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Introduced in the summer of 2007, the Dell XPS M1330, along with its 15-inch sibling the M1530, was intended as a departure from Dell's reputation as a producer of dull, boxy laptops bought more for their value than their design. While the M1330 lacks the elegant minimalism of Apple's laptops, the sleek, lightweight design strikes a balance between elegance and functionality. The M1330 is a direct competitor to Apple's MacBook, and is a better value while not compromising on style.

In early 2008, I was getting tired of the bulk and aging technology of my old laptop, a Dell Latitude D505 named Falcon. As a Linux user, I wanted a machine which was well-supported by current Linux distributions, but, at the same time, I wanted a machine which was small and light for ease of transportation. My first thought was of the MacBook, though it had a few Linux compatibility issues, because of its compact design and the seductive flashiness of Mac OS X. When I heard that Dell had added a second laptop with preloaded Linux, the fact that it was an XPS made me ignore it out of hand; the XPS laptop line has historically consisted of 10 pound, 17 inch behemoths designed for high 3D gaming performance. Having taken a closer look, I immediately began to consider the svelte 4-pound M1330 despite its confusing branding. I soon decided to buy one, though the Linux version was unavailable in Canada at the time. Instead, I grudgingly purchased one preloaded with Windows Vista, trusting my ability to install Ubuntu on my own.

Meeting the M1330

The M1330 I bought, Serenity, was fairly close to the base model, due to my relatively limited budget. The out-of-the-box specs were as follows:

  • Processor: Intel® Core™ 2 Duo T7250 (2MB cache/2.0GHz/800Mhz FSB)
  • Memory: 1GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz
  • LCD and Camera: Slim and Light LED Display with VGA Webcam< (13.3" widescreen, 1280x800 resolution)/li>
  • Video Card: Intel® Integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 3100
  • Hard Drive: 120GB SATA Hard Drive (5400RPM)
  • Operating System: Genuine Windows Vista® Home Premium Edition
  • CD ROM/DVD ROM: 8X CD/DVD burner (DVD+/-RW Drive)
  • Wireless Networking: Intel®3945 802.11a/g Mini-card
  • Primary Battery: 6 cell Primary Battery and 9 cell additional Lithium Ion Battery
  • Fingerprint Reader: Biometric Fingerprint Reader

The only upgrades I purchased were to replace the anaemic default CPU with a faster model (equivalent to the base MacBook), and to include the thinner LED-backlit LCD rather than the standard fluorescent-backlit display, plus the addition of a spare battery. I eschewed the faster NVIDIA graphics chip and the 'Draft N' wireless networking due to their poor support under Linux as compared to the default Intel graphics and wireless. The total cost of this configuration was $1400 CDN plus tax. As a higher-end model the M1330 comes with a number of bells and whistles, including a media remote that stores in the ExpressCard slot, an SD card reader, built-in webcam, and HDMI output.

Despite my eagerness to get away from Windows Vista in favour of Linux, I booted into the pre-installed OS to ensure all hardware features had arrived intact. The initial impression was, to put it mildly, unimpressive. The crapware-infested initial install slowed to a crawl doing the simplest of tasks and made Serenity's 2.0 GHz dual core processor seem slower than Falcon's 1.6 GHz single core CPU. After ensuring that the computer had arrived fully-functional, I happily deleted the Vista partition and its accompanying multi-GB 'restore' partition and popped in the install disc for 64-bit Kubuntu 7.10 "Gutsy Gibbon".

The M1330 as Linux Machine

The Kubuntu install proceeded without problems, but there were difficulties in using many of the laptop's features. Having read that newer versions of the Linux kernel and X greatly improved support for the laptop's chipset, I updated to the beta release of Kubuntu 8.04 "Hardy Heron". Most of the features worked out of the box in Hardy, including wireless networking, the remote control, the card reader, and the webcam. Suspend and resume worked most of the time with occasional networking bugs causing problems, and the 3D capabilities of the video card were available and stable for gaming and desktop effects, a nice change from the balky ATI card on my desktop. Aside from firmware for the wireless card, no binary blobs are necessary, an essential piece of open-source friendliness. The built-in digital microphone did not work without modifying mixer settings somewhat non-obviously, and I was unable to get it to work at all until close to the Hardy release.

That said, there are a few things which do not work properly under Linux, including one that was quite surprising. I have been unable to use external monitors reliably, but this may be due to a confusion between the laptop's (separate) VGA and HDMI outputs. The strangest of these, though, is my utter inability to play encrypted video DVDs under Linux using the free libdvdcss library. Some investigation online has found that the thin (0.9 cm), slot-loading Matsushita DVD burner included in the M1330 and other thin laptops such as the MacBook Pro actively thwarts libdvdcss by refusing to read the key sectors from the disc. Instead, DVD video players must authenticate directly through the drive firmware, a process which cannot be implemented by free software without legally and ethically questionable moves such as ripping keys out of proprietary players.

Overall the Linux experience on the M1330 is quite good; I have been using Kubuntu as my primary OS on Serenity since shortly after it arrived. This is unsurprising given the M1330's place in Dell's line of Ubuntu laptops. The lack of preinstallation was not a barrier to smooth usage of the hardware, though the Dell version of Ubuntu comes with the proprietary DVD player LinDVD, avoiding the DVD drive's meddling firmware.

A Return to Windows

My original plan for Serenity was to dual-boot Kubuntu and Windows XP, the latter hanging around for the occasional pesky non-free app. Sadly, the Windows XP install disc I had failed to boot on my M1330 so I was forced instead to reinstall from the original Windows Vista disc. Fortunately, Dell included a proper Windows install disc rather than just a data-destroying 'restore' disc so I was able to do the install without damaging my preexisting Kubuntu installation.

It quickly became apparent that, even though I had a clean Vista install, 1 GB of RAM was inadequate for any sort of multitasking under Vista. Combined with the memory pressure caused by virtualization under Linux, this gave me ample justification to invest in a memory upgrade to 2GB, which I was able to acquire for about $50 CDN after tax. Installing the extra memory allowed Vista to run smoothly, though the simple requirement of so much RAM leaves much to be desired. Integration with all of the M1330's advanced features was straightforward considering that the machine was designed to be used with Vista.

Overall, though, the dual-boot setup works well even though the 120 GB hard disk is somewhat cramped when providing a complete environment in both OSes. I would, of course, rather have had XP than Vista, but Vista functions adequately for the odd piece of software I needed it for.

Conclusions

Dell's XPS M1330 is a thin, light, and stylish laptop that functions well as both a Windows machine and as a Linux system. Its light weight and wealth of special features, including HDMI, included remote control, memory card reader, and LED-backlit display make it worth the somewhat high-end pricing. The platform is quite customizable with the lower-end options being comparable to the Apple MacBook while upgrades are available (including the functionally identical but larger M1530 model) that give it a power more on the order of the MacBook Pro. While not the full 'desktop replacement' that some people are looking for in a laptop, the M1330 is a good option for people willing to compromise high-end gaming performance and screen real estate for portability.

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