IWL Goes Shopping for a 4K Laptop – Checks out Dell Precision M3800
I’ve been looking for a new laptop for a while.
My old machine is a Lenovo T500 running Fedora 20 Linux. It is a wonderful machine, but it is getting old and dim. I’ve replaced the hard drive several times, the battery is on its N-th life, and I’ve blown though several power bricks.
I’m a heavy user of Linux and I’ve had Linux on laptops, desktop, and servers for years and years. I’ve even built my own Linux distribution for some embedded systems. I generally use the Fedora distribution. And although I spend most of my time at the command line, I do vastly prefer the KDE desktop to Gnome. Recently I had fairly decent luck with several Dell 4300’s running Ubuntu+Kubuntu.
So I was intrigued when I saw that Dell has a couple of new Linux machines: The larger Precision M3800 and the smaller XPS13. The latter seemed like a better machine for my needs, but it wasn’t available with Linux at the time.
So I went with the M3800 with the 15 inch 4K screen.
The M3800 is a beautiful machine. I think that Dell has a machine that could be a serious alternative to a 15 inch Macbook Pro.
But it falls victim to its own most obvious feature – its nemesis is its own 15 inch 4K (3840×2160) screen.
That screen is essentially four 1920×1080 screens squeezed into one 15” diagonal rectangle.
The basic problem is that desktop window managers and applications do not scale images and fonts well. This leads to tiny window decorations (scroll bars, close boxes, menu icons, etc), menus, graphics, and text. More than once I had to pull out a magnifying glass. This tiny world was hard to read. And it was even harder to use: I had considerable difficulty using the touch pad to position the mouse onto small controls such as scroll bars.
I get the impression that most people who are building the desktops and applications that are layered onto the Linux kernel are people who are using 4K screens in their large form factor versions – typically 28 or 30 inches or larger. On those big screens an image or text is reasonably large, and if one sits the typical distance from a screen, things are large enough for the user to comfortably see and manipulate. I suspect that fairly few Linux desktop and application developers have had much experience using 4K resolution laptops.
When a 4K screen is only 15 inches, all of those pixels are squeezed into a very small space.
Unless the software compensates by making things correspondingly larger the visual images and text and window decorations all get smaller. Common 12 point fonts appear as if they were 6 point fonts.
Some people refer to this as the “high DPI” (Dots Per Inch) problem. It really boils down to the angular span of an on-screen object as perceived by the user’s eye. That angular span depends on the object’s representation on the screen and the distance between the user’s eyes and that screen. Think of the Earth: It’s pretty large when when we view it while standing on it. But when astronaut Michael Collins saw the earth rise while he was orbiting the moon, he said that he could obscure his view of the entire earth behind his thumb.
From some quick web research it appears that certain parts of the software developer community are struggling to define metrics, such as screen dimensions (e.g. 1920×1080) and pixel density (e.g. dots-per-inch). The idea being that software could then apply various algorithms to produce the best visual representation on that particular screen. But I did not find any mention of tying those metrics to the anticipated distance of the user from that screen. That distance seems to be a necessary element of any algorithm that is trying to compute how to best make use of the screen resources and sizes.
Dell’s Project Sputnik has worked to put a usable version of Ubuntu onto the M3800 and XPS13. I understand that the team had to fight a lot of issues arising from the kind of power-saving designs of modern laptops, particularly regarding how the screen and touchpad are interfaced.
To a large degree they succeeded – their Ubuntu port does work. And it partially handled the 4K screen.
But partially is not fully.
And unlike Microsoft or Apple, Dell is not in a position to issue heavy handed dictates to those who create and maintain open source desktops and applications. It may take several years for the open source community to resolve (pun intended) these issues, and in typical open source form, there well may be camps, perhaps hostile camps, who use different approaches – I fully expect, for instance, that the KDE and Gnome desktop groups will choose different and hard-to-reconcile methods.
Getting back to the Dell M3800 – I could live with a login screen that had icons that were too tiny for me to identify without considerable effort. But once logged into the Ubuntu “Unity” desktop there were things that annoyed me beyond distraction. Most particularly were things like skinny scroll bars and icons that were too small to be easily hit with the trackpad mouse. And status indicators – such as the “junk mail” flag in the Thunderbird email tool were visually ambiguous at various times.
Dell does seem to have worked with the Chromium browser code to make it work reasonably well, but Chrome/Chromium have skinny scroll bars even on non 4K screens.So those scroll bars become merely thick lines – lines that are hard to hit with a trackpad mouse – when rendered on a small 4K screen.
Some people like the Ubuntu Unity desktop. I don’t.
I find it painful to use. I prefer the KDE desktop. On Ubuntu one can get KDE by loading the Kubuntu packages. So I did that. But things only got worse.
Dell has not made the updates to KDE/Kubuntu that it has made to Ubuntu/Unity. So KDE presented everything as if it were drawing on a large 30 inch 4K screen. I tried to configure KDE to pretend that the screen was a 2K (1920×1080) screen, but that caused chaos as some things were well sized, some were tiny, and some were double sized.
Under the Unity desktop the volume control and screen brightness buttons worked; under Kubuntu/KDE they did not.
I probably could have tweaked and tuned and gotten things so that my poor eyes didn’t suffer too badly. But I use my laptop to be productive, not to poke and prod the laptop.
I may have had a better experience had I acquired the version of the M3800 that has a 2K screen. And I wish that at some level, perhaps in the BIOS, that I could have downgraded the 4K screen and used it as a 2K (1920×1080) device. Then I could have used the machine as a 2K screen unit until such time as the software evolved to properly handle 4K on a small screen.
There were other issues I encountered:
When I first opened up the machine it went though a bit of “Welcome to your new machine” kind of code. But that code crashed while trying to tell me about the machine. That was not a good harbinger.
I have a 4K video camera, so I pulled a couple of video files from the camera and tried to view them. I can’t remember which tool I finally found that would play them. But when it did play the screen and sound worked well for a while then things began to stutter. The machine has an i7 processor, so it has plenty of horsepower; my guess was that it was data starved because of the hard drive in the machine.
The M3800 has two disk drive bays, one for a 7mm 2.5” SATA drive, and another for an mSATA drive. For some reason when Ubuntu is installed, Dell will only provide the machine with a Seagate “hybrid” [part SSD, part 5400rpm] drive. I use those Seagate hybrid drives extensively; they work well for most things (where the writing load is not heavy.) However, being 5400 rpm drives, they may not have the capability to read data fast enough to feed a hungry 4K video (and audio) renderer.
The machine seemed to run hot (especially when I was playing that 4K video.) The battery-remaining indicator descended at an alarming rate. I estimated that I wasn’t going to get more than one or two hours out of the battery. (Did I mention that because of the full-SATA disk drive that the battery is the smaller of the two sizes that are available?) I never did a full battery life test, but I suspect that it is not very good; however, I do suspect that Linux doesn’t yet implement all of the power saving tricks that Microsoft has put into Windows for this machine.
All-in-all Dell Precision M3800 with the 4K screen is a very nice hardware platform. But Dell’s Ubuntu software does not adapt well to that 4K screen. This is not necessarily Dell’s fault – it is an industry wide issue that desktop and applications software will have to learn to accommodate.
I wish I had acquired the machine with a 2K (HD) screen rather than the 4K screen. I think things would have gone much better.
Dell should be loudly applauded for selling Linux as an option on its computers. It will take some time and effort but eventually Dell will have a very viable alternative to MS Windows and a strong competitor to Apple’s MacBook Pro machines.