Dell Precision 5530 Impressions
A beastly Linux laptop, with some caveats| 14 min read
I recently raised funds for a new beast of a development machine for my work on elementary OS. After receiving the laptop, installing elementary OS, and using it for a while now, I’m ready to share my thoughts.
In a nutshell, this is a beast of a laptop and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a relatively thin and light workstation-type machine. Over all it works wonderfully with elementary OS Juno, and should work great with any Linux-based OS shipping a recent hardware stack. There were some small Linux compatibility concerns, but I’m in contact with Dell and getting them worked out.
Unboxing & First Impressions
I was super impressed with the initial unboxing and presentation. The packaging was very compact, which was impressive for this relatively-large laptop. Compared to the packaging from System76 it was more sleek, though perhaps a bit soulless when compared to the excellent illustrations and fun spirit provided by Kate Hazen. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the extremely straightforward and efficient packaging. And it fits Dell’s high-end products’ brand image pretty well: straight to business. 😉
Pulling the machine out of the box for the first time, I was impressed by its density. It’s pretty big compared to, say, a 13” laptop, but for the massive 15” display, it’s actually very compact. I think the massive 96 watt-hour battery added a little bit of heft as well, but it’s something I’m more than happy to take on for that sweet sweet dozen hours of battery life. It sports the pretty typical wedge shape, which helps hide some of the thickness. The result is a very nice looking modern laptop rocking a massive, beautiful display.
I opted for the Brushed Onyx black color, and I’m happy with it. It looks sleek and high end without accidentally looking like an Apple product. Which is always a plus in my book. It may pick up fingerprints more easily than the silver color, but they wipe clean with practically any cloth. The silver chamfer around the edges of the machine looks sharp and seems to follow Dell’s XPS brand identity.
In fact, what surprises me most about this machine is that it’s not branded as the XPS 15. I don’t know much about Dell’s internal brands, but I do know that this laptop is mistaken as an XPS 15 by just about everyone since XPS has such a strong identity, and this chassis is literally identical. I get that Precision is the business line, but I think it would have been more impressive to market this as an XPS 15 that can be configured all the way from an i5-U class up to an insane six-core XEON or i9-HK class.
Configuration & Performance
This thing flies. I ordered it with the baseline i5-H class processor with Intel graphics, upgraded to 16 GB RAM (with room to grow), chose the HiDPI display, sprung for the massive battery, and picked Ubuntu (which knocked $100+ off!).
- Processor: i5–8300H 4× 2.3 GHz (up to 4.0 GHz), 8 MB cache, 45 W TDP
- OS: Ubuntu 16.04 LTS
- Graphics: Intel® UHD Graphics 630
- Memory: 16 GB single-DIMM DDR4 at 2666 MHz (so I can add another 16 GB stick later)
- Storage: 256 GB M.2 NVMe PCIe SSD
- Wireless: Intel Dual Band Wireless AC 9260
- Battery: 6-cell 97 Wh Lithium Ion battery
- Display: 15.6” Ultrasharp UHD (3840×2160), touch, wide-gamut
- Finish: Brushed Onyx (black)
- Palmrest: backlit 80-key layout with fingerprint reader*
*Not compatible with Linux. Has since been marked as incompatible, but was not when I ordered. I’m in contact with Dell about firmware support and their efforts, but it doesn’t sound like there has been much progress.
While I’m not much into benchmarks, I will say that this is a crazy fast laptop. Animations are smooth, compiling things goes about 5× faster than I’m used to (I didn’t measure, but that’s what it feels like!), and all around it’s just super snappy. It’s refreshing to have a HiDPI display without a performance compromise. Coming from the System76 world, I don’t think I’d call this a “workstation” machine with this configuration, because to me (and System76) that means a desktop CPU and/or high-end GPU(s). But I would say this is firmly at the high-end of a “pro” level configuration, and faster than what most people would need. That speed does come in handy when compiling software, though.
And it’s nice to not have to compromise with having a massive unwieldy laptop, loud fans, and/or subpar battery life. The fans are almost always inaudibly-quiet; they’ll kick up a bit when you tax the CPU, but even at their loudest, they’re not too loud. And the battery lasts me all day: around twelve hours of light/typical computing, and maybe around half that when really pushing those four speedy cores the whole time. Which is more than any computer I’ve ever used, and means I can safely leave the charger at home when I go to a coffee shop.
16 GB of RAM is a great baseline, and I haven’t hit any memory issues yet. I do have an empty slot in there for another 16 GB stick if and when that happens in the future though.
All-Intel (Precision vs. XPS)
I suppose it’s also worth mentioning why I opted for the Intel graphics, and to an extent, the Precision 5530 over the XPS 15. I had been eying the XPS for some time, but wasn’t a fan of being required to get an NVIDIA card in order to get HiDPI on the 15” model; I have just not had great experiences with drivers and power draw with NVIDIA. I also wasn’t sure I’d love the smaller display on the XPS 13, and the decision of Dell to pack a 3840×2160 display into the new model (instead of something more sane for the size, like 3200×1800) turned me off completely.
And then I discovered the Precision 5530. From what I can tell, it’s literally the XPS 15, but with higher-end CPUs. And along with the higher-end CPUs comes the option to get the HiDPI display without NVIDIA. So if you’ve been eying the XPS 15 like me, check out the Precision line for more configuration options.
Ports & Expandability
The Precision 5530 comes with a good selection of ports, and more than covers my needs. On the left side, there’s a barrel power jack, USB 3.1 (Type-A), full-size HDMI, USB Type-C (Thunderbolt and power input), and a 3.5mm combination headphone/microphone jack. On the right you get a Kensington lock port, another USB 3.1 Type-A, and a full-size SD card slot.
My one gripe would be that there aren’t more USB-C ports, honestly. But I’m super happy that the one included is full-on Thunderbolt and supports charging the laptop; while it comes with a barrel-style charger, I bought a USB-C one to use on the go for all of my devices. It works perfectly with my laptop, phone, Nintendo Switch, and other accessories.
Speaking of USB-C, the Precision 5530 comes with a USB-C to Ethernet dongle if that’s your thing. I’ve used it once, but I could see leaving it attached to the Ethernet cable at an office if you wanted a more convenient connection.
Internally, there’s not a ton of expandability—but honestly that’s fine with me. I chose one 16 GB stick of RAM so I could add another down the road in the other slot if I wanted, and there’s just one NVMe slot which is used by the 256 GB SSD I chose. I gave up a 2.5” drive slot for the 96-Wh battery, a trade I’d make every time. The RAM and storage are not soldered in (cough Apple) or anything crazy like that.
Using It: Keyboard, Display, etc.
The keyboard is fine—not System76 Oryx Pro levels of nice, but not Apple levels of bad, either. The keys are a little mushier and less consistent in feel than I’d like, but they’re better than a large swath of laptops I’ve poked at.
There’s a white backlight and while it’s a nice feature to have, it’s also a bit inconsistent and only has three settings: bright, brighter, and off. I usually keep it off since I’m often in bright environments and it just causes unnecessary battery draw—I wish there was an ambient light sensor that automatically enabled it, and that it could be set dimmer.
The layout is great for me! It’s just a QWERTY layout without a 10-key number pad, which keeps the keyboard centered and uncramped. It also does not have dedicated Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys that some swear by, but they’re easily accessible and clearly labeled (cough Apple, Google) as Fn + Up/Down/Left/Right.
Speaking of function keys, the default is thankfully to utilize the multimedia keys instead of F1–F12 by default (so it’s just one tap to change the volume or skip a track, for example). There’s a Fn-Lock key if you’re using F-keys a lot in one session. The default is also configurable in the BIOS for those who care.
The trackpad is niiiiiiice. It’s relatively big—not as monstrous as Apple’s latest offerings, though that’s welcome as I don’t think LibInput’s palm rejection is as good as macOS—and the surface is very smooth. I don’t think it’s glass, but it’s comfortable. It’s a hinge-style where the physical click happens on the side closest to you. Two- and three-finger gestures (and four, if you’re running an OS that uses them) are easy to perform. This is one of my favorite things about this laptop!
My configuration came with a touchscreen display. It’s something I’d usually skip, preferring matte to glossy any day. However, glossy touch was the only way to get HiDPI on this model, and I also thought testing touch in elementary OS would be nice! It picks up smudges and fingerprints like mad, but on the flipside it’s extremely easy to wipe down since it’s a slab of glass. And the glossy display does make it feel brighter and more vibrant.
I believe the display supports a certain type of Wacom stylus/pen, but I’ve not looked into it too much. It could be fun to play with MyPaint or something but also I’m not much of an artist, and the laptop form-factor doesn’t really work for drawing.
The display is BRIGHT. Like crazy super bright. I usually run it within a few steps of the lowest setting, unless I’m out in direct sunlight (in which case the brightness does its best to combat the glare from the sun and also destroy the battery). This is another place I wish there was an ambient light sensor. How do more laptops not have these?
Color reproduction is a double-edge sword. I don’t know the exact specs, but the display can reproduce more than sRGB (“100% Color Gamut” according to Dell). However, there’s not really widespread wide color gamut support in elementary OS (or any other Linux-based OS that I know of). The machine also didn’t come with a pre-installed color calibration profile. The result: colors are way too saturated across most of the OS on this display. Some places—like in Chromium-based browsers or Electron apps—seem to try to squash colors back to sRGB. Others—like Firefox, Epiphany, and all GTK apps that I’ve used—just spread the sRGB-defined colors across the whole display gamut resulting in super-saturated colors, especially in reds and greens. This seems mostly like software in the stack is lagging behind the hardware, but also is a shortcoming of Dell’s Linux support: I requested a color calibration profile and was told this is not something Dell supports on Linux, even though the machine is advertised as having a Dell “InfinityEdge display with 4K PremierColor.”
Touch support works well after a firmware update (using fwupd from Terminal or from another OS with GNOME Software; I hope to get this in AppCenter soon!) and with a relatively recent kernel, provided by the Ubuntu LTS HWE support.
I might sound like a broken record at this point, but: all modern devices should have USB-C! I’m super happy with having it on this laptop, and if you get a Dell that can charge over USB-C, you should pick up the USB-C charger for travel—just make sure it’s 65-Watt or more for all-Intel laptops and know it’ll yell at you at boot for it being under-specced unless you go for the whopping 130-Watt version! There is a setting in the BIOS to make it not yell at you, though (and the 65-Watt charger appears to work and charge perfectly fine under normal load). If you do go with NVIDIA, I believe you’ll need the 130-Watt one no matter what—that’s understandable, but it’s just a little bit bigger and more expensive.
I have yet to dive into Thunderbolt, mostly due to a lack of accessories. I did pick up a USB-C to DisplayPort adapter to use with my UltraSharp display at my desk, and it works perfectly as expected. I’ve also noticed that I can charge the laptop with a lower-wattage charger — like for my phone — if I turn the laptop off first. This has come in handy a couple of times, even if it won’t provide enough power to charge while it’s running.
I really want to get a Thunderbolt GPU enclosure and external GPU to test the integration and just to give the machine some extra umph when gaming or video editing. If anyone has one they’d like to send me… 😉️
While overall I’m very happy with the machine, there have been a couple of minor issues that I feel obligated to call out.
First is the aforementioned fingerprint sensor—don’t expect it to work with Linux on this model (and again, if you order with Linux it won’t be available, but I want to call it out if you happen to have a Windows model). And based on my conversations with Dell folks, this is unlikely to change for this hardware.
Second, there were a few issues with the touchscreen and power management that were resolved with firmware updates. I’m not sure how Dell’s production line works, but if they update the firmware before shipping, you should be fine. Otherwise, install and run fwupd to get the latest.
Third, there was some strange audio whine I was getting through my headphones and occasionally on inputs when I was podcasting. Dell came out for on-site repair (which is an awesome thing to have) to check the motherboard and audio controller daughter-board, but that didn’t seem to resolve it. After more digging, I found that a power saving option in powertop—a power management add-on that Dell pre-installs in their Ubuntu image—was powering down the audio card was responsible for the whine over the audio jack. Full disclosure: Dell likely did not have this issue in their Ubuntu image, as they configure powertop for the hardware. I am using elementary OS, and so don’t have the exact configuration that Dell would have provided. Still, something to be aware of.
Last is the display saturation. This one I don’t have a fix for yet—I’ll probably just need to get my hands on a color calibration kit and go through the lengthy process.
Over all, I’m thrilled with this machine. It feels really good to get a Linux laptop that’s thin, modern, and blazing fast with a massive battery. USB-C is awesome, and the array of other ports is satisfying. Some minor issues did exist, but most were resolved. If you’re looking for a pro-grade Linux laptop, I’d recommend this one!
Thank you so much to all of the GoFundMe backers who helped me get this laptop. It has been a huge productivity boost in the time I’ve had it already, and I look forward to further work improving elementary OS.