My new notebook

Last week I finally received my new notebook. It was a long journey, but it was worth it. If you didn’t follow my blog, you can read about it here, here and here.

Delivery

It was delivered in two pieces. The first box contained the notebook, and was delivered normally. The second box contained the docking station and an additional power supply. For the second box I had to send a copy of the invoice to the tax office. I expected Dell to place the required documents inside the boxes. But since it was a domestic delivery for Dell, they didn’t. And I forgot to tell my friend who re-shipped them to check. So when the second box was delivered, I had to pay the import taxes for the whole order in one go. That wouldn’t be a problem in itself, but an announcement would have been nice. Because I don’t usually walk around with so much money, I had to ask the whole team to borrow some cash. Yeah, cash was the only option.

First impression

As expected, the first impression was great. And I had high expectations because I owned a previous model already. The border less screen is a blast. The large bezel of some other devices is such an useless waste of space. Also the docking station works flawlessly. I had somehow the impression they had different models for America and Europe. But other than the power cord, I couldn’t tell anything that wouldn’t fit. Only one USB-C cable is between the dock and the notebook. This is enough for charging the notebook, connecting external monitors, USB3 devices and sound. Funny enough the Bluetooth LE Mouse has shorter wakeup times when the docking station is plugged in.
I don’t insist on linux being pre-installed to save the time installing. It is to make sure the drivers stay available also in the future. I want to make sure that the OEM’s are aware of the people who want to have sane operating systems on their devices. It is essentially the same reason I insisted on paying with BitCoin. It is my money that I spend, and thus I want my purchase to show up in the appropriate columns of the statistics. If people don’t care, some corrupt middle managers just make certain options harder to get and then claim nobody wanted them.
The only item that is not according to my wish list is the keyboard layout. I wanted a Swiss layout, but made the compromise to get a US keyboard because the other factors were more important to me. The plan was to get a swiss keyboard, and retrofit it myself. But when I look at the device now, I figured out that this wouldn’t be easy, as it would require a European palm rest. Thus I abandoned that plan. I had devices with US keyboards before. It’s no big deal, I just prefer the Swiss layout.

Installation

Every time I set up a new device, I follow the guides for installing with smartcard backed full disk encryption and smartcard backed ssh. I wanted to automate this process for a while. So I used the opportunity to write the scripts this time. Since I wanted the procedure to work reproducibly, I started over every time I missed something. In the end I installed the OS at least five times. The next script for installing all the software including those from personal packet archives is a classic. I probably created it almost a decade ago, and always refined it. I once tried to do something similar for Windows at work. But in the end I abandoned it.

Problems

No system is perfect, and especially notebooks are known to not always have perfect driver support for linux kernels. The Sputnik team certainly does a great job with routing all their tweaks upstream. So far, I only found two minor problems. Wifi and the touchscreen didn’t work after resuming. Since I use full disk encryption I, suspend only occasionally. The boot times are really ok anyway. This is my first notebook with a touch screen. I force myself to use it sometimes, but on such a small high res screen my fingers are just too big. So, it’s nice to have, but hardly essential.
It is also my first device with a 4k screen. Ubuntu does great with the scaling and settings. The only applications that don’t fully support high res that I found so far, are: electrum, bitsquare and openbazaar. Oh, and it would be nice if the applications used the DPI scaling of the screen they are currently displaying.
Last but not least, the battery time didn’t impress me the only two times I ran on battery so far. It hardly lasts for a full movie. But I will try terminating all my background tasks next time.

Update December 20th 2016

Here is a nice video describing the device:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvsgTJbIWNo

Worst customer experience ever

The best notebook ever

I blogged about my attempts to buy a decent notebook here before. But let’s recap quickly. In the fall of 2013 I bought a Dell XPS13 Developer edition. When Dell shortly thereafter announced that they now accept BitCoin, I had the feeling I missed out on that opportunity. Nevertheless, it was the best computer I ever had. As it came with ubuntu preinstalled, there was no hassle with drivers. Everything just worked, it was lightning fast and gorgeous. But in February 2015 it was stolen.

Paying with BitCoin

I wanted to buy the same notebook again, but this time I wanted to pay with BitCoin. The option was not available for the Swiss market, but they expanded it to Canada and the UK. I really didn’t want to find out that it would be possible in Switzerland just after I ordered. Thus I decided to hold my breadth. The waiting became very long, as my ancient intermediary notebook was having thermal issues.

Purism

The selection of ultrabooks with linux pre-installed, that can be bought with BitCoin is not so large. If It has to have a backlit Swiss keyboard, it gets really difficult. But somehow I learned about purism. Their librem notebooks looked very good. As with most startups, the people were really approachable and helpful. I was ready to order their best machine, but they kept having delays. Delivery was always two months out. When it was pushed way back again, I decided I didn’t want to wait any longer, and re-targeted for the Dell.

UK

After a lot more than a year of waiting, and asking Dell to make the leap forward, I was ready to give up the Swiss keyboard. I was ready to order from the UK instead. I was ready to retrofit a Swiss keyboard myself, and pay double taxes. I found a service that would forward the parcel. But although BitCoin was listed as a payment option on the UK Dell website, the option was not available on the checkout screen. I reported this to Dell customer support and tried on a regular basis over the course of a month. Finally I gave up on the UK store.

US

The US store had a model with a 1TB SSD that was even better than the models offered in the European stores. So I went for that. All the mail forwarding services in the US either couldn’t process my card to cover their fees, or didn’t provide a phone number. But a domestic phone number was required for the order form at the Dell store. So I asked around if I could have my order delivered to somebody in the US, and he would forward it to me. A former co-worker who lives in California now agreed. I went ahead and placed the order to his address. Because I was really in need of the device, I chose the faster, more expensive delivery method. Shortly after I paid, I received an eMail stating that the formal order confirmation should follow in two days at the latest.

Black hole

That was the one and only, and the last communication I received from Dell. After a week I started to question why I didn’t receive the formal confirmation, and I found out that the order didn’t appear on the order status page. So I tried to contact Dell order support. In order to initiate a support session, one has to enter the order number. And because the order was not properly in the system, I couldn’t contact them. I tried different means to contact them almost on a daily basis. This week I could finally chat with a support representative. He couldn’t find my order in the system neither, and gave me an eMail address. So I wrote to what appears to be the main eMail address for customer support in the US. An automated response came immediately stating that a human would respond within 24 hours. Nobody ever did of course. I reached out to coinbase to ask about my transaction. They very quickly responded. They stated that on their side everything went through normally, and that Dell indeed received the money. Somebody on a forum suggested that the order might be canceled because of some obscure export regulations. But why a company would cancel an order on such a basis without ever notifying the customer is beyond me.
It has been almost a month now, that I have been desperately trying to find out, when I will receive the notebook that I really need. Dell didn’t even bother to tell me anything. How is that different from the worst scams and frauds out there on the internet? To me that was a lot of money that I sent. I thought of Dell as being trustworthy. No more…

Update September 8th 2016

Barton sent me a mail today stating that they found the problem. They made sure it doesn’t happen again. And the notebook should be delivered early next week. Looking forward…

Update September 22th 2016

The box with the precious new power machine was delivered to me today.
Hooray! Finally! Jay! So excited!
Now I know what I will do tonight… Setting it all up.

Why I still have no new notebook

It has been more than 14 months since my XPS 13DE notebook was stolen. Ever since, I was on the hunt for a replacement. I have just some simple requirements that seem so difficult to meet:

  • Linux pre-installed
  • Payment in BitCoin
  • Swiss German Keyboard with back light
  • Ultrabook (slim and powerful)

The natural choice would be to go with the successor of the model that I was so fond of. Dell does accept BitCoin, but only in the US, UK and Canada. Unfortunately they don’t sell Swiss keyboards in those markets, and I don’t know where to get a keyboard to retro fit.

There are a few vendors selling devices that fulfill some of the requirements, but I found only one so far that can achieve them all.

The best choice at the moment seems to be a Librem13 or Librem15 from purism. The 13inch model has only an i5 processor, and no backlit keyboard. So I would opt for the 15inch model. They have difficulties getting the display panels. And lots of the devices they shipped internationally didn’t reach their destination. This an unfortunate situation, but they seem very friendly and responsive. From what I can observe, they give their best to resolve the situation as good as they can. At the moment It looks like I have to wait two more months to get a Librem15.

Here are some devices that I considered:

Model Linux BitCoin Keyboard Ultrabook Remarks
Dell XPS13 Developer Edition yes no yes yes Very nice device
Purism Librem15 yes yes yes yes Waiting for display, and shipping problems
Tuxedo yes unknown no yes Only German Keyboards
Why yes no yes yes Out of stock

If you know of a device that fulfills my requirements, and is not listed here, please tell me.

an ultrabook for developers

My old netbook still runs, but it shows signs of senility. I have been thinking of a replacement for a while, but as it still worked, that was constantly postponed. When I first read about project sputnik, I thought this is great news and I want one. The device that followed looked very nice, but was a little bit over my budget. Only when the value of BitCoin rised to new hights, I ordered a Dell XPS13 developer edition. The dell representative told me that they don’t YET accept BitCoin for payment, but he was well aware of what it is. Apparently the device shipped from Asia. Since I didn’t know that, I waited eagerly and checked the status every day. After it was in delivery already three days after ordering, I didn’t understand why UPS didn’t even receive the box more than two weeks after that.

The device is really slick. I had no issues so far, not even with the graphics driver. That is also why I wanted this device that comes with ubuntu, and fully supports it. All the drivers are in the vanilla kernel. The graphics card drivers were always the culprit with my previous netbooks. They both had binary drivers when they came out, no 3D acceleration, and the situation degraded gradually. After the second OS upgrade I usually even lost 2D acceleration. Now that I have an ultrabook with a GPU that is apparently fully supported, I wanted to see how well the GPU performed. So I grabbed my very first OpenCL program to give it a try. I was glad to see, that the intel OpenCL driver was already packaged in the ubuntu repository, and that the 4400 GPU support was recently added. This situation is much better than when I started with OpenCL. But I soon realized that this GPU or it’s driver doesn’t support the kind of memory sharing that I used in the example. So, I had to slightly rewrite the host program, no big deal. On the other hand, it would support double precision floats which my geforce in the workstation doesn’t. But after that, I found out that this tiny ultrabook outperforms my five year old workstation by a big margin on CPU and GPU. And that is by using only a fraction of the power. Then I applied the same changes to my GPU accelerated ray tracer. The ultrabook ran the homework image in 15 minutes. So this one was a bit slower than the workstation.

In general, the experience with the XPS13DE is just great. Everything is so responsive, totally different than with the Atom based netbook. The only thing I would have ordered differently if I had a choice was a bigger SSD. Although I was lucky already, If I had ordered a month earlier, It would have come with 128 instead of the 256GB SSD.

The setup was about as follows:

  • OS install with smart card backed full disk encryption
  • setup smart card authentication for ssh
  • checkout of my git home repo.
  • software install with my setup script that adds ppa repositories and apt-get installs everything I need
  • Checking out all source repositores (git and hg) that I usually work with that are not already submodules of my home repo
  • integrate the plasma-desktop into unity so that I could still use the bitcoin plasmoids. But the experience with this integration was not so good, so I reverted that. I will look into writing a screenlet for gnome.
  • syncing the git repos for photos and music. They are why I would have wished for a bigger SSD.
  • syncing the BitCoin block chain

I’m grateful that the BitCoin price surge gave me the opportunity to “vote with my wallet“. Otherwise I would maybe ended up doing the same as last time: buying a cheaper model with a mediocre operating system that I don’t want. That would send the wrong signals, and reinforce the vicious circle. At least Dell has realized that people want good hardware with good linux support. Yes, people are willing to pay a premium for good hardware support for a free and open operating system.