Monthly Archives: January 2019

Dell 13″ Ultrabooks

The first few drafts of my last article touched on this but in the end, I edited it out because it was off topic. Nevertheless, this subject is worth a few words I think.

As I mentioned in that article, not long after I joined my current workplace we standardised on Dell for our mobile hardware. There are plenty of advantages for us in doing so; Dell generally give excellent pricing to the Education sector, they sell direct so you don’t have to go through resellers and for their Enterprise level kit and Business line equipment at least, their support is generally excellent. I have never had problems with Dell Business technical support and without exception, every Dell or Dell contracted engineer I’ve received to do work on a server, SAN, laptop or desktop has been excellent. But that’s my experience, I’m sure yours is different.

Although we decided to standardise on Dell, we hadn’t decided which specific line until relatively recently. This means that we have a couple of different models of 13″ Ultrabook knocking around so I thought I’d write a quick piece comparing them. Specifically, we have the Dell XPS 13 (9560) and the Dell Latitude 7000 (7390 and 7390). I’m not going to do any kind of benchmarking with them but I’m going to compare the specifications of the two lines, attempt to look at their build quality and say which one I prefer.

Dimensions and Weight

The XPS 13 is shaped like a wedge of cheese; it’s taller at the back than it is at the front. At its thickest point, it is 15mm/0.6″ thick. It is 304mm/12″ wide and 200mm/7.9″ deep. The weight of the device is dependant on the spec that you choose but it starts at 1.2KG/2.7lbs

The Latitude 7390 is more traditionally shaped, it’s as thick at the front as it is at the back. It is 16mm/0.64″ high, 304mm/12″ wide and 208mm/8.2″ deep. Again, the weight of the device depends on the spec that you buy but it starts at 1.17kg/2.6lbs.

Winner –  XPS. Just.

The two systems weigh the same but the XPS is slightly but smaller. However, it’s barely 1/2cm smaller on the height and depth and the same width so it’s not really significant.

Screen

Both laptops are available with touch and non touch options. Both come with 1080P screens as their default option but the XPS can be bought with a 3200×1800 screen.

The XPS 13 has what Dell call an InfinityEdge screen. They boast that they’ve managed to squeeze a 13″ screen into what would otherwise be a 11″ frame. This is undeniably true; the laptop does have very narrow bezels and they are a uniform size on both sides and at the top. The laptop is certainly smaller and sleeker because of that.

The Latitude has the same screen and it also has equally narrow bezels on the sides of the screens but it has a more standard sized bezel on the top of the screen than the XPS does. For this model, Dell claim to have put a 13″ screen into the same sized chassis as a 12″ notebook.

Winner – XPS

The XPS has smaller bezels and has a higher resolution screen available for it.

Webcam and Biometrics

The XPS has its webcam on the bottom edge of the screen. It is a “Standard” webcam. The positioning of it is downright stupid, anyone who you talk to with it ends up looking up your nose. It can’t be used with Windows Hello to unlock the laptop. Windows Hello fingerprint scanners are an optional extra.

Since the Latitude has the thicker bezel at the top of the screen, it has room for the webcam in a more sensible position. Infra-red cameras which are compatible with Windows Hello are also an option with this line of laptop, as are fingerprint scanners.

Winner – Latitude

The webcam is in a better place and it has more biometric options. Easy win for the Latitude here I think

Connectivity

The XPS has:

  • an SD card slot
  • Two USB 3.0 Type A ports
  • A Thunderbolt/USB Type C port
  • A headphone port
  • A Wireless card manufactured by Killer

The Latitude has:

  • A headphone port
  • A uSIM port for optional WLAN
  • a Micro-SD card slot
  • Two USB 3.0 Type A ports
  • An Ethernet Port
  • When bought with 1.6GHz or above CPUs, a Thunderbolt3/USB C port
  • An HDMI port
  • A Smartcard slot
  • A Wireless card manufactured by Intel

Winner – Latitude

From the point of view of a consumer device, the ports that the XPS has are probably good enough, although if you want to connect to an external monitor or a wired network you need a dongle. The uniform thickness and that extra 5mm that the Latitude has certainly gives you gets you some useful additions. The Latitude also has a slot for an optional WLAN card so you can connect to the internet on the move without having to tether it to a mobile phone. I mention the WiFi card because Killer don’t exactly have a reputation for high quality drivers which may be a concern. From an Enterprise point of view, the Latitude is the clear winner.

Specifications

The XPS is available with 8th Gen Core i5 and i7 CPUs. It comes with an SSD on an M2 slot and the SSDs that they will sell with it use the NVMe bus. It can come with up to 16GB of LPDDR3 RAM which is soldered to the laptop’s motherboard.

The Latitude is available with the same 8th Gen Core i5 and i7 CPUs. It also comes with SSDs on an M2 slot which can be either SATA or NVMe. The maximum amount of RAM that it can take is 16GB of DDR4. However, the RAM on a Latitude is a standard DIMM so it can be expanded later on if you so choose. As mentioned in the connectivity part of the article, the Latitude comes with an extra M2 slot in which a WLAN card can be fitted.

Dell sell both with SSDs up to 512GB but I would be seriously surprised if you couldn’t expand that later on if you wanted to.

Winner – Latitude

Out of the box, it comes with very similar hardware internally. They both use the same CPU lines. However, the fact that you can upgrade the RAM in the Latitude and fit it with a WLAN card later on if you want to means that it wins this category for me. It’s amazing what an extra 5mm of thickness gets you.

Battery

I can’t really do any real world comparisons of battery life with these laptops for two reasons. The first reason is that all of the XPS laptops that we have are assigned to someone so asking for them back to run some battery benchmarks would result in some funny looks. Secondly, the XPS laptops that we have are a couple of years old while the Latitudes are a lot newer. It would be unfair to compare a two year old battery with a brand new one, not to mention that each new generation of Core CPU generally improves on battery life anyway. So I’m just going to quote Dell’s figures here and make a judgement on that.

The XPS has a 60WHr battery built into it. Dell claim you should be able to work for 22 hours from a full charge.

The Latitude has either a 42WHr or 60WHr battery in it. Dell claim up to 19 hours of working life from a full charge. I would imagine that’s with the 60WHr battery fitted.

Winner – XPS

That LPDDR3 memory probably counts for something – the XPS is claimed to have longer battery life.

Touchpad and Keyboard

Both laptops have pretty similar keyboards, they have the same kind of chiclet keys that manufacturers have been using for the past eight to ten years. They both have backlit keyboards. They’re much of a muchness. I’ve used better keyboards but I’ve also used much worse. They’re both on a par with the scissor style keys you got on Unibody MacBooks. The layout of the keyboards are the same with the CTRL and FN keys in the correct places. The top row of keys on both laptops double as traditional function keys (F1 etc) and as keys to control the brightness of the screen, keyboard backlight, wireless, volume and media playback.

They do have different touchpads however. The XPS has a touchpad similar to one on a Mac where the entire surface is a button whereas the Latitude has two separate hardware buttons. Both touchpads are recognised by Windows as being Precision Touchpads so they support the Windows multi-touch gestures.

Winner – Draw

There is no clear winner here. The keyboards are near enough identical and the touchpads are a matter of personal preference. I prefer the ones on the XPS ever so slightly but there isn’t enough in it to declare an overall winner. That said, both completely suck compared to the touchpad on a Mac using macOS. Seriously PC manufacturers, Apple got the touchpad and touchpad gestures just perfect with the first generation of unibody MacBooks and Snow Leopard. That was coming on for ten years ago. For God’s sake, just copy that already.

Finishes

Both laptops come with a range of different colours and finishes.

The XPS can come in silver, white or rose gold.

The Latitude can come in aluminium finish, a carbon fibre finish or a dark grey magnesium one.

Winner – Draw

The XPS looks more like a consumer device while the Latitude looks more like a business device. You wouldn’t be ashamed to get either out at a meeting but the XPS would look better at a LAN party!

Support

Out of the box, the XPS comes with 1 year On-Site warranty while the Latitude comes with three years. You can buy up to four years support on the XPS and up to five on the Latitude

Winner – Latitude

It comes with a longer warranty and can be warrantied for longer as well.

Durability

This last one is harder to quantify as the XPS laptops that we have are older so it’s harder to say which is the more rugged laptop. However. At least one of our XPS laptops appears to be coming apart, there are visible gaps at its seams. I don’t know if we have a dud or if there is a quality control issue with these things. From hands on experience though, I would personally say that the Latitude feels like the more solid laptop. We will see.

Winner – Not enough data

We don’t have as many XPS laptops as we do Latitudes and the XPS laptops that we do have are older. My thoughts about the Latitude feeling like a more solid laptop are fairly preliminary so I’m not going to say one way or the other.

Price

I’m not going to quote the exact pricing that I get from Dell for these laptops as it won’t be the same as what’s on their website or the same as what your account manager will give you. That said, generally speaking, whenever I get a quote for an equivalently specified Latitude and XPS with the same warranty length, the Latitude is around 3/4 to 4/5 of the price of the XPS.

Winner – Latitude

The Latitude line is always the cheaper one when I ask Dell for a quote. It is on the Dell website when you ask for them with the same warranty as well.

Conclusion

Well, this “few words” has turned into more than two thousand words! The easy thing to do here would be to count how many wins each line has and declare that line the winner. For the record, that’s the Latitude with five wins to three and two draws. I don’t that it’s quite as clear cut as that though. My personal preference would undeniably be the Latitude. It’s more expandable. It has better support. It has more ports. Its webcam is in a more sensible place and you don’t need dongles to connect it to a monitor or a wired network. It’s also cheaper. However, that’s what’s important to me. You might have other ideas. But from my point of view, buy a Latitude. If nothing else, you get more laptop for your money.

Dell Business Docking Stations

There are a few posts on this site called “The Grand(ish) Experiment” where I talk about using Dell Venue tablets with their respective docking stations, exploring their potential to replace desktop machines. The idea was that every office desk and classroom would have a docking station, teachers would have their own tablets with the software and files that they needed and that they would be able to use any classroom in the building and not have to book a specific one. It didn’t really pan out; the docks were temperamental, the tablets were either underpowered or too big and heavy, the optional hardware keyboards had issues and the current OS at the time was Windows 8. People didn’t like the hardware that we were trying so there wasn’t really the interest to keep the experiment going and it all got forgotten about, as, sadly, did the article series.

A few years and two jobs later, I’m looking at something similar again, albeit under very different circumstances. I now work in the Central Services department for a Multi Academy Trust of schools. The organisation has nine different sites and while I spend most of my time at one particular one, I do spend at least one day a week at two of the other eight and have to visit the other six periodically. The situation is the same for a lot of my colleagues in Central Services, not just the IT people.

The computers in our main office are pretty old. The most modern one is an HP Compaq machine with a second generation Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a standard magnetic hard drive so it’s safe to say that the hardware is due to be updated. A large proportion of the staff in our Central Services department are like me in that they have to attend the other sites as well so the majority of them also have laptops, again which are pretty old and are due for replacement.

Bearing that in mind, to replace all of the desktops and issue these people with new laptops which get used but not very heavily seemed like a pretty major waste of money. It seemed to be a much better idea to issue everyone with a new laptop and put a docking station on everyone’s desk. That way, everyone still gets a new, faster machine but the offices become a lot more flexible because wherever the person ends up sitting, they get the resources that they need. We’ve recently standardised on Dell hardware, in particular the Dell Latitude 7390 laptop for our Central staff. With a fast SSD, a reasonable amount of RAM and a quad core CPU, there is no reason why these laptops couldn’t function as desktop replacements. Issuing a laptop to everyone would also end the, um, disputes between the people in our Finance department and the people in our other departments as only a couple of the computers in our satellite offices have the Finance software installed. The idea is that if people have a laptop with the software they need already installed, they can hook up to a docking station anywhere and do what they need. Failing that, even just find a desk somewhere and do their work, even if they can’t dock.

With that in mind, I approached our account manager at Dell and asked her what she would suggest for us. The laptops that we’re using don’t have old fashioned docking ports on the bottom of them so we had to look at their USB docks. Dell suggested three:

First of all, the D3100. This dock  is based around a Displaylink chipset. Because of this, everything on it (video, network, audio) is driven using the USB 3.0 bus on your machine. It can drive up to three displays, one of which can be 4K. It connects to your computer with a USB 3.0 A plug. It won’t charge your laptop.

Next up, the WD15. This is a USB 3.1 Gen 2 dock which can drive up to two screens up to 1080P. It also has an Ethernet and audio ports and you can charge your laptop with it, making it a one cable solution. Unlike the D3100, this dock acts as a DisplayPort MST hub so the displays that it drives are driven from your laptops own GPU or APU, rather than from a chip connected to your USB port. This should improve video performance, especially if your laptop has a discrete GPU. It is available with two sizes of power adapter (120W and 180W), the bigger of which is required if you have one of Dell’s larger laptops and want to charge it from the dock.

Lastly, the WD16. This is a Thunderbolt 3 dock, again connected by USB C connector. Again, it functions as a DisplayPort MST Hub but unlike the WD15, it can drive up to three displays at 2560×1600 at 60Hz, up to two 4K displays at 60Hz or one 5K display at 60Hz. It also has another Thunderbolt 3 port as a pass through and the usual Ethernet, audio and additional USB ports. This dock also can come with one of two power adapters (180W and 240W) and again, the bigger PSU is required if you have one of Dell’s larger laptops and want to charge it from the dock.

I have used two of these docks, the D3100 and the WD16. I’ve not used the WD15 so I will say up front that anything I say about it here is conjecture based on its spec and appearance.

D3100

So first of all, the D3100. As I say, it’s based around a DisplayLink chipset. It has a full sized DisplayPort for your 4K display, two HDMI ports, two USB 2.0 ports on the back and three USB 3.0 ports on the front. Along with that, there is a headphone port on the front and a Line-Out port on the back. The dock is nicely laid out with everything in the place you’d expect it to be. Along with that, it features a PXE boot ROM so you can built workstations from it (Rarer than you’d think on a USB networking device) and it supports WOL.

All of the the ports are run from your USB 3.0 port, including the displays. That means that the Ethernet port, any other USB peripherals that you connect to it and in theory, a 4K display and a pair of 1080P displays and therefore 12.5 million pixels being refreshed 60 times a second, all have to share that 5Gbps of bandwidth that the port provides. Considering that an uncompressed 4K stream at 60Hz would use almost 9Gbps of bandwidth, I was sceptical that this was going to work very well and, well, so it turned out.

At the time, I was running a mid 2014 MacBook Pro with Windows 10 and a Core i5 4278U CPU. When I first started using it, I was using a pair of 20″ monitors running with a 1600×900 resolution. With these monitors, it worked well. However, the size and resolution of those two monitors was too low for me and I asked for some bigger monitors. I put on a pair of 1080P monitors and that’s when I started having performance issues. As soon as I started using those monitors, the displays started glitching, the refresh rates were variable and using it was just annoying. CPU usage was all over the place with no obvious culprit. The Mac that I was using at the time had a lot of external ports (Two Thunderbolt 2 ports and an HDMI port) so I connected the monitors directly to the laptop to see if the performance issues would go away. They did so that was how I used the laptop until it came time to replace it.

I don’t know if the laptop I was using was underpowered for the compression tricks that DisplayLink must have to use to drive more than 4 million pixels over 5Gbps, if I had a bad dock or if there is an inherent problem with the DisplayLink chipset. As I say, it worked fine with two lower resolution monitors so I expect that the Mac was too old to run this properly. I can quite happily recommend the dock from that perspective,  i.e. if your running a single monitor or two lower resolution displays from it on reasonably modern hardware, but for our purposes we decided that it was inadequate.

WD15 and TB16

So, instead, the two USB C docks running as DisplayPort MST hubs. When I originally looked at the spec of these devices, I thought it was pretty cut and dried. The TB16 wasn’t significantly more expensive. It’s Thunderbolt so it’s likely to be a faster performer. So we ordered some. This is what we found.

First of all, considering what this thing is, it’s bloody huge! It’s only half an inch smaller on the width and length than the original Mac Mini and significantly larger than an Intel NUC. The Thunderbolt cable is about half a metre long and is built into the docking station.

It has four monitor outputs: A full-sized DisplayPort, a Mini DisplayPort, an HDMI port and a VGA port. It has a pair of USB 2 ports, a USB 3 Type A port, a Thunderbolt 3/USB C port, a Gigabit Ethernet port, an audio line-out port and the power input on the back of the device and two further USB 3 Type A ports and a combo headphone/microphone socket on the front. The aforementioned captive Thunderbolt cable is on the left hand side of the device when you’re looking at it from the front.

This is where things start to go a little bit wrong for this thing. The port layout is fine and generous but all of the Dell laptops that I’ve seen (various XPSes, Latitudes and a Precision) have their Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left hand side of the device as well. This, along with the relative shortness of the docking cable and the size of the USB plug into the laptop (about 1.5″!), makes positioning the dock very awkward. Ideally, with a docking station, you want it stuffed out of the way somewhere at the back of your desk but the length of the cable and its position on the left makes that difficult to achieve. I tried various positions to find what worked best. Most people seem to prefer putting the dock on the left hand side of their desk with the front ports facing forward (funny that!) and having the Thunderbolt cable loop round. The problem that I found with that was that the laptop has to be within 25cm of the dock because the bend radius of the Thunderbolt cable is quite large and that makes the solution take up a lot of space on the desk and makes it hard to access the ports of the front of the dock. The second position that I tried was to put my laptop in the middle of my desk, underneath my monitors, put the dock on the left side of my desk and have the left side of the dock point right towards the laptop. I didn’t like this solution very much either as it meant that the back ports were facing the front which was messy. I did try turning the dock upside-down so that the front ports were on the front but this just made the dock slide all over the desk and it meant I couldn’t get at the power button on the top of the dock.

Eventually, I found the best way that I could set up the dock for me was to rest the dock on top of one of my speakers with the Thunderbolt cable pointing down like a tail. The ports on the back point to the left, the ports on the front point right and I can position the dock where it’s reasonably accessible. It’s nowhere near ideal but I found it was the best way for me.

Awkward cable positioning aside, how good is this thing otherwise? Well, lets see. The thing I found most disappointing about this dock is that the audio and Ethernet ports are USB devices. Considering that Thunderbolt is essentially an extension of a computer’s PCI Express bus, it seems a bit, well, cheap to saddle this thing with a USB NIC. A PCI Express one would be better as it would take up less system resources and it would able to share up to 40Gbps of bandwidth with the host system, rather than the 5 or 10Gbps that shoving it on the USB bus restricts it to. Yes, that 5 or 10Gbps for the Ethernet port by itself is fine but as the D3100 proves, contention starts to become an issue as you add more USB peripherals to a system.

Moaning about that aside, when you first open the box for one of these docks, there is a big piece of paper that tells you in no uncertain terms to make sure that you go to the Dell website and download the latest drivers and firmware that are available for this dock and, if you’re using a Dell laptop, to make sure that you’re using the latest BIOS for it.

Do NOT ignore any of these instructions

All of the docks that we received from Dell had a pretty old firmware on them and when using the docks with the OOB firmware, they were a nightmare. They constantly disconnected from their host and when they were connected, they were (somehow) laggy and made the laptop CPU usage spike. Updating the firmware on the dock and the laptop resolved these issues immediately. With that installed, the laptop behaved exactly how you would expect it to. Docking and undocking is simple. You don’t have to jump through any hoops in Windows, just pull the cable out and continue working. When you go back to your desk, you put the cable back in and away you go. All of the laptops that I’ve tried with these docks (Dell Latitude 7380 and 7390, Dell XPS 13 and 15, Dell Precision 5530) work perfectly and support USB charging.

I’ve managed to PXE boot and build laptops with these docks attached and this includes laptops which don’t have built-in Ethernet ports. With the latest firmwares, they do exactly what they’re supposed to do and that in itself is high praise.

So now we come back to the WD15. As I say, I’ve not used the WD15 dock so this is conjecture. However, I’m going to assume that it works as well as the TB16 does. In that case, considering that internally, the WD15 and TB16 both have very similar hardware, I’m actually struggling to justify the extra expense for the TB16. They both have the same audio and Ethernet connectivity, both driven from the machine’s USB 3.1 bus. They both act as DisplayPort MST hubs so the extra monitors are driven from the laptop’s GPU. The only advantage that the TB16 gives you is that you can drive more monitors from it and those that you can drive can also have higher resolutions. That’s great but in a general office environment, it isn’t actually that big of an advantage. Very few people in our organisation has a monitor with a resolution higher than 1080p and no-one has more than two monitors so most people get precisely zero benefit if they use a TB16 instead of a WD15. If anything, the WD15 might be the better choice under some circumstances because it has a longer connection cable, albeit still a daft captive one on the left side of the dock. So I guess I’m saying, unless you see a need to drive more than two monitors or monitors with higher resolutions than 1080P, don’t bother with the Thunderbolt dock and get the USB one instead. I think in future, that’s what I’m going to suggest.

Conclusions

It’s still too early to draw any conclusions but the feedback I’ve been getting from staff about the laptop/docking stations has so far been positive. They’re happy that they can just rock up to a desk and be using their own machines. I’m also using a laptop and dock and I couldn’t be happier with the arrangement. I’ll try to revisit this article in another three or four months and see if there’s anything interesting to say.