Dell Precision: Works after a Fashion November 7, 2016
Put on your Linux Wading Boots
Last week, I took delivery of a Dell Precision 5510 "pre-loaded" with Linux. It did not work so well.
The folks at Dell worked to provide support, but at the end of the day, the version of Ubuntu shipped with the Precision was too fragile and the standard Ubuntu installer couldn't create a boot loader.
However, the Precision 5510 is very nice hardware and I have a significant need for a laptop with more than 16GB of RAM.
I've also using Linux since 1996 and Linux on laptops since 2000. What I needed was a mind-set change. I needed to change my mind-set from "this should work like OS X, Windows, or Ubuntu on my XPS 13" to "it's possible to do... so go do it."
Skylake and Kernels
The Precision has a Skylake (6th generation) Xeon CPU.
The 4.8 Linux kernel has support for Skylake. Previous kernels do not. The key reason for needing support is power management as Skylake has far more granular settings than previous Intel chips.
I needed a version of Linux that has a 4.8 kernel. This could be something like Arch or Ubuntu 16.10. I opted for 16.10 because, despite having had success with Arch in the past, I prefer to spend my time coding rather than configuring my Linux system.
So... I downloaded Ubuntu 16.10 and did the guided install. That failed the same way the 16.04 LTS install failed: could not install the boot loader.
So, I tried again. This time I did a manual disk partition. That worked... although I had to explicitly set the target for GRUB installation.
So... yay... I installed Ubuntu 16.10 on the Precision 5510 and it booted.
Not only did it boot, but it found all the devices (wireless, etc.) in the machine.
The standard Ubuntu software management tools work.
Battery life is reasonable (5 1/2 hours).
Sleep is problematic: a 10% battery drain every 8 hours. But this is a common issue with Linux on laptops. While my Dell XPS 13 sleeps like a Mac (a week, no problem), most Linux laptops (including those sold by System76) consume a lot of power during sleep.
The trackpad has palm issues, so I had to disable tap-to-click. Yes, I spent 45 minutes trying all the different palm-detection related incantations... but none worked.
At the end of the day, my Precision 5510 is now a functional laptop.
The Precision 5510 hardware is spectacular.
The Precision weighs 71oz. My 15" MacBook Pro weighs 70.5oz. They weigh the same.
The Precision is less deep and slightly taller than the MBP. But the difference in dimensions is trivial and the Precision fits all the MBP sleeves and such I have laying around.
The Precision's screen is higher resolution and sharper than the MBP. It's also slightly larger. The only issue is the built in camera is at the bottom of the screen rather than the top. This could lead to less flattering video calls... plus issues with my hands on the keyboard getting in the way of the camera.
The Precision's trackpad is very nice... it feels excellent. It is precise. With the exception of the palm issue, it's as perfect as the Mac's.
The materials on the Precision are nicer than the Mac. The Precision's case feels more solid than the MBP. The carbon fiber palm area feels better than the MBP's aluminum palm area. The Precision's case is slightly rounded rather than the sharp edges of the MBP.
The Precision's keyboard feels slightly better than the MBP and far better than the "dual butterfly" MacBook's keyboard.
Just at the hardware level, Dell meets or exceeds what Apple did the with MBP.
It's fast... really, really fast
The Precision is the fastest computer I've ever used.
It's faster than my 6 core desktop machine.
It's faster than the MBP.
And it's got 32GB of RAM which is useful when running a cluster of Mesos in VirtualBox on the go.
My MBP has a 7 hour battery life when I'm doing non-coding stuff. My 13" MBP has a 9 hour battery life. My MacBook has a 4 hour battery life.
The Precision seems to have a 5 hour battery life for similar tasks. I have only tested the battery for a day, so I'm relying mostly on the battery indicator which seems to be accurate.
While the MBP is better, I'm willing to take the hit to be able to travel and code on large projects.
I've got a gaggle of USB-C dongles that I bought when I got my MacBook.
With the exception of the power-related dongles, they "just work" with the Dell. The Precision's USB-C port is not advertised as supporting USB PD, so this is expected.
Dell should not be advertising this machine as a Linux machine. It's no more a Linux machine than any other Intel-powered laptop. It's not a Linux machine like the XPS 13 Developer Edition.
But, I'm willing to be my own Linux admin and do my own Linux support in exchange for rock-solid hardware and a machine that meets my needs for large memory and a fast CPU.
So, I'm going to keep this machine and it will become my development laptop.
Will I buy Dell next time? That remains to be seen.