Dell XPS 420 with Linux Review
Well, it’s not perfect. I think my big mistake was not going with the more expensive NVIDIA video card. Actually, I’m fairly certain that any problems I am having have everything to do with the video card: ATI Radeon HD 2400. On the whole it’s exactly as advertised. Following are some things that I feel are important features.
I was disappointed that the box for this beast was so big. I’ve seen the recent Mac Pro tower boxes and they are not much bigger than the machine itself. The XPS 420 box is HUGE. This does mean that the machine arrived in pristine condition though.
Dell is definitely close to Apple in presentation with the XPS systems. Here’s what came with the machine:
- 1″ thick User Manual
- Small quick start manual
- Very nice noise-canceling ear bud headphones
- Velcro straps to help you keep your many wires and cables under control
- Dust Towel for the everyday necessity of wiping the dust off the glossy black finish
- Faux-leather XPS-stuff collection book-ish thing to hold this stuff
- Dell Multi-media keyboard (extra $25 I think) It’s very nice
- Dell 2-button mouse with scroll (I am using my trusty Logitech MX310 instead)
- REAL WINDOWS VISTA INSTALL DISC (not a stupid ‘from recovery partition disc’)
- ATI Driver disc, basic Dell software disc, Adobe Photoshop and Studio Elements, Microsoft Works
I also bought a $50 speaker set from them with these nice, small speaker panels to put on your desk and a 12″ box sub-woofer to put on the floor. Sounds great, but would rather just have the table speakers alone.
Fit and Finish
The XPS 420 seems well built and solid. Surprisingly, it’s just about as big as my G5. However, it weighs no where near as much. Also, this thing runs very quiet. Now I realize how loud the G5 was. I think I remember them advertising the G5 as a quiet machine, but maybe I’m crazy.
There’s a nifty rubber-bottomed tray on top of the tower that is an excellent fit for all of those gadgets that usually end up on top of your tower: Portable Media Player, Digital Camera, and I put my wireless router there as well. They also provide some thin slits to hide you USB cables that run from the devices to the much-appreciated SIX USB PORTS on the back of the XPS. I don’t think Apple would ever do this, but I love it.
The Dell keyboard feels good and the multimedia keyboard comes with an attachable palm rest. I highly recommend spending a little extra for this keyboard. The multimedia keys all work in Linux except for the ‘Volume Dial’ which apparently does not have a ‘button push’ input. If you Google it, somebody has written a script to handle the input, but I just remapped the big arrow keys on the left to control the main system volume instead. It’s nice to have keys specific for media player (next track, previous track, play/pause). There are a few additional buttons that can be used for pretty much anything. I was able to set the ‘Close Window’ button to ‘Eject’ the optical drive disc. My wife likes the Calculator button. Also, someone other than Apple has finally caught on to the idea of putting USB ports on the keyboard. That’s excellent.
Thanks to the video card, installing Ubuntu wasn’t very slick. Eventually I used the Alternate install disc with the text-based installer and was sure to specify only my optimal screen resolution, a few smaller resolutions and nothing larger than what I planned to use. Once I figured that out everything went fine after installing Envy and getting the direct ATI video driver.
Everything works aside from things related to the video card. What doesn’t work?
- Fast User Switching: I get a black screen and Ctrl+Alt+Backspace doesn’t help
- Hibernate and Sleep: Appears to go to sleep fine, but won’t wake up
- Compiz Fusion with dual-display: It does work, but doesn’t feel stable and playing video suffers with it on
The only thing I use Compiz Fusion for is the Exposé-like window picker and I think the Alt-Tab app switcher in Compiz looks nicer and is larger. So, not a huge loss and I’m confident these issues can be resolved with improved driver offerings from ATI. Fast User Switching would have been nice also.
The ATI Catalyst Controller application for setting up the video card works well enough. Setting up a second monitor with a combined desktop space was simple. It’s seems a little out of wack though. I wouldn’t fiddle with it too much.
My system sports the Intel Core 2 Quad 2.4 GHz processor with 3 GB of RAM. This machine is fast fast fast. I’m pretty sure most of the speed comes from just one instance of the 2.4 GHz processors. The Quad proc does flex it’s muscles when exporting/converting/compressing video and audio. I don’t have numbers for you, but I was exporting some MP3 files from audio recordings I had made a while back with impressive results. I started the process on my 1.6 GHz 1 MB RAM G5 just to compare. The MP3 compression was at least twice as fast using the latest version of Audacity on both machines. And if you watch the processor activity graphs, the old G5 was peaking the whole time while the Core 2 Quad just hummed along on two of it’s four cores.
Running virtual machines with it is an excellent experience. As mentioned earlier, my wife likes to watch ABC shows online. I tried the Firefox-for-Windows-Over-Wine trick, but that’s not working right. Instead I set my wife up with a Windows XP VM using VirtualBox. I know VMWare is king in virtualization, but installing VMWare server, after agreeing to the legal mumbo-jumbo is a pain and apparently I can’t install VMWare Player via Synaptic on my system (I don’t get it). VirtualBox, because they offer a full open source version, is much easier to install. The performance is good too. I hear the big difference is in networking and that’s not really why I need a virtual server anyway. Regardless, my wife can enjoy a full-screen ABC.com HD video experience on my Linux system via Windows XP via VirtualBox. Fantastic!
For starters, Windows Vista runs just fine on a VirtualBox VM with plenty of allotted RAM. However, now that I’ve had some time to look around, I find Vista to be very cluttered. The main menu has too much stuff displayed immediately and there’s so much crap on the initial desktop including the widgets that I felt claustrophobic. I can only imagine what a less savvy user would think on initial start. I’m confused. I thought they were trying to minimize menus and everything to focus on the average user with the capability to customize for an advanced user. They’re so inconsistent. Windows XP was actually looking good in my opinion. As a Mac user I felt a little threatened at the time. I think Vista may be a step back.
On the other hand, the install experience was a big improvement, but unfortunately most of their users won’t ever experience it. The loading and log in screens look great too. I’m starting to wonder if I should start fiddling with the Linux Gnome log in screen. Somebody, a designer, needs to step in and make it cool like what Windows Vista and Mac OSX offer. Currently the standard ‘enter username and password’ screens can look nice, but the ‘list of users with avatars’ screens look like crap on a stick.
- I can only wait for ATI to improve their Linux driver. Supposedly more ‘openness’ is coming down the pipe. Worst case scenario: I’ll buy another video card. However, it seems like the best open source video support goes to Intel’s integrated video hardware. Since ATI is owned by AMD and NVIDIA is owned by Intel I’m pretty sure Intel is sharing info about the integrated video because it’s their low-end hardware. Somebody tell me what a good 3D and dual-head capable video card is for Linux. It all looks bad outside of older hardware that has been reverse engineered.
- The black gloss looks great in photos but is a bitch to keep clean in the real world. Anybody that’s owned a black car knows that.
- Frickin’ Windows Sideshow display is completely worthless, even if I was running Windows.
- Too many wires and cables. I definitely appreciate why people pay a lot for an iMac.
I’m very pleased with this system. It’s extremely nice and it’s a pleasure to finally use a high-powered machine with plenty of screen real estate to run my favorite open source graphics programs. I apologize for the long review (took WAY too long to finish) but there were a lot of relevant details. I hope this review is helpful for Linux users looking for new hardware especially.