XPS 13

Last month I went on a ski trip during which my backpack with laptops (personal and work) got accidentally taken by housekeeping. The bag was found about a week later, but it prompted me to acquire a decent new personal laptop. I’ve tended to get fairly low end ones for quite some time and while they could handle the majority of what I regularly needed, I would also need to lean on work computers to occasionally fill in the gaps.

The notion of getting a nicer laptop after having presumably lost a previous one does seem to be based on questionable wisdom. The age and costs of the laptops that I use largely mitigate that concern, but this also suggests that I should prefer more disposable devices in less controlled situations. This is particularly tenable now that I have retrieved that original laptop which can now fill that role.

Hardware Selection

After some quick discovery I ended up going with a Dell XPS 13 (9310 P117G002 FX02). I was originally drawn to a Purism Librem but the cost:risk ratio didn’t seem overly appealing even if I want to suppor their mission (though they’d still be a strong contender for a phone). I was then also looking at a Lenovo, but I wanted to beef up some of the specs which seemed to amplify the price difference past the point where it seemed worthwhile. As the XPS seems to be consistently listed as one of the best laptops for Linux and seemed to offer the best bang for the buck, I ordered one on the evening of the discovery of my missing laptop.

For some reason or other (the current chip shortage? standard padding?) the estimate for delivery was about a month from the order date, but that was thankfully abbreviated and I actually received the new laptop in about a week.

Operating System

As aforementioned, I ordered the XPS due to it being a consistently recommended Linux laptop, but I was surprised to discover when ordering that an installation of Ubuntu cost notably more than an installation of Windows. Naively it would seem that a free OS should cost less than one that requires a license. Either Ubuntu has a premium attached for reasons such as the consumer demographic or supply and demand motivations, or Windows leads to some discount spurred by some combination of incentives and subsidies. The latter seems fairly likely given the included suite of trial and freemium software. Given that Ubuntu is not my preferred Linux distribution and I thought it might be nice to take a newer Windows out for a spin, I opted for a Windows installation.

While I had no particular aversion to Windows 11 when first starting to use it, I quickly shifted into old-man-yelling-at-cloud mood when trying to use it to for anything remotely technical. While the Linux subsystem (wsl) seemed promising I found myself needing to chase down third party software for functionality which seemed not only rudimentary, but which older versions of Windows seemed to support more readily. It could certainly be that such functionality was never available in the personal versions of Windows and I’d previously been using the more advanced versions, but at this point in time they seem commoditized enough to pass to the lowest tier. It could certainly also just be the nature of the closed source ecosystem where Microsoft is (understandably) focused on the OS itself and there is no provided complementary system of core utilities. While I’d imagine that such solutions do exist and are simply not readily provided, I don’t have enough of an interest to dig in to such options. So went the chance for Windows to survive on the system (likely as a dual boot option).

Booting into Linux

The laptop has a couple USB-C ports and a Micro-SD Card reader. Based on the apparent options in the BIOS the SD card provided the means to boot into and install Linux, so I proceeded to load a boot image onto such a card. The card itself would boot, but unfortunately the installed versions of Linux never would, failing on assorted combinations of IO errors and inability to load required files. I tried several different images but they all failed similarly. As this was a transitive issue I was far more interesting in just getting past it rather than understanding the details behind it, and so I landed on a workaround of having the image on both the SD Card (for booting) and a hard connected to one of the USB ports. The Gentoo LiveCD provided a nice failure mode during which an alternative location to the system root could be specified, and so at that time I could redirect the boot to the USB hard drive and…it worked.

But…now that the USB connected hard drive was in the mix I also discovered that it also appeared in the boot menu and so therefore the SD card approach was just a wild goose chase and the USB drive could simply be booted rather than the more convoluted workaround above. This information is presumably in some manual that I could have taken the time to read (and likely will do so in the future) but since the information wasn’t provided with the laptop and I was hoping to get the laptop configured so it could act as my preferred device for tracking and consuming such information I learned this bit the hard way.

Installing and Configuring Gentoo

Gentoo Linux is my preferred Linux distribution and so it is what I installed on the laptop. After the detour around booting into Linux the installation was mostly a straightforward progression through the Gentoo Handbook(1). There were some configuration wrinkles that needed to be ironed out to provide a bootable kernel (and as usual I have some pending hardware configuration), but that was resolved in a fairly typical amount of time and tweaks.

At the end I’m fairly excited as this is the first time I’ve installed Gentoo on one of my primary computers in several years and am looking forward to approaching configuration more systematically. In this installation I’ve also opted for the default OpenRC over systemd. While I adopted systemd several years ago for the sake of benefits it offered for hosts intended to run containers, that is not an immediate concern for me and the simpler parts of OpenRC are more conducive to some of my current knowledge management approaches.

Handbook:main page - gentoo wiki [online]. 4 March 2022. Available from: https://wiki.gentoo.org/wiki/Handbook:Main_Page