bit on my Latitude D830. I'm one of those people who actually needs two laptops. The Latitude D830 is my workhorse stay-at-home computer with dual-pointing devices and expansive 1920x1200 resolution screen. The XPS M1330 is my thin-and-light secondary laptop that I use when away from home so I don't have to tote around client files and data. I also need the M1330 for testing web designs, since it has a more standardly used screen resolution.
At first, I installed the 32-bit version of Ubuntu, since I had the install CD lying around. I had ordered 4GB of RAM to upgrade my system, which hadn't arrived yet. After receiving the RAM, I started thinking about installing the 64-bit version of Ubuntu, so I could have access to all of the RAM. Most 32-bit operating systems only allow you to utilize between 2.75GB and 3.5GB of RAM, depending on your motherboard chipset. While pondering Ubuntu 64-bit I did some research and it seemed that the general consensus was to stick with 32-bit for the time being, due to incompatibilities and whatnot. I figured I had nothing to lose and decided to give Ubuntu 64-bit a shot.
To my surprise, after finishing the install everything was working out of the box, just as it had with the 32-bit version. The only thing that isn't working out of the box is the fingerprint reader (not working in 32-bit Ubuntu either). Apparently, there is a way to get it working by installing ThinkFinger, but I haven't bothered to try it yet. As for software issues, the two problems I've encountered over the past couple months have been getting Flash to work and finding a 64-bit version of Opera. Fortunately, both of these issues are easily solved. A user kindly posted a script on the Ubuntu forums that gets Flash up and running in 64-bit Ubuntu. Here is the thread: Flash install script for 64-bit Ubuntu. Opera is not available in the repositories for Ubuntu yet. However, you can download the Opera 9.5 Beta deb package here: Opera for Ubuntu 64-bit. After you download the .deb file, just open it up and follow the instructions to install.
After testing 64-bit Ubuntu on the XPS M1330 for a while, I decided to install on my Latitude D830 as well. Some things actually seem to be running better in 64-bit. CPU usage seems to be much less when running Windows XP virtualized in VirtualBox compared to the 32-bit version. Also, hibernate and suspend seem to be working better. With the 32-bit version, suspend had stopped working on my D830 at some point and there were also some issues with hibernate. There may have been other factors causing problems with suspend, but I'm just glad that both hibernate and suspend are working perfectly on both the M1330 and D830 with Ubuntu 64-bit. I hardly ever have to reboot either laptop. Hasta la vista, Vista!
Dell XPS M1330 Review
There are plenty of detailed reviews for the XPS M1330 that have already been written. I'm going spend time writing about specifics that aren't often mentioned in reviews. To get this mini-review started, here are the important specs for my system:
Why I Got Another Dell
Before the XPS M1330, my secondary computer was a Macbook. Although I liked the aesthetics and build quality of the Macbook, I got fed up with the dumbed down keyboard and stupid single button mouse, not to mention Apple's policy regarding BootCamp beta and OS X Tiger. So, I sold my Macbook and starting researching a new laptop. I had almost decided on the ThinkPad T61, but upon closer examination, I noticed that the screen bezel is lopsided. The bezel on the left side of the screen is wider than on the right side. This wasn't an issue with the T60 models. (Are things going downhill since Lenovo took over?) Although a minor issue, I know it would bug me every time I opened up the laptop, 'cuz I'm just a perfectionist like that. I checked out other manufacturers and none of their laptops really appealed to me. Then, I narrowed it down to thin-and-light laptops with LED backlit screens. After checking out the XPS M1330 I realized that it fit the bill perfectly in terms of what I was looking for - a good looking, thin-and-light laptop with LED backlit screen, built-in optical drive and decent battery life. Not only that, the system I configured was actually cheaper than the ThinkPad with older LCD technology. "Okay, so I'm getting another Dell."
I have primarily owned Dell laptops since 1999 and overall I have been very happy with the systems and support I have received. I had the opportunity to test out the XPS dedicated support and have to say that it is top notch (more on that later). Before I transitioned to full-time freelance web design and web development, I did computer tech support professionally for about six years. I have used and repaired quite a few laptops. In my opinion, Dell is hard to beat when it comes to product quality, support and overall value. Dell computers often have better components than the competitors and cost less. I definitely recommend either the XPS or Latitude line of laptops if you are going to make a purchase. I find that the build quality is higher for those models and the tech support is better than what you get with other models.
Since this is an honest review, it is necessary to mention the issues I had with the M1330. Actually, the only issue I had was with the quality of the LED screen that originally shipped with the system. There are two manufacturers supplying the LED backlit screens used in the M1330, Toshiba Matsushita (TMD) and Chi Mei Optoelectronics (CMO). One of the first things I noticed on my new XPS M1330 was that the screen would flicker at the lowest brightness settings. It was particularly noticeable and annoying at the lowest setting. Also, if I turned the brightness up there was a murky mesh like pattern visible on lightly colored areas of the screen. Furthermore, the brightness would always reset to the highest brightness level upon booting up or after resuming from suspend, hibernate etc. even after setting the brightness in the bios and software. Totally unacceptable. I did some research and found a couple of forums where users had mentioned some of the issues I was experiencing with the CMO display and that replacing the screen with a Toshiba model fixed the issues. I decided to get the screen replaced.
Unfortunately, there is no way for Dell to specify the Toshiba LED screen when sending a replacement part. I was sent three more CMO LED screens before receiving a Toshiba screen. Since I am technically savvy for computer repair, I tested each of the CMO screens I received and each one displayed all of the problems - flicker, mesh pattern, resetting brightness. After having the Tosiba screen installed, all of these issues disappeared and I now have a fantastic looking LED screen. The colors and contrast are better than regular LCD screens, the brightness is better than most (good for working outside) and LED screens are more environmentally friendly because they consume less energy and do not contain toxic Mercury which is present in the lamps for regular LCD screens.
That being said, Dell isn't the only manufacturer using CMO screens. HP, Sony, Fujitsu and others also use CMO screens. It turns out that the resetting brightness issue is actually a problem with the logic boards used by CMO on their screens. Perhaps Chi Mei Optoelectronics will fix this in the future, but as far as I am concerned this product line of CMO LED screens is subpar quality and should not have made it into salable products.
In dealing with this screen issue, I had to call Dell XPS support numerous times. Each time I called, I was immediately connected to a support representative who was knowledgeable and didn't give me any hassle. I have nothing but good things to say about XPS support.
What I like about the XPS M1330
For starters, this is a great looking Dell laptop. The fit and finish don't quite match Apple laptops, which are hands-down the best looking laptops on the market, but you get a lot more computer for a lot less with the M1330. If Apple ever made a laptop with two mouse buttons and a standard keyboard, I would probably buy one. The XPS M1330 is arguably the best looking laptop in its class. The keyboard is full-size and feels solid, a pleasure to user. Also, the trackpad is excellent. I'm not sure if it is the coating or the materials Dell uses for their trackpads, but they are better than any other manufacturer. The trackpad is never sticky, it is always smooth to use and accurate. Having extras such as an integrated card reader, integrated DVD burner, FireWire port, HDMI port, two headphone jacks (if you want to snuggle up with somebody on a plane and watch a movie), wifi detector, media direct and touch sensitive media buttons all make for a near perfect thin-and-light laptop. To top it all off, Ubuntu 64-bit is running flawlessly. Hasta la vista, Vista! I highly recommend this laptop to anyone.
When I got my M1330, having it pre-bundled with Ubuntu wasn't an option. Dell is now offering the XPS M1330 preconfigured with Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy. You will save some money (not to mention headaches) if you decide to purchase the laptop with Ubuntu rather than Windows Vista - especially useful if you already own a copy of Windows XP.
Don't bother with Vista. I am in the minority when I say that Windows Vista is a piece of crap. Both of my laptops with 4GB of RAM crash during boot after certain Windows Vista updates are installed. When this happens, Windows won't even boot past the first swish of the loading screen. When this happened, I had to do a system restore using the Windows Vista installation CD to remove the updates. On one computer I tried to isolate the broken update, and ended up having to do a system restore again. Then I instructed Windows Update not to install the update which seemed to be causing the problem. All was fine for a few days, then the problem came back. This time, even system restore wouldn't fix it. The Windows Vista installation was totally hosed. It took how long and how many dollars for Microsoft to develop this buggy piece of crap?
I have also had numerous BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) crashes in the short amount of time I used Vista. Since I started using Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy it has frozen on me once. This is with months of 10-16 hours a day hardcore usage, with multiple applications open, Windows XP running virtualized and multiple suspends/hibernations. Also, Vista is just plain slow. The updates take forever to install, and after booting into Windows Vista, the desktop appears but you have to wait a long time before you can actually start doing anything. At this point, the only time I use Vista is when I have to test a web design I am working on for a client in Internet Explorer 7.