In search of laptop nirvana, Jack Wallen reviews the Dell Precision 5530 Ubuntu Edition.
My quest to find the perfect Linux laptop has taken me around the globe in search of some form of nirvana that would check off all my requisite boxes. Said laptop would need to:
- Run Linux out of the box.
- Support the latest iteration of any given Linux distribution.
- Be very mobile.
- Offer more than enough power to run everything I need.
- Include a top-notch keyboard and trackpad.
- Have a stunning display.
I realize that's a fairly heavy ask list, but it's a bare minimum for me so that I can work in the way I am accustomed to. So when Dell offered to send me a Precision 5530, running Ubuntu Linux, I was intrigued. After all, the last laptop they sent me, the Dell 13 XPS Developer edition, was an incredible piece of hardware. So I assumed another laptop, with a similar form factor, would be equally as impressive.
Sadly, I was mistaken.
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Don't get me wrong, the Precision 5530 is a beast (Figure A). It checks off most of my list. But a couple of issues flip this from a deal maker to deal breaker.
Let's dig in and see where it hits and where it misses.
First the hits. Let's talk specs. Of course, you can customize the 5530 so that it will blow away your idea of how a laptop should perform. However, I'll list off the baseline specs so you know where this machine starts. Here's the list:
- CPU: Intel Core i5-8300H Quad Core running at 2.3 GHz
- Graphics: Intel HD graphics.
- Display: 15.6 UltraSharp FHD IGZ04, 1920x1080, AG, NT
- RAM: 8GB DDR4 2666MHz SDRAM
- Storage: 500GB 7200RPM SATA
- Wireless: Qualcomm QCA61x4A 802.11 ac Dual Band 2x2
- Battery: 3-cell (56Wh) Lithium Ion with ExpressCharge
- Optimizer: Dell Precision Optimizer
Those baseline specs alone should tick off plenty of boxes for most users. And trust me when I say the Precision 5530 runs as fast as any laptop I used. Why? Because Dell shipped me a model decked out with an Intel Core i9-8950HK six-core CPU running at 2.9 GHz and 32 GB of RAM (such a specced-out machine costs approximately $1,840.48 USD). So yeah, it screams. In fact, it's more powerful than my System76 Leopard Extreme desktop (which says something). That checks off the power option in my list.
Next is the fact that the Precision 5530 supports Linux out of the box. The Dell shipped with Ubuntu 16.04 (more on this in a bit), which runs very well. Applications start up immediately and run as smoothly as any I've experienced. This checks off Linux out-of-the-box support on my list.
The keyboard and trackpad on the Precision 5530 are identical to the XPS. In other words, they are the best in breed. Unlike the nightmare that has become the MacBook Pro butterfly keys, the 5530 keys are rock solid and with the perfect amount of travel and touch. These beautifully backlit keys feel like they could take an incessant pounding from your fingers and never bat a metaphorical eye. No matter your preference for keyboards, the 5530 is bound to please you. Same goes with the trackpad. Although it's not as large as those found on a MacBook (or as "glassy" feeling), the 5530 trackpad is slick and offers just the right amount of sensitivity.
See: IT hardware procurement policy (Tech Pro Research)
The only caveat is that getting any level of multi-touch gestures working isn't worth the effort. The carbon fiber surface around the keyboard makes for a very special human to machine interface. Its buttery smooth and mocks fingerprints and smudges.
Although the display does have a caveat too, it still checks off the necessary box. The 5530 display is crisp. With about an approximate one-eighth of an inch bezel, you get tons of screen real estate, which allows you to tile windows and multitask like a champ. The caveat in question? Due to the screen resolution, some Linux apps (such as The GIMP) run with incredibly tiny menus and toolboxes (so much so, if you're not very familiar with the tools, you might find them hard to work with). Standard apps (such as LibreOffice and Firefox) do not fall to this same problem.
There are only two true misses with the 5530--neither of which are absolute deal breakers for everyone.
The first miss (and this is a deal breaker for me) is that the 5530 does not support the latest LTS release of Ubuntu. When I received the first 5530, there was a networking issue plaguing Ubuntu 16.04. So, I upgraded Ubuntu to 18.04. Unfortunately, the 5530 doesn't support 18.04, and the only way to get it to work was to log into Ubuntu using Wayland. That was far from optimal (even though networking finally worked as expected). That same laptop was sent back to me, re-imaged. When it arrived at my doorstep, Ubuntu 16.04 worked as expected (including networking).
After speaking with a Dell rep, it turns out the 5530 simply does not support 18.04 at the moment. The issue is a display driver problem, one that hopefully will be resolved by the time 18.10 is released.
The next miss is mobility. This is a matter of personal taste, but the 5530 is heavy. Granted it's not a 13" ultrabook, but the beast has to weigh as much as my 2015 Pixelbook and my MacBook Pro combined. Although that's not a dealbreaker, it certainly needs to come into consideration for anyone who drags their laptop from client to client (or coffee shop to coffee shop). So if you're looking for a nice, lightweight laptop, you'd best head back over to the XPS Developer edition. If you don't mind lugging around a beefy laptop in your bag, the power you gain for this size is definitely a tradeoff worth making.
If you're looking for a powerhouse of a laptop that includes one of the single best keyboards on the market, and you don't mind that it's heavy and doesn't (currently) support the latest release of Ubuntu Linux, you cannot go wrong with the Dell Precision 5530. It's a monster of a laptop that will serve you for a long time.
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