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Monday, July 08, 2019

First Impressions: Dell XPS 13 9380

My lifestyle doesn't actually demand a laptop, so I was happy to hang on to my ancient X201 and even replace the keyboards 2 or 3 times whenever Bowen destroyed them. Even when the device went missing, I resisted replacing it. Finally, there was a 15% coupon which stacked with a $150 rebated on an already discounted Dell XPS 13 9380, which I then jumped on at an after-tax price around $750 or so.

If you look around on the internet, you'll see that most reviews of this Dell laptop are of the fully-loaded configuration (i7, 16GB RAM, and 512TB or more of storage, and a 4K touchscreen display). Dell wants the reviewers to say nice things about the device, and of course, sending the highest end SKU for review is necessary because reviewers are used to reviewing high end devices and will benchmark the device against other similarly configured laptops.

Here's why these SKUs are a very bad deal, at least in this model: most thin and light laptops are thermally throttled --- the CPU overheats and then the speed of the i7 drops down to that of the i5 anyway. Even worse, the 4K touch screen drains the battery life, and for me anyway, the whole point of a laptop is for disconnected operation. I have a real desktop at home for serious compute tasks, and the laptop is meant to provide a mobile lightroom editing machine on-the-go for maximizing the use of my time on a plane. I've discovered that while 8GB is pushing it for Lightroom, an extra 8GB would cause me to have to opt for higher end configurations with corresponding decreases in battery life and weight which I am not willing to put up with.

To my surprise, the Dell XPS 13 9380 clocks in at 1168g, or 2.47 pounds, much lighter than the mainstream reviewer's unit weight of 2.7 pounds (probably caused by the touch screen, since Intel CPUs don't increase in weight when you buy an i7 vs i5!). My most common use case in Lightroom is flipping between photos trying to decide which one to pick, and I tried that against my i7-7700k desktop and the two were similar enough in performance that I couldn't tell. (Keep in mind that my i7/GTX 1070 device was pushing 4K pixels while the XPS 13 was only pushing 1080p, so these results aren't as surprising as you might imagine) The power pack weighs in at 144g, and the USA 3-prong plug comes in at 79g, so the total travel weight of the laptop is around 3 pounds. Most of the mainstream reviewers don't even weigh the power adapter, mostly because they're not as weight conscious as I need to be. I'm sure there's a lighter adapter that can charge this device somewhere around, since the Dell adapter is rated at 45W, which seems overkill (though it should charge the laptop in an hour or so). A 20W adapter would take longer but might be much lighter.

The keyboard is very good: much better than the recent Macbook keyboards that I've used recently, which have too little travel to be satisfying for a touch typist. The keyboard does squeak occasionally, which can be annoying, but overall, I'm surprised by how little I miss the X201's keyboard, which was the selling point of the Lenovo Thinkpad series for me. Similarly, I was surprised by how nice the precision touchpad was to use. I still prefer the thinkpad nubbin for precise text editing, but nobody's about to sell me an X1 Carbon with quad core processor for $750.

Battery life is outstanding. For mixed mode use (writing the past 4-5 entries on this blog, including photo selection/placement, interruption by Facebook/Hangouts, etc), 4 hours of use would drop the battery by 30%. A 12 hour battery life for normal use is definitely not hyperbole. Of course, with intensive Lightroom use, I expect the battery life to drop by 50%, which is still acceptable.

All in all, I'm impressed by this laptop. I wish I had it in Spain, which is as high a praise as you'll find from me.

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