My gear: how I vlog

People often (once) ask me what I use to create my videos. It’s been a bunch of different stuff over the years, but I think I’ve settled on a good setup.

TLDR: I reckon a good camera and a tripod/selfie stick is pretty much all ya need.

Sony ZV-1 Camera

This thing is amazing and I wish it existed when I started. It’s essentially the latest in Sony’s RX100 compact point & shoot line, but tailored for video. So it’s a massive sensor, zoom lens, integrated stereo mic and 4k recording in a tiny 300 gram package.

This isn’t the perfect camera. The stabilisation isn’t very good and the highest level crops in and makes the image less sharp, so I generally turn it off and take care with the framing. It also caps out at 30fps, so none of that sweet slow mo b-roll. Finally it records in h264 rather than h265, which is fine but the video takes up at least double the space.

But the image quality is stellar and I love it and I’m very happy.

Tripod/selfie stick

It’s easy to giggle at the sheer vanity of a selfie stick, but I am a vlogger after all!

The ones I’ve found the most utility from are essentially mini tripods. They combine a tripod base, telescopic pole, and standard screw thread (1/4-20 UNC) so I can mount pretty much anything from a microphone, my phone, camera or GoPro and stick it in place.

I’ve taken some variation of these around the world, from the windy cliffs of Lisbon to the window in Iceland trying to catch a glimpse of the northern lights.

The BK15 on the left is much more sturdy than the BK10 on the right. These days it’s my mic mount

I’m on my second one now, the Benro BK15 Selfie Stick & Mini Tripod w/Bluetooth Remote. I don’t use the remote, ever. But the stick is sturdy, doesn’t move from wherever you stuck it.

The BK10 started to flex on me after a few years, but the BK15 is the next generation and feels a lot more solid.

Pixel 6 (phone cam)

I was a big believer in using my phone to vlog. I can whip my phone out of my pocket and be recording in seconds. But the quality isn’t there.

I bought into the Apple hype and trialled a 12 Pro Max and it produced such god-awful video that I never released the vlog, destroyed the evidence*, and returned the iPhone for a refund.

I ended up getting the Pixel 6 which apparently uses some form of software HDR while recording video, but I wish I could turn it off because often the sky is blown out to a deep blue colour while the rest of the picture is heavily compressed and mushy looking. The stabilisation is super janky, and I’ve seen the stock standard stabe warp the image. AND I’ve noticed dropped frames in videos at 60fps. If you’re interested you can see all of this in action on my Australian Christmas video which is shot entirely on the Pixel 6.

I’m being hard on the video because it’s a selling point and it’s truly not good enough. I’ve had much better results out of Filmic Pro because it doesn’t use all the Pixel magic, but that’s slower and requires a lot more care to get a good shot.

But I digress! I use my phone from time to time when I don’t have my camera on hand. It’s not amazing quality, but it does alright.

GoPros for B-Roll

I also used a couple of GoPros, the Hero 7 is currently my main wide angle/action/time lapse camera. You can see it in action a fair bit on my Macleay Island video. I have a chest strap which I use on the bike, as well as a standard 1/4-20 UNC mount that I can use on the tripod. The built in mic is not great at all, so I mostly use it for b-roll and time lapses.

I also have a GoPro HERO5 Session which is a tiny baby, but only barely does 4k so I mostly use that for time lapses as well.

The GoPro Session 5 and Hero 7. The 7 is inside an Ulanzi cage on a small handle.

In the pic you can see the Ulanzi cage which holds the microphone adapter for the GoPro. I originally wanted to use this as a handheld vlog cam, and it might still be good for that on hikes and things because of the incredible stabilisation. But I haven’t really found myself using it and I wish the GoPro just came with a damn 3.5mm jack.

Other gear

  • Zhiyun Crane – I picked this up second hand on ebay but I hardly used it because it’s big and chunky and super slow to set up. But I used it recently at Botanica and I think I’m getting a feel for it. It’s great to stabilise the ZV1 when there’s a lot of movement, but I think it’s a special occasions kind of thing.
  • Zoom H1n – this is an excellent microphone. I’ve mostly been using it as my video conferencing WFH mic lately, but it’s a fantastic stereo mic which I use to capture ambience and sound floor for my videos. Or at least, that’s the intention, it runs flat really quickly on rechargeable batteries so I haven’t used it as much as I’d like.
  • Rode VideoMicro – a little shotgun mic I can mount on my camera. It’s good for talking-to-camera vlog style shots because it isolates my voice. But it’s only mono and I haven’t worked out the best way to integrate it with my workflow. Most of the time the built in ZV1 mic is more versatile.
  • DJI Mini 3 Pro – This is a new addition. There was one shot I desperately wanted to get in my Gympie vlog which was an epic drone shot of the Mary Valley Rattler crossing Deep Creek. I didn’t get that shot, but I did get the Mini 3 when it was released shortly after. I’m excited to play with it more.
Imagine this, except as a sweeping panoramic drone shot. “Gympie Mary Valley Heritage Steam Train” by Thirumurugan P is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Davinci Resolve video editor

I switched to Mac in 2017 in part because video editing on Linux is an absolute nightmare.

I started out with iMovie which I used for all of my vlogs up until 2020. My first real full Davinci vid was last year’s Brisbane Festival roundup, which took a VERY long time to pull together while I learned how stuff works. Quite ambitious.

But I think I’ve gotten a lot better and faster at it.

Davinci Resolve edit window showing the media pool, effects, inspector, timeline, and a proto of me giggling at the noodle markets.

There’s not a lot of other software I use, but in the past I’ve used Krisp to recover bad audio, and I’m generally a fan of youtube-dl to rip old youtube vids of mine, ffmpeg to occasionally perform some repairs on a video, or Handbrake for tweaking the encoding. I also use rev.com for better or worse when I’m in a hurry and don’t feel like doing my own captions.

Honorary mention Pixel 2 XL (retired, 2018-2021)

This was my primary vlog cam for pretty much the entire time I was overseas. This was an awesome little unit. It couldn’t do much, but it was my first 4k camera and it’s what started everything!

One little gadget I used to take everywhere was the Windblocker. That thing saved my audio on countless occasions and if you’re vlogging with a phone I can’t recommend it enough.

After three and a half years, this thing was so battered around that I upgraded to the Pixel 6 on release day and gave this one away for free on Gumtree to a gentleman who seemed to really appreciate it.

A Pixel 2 XL on a bright background. It's showing the welcome screen after being factory reset. There are cracks all over the screen.

That’s about it

What’s your video set up look like? Is there anything I’m missing? Shoot me an email!

Panasonic SA-DP1 Review – hifi from the early 2000s

A Panasonic hifi and speaker sit on a cabinet with fancy lighting

Over Christmas while we were packing stuff up to move it around, my mum confided that she doesn’t use the hifi system in her office. It doesn’t get any radio signal and she doesn’t have any CDs to play in it any more, so it just sits there doing nothing.

Since my living room only has the tiny Google Home speaker, I offered to take it off her hands to hook up as an aux device to my living room TV to improve the sound. And it’s delightful.

I love a bit of a retro nostalgia trip, this website is proof enough of that, and this hifi system is really doing it for me. It harks back to a time when things were simple enough to plug together and screw around with. A good time for a kid like me.

This thing is a little beast. It’s an AM/FM CD/DVD player from back when these sorts of things were common. The year 2003 to be exact, just a year before HDMI was first released in consumer gear, so it’s the absolute peak of analog tech before digital signals fully took over.

Hooking up to my TV was a simple affair, I grabbed a 3.5mm audio to RCA cable to connect the TV straight to the hifi system. I could have bought an optical DAC (digital audio converter) for better quality, or even a HDMI audio splitter so I can play audio without the TV on, but this was the most straightforward solution and it sounds flawless.

It also happens that my TV is a hand-me-down old enough to support composite video directly (thanks Ben!) so I hooked it up in reverse to (theoretically) play DVDs. Why? Cos why the heck not.


The early and kinda disappointing days of digital video

A USB CD drive with a bright orange Verbatim CD-RW sticking out and some jewel cases in the background

Around the time this thing was made I was browsing an electronics store in Singapore and stumbled upon a VCD of the 2002 film Resident Evil with a gorgeous holographic cover (Video CD being the precursor to DVD icymi).

I needed to have it! In part because it the cover was cool, but also because I didn’t have a DVD player at home so I’d be able to watch this with the CD drive on my computer.

It was a pretty bad, but fascinating technical choice. Turns out VCDs have exactly half the resolution of VHS tape, and only fit about 80 minutes of MPEG-1 video per disc, so the movie was terrible quality and chopped in half to fit over two discs. Not only that, but the censors also cut out a bunch of good bits.

Still, I loved that film and I’ve been trying to burn a VCD with some old vlogs just for a nostalgia trip.

(Side note: Super VCD used MPEG-2 and had a higher resolution, so they’re almost passable quality-wise. But they’re still limited to 4:3 for that old school cool)

A Devede window reads 'Burning image to CD. Writing track 3. 154 MiB of 650 MiB. Estimated drive speed 723 Kib/s (4.2x)'

I didn’t have much luck creating a VCD in in the year 2020 because it’s all pretty outdated, but I found an all-in-one burner alled Devede which actually managed to take my rips from youtube, crop and convert em, then burn onto an SVCD disc.

Unfortunately the unit didn’t seem to be able to play them. I’ve got a couple of rewritable DVDs coming in the new year so maybe there it will have more luck with those.


Day to day Panasonic SA-DP1

Cool old tech aside, I’m mostly likely to use this as an aux system for the TV with the Chromecast as a source, because any other configurations are really too outdated to want to use on a day to day basis. And for that it’s fantastic.

Amazon is filled with reviews from people who loved this thing fifteen years ago. It wasn’t super expensive, it’s a solid piece of kit, and it sounds great too.

Overall, I give the Panasonic SA-DP1 five stars.

MSI Optix 31.5in Monitor (MAG321CURV) review


Text reads "this display is crap, regret buying it" with an overly large pixel pitch

Ew. I can not stand this monitor.

The USBC display doesn't work with my Macbook Pro. The monitor won't turn on, and the laptop uses more charge than it can draw from the cable.

Reflections from even the slightest light source in the room deliver a different image to each eye, leaving me struggling to focus and causing eyestrain. Further, there's enough space between pixels you can drive a truck through.

After about 10 minutes using this thing I was feeling nauseous. I turned it off, put it back in the box and submitted a return order. This display should be avoided unless you're very confident none of these issues will bother you.

★☆☆☆☆

The reason I cancelled my love affair with Google Home

In 2018 I wanted to buy a Google Home because I was working at ABC News on chatbots and figured immersing myself in the voice assistant hype would give me a better perspective on how to create for them.

A Google Home sits on a table in a home

Maybe I could write an app! Or at least understand better how they could fit into people's lives. I was never especially convinced of the broader applications, but it was cheap enough so I figured it couldn't hurt.

After buying a second for the bedroom and using it for a year and a half, I finally tipped over the edge and given up on the platform for good.

What's so good about Google Home?

Ultimately voice assistants have different use cases for everyone.

One of my friends uses an Alexa for music and managing the contents of their fridge. Another uses it to control home automation (and terrorize the cat).

Personally my main uses were checking the (variable Dutch) weather and asking about the time. The latter actually surprised me, it's super useful when you're in the shower or in the dead of night and don't want to open your eyes to look at a clock.

The problem was that aside from turning on and off my lights, it really wasn't doing much for me. I'm not interested in radio, could never get podcasts working, and the news is easier to read online. On top of that, finding apps on Google Home is downright impossible.

I'd say outside of Google's main offering there were no killer apps. It's not a great ecosystem.

Then the bugs

From the get-go I couldn't use the full set of functionality because I have a Google Apps account rather than a plain old Google account.

For a while I could create calendar events, but that feature disappeared unceremoniously one day. I couldn't send messages, dictate emails, or receive notifications and there was no real integration with any major Google features. I'm not sure how much of this was due to my Apps account, and how much was just missing features in general.

But the thing that frustrated me the most was the reliability of the system. In the past few months it seems to have completely tanked.

At various points I've had the assistant light up and start listening for no reason at all, switch to another gender and accent, and more recently it stopped recognizing devices on my network like my TV and smart lights.

As an isolated event this was frustrating, but the frequency it was happening killed my faith in the system.

Web & App Activity

One of the biggest sticking points for me was that for Google Assistant to work, you needed to enable Web & App Activity on your Google account.

Google app activity

This is an all-encompassing feature that logs all your interactions with Google, including searches. It's not just for your voice assistant.

I was initially hesitant to turn this on because it's super creepy having your Google searches stored in perpetuity, especially when dealing with sensitive or embarrassing topics. But I did it because I wanted the hardware assistant to, you know, actually work.

While you can delete Web & App Activity from the My Activity site, it was still kinda chilling and I started using a lot more tools like Duck Duck Go, more private windows, and Firefox Focus (a private browser for mobile which I highly recommend).

But last month after a period of Google Assistant constantly misunderstanding, getting things wrong, and at one point playing loud rock music instead of white noise in the middle of the night, I decided to turn off Web & App Activity and see what happened.

Using Google Assistant without Web & App Activity enabled

Spoiler: not much changed when I turned off Web & App Activty, which surprised me a little.

When I first started using the device this was a mandatory feature, and it wouldn't work without it. But it seems they've some done work on making the hardware devices work without logging enabled.

That said, it wasn't perfect. I lost access to my third party integrations such as LIFX lights and Chromecast controls so it wasn't a complete solution and made the devices pretty useless beyond just the time and weather.

Quitting Assistant

After a few weeks of this, I decided Google Assistant was not worth the hassle and unplugged all my devices.

The news that Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon all have fairly lax privacy mechanisms in place around recordings certainly helped.

So my two Google Home Minis have been sitting on my bedside table for the past week and I'm not sure what to do now.

I like the idea of voice assistants and would consider getting another in the future, but right now the Google Assistant isn't very useful. I'm not a big fan of Amazon, and I hear Siri is pretty useless too so I don't hold out hope on things changing any time soon.

From my brief question on Twitter, it doesn't seem like many others are using them for much more than basic tasks. While race to the bottom in terms of price and smartphone ubiquity has contributed to these things being in everyone's homes, I genuinely wonder where the voice assistant revolution is heading from here.

Sony MDR1000X Review

A pair of Sony headphones sit on a desk

On the eve of my world tour I panicked that I don't have a decent pair of headphones for travelling. My day to day phones are open and would be pretty much useless on a plane, and I lost my earbuds some time ago.

I was going to borrow Nic's but forgot. I had a look online, and Nic recommended the Sony MDR1000X, a rather expensive, but pretty high tech headphone that sounded like music to my ear holes.

For the longest time Bose has been the king of noise cancelling, and other companies have been trying to catch up. According to other reviews, the 1000Xs represent the first time Sony has come close. I haven't used the Bose headphones extensively so I don't have a baseline to compare to, but even disregarding the noise cancelling Sony has come up with a solid offering (with some small caveats).

These phones have the following key features I'm into:

  • Noise cancelling with several profiles
  • ‎Instant NFC pairing with Android devices
  • ‎Both Bluetooth and 2.5 mm stereo cable input
  • ‎Pretty decent battery life + a passive mode that lets you use the cable even when the batteries are flat.

So how do they do? I put them through their paces as I circumnavigated the globe.

Noise cancelling

The 1000s were able to turn aircraft and train noise into a soft background ambience, a little like the ocean you can hear in a seashell. It's an impressive feat, made moreso by a feature that lets you temporarily disable noise cancelling by covering the right can with your hand. It's a bit of a gimmicky feature, but it comes in handy, and also serves to illustrate the stark contrast of the noise cancelling vs real world.

For voices, the noise cancelling does a good enough job that conversations are inaudible with music playing. The phones also do a decent job with filtering out screaming babies, of which there were several on my long haul Brisbane-Abu Dhabi flight. Again, babies were pretty pronounced without music playing, but with even softly playing tunes they faded into the background which made things pretty blissful.

One of the cooler features of the phones is that the same tech used for cancelling noise can also let sound in. One of my favourites is the 'ambient noise voice" feature which still cancels out lower frequencies such as engine noise, but uses the microphone to pick up and amplify voices through the headphones such as announcements or general conversation.

As antisocial as it might sound, it can be easier to understand flight attendants with this mode on, rather than with the headphones off. It's also a good mode for eavesdropping because it isolates and amplifies voices you might otherwise be able to hear.

Sound quality

Regarding the sound quality, there's a few factors at play here. The MDR1000Xs have different sounds depending on how the phones are operating.

When the phones are being passively driven by an external source they have a fairly standard profile, it's even and inoffensive. I haven't done much listening in this mode, but I've been very happy with the sound when I have.

You're far more likely to be using these in active mode, where the software onboard does a fair bit of processing. In this mode they have a very "Sony" sound, there's plenty of bass and it's a nice general purpose music listening profile.

The big letdown is the Bluetooth protocol itself. I think with higher end headphones the compression is more readily pronounced, especially in quiet listening environments. This kit does support higher resolution audio, but it's a proprietary Sony protocol that virtually no devices support. There's no lossless AptX support either, so if your device is rare enough to support that you're still out of luck here.

With the provided cable input the sound is much better, even using phone audio. I've yet to test this with a headphone amp to see what the difference is, but with noise cancelling in a loud environment I was satisfied with the quality and had no real issues.

Playback controls

The right can has a touch sensitive surface that lets you assist volume, skip tracks, and temporarily let the outside world in. This feature is flaky in my experience and it's difficult to get it to do what you want. I don't think anyone on the engineering team thought it through.

The volume/skip feature is fiddly, and only works in Bluetooth mode. This means you have to firstly be aware of that fact, and secondly keep track of what mode you're using your headphones in as to whether you can use it. A few times I've unsuccessfully tried to adjust the volume in cabled mode, which doesn't work, and this has trained me to not use the feature at all.

Overall it's a pretty dumb feature, but I don't use it so it doesn't bother me.

Comfort

These are some comfortable headphones. Over the 23 hours to Amsterdam I had no trouble wearing them with music, with only the noise cancelling active, and even switched off to keep my ears toasty warm. The over ear design means there's no ear squashing and the headset sits comfortably without too much weight.

I will say that these phones, like many of Sony's range, don't sit comfortably around your neck when they're not in use. They're too big and I find it difficult to look around in this configuration, so I tend to attach them to my bag instead. Out of the box you get a travel carry case, but I left it at home as I'm a light traveller and didn't have room.

The other thing I've noticed I'd that the band doesn't sit flush with my head, instead it arcs out wide, leaving an enormous gap that suggests maybe my head should be fatter to compensate. This is possibly because I have a big head and need to use the phones at a larger size, and perhaps they're not as shapely as they could be. Again, this isn't a deal-breaker.

Conclusion

Overall I'm very happy with these cans, they're an expensive but versatile high end system that works super well on the road.

The cabling system is awesome for air travel where transmitting devices mightn't be allowed, the sound quality is a delight in most cases, and they're generally a solid unit.

I would recommend them to anyone who wants a quality all rounder headphone and is okay with the tradeoffs of cabled vs A2DP audio, or folks already in the Sony ecosystem who can make use of the proprietary features.

More info

Here's the Cnet review, in case you wanted some action shots

Garmin fēnix 5 Review


I’ve wanted a heart rate monitor for some time, mainly to improve my cardio performance and to track my progress as I go. One big thing for me is the wrist-based form factor because it gives you ambient recording, as well as not having to carry around a chest strap and all the awkwardness that entails.

I’ve done a lot of research into this over the past year and I’ve ruled out things like the FitBit (which only shows you HR for a few seconds when you press a button), and the ill-fated Pebble Kickstarter (I’m so disappointed they folded). Finally after a lot of reading, hand-wringing, and a very convenient 20% off sale at Rebel Sport, I apologised to my bank balance and bought the Garmin fēnix® 5.

Garmin fēnix models

Garmin’s fēnix line is the high end of the Garmin sports watch range, and is priced to suit. In Australian dollars you can pay $1k for the top of the line fēnix 5X, with the fēnix 5 and fēnix 5s retailing for$800. So these aren’t devices to consider lightly.

The main difference between the three is size:

 fēnix® 5Sfēnix® 5fēnix® 5X
Diameter42 mm47 mm51 mm
Thickness14.5 mm15.5 mm17.5 mm
Weight67 g85 g98 g
Battery life (smart mode)9 days14 days12 days
RRP (🇦🇺)$799$799$999
Garmin Fenix 5 prices in Australia circa 2017

There’s some smaller other differences, namely the “sapphire editions” of each watch give you a sapphire crystal display and wifi connectivity if you’re so inclined.

But more generally the 5S is intended to fit smaller wrists, and the 5X has more storage and comes with maps.

Garmin fēnix 5 comparison

The cool stuff

I’ve covered what the Garmin fēnix models are, but why would you buy one?

For me there are a few reasons:

First, it’s a really nice piece of design. This is something that’s going to last a long time rather than be replaced every year, so I want something that looks good and isn’t going to date terribly like a cheaper smartwatch might.

On a similar note, the hardware itself is truly excellent. I’m not going go into details when DC Rainmaker has done such a comprehensive review of the tech. If you’re considering this device and want all the benchmarks, definitely read that article because it’s what tipped me over the edge.

Perhaps most importantly it’s not an Android watch so it’s not going to lose access to updates, slow down, become a security risk or generally suck like OEM Android devices do. It’s an OS purpose-built by Garmin that does one thing well, and should mean the watch will live a long and prosperous life even after Garmin drops support for it.

Finally the Garmin ecosystem has really good Strava support which I use almost every day. Having this in a standalone device means on longer workouts I’m not sucking power from my phone, and can last some 24 hours without a charge — much longer than I can.


Initial impressions

I tried on each fēnix model at the shop before making my decision; the fēnix 5S didn’t even fit around my wrist, but the 5 sat snugly and looked good, so I anguished over the decision for another 20 minutes before finally taking it to the register.

The device itself is lovely. In the box it’s a carbon/polymer + stainless steel affair with a rubber band. You can get metal bands which I’m considering due to an unfortunate issue with sensitive skin, but the default combo looks great.

Pairing was simple, the app found the device before I’d even asked it to which was impressive. Once paired it immediately started sending notifications from my phone. I’m not a big fan of this feature and the next thing I did was turn notifications off for reasons of sanity and battery life. For me this is a fitness & tracking device, not a smartwatch.

The OS is fairly intuitive; it’s not touch based, but it has a very simple up/down/select/back navigation and all the features are nearby and easy to find. It’s also fairly standalone, so you could get away with using this without a phone if you wanted, however to sync to Garmin Connect and various other internet services you’ll need to bluetooth pair it.


Display in full sunlight
Display in ambient light with backlight
Display in litle light with no backlight
Display in little light with backlight

One thing that’s really stood out for me is the screen; not being a traditional LCD display, this one turns off the backlight and draws almost no power while still being completely legible. In fact, legibility is best in direct sunlight with no backlight, making this a really awesome exercise companion. I was super pleased to be able to start my bike ride today, switch to the heart rate mode, and check that easily throughout the trip.

As a result of that, the battery life should be measured in weeks, as opposed to the mere hours of the current generation of smartwatches.

Conclusion

It’s early days, but I’m pretty happy with this device. From a fitness tracker perspective it’s awesome, and I’m really optimistic about how this thing is going to fit into my fitness regime.

It’s not a smartwatch, and if you’re going into the market looking for that you may be disappointed, but it’s a really great purpose-built fitness tracker that also serves as a watch.


Update 2019

So this was an awesome watch, I really enjoyed using it. Problem was, after a while I noticed my skin was starting to itch and go weird where the watch was sitting.

After a few weeks of alternating wrists and trying to make things work, both arms a patch of messed up skin and I reluctantly decided to sell it on eBay. Guess I’ve got sensitive skin.

Still, good watch! Recommended!


Update 2022

Ever indecisive, I decided to grab a second-hand watch on eBay to give this one more try. It was cheap enough second-hand, and from the original article it’s still plenty usable because the software is fantastic!

This time instead of using it as an every day kind of affair, I plan to use it mainly for cycling and workout tracking to save the battery in my phone. So things worked out alright in the end anyway!

That time a truck crushed my laptop and I replaced it with the XPS 13

Waiting at the lights, my bag popped off the back of my bike somehow. I noticed straight away because the weight was different, but by the time I’d stopped and turned around, the ute behind me had driven over it with not one, but both sets of wheels.

A laptop all bent out of shape, still turns on but the screen is shattered. A tablet next to it, equally crushed.

The guy looked at me briefly, then drove off. I didn’t even think to note his license plate, I was too busy freaking out on the traffic island. My laptop is seriously my most important possession and it was immediately obvious it’s been completely written off.

I checked out my insurance, but it’s only for medical and third party which means I’ve got nothin’. I can shift some money around, but it’s certainly changed my short-term plans.

So I set out on a search for a new computer. I wasn’t going to buy another Samsung Series 9 because the quality of the screen was absolutely rubbish and having used it for a month or so I couldn’t justify the price again. So I went searching, and found the Dell XPS 13.


The Dell XPS 13 is a laptop.

Not the Developer Edition

I was originally looking at the Ubuntu Developer Edition which isn’t available in Australia. The Developer Edition comes with Ubuntu pre-installed, and a bunch of compatibility patches and developer tools already loaded on.

It’s a pretty attractive deal, because Dell have been contributing their modifications back to the Linux kernel to make sure this machine is the Linux latop amongst the Windows-crippled alternatives out there.

The XPS 13 is the same machine, just with Windows pre-installed instead. All the same bits and pieces under the hood (and a few extra stickers), but you can wipe Windows and install your choice of Linux distro over the top with no problems at all.


The Specs

There are a few models of this machine available, and I can’t find mine on the Dell site any more, so your mileage may vary.

Size
13.3″
CPU
Intel i5/i7 available
RAM
8GB Dual channel DDR3 1600Mhz
Storage
128 GB SSD (Mine has 256 GB, but this no longer seems to be an option.)
Graphics
Intel® HD Graphics 4000
Display
Full 1080p (IPS?) display
Networking
Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 and Bluetooth 4.0
Battery
47 WHr 6-Cell Battery
Chassis
13″, machined aluminium & carbon fibre composite shell, silicone palm rest

Initial Thoughts

My initial thoughts on this laptop were really positive. This laptop feels expensive.

Aluminium & carbon fibre shell

The device has a full 13.3″ screen, but the size of the laptop is tiny owing to the really small bezel around it. The chassis is an attractive complement of machined aluminium on the lid, carbon fibre on the base, and a silicone finish on the palmrests which is surprisingly nice to use.

There’s a metallic cover on the bottom of the laptop which opens to reveal the Windows and Intel stickers as well as FCC information and other important bits.

There are two USB3 ports, one on the left and one on the right. There’s also a Mini DisplayPort and a headphone jack. There are no other ports on the laptop. If you want to use something like cabled Ethernet you’re going to have to pick up a USB adaptor online ($10 ought to do it on eBay), or if you need more devices you’ll have to look into a USB3 hub.

I’ve noticed the lid can be a little tricky to open as the weight isn’t quite balanced with the opening mechanism but on the flip side, the lid is fixed in place wherever you put it. There’s no wobble or anything because of the heavily weighted hinge.


Installing Linux on the XPS 13

There’s a few ways you can install Linux, by USB flash drive or via an external DVD drive, it’s pretty straightforward.

The Dell XPS 13 running Ubuntu

While the device comes with Microsoft’s “Secure Boot” enabled, you have the option of going into the menus and turning it off. In addition, a number of Linux distros come with Microsoft signed keys that will run with Secure Boot enabled anyway.

Another nice touch is the ability to fall back to BIOS emulation mode, which lets you boot older OSes of if you run into shoddy UEFI support in your distro of choice.

You can get into the UEFI/BIOS interface by pressing F2 on boot. (Keep pressing it until it tells you it’s got it.)

Other than Secure Boot, this is a really straightforward machine to install on. You’ll have no problems.


The Keyboard

The keyboard is really quite nice. It’s backlit, and the chiclet style keys have a fair bit of give to them.

It’s quite nice to type with, much nicer than the Samsung Series 9 for instance, although they’re a bit softer than the generally quite firm MacBook Pro.

I’ve also been told the keyboard is an unusual layout (although I haven’t noticed), but either way you’ll likely get used to it in no time.


The Screen

The screen is the total show stealer. The original XPS 13 had a measly 768p screen, whereas this one has the full 1080p and it’s gorgeous.

I’ve gone through a few screens lately, and this is easily the best one I’ve ever used. It’s easily better than my 2010 era MacBook Pro, and wipes the floor with the rubbish used in most Windows laptops on the market these days, including the Series 9.

The screen is perfectly clear, offers no motion artefacts or screen-door effect at all (unlike it’s shonky bigger brother).

I suspect it’s an IPS screen although I haven’t been able to verify this information anywhere other than one or two news and blog sites. It has perfect colour reproduction, with no vertical colour distortion whatsoever and perfect viewing angles from all directions.

In terms of brightness it’s a 350 nit panel, which is pretty damn good. You can find other brighter laptops on the market, but this one’s perfectly good for indoor and outdoor use. It’s a glossy screen as opposed to a matte, which means it can be impossibly glarey in the wrong environments but I’ve never found myself unable to use the laptop due to lighting conditions.

Whether you’re a designer or developer, you should absolutely consider this laptop for the screen alone.


Trackpad

The trackpad is really nice. It has a smooth finish and tracks well with one or two fingers. It’s gesture capable, although I haven’t used any of these features.

Dell and Canonical have apparently taken the existing Cypress trackpad driver and extended it to support the Developer edition perfectly. These changes have been merged upstream into the proper Linux kernel and should be available on most new distributions.

I’m using the drivers that Fedora 18 picked up, and I’m not sure whether they’re the right ones or not. I’ve noticed very occasionally that the trackpad can get a little jumpy and I’ll need to suspend/resume to reset it. I’m interested in whether people have this issue in newer kernels than version 3.9.4-200.


Noise

This machine actually has a little more noise than I’m used to. While it’s no rocketship like my previous MacBook, it can get somewhat loud under load.

I’ve also noticed that the fan makes funny noises even when not under load. It’s barely noticeable, but if you shove your ear up to the bottom of the laptop you can hear it ticking and scraping. It’s a little bit of a concern, I’m not sure if I need to open it up and clean it or if that would make it worse.


External Monitors/VGA Out

This laptop uses Mini DisplayPort, like older MacBooks, which is pretty well supported.

The laptop itself doesn’t come with any cables, but you can grab a Mini DisplayPort cable to output to DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI or VGA.

I’ve driven my Dell U2711 27″ screen at 2560×1440 over DisplayPort with no problems. I understand there may be difficulties converting from DisplayPort to dual-link DVI etc for very large resolutions, so it pays to use DisplayPort→DisplayPort whenever you can.

I’ve also had problems connecting the Mini DisplayPort to a VGA projector using an Apple dongle. Turns out the Apple dongles are a bit special and won’t work with this particular laptop, so if you’re going to be presenting anywhere you’ll need to bring your own non-Apple adaptor.


Other features

The battery is a 47 WHr 6-Cell Battery but I can’t tell you much more than that. It’s not as good as the Samsung Series 9 for instance, but I rarely find it fails me when I’m out and about through the day. You should check out some other reviews for information on the battery life.

Graphics are standard Intel HD Graphics 4000, which are pretty standard across the board. The benefit of Intel graphics is that everything in Linux is supported so much nicer than with nVidia or ATI. If you’re looking for gaming, it’s not the worst you could do, but you should check around to see how the HD 4000 graphics fare on various games.

Sound is quite good. It’s much better than the Series 9 or 2010 MacBook Pro for instance. I’m not sure where it comes from, but it seems beefier than your average laptop sound. I haven’t put it through any vigorous tests (because it’s laptop sound after all) but I quite like it.

Output from the headphone jack is generally good too, free of pops and hisses, and I haven’t heard any processor squeal come through my earbuds which can be a problem on cheaper systems.


Conclusions

The Dell XPS 13 (Non-Developer Edition) is an awesome laptop and if you’re a Linux user looking for a quality device you should absolutely get this one.

While there’s a lot of different materials gone into the build, the quality is stellar. It’s a good weight, feels tough, and I consider it an extremely attractive design.

A person uses a the Dell XPS 13 at a display stand

All the useless loose ends have been removed (CD Drive, Ethernet, serial) leaving only the very basics. If you need more you can extend it with USB adaptors. It’s the ultimate minimal experience.

The speed is great, the compatibility is stellar and the display is the killer feature that beats out all the other devices on the market (with the exception, of course, of the retina Macs which aren’t much use in Linux anyway).

Everyone who sees the laptop loves it, and I recommend it for everybody. If you’re not convinced, leave a question in the comments and I’ll see what I can do to answer it. Otherwise, you’re going to love this laptop and should check it out now.