Category: Laptop, Notebook and Netbook Computers

Product Review–Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 laptop

Introduction

I am reviewing Dell’s attempt to achieve a popularly-priced large 2-in-1 laptop that can appeal to all users. There is the Del Inspiron 13 5000 variant of this 2-in-1 which omits the USB-C and Intel RealSense camera and is sold for $200 cheaper normally. It is a system that reminds me of the first 13″ Dell Inspiron laptop that I had reviewed where there was a sense of value for money along with the durability in that product.

The model I am reviewing is equipped with the Intel 6th Generation Core processor which is the previous generation CPU. You may be coming across these computers through the sales and may want to see this as a chance to assess the bargain that is being offered. But I have quoted prices for the newer models that have been refreshed with the 7th generation (Kaby Lake) hardware.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop at Rydges Melbourne hotel

Price
– this configuration
Current generation:
AUD$1699 (Intel i5)
AUD$1899 (Intel i7)
Market Positioning Mainstream consumer laptop
Form Factor Convertible laptop
Processor Previous Generation
Intel Core i7-6500U
Current Generation
similar option:
Intel Core i7-7500U
cheaper option
Intel Core i5-7200U
RAM 8 GB
better option:
12 Gb
Secondary storage Previous Generation
256 GB SSD
similar option:
256 Gb SSD
better option:
512 Gb SSD
SDXC card reader
Display Subsystem Intel HD Graphics 620
Screen 13” widescreen touch display (Full HD) LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Realtek HD Audio
Audio Improvements MaxxAudio
Network Wi-Fi 802.11ac dual band
Ethernet
Bluetooth 4.1
Modems
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 1 x USB-C with Power Delivery
1 x USB 3.0 with Sleep and Charge
1 x USB 2.0
Video DisplayPort via USB-C
HDMI 1.4
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Authentication and Security RealSense camera
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in presentation-viewer mode at Rydges Hotel MelbourneI have found that the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 convertible laptop is well built and uses an aluminium keyboard surround and palmrest that feels cool to the touch.

It has the similar weight to the typical recent-issue 13” mainstream laptop computer thus not being too heavy to carry around. To convert it between a tablet or laptop setup, I have found that it requires the right amount of effort for this process and it works smoothly. The experience would be similar to opening or closing most of the conventional laptops.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in tablet modeAn issue that I keep an eye out for with laptops is how they keep their cool. Here, the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 uses vents located near the hinges to disperse waste heat. Here, it also allows the computer to be comfortable to use in all modes. As well, I had not noticed that there was excessive overheating even with playing video content through the computer.

User Interface

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in tent modeThe Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1’s keyboard is easy to work with even if you are touch-typing. This illuminated keyboard has the right spacing but also has just enough tactile feedback so you can type quickly. But some users may find that they have to have the illuminated keyboard on to make it easy to see the letters.

The multi-touch trackpad works as expected and isn’t prone to being hair-trigger. Let’s not forget that the touchscreen works properly although it is glossy like on other consumer laptops.

Audio / Video

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop - Left-hand side - Power, USB-C, HDMI video, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio jack

Left-hand side – Power, USB-C, HDMI video, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio jack

The Intel integrated video system even could handle video playback from something like a Facebook home video without underperforming. This was even with the Dell 2-in-1 laptop running on its own batteries and sipping the current.

Although this laptop implements the Waves MaxxAudio sound tuning, the sound quality is very typical of most computers of its size. Here, it would be good enough for personal content viewing but don’t expect much especially if you want good-quality music playback whereupon I would prefer to use it with external sound systems.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop - Right-hand side - USB 2.0, SD card reader

Right-hand side – USB 2.0, SD card reader

The complement of connections on this computer allows for it to be future proof without requiring you to buy extra accessories.

Here, all the variants of the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 have a USB-C socket with Power Delivery both ways, but I would like to see a top-shelf variant of this model offering the Thunderbolt 3 connection rather than the standard USB-C connection. It would then open up the path towards external graphics modules and similar devices as a performance-improvement path. Of course there is the support for connecting monitors using this connection thanks to the DisplayPort alt support the connection has.

This is in addition to a standard HDMI port along with two USB Type-A connections – one being a 3.0 variant for external hard disks and the like and another for larger keyboards and mice. Dell still offers a USB-C expansion module that adds on another HDMI port, a VGA port for that old data projector they continue to use, a Gigabit Ethernet port that can work if your place is wired for Ethernet or with a HomePlug powerline network and a spare USB 3.0 port. This is something I would consider if I was valuing extra connectivity and can be tucked in to your backpack or messenger bag.

The Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1s offer the right mix of RAM and storage even in their baseline variants. This would be 256Gb for SSD storage and 8Gb RAM which means that you aren’t being starved when it comes to performance and data storage. Here, the SSD on the review sample had lived up to its performance expectations.

For those of you who have digital cameras, the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 comes with an SD card reader so you can easily and quickly download your pictures or footage on to the computer’s storage.

Battery Life

In most situations, the battery was able to last a day of regular computing without the need for me to have the power adaptor connected to the computer.

Other Usage Notes

Most people impressed by the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 as being a representative of the convertible 2-in-1 class of computer.  This is although these computers are not often purchased and once someone buys a touchscreen laptop or a 2-in-1, they will miss these features when they go back to a traditional design.

There are some users, typically those who moved to the Apple environment, who expressed worry about the keyboard on these computers ending up being damaged if the computer is used as a tablet or presentation-viewer setup. It typically represents a staid expectation amongst users when it comes to mobile personal computing where they are comfortable with a traditional clamshell laptop and a mobile-platform tablet.

Personally, I found that if I wanted to browse the Web at a table, I could simply have the computer in the “presentation—viewer” mode so that I am not taking up much room on the table.

I showed the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 computer to a representative from InfoXchange who visited the Melbourne Men’s Shed as part of a digital-literacy survey amongst its members. Here, they were impressed by the touchscreen in the context of older computer users and the use of a tablet as a personal computing device for this user class but liked the idea of the detachable form factor for those who have back issues. She  tried the fold-over aspect but may not have noticed it as offering the same advantage. They appreciated the idea of a keyboard so that these users can also do document-creation work but also liked the idea of the tablet or presentation-viewer modes being suitable for Web browsing or video viewing (think Netflix or catch-up TV).

Subsequently I met up with a new friend of mine who is of an older age group and they were impressed with the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1’s form factor including the touchscreen. Here, one of the features that intrigued them was the ability to zoom in to text with their fingers, something that appealed to them as they didn’t have the full vision that we take for granted.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

One way that Dell could improve on the Inspiron 13 2-in-1 family would be to offer a Thunderbolt 3 connection as an option for the premium variants like the 7000 Series. This is while they use a USB-C with full Power Delivery for the affordable variants like the 5000 Series. It is alongside maintaining the commonly-used connections like the USB 3.0 connections or the HDMI video connection.

But I would still want to see Dell keep the Inspiron 13 2-in-1 family as a value-priced “Yoga-class” convertible computer with the right mix of features that pitches towards what most people want. Here, they need to focus on a well-built affordable machine that can survive a lot of use but can appeal to most people without being the ultra-cool computer that answers Apple’s products.

Conclusion

A well-built 13″ 2-in-1 convertible notebook that represents value for money

Like I have seen with most of the Dell Inspiron laptop computer lineup, I have found that the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 convertible laptops have represented something that offers value for money in its product class.

This is something that is durable but is light enough to carry and is priced in a manner to have you think of it as a main or sole computing device which you can purpose as a large-screen tablet. The RAM and storage capacity offered in the available configurations underscore something that befits this use case whether you choose to run with the package based on the value-priced Intel i5 processor or the one based on the performance Intel i7 variant.

If more of those apps that appear on most iPads could be ported to Windows 10 and made available on the Windows Store, then the 2-in-1s like this Dell could be a viable alternative to the iPad that is kept at home.

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Do the large 2-in-1 convertible laptops still earn their keep?

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 courtesy of Lenovo

This style of 13″ or 15″ 2-in-1 convertible notebook is becoming more common in computer manufacturers’ product ranges

Increasingly most computer manufacturers are supplying at least one 2-in-1 convertible laptop that has a screen size of between 13” and 16” in their product lineups.

These work in a similar vein to the Lenovo Yoga range which made this concept more cost-effective. Here, the computer has a hinge that swivels through 360 degrees so that it changes between a laptop and a tablet, with the ability to be angled to be a viewer with the screen on a slant or to be set up in a “tent” mode that looks like an A-frame signhoard.

Some manufacturers like Dell, HP and Lenovo are offering a range of these computers with some models offering the kind of performance and storage expectations akin to most mainstream laptop computers for a price very close to one of these computers. This is while they offer the premium Ultrabook variants like HP’s Spectre X360 along with business-rated variants like HP’s Elitebook X360 that have all the security features desired by enterprise IT.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - tablet view

A large screen tablet for video viewing or e-book reading

These large convertible laptops have a screen size that appeals to regular laptop use which would underscore a lot of content-creation activity. But a significant number of people will consider them to be too large for use as a tablet, especially if the idea is to use it as something that takes over the iPad’s or Android tablet’s role. This is because these tablets have a screen size of between 10″ and 11″ that that yields a highly-portable device best suited to personal media consumption.

Some people may appreciate the large screen for these computers while used as a tablet compared to the conventional 10”-11” size pitched for tablet devices. For example older people and those who don’t have good eyesight will appreciate the large screen especially when it comes to reading or casual gameplay. It can also appeal to people who find the traditional laptop as their “comfort zone” but want to dabble with the tablet feel with that same screen size.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - image-viewer view

The viewer position that appeals for watching video content or flicking through photos on the sofa

Similarly, you could easily share the screen between two people.This is augmented by the use of that “presentation viewer” position which has the screen at that comfortable viewing angle while the keyboard serves as a base. In some cases, the larger area allows the weight of the base to be spread more easily. A classic example could be for the two of you to relax on the couch or in bed and watch that online video, or you to read through that PDF recipe file with the computer resting on the kitchen bench.

The large size screen in these tablet-based modes also allows us to see more text-based context without needing to zoom in and out or scroll the text. This can be useful for those of you who are presenting from material like notes stored on one of these computers.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - as a tent card

The tent view that can also appeal to use on the dining table or kitchen bench

The limitation with these larger convertible 2-in-1s regarding their size is that it may not appeal as something that is light enough to be pocketed away. Here, these computers would end up being transported in the same manner as the traditional laptop.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook at Phamish St Kilda

Yet it still can be a laptop for writing up what you want to write up

Similarly, there hasn’t been much effort taking place to port the mobile-platform games and apps to Windows 10, which just about all of these computers run. Here, a lot of these games that exist on the mobile platforms are optimised to exploit the touchscreen user experience which this class of computer offers as well. There is also the practice amongst a large number of “catch-up TV” and similar video-on-demand providers to expect the user to use the Web browser to visit their Web presence, but Windows 10 native apps written for these services can make for improved performance from these computers along with a sleek user experience.

I still see this class of computer earning their keep as a viable alternative to the traditional clamshell laptop computer and the 10” mobile-platform tablet that is always just used at home. Here, the large 2-in-1 convertible laptop can appeal to a large class of people who use a laptop or iPad just for the typical computing tasks such as video and photo viewing, word processing, Web browsing and online communications but who appreciate the large screen. As for the cost, even if the sticker price seems to be expensive, you are effectively buying two devices in one housing and are likely to end up likely to make heavy use of these computers rather than thinking of dealing with the two separate devices.

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Security flaw found in HP laptop audio driver software–how to fix it

Article

HP Elitebook Folio laptop press picture courtesy of HP

Check that your driver software is up to date on these HP business laptops.

HP issues fix for ‘keylogger’ found on several laptop models | ZDNet

Keylogger Found in Audio Driver of HP Laptops | BleepingComputer

From the horse’s mouth

Hewlett-Packard

Download site – identify your computer’s model number in the form on this site to obtain a list of the relevant software

My Comments and further information

Just lately, a security weakness had been found in the Conexant HD Audio driver software that was delivered to a large number of recently-issued HP business-tier laptop computers. It may also affect some of their consumer-focused laptops that run this driver. Let’s not forget the reality that some of you may have one of the affected HP business laptops as a consumer-tier computer, perhaps due to buying an ex-lease or surplus unit. This weakness affects driver versions 10.0.46 and prior versions.

The problem manifests with the MicTray64 program that comes with this software package. Here, it is a keyboard monitor that listens for particular keystrokes in order to allow the user to control the computer’s integrated microphone. But, thanks to debug code being left in the production release of this software, the software becomes a keylogger, writing keystrokes to a cleartext logfile (MicTray.log) in the Users\Public folder on the computer’s system drive.

But what is a monitor program for those of you who want to know? It is a program that “listens” to activity from or to a peripheral for a particular event then instigates a pre-defined activity when a particular event occurs. In most cases, you see these programs in operation when you use a printer or scanner with your computer and they show up a print-job status message when you print or catch scan jobs you started from your scanner’s control surface.

If you have this version of the Conexant HD Audio driver software on your HP business laptop, you may have to use Task Manager to kill the MicTray64 keyboard-monitor process, as well as removing it from the Scheduled Tasks list. It may also be worth moving the MicTray64.exe file out of the Windows\System32 folder and the MicTray.log file out of the Users\Public folder on the system disk to somewhere else on your computer’s file system and see if the computer is still stable and, if so, delete those files.

An update that rectifies this problem has been made available on the HP.com driver download site but should also be made available through Windows Update. This will be available on Wednesday 10 May 2017 (US Pacific Time) for those machines made since 2016 and on Friday 12 May 2017 (US Pacific Time) for systems made during 2015.

HP may have software installed on these systems to check for newer versions of the software drivers, which may simplify the process of updating your computer’s drivers and firmware.

This is endemic of a situation where driver software and system firmware is rushed out the door without being checked that it is production-ready and good-quality software. This software ends up as part of the distribution software image that comes with newer computer equipment, including appearing on the recovery partition of your computer’s system disk.

A good practice is to regularly check your computer manufacturer’s Website for newer drivers and firmware for your computer at regular intervals and install this software. This practice will allow you to have a computer that runs in a more secure and stable manner, perhaps gaining some extra functionality that answers current requirements along the way.

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Product Review–Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook (Kaby Lake version)

Introduction

Previously I have seen a lot of coverage and given some space to the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook especially in response to it being seen by the computing press as a value-priced ultraportable computer that “ticks the boxes” as far as consumer expectations are concerned. Also I had reviewed the first iteration of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook and now I have a chance to take this latest iteration for a test drive and to review it on HomeNetworking01.info.

I am reviewing one of the premium variants that has an Intel Core i7 CPU and a 13” touchscreen display with a 3200×1800 resolution. But there is a value-priced variant available with the Intel i5 CPU and has a Full HD non-touchscreen display.

Price
– this configuration
AUD$2499
Market Positioning Consumer ultraportable
Form Factor Clamshell laptop
Processor Intel Core i7-7500U CPU
cheaper option:
Intel Core i5-7200U CPU
RAM 8 GB
Secondary storage 256 GB SSD SD card reader
Display Subsystem Intel HD Graphics 620 integrated graphics
better option:
Intel Iris Graphics 640 integrated graphics
Can support eGPU modules
Screen 13” widescreen touch display (3200×1800)
cheaper option:
13” widescreen display (Full HD)
LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Intel HD audio
Audio Improvements Sound tuning options
Network Wi-Fi 802.11ac 2×2
Bluetooth 4.1
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 1 x Thunderbolt 3 with Power Delivery
2 x USB 3.0 – 1 with Sleep and Charge
Video DisplayPort via USB-C
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

The review sample of the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook has a rose-gold finish on the outside and this was able to maintain a new look even though it has been taken around. The monitor has a narrow bezel that allows for a larger display in a small housing. Being a slimline computer, it may appear to to users as being flimsy but is very well built.

As for the keyboard, it has a surround around it that has a rubber-like texture but conveys some form of robustness about it. But this may look a bit too dirty over time and acquire an oily look.

A question that always rises regarding laptop use is whether the computer can keep its cool whether with ordinary tasks or with advanced tasks like video playback or game playing. The Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake didn’t become too hot when it was used for ordinary word-processing or Web surfing. Even to watch video-on-demand content that was being streamed didn’t cause the computer to overheat. This is primarily because of the way this ultraportable computer has been engineered so as to avoid heat buildup and the metal housing with its heat-dissipation characteristic has an important part to play..

Dell has underscored the narrow-bezel look for this Ultrabook’s screen, as being something that can lead towards a relatively-small 13″ ultraportable computer. But there were issues raised regarding the positioning of the Webcam below the screen due to this design. It can be worked further by preserving a larger margin above the screen primarily for use with a Webcam and the branding.while the narrow bezel is preserved for the vertical edges of the screen.

Even the power charger that comes with the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook is so small that it doesn’t occupy much space in your bag. Here, the lightweight design makes this computer more suitable to carrying around in most shoulder bags or satchels.

User Interface

The keyboard has a shallow feel thanks to the slimline design but it has that same key spacing that allows for comfortable touch typing. It is an illuminated keyboard that only lights up while you are actually typing, thus saving on battery power.

The trackpad didn’t come across as being “hair-trigger” in any way and you didn’t have to fear the pointer moving around while you were typing. The touchscreen is also very responsive and works as expected.

Audio / Video

I have used the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook to watch some video-on-demand content and it had streamed the content smoothly without any stuttering. As well the visuals had come across with the proper amount of response.

There is the Waves MaxxAudio sound-optimisation software that comes with the Dell laptops like this one but it doesn’t really allow for a full sound through the integral speakers – this can cause the unit to play music with a sound quality not dissimilar to a small portable radio. This will still be a problem with most of these ultraportable laptops due to the small size that they have. If you expect to have better audio performance from any content you play through this computer, you will still need to use headphones, external speakers or a better sound system.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook left-hand-side connections - Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C, USB 3.0 and headset jack

Left-hand-side connections – Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C, USB 3.0 and headset jack

The Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook is the first computer to come my way that is equipped with a USB-C / Thunderbolt-3 port. Here, I would like to be able to try this out bout don’t have any hardware to try it with. It facilitates data transfer at USB-C (USB 3.1) or Thunderbolt 3 speeds, support for the external graphics modules along with USB Power Delivery for both an inbound and outbound context. The same port is capable of working in DisplayPort alt mode to connect this computer to external displays via a suitable adaptor.

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultraook - Right had side - USB 3.0 port and SDHC card reader

Right had side – USB 3.0 port and SDHC card reader

Dell infact sells for AUD$60 an optional highly-portable expansion module for computers equipped with this port that has a comprehensive set of connectors. These are in the form of a USB 3.0 socket, VGA socket for the old data projector, HDMI socket for up-to-date displays and a Gigabit Ethernet socket for Ethernet or HomePlug AV network segments and connects to the XPS 13’s USB-C socket using a short captive cable.

All variants of the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake laptop have a 256Gb solid-state drive which would suit most needs for a secondary computer without the user worrying about storage space or deleting many files. You may find that you have to use an external USB hard disk if you are expecting to use it as your only computer and pack a lot of data on the computer.

Dell has also provided an SDHC card reader at last for those of us who have the good digital cameras or camcorders. This was a feature that was omitted from the first iteration of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook. This came in handy when I took a “teaser picture” of this computer at the QT Melbourne hotel to put up on this site’s Facebook page to announce the upcoming review.

Network and modem

The review sample had come with all the latest drivers on board and was able to work as expected. Yet, like most ultraportables, you may not get good Wi-Fi reception at the fringe of your Wi-Fi segment’s coverage when you deal with a baseline router. This is something that I would be seeing the likes of Intel and co working on to make these computers perform properly with the typical Wi-Fi network, especially if an access point or router is being pushed “to the end”.

Battery Life

I have been able to run this computer for most of the day without the need to run it on the charger. This involved me using it for a mixture of regular computing tasks as well as setting the power-saving options so as not to “go to sleep” when I close the lid at the end of a usage session.

Even to watch an hour of streaming video didn’t put much impact on the XPS 13 Kaby Lake’s battery runtime. This is showing that with these ultraportables, there is an emphasis on the long battery runtime

Other Usage Notes

Most of the people whom I have shown the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook to were impressed by the slim design that this unit has. It is although a lot of the people don’t see many people using Windows-based ultraportable clamshell laptops these days.

Another feature that impressed some other people like one of the men from the Melbourne Men’s Shed was the use of a touchscreen which is not common in a traditional clamshell-style laptop computer, let alone an Ultrabook-style ultraportable computer. It is something I have observed whenever other clamshell-style laptops equipped with touchscreens came in to my possession for review purposes especially after Windows 8 came on the scene.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

There hasn’t been much that I could require Dell to work on as part of developing the XPS 13 series of ultraportable laptops. Here, this model range had underscored the fact that it “ticked the boxes” for a product of its class. This is although they have recently offered this series also in a convertible form as a way to appeal to that market.

Personally, I would like to see Dell offer one of the XPS 13 clamshell-style Ultrabooks with a Full-HD (1920×1080) touchscreen as either a subsequent low-tier or step-up configuration centred around the “value” model of the Intel Core i family of mobile CPUs like the i5. But they may preserve this screen for the top-shelf configurations. As well, an emphasis can be drawn to the “graphics upgrade path” offered by Thunderbolt 3 when marketing this or subsequent generations and refining these generations.

They could also work towards offering a business-class ultraportable derivative of the XPS 13 with the security and manageability features that business users would like to have. This could be simply offered under a Vostro or Latitude name and underscored with the fact that it is based on the XPS 13 that answered most people’s needs.

Conclusion

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook rear view

Rear view

I would recommend that the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook serve as either a secondary travel computer, a “work-home” laptop computer that you use to do the same work both in the office and at home or something you regularly take between your main office and your “secondary office” cafe or bar when you prefer to hear the trendy music and the sound of that barista making the coffees rather than the sound of office workers engaging you in gossip while you work on that special document. You may find that offloading the bulk of your data to somewhere else such as to a USB hard disk, NAS or online storage may work well for your needs if you expect to run it as your sole computer.

Most users who run it in these contexts could get by with the baseline variant with the Intel Core i5 processor and Intel HD Graphics 620 integrated graphics powering a Full HD non-touch display, along with 8Gb RAM and 256Gb solid-state storage for this kind of use. Here, Dell are offering this suggested baseline configuration for AUD$1699.

As well, I would recommend the purchase of Dell’s USB-C expansion module or a similarly-specced device if you are finding that you are likely to hook this up to a variety of equipment like external displays or Ethernet networks. This also includes if you have an intention to run the XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook as part of a workspace setup with a large screen or better keyboard.

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Product Review–Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming high-performance laptop

Introduction

I am reviewing the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop which is a gaming-optimised variant of their 15-7000 Series laptops which are considered as the top of their mainstream consumer laptop range. These traditional-style laptops are pitched towards students and other users who like the traditional clamshell look rather than a 2-in-1 computer because they are more likely to ask for the power and capacity that these units offer without going “full pelt” towards an aggressively-styled gaming model.

The Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming range of laptops are positioned in a similar manner to the “sports sedans / sports saloons” or “hot hatches” that most vehicle builders were inserting in to their popular passenger-car lineups for a long time to maintain appeal to younger drivers. But these vehicles were optimised for power, being powered by some powerful engines and equipped with gearboxes suitable for competitive driving. Such vehicles would exhibit some sporty detail work inside and out and tended to carry model-name suffixes that conveyed “GT” or “Sport” driving.

I am reviewing the premium variant that comes with the Intel Core i7 processor, 16Gb RAM and secondary storage in the form of a 128Gb solid-state drive and 1Tb hard disk. There is a cheaper “value-priced” variant that comes with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8Gb RAM and only a 1Tb hard disk as its secondary storage.

They underscore the high performance by offering a larger amount of system RAM for the processor class that what a typical laptop would offer for the processor class such as an Intel i7 CPU machine being kitted out with 8Gb RAM or an i5 or i3 CPU being matched with 4Gb RAM. As well, these computers are equipped with a discrete-graphics chipset known to offer very high performance for a mobile-class chipset.

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

Price
– this configuration
AUD$1499
Market Positioning Gaming laptop
Form Factor Clamshell laptop
Processor Intel Core i7-6700HQ 6th Generation
cheaper option:
Intel Core i5-6300HQ 6th Generation
RAM 16 GB
cheaper option:
8Gb
Secondary storage 128 GB SSD + 1 TB hard disk
cheaper option:
1 TB hard disk
SD card slot
Display Subsystem NVIDIA GeForce GTX960M graphics
– 4Gb display RAM and Optimus automatic switchingIntel HD 530 integrated graphics
Screen 15” widescreen display (1920×1080 Full HD) LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Intel HD audio
Audio Improvements Waves by MaxxAudio Pro sound tuning 2 speakers + 1 bass driver
Network Wi-Fi 802.11ac dual-band single-stream
Ethernet Gigabit Ethernet
Bluetooth BT 4.2 Smart Ready
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 3 x USB 3.0 (1 with Sleep and Charge)
Video HDMI 2.0
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home

Where a computer of the same screen size and in the same product range is offered with different variations in its configuration, I highlight the options that the review unit has in boldface text and list the variations available for the computer under the review unit’s specifications, As well, I write whether the alternate specifications are cheaper options or come at a more expensive premium compared to what I am dealing with.

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop rear vents

Rear vents to improve cooling for a high-performance computer

The Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming comes across as a relatively-heavy machine, with the extra venting on the back of the unit similar to the air scoops integrated in to the above-mentioned performance-tuned passenger cars. The venting is primarily to allow the machine to stay relatively cool even when playing advanced games, and also underscores that it is optimised for performance. But there is still a chance of heat build-up taking place and this can be felt from underneath the laptop.

The outside of the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming is finished with a feel not dissimilar to rubber. This coveys that rugged look that is also about durability. But the finish has a disadvantage where it can easily look dirty and harbour stains associated with real portable use.

Another symbol of this computer’s durable construction is the use of a single thick hinge pin for the lid.  This makes the computer feel less flimsy to use when you open and close it.

User Interface

There is a hard tactile feedback that the keyboard exhibits which conveys that it can work with a lot of data entry or game control activity. There is still that chiclet keyboard design with a similar feel across the keyboard which can make things awkward if you value touch-typing or similar tactile-driven operation.

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming - WASD keys for gaming

Highlighted W, A, S. D keys for gaming

For gamers, the “W”, “A”, “S” and “D” keys are highlighted so you can easily control your game using those keys. This is more so for games where these keys actually are used to control the current game character while you use other keys for other control purposes like swapping the weapon or tool your character uses or changing the current game character. If you want to use the traditional function keys, you have to use the Fn key all the time but it could be made easier to add a dedicated “Fn lock” button to allow switching between traditional function keys or the media keys for the top row.

The multi-touch trackpad is highly responsive and works as expected. This is without it being too “hair-trigger”. Most gamers may find that a gaming-optimised USB or Bluetooth mouse or trackball may do the job better for navigating around the field of play.

Audio / Video

I played a video clip hosted on Facebook using the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop and had found that the sound had come through clearly and with some “punch” in the hass. giving a fuller sound to voices as well as treating the music properly. The sound level would he strong enough for personal listening thou, and this is brought on thanks to the Waves MaxxAudio sound tuning.

The display could handle most video playing tasks, even fast-paced action, in a very smooth manner. The only problem I had with running video from Windows 10 Universal Windows apps is that I couldn’t push this infrastructure to use the higher-performance NVIDIA chipset over the integrated graphics to give it a real test.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

Left hand side connections – Power, USB 3 with PowerShare “plug and charge”, SD card reader

There are three USB 3.0 sockets with one that is capable of being enabled for “Powershare” sleep-and-charge functionality. This is where the Dell laptop can supply power to charge gadgets connected to that port, identified with a lightning bolt, while it is switched off and on its own batteries.

Let’s not forget that the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop has the ability to be connected to an HDMI display as its external display.

The premium version of the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop comes with a 128Gb solid-state drive and a 1Tb hard disk while the cheaper variant comes just with a 1Tb hard disk. This storage capacity is being maintained by Dell for most of their 15” mainstream laptops with the view of allowing these to serve well as a portable option for one’s main or sole computing device. Although, the computer doesn’t have much data beyond what is initially supplied with it, the hard disk and the solid-state drive came out as being very quick.

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop - Right-hand side connections - audio jack, 2 x USB 3.0, HDMI port, Gigabit Ethernet port

Right-hand side connections – audio jack, 2 x USB 3.0, HDMI port, Gigabit Ethernet port

These fixed-storage devices are augmented with just an SDXC card slot for camera cards and the like. It is symptomatic of a trend regarding newer portable computer equipment where this kind of equipment doesn’t come with an optical drive of any sort. It is thanks to software being delivered using download services like Steam. Still I would recommend the purchase of a USB 3.0 external Blu-Ray burner as an essential accessory for this computer, whether to make an optical-disc backup / archive of your data, deliver some of your data on an optical-disc form to others or view collectable video content on this computer.

The Wi-Fi network works as expected with it being able to pick up properly even at the fringe of an existing Wi-Fi network. At the moment, I haven’t had to install any new drivers to make sure that the network works properly. Like most 15” mainstream laptops, this computer has a Gigabit Ethernet connection that you can use with Ethernet or HomePlug AV2 networks.

Battery Life

You may expect that a gaming laptop may be more thirsty when it comes to battery power but this would happen only when running demanding software thanks to the use of NVIDIA Optimus technology using the appropriate GPU setup for the job. It is  in conjunction with the illuminated keyboard lighting up when you are actually using it while the system is on battery power.

One key limitation with this computer’s battery is that the user can’t replace it themselves. It can be of concern if you intend to keep this computer going for a long time but have to deal with a battery that is at the end of its useful life. Similarly, this situation precludes Dell from offering a higher-capacity battery pack as an aftermarket option for those of us who want that high-performance gaming or video-editing ability away from power.

Other Usage Notes

The Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop can be seen to be too large but the red detailing can be seen by some as giving it that “cute” appeal. I had used it at a Docklands cafe that is opposite a marina and the staff reckoned that it could have some appeal to people who spend a long time on those boats in the marina.

Another man who is in charge of a “Men’s Shed” community support organisation for men has liked the rubberised housing that this computer has when I presented it to him. Here, he remarked that it conveyed a highly-durable feel about the computer.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

Dell could improve on the Inspiron 15 Gaming high-performance laptop range by providing at least one Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection and optimising it for use with external graphics docks. Here, gamers could choose to use the “card-cage” graphics docks to implement the high-performance desktop graphics cards which are most likely to offer more performance than mobile graphics chipsets. Similarly, those of us using a gaming-grade laptop as an entry to mobile-workstation territory, like engineering students or people dabbling with video editing or animation could use a “card-cage” graphics dock with a workstation-grade graphics card to give the CAD or animation program that expected level of performance.

“Gaming” series computers could be equipped with user-replaceable batteries to allow for a long usage life that reflects their premium prices. It can also allow Dell and others to offer higher-capacity batteries as an option during the model’s lifetime.

Conclusion

I would see the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming high-performance laptop being suited as a sole or main computing device for consumers and students who place value on a portable computer that is all about performance. This idea of portability may be about a computer you can stow away quickly and easily when not in use, or those of us who live a nomadic life and want something that can be easily transported.

Here, I would recommend the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptops as being fit for gaming but without the aggressive look, or for people starting out a hobby or small-time business effort with photo, video or animation work but don’t necessarily want to go the Apple path. Students who are studying courses that deal with advanced graphics like animation or engineering may consider it as a starting point for this kind of work.

The high-performance variant with the Intel i7 CPU, 16Gb RAM and 128Gb SSD would be the answer for those of us who want to work the computer hard like advanced gamers, video / photo editors, animators and the like. On the other hand, the lower-tier variant with the Intel i5 processor may be good for those of us who want the taste of high performance computing.

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Consumer Electronics Show 2017–Computer Trends

I am writing up a series of articles about the trends that have been put forward at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The first article in this series covers all of the trends affecting personal computers.

1: Computer Trends

2: Accessories And The Home Network

Computers

Most manufacturers were exhibiting refreshed versions of their product ranges. This is where the computers were being equipped with up-to-date chipsets and had their RAM, storage and other expectations brought up to date.

  • Key trends affecting mainstream computers included:
  • the use of Intel Kaby Lake processors for the computers’ horsepower
  • solid-state storage capacity in the order of up to 1 Terabyte
  • RAM capacity in the order of up to 16Gb
  • at least one USB Type-C socket on mainstream units with Thunderbolt 3 on premium units and / or ultraportables using just USB-C connections with some having 2 or more of these connectors

    Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon USB-C Thunderbolt-3 detail image - press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

    More of this year’s laptop computers will be equipped with these USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 sockets

  • Wi-Fi connectivity being 802.11ac multi-band with MU-MIMO operation

Another factor worth noticing is the increase in detachable or convertible “2-in-1” computers being offered by most, if not all, of the manufacturers; along with highly-stylish clamshell ultraportable computers. This class of computer is being brought on thanks to Microsoft’s Surface range of computers with some of of the computers in these classes also being about performance. The manufacturers are even offering a range of these “2-in-1” computers targeted towards business users with the security, manageability, durability and productivity features that this use case demands.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook press picture courtesy of Dell USA

More of these convertibles and detachable 2-in-1 computers will appear in manufacturers’ product ranges

Nearly every manufacturer had presented at least one high-performance gaming laptop with the Intel Core i7 processor, at least 16Gb RAM and 128Gb solid-state storage, dedicated graphics chipset. Most of these computers are even equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection to allow for use with external graphics docks, considered as a way for core gamers to “soup up” these machines for higher gaming acumen.

Lenovo had refreshed most of their laptop range, especially the ThinkPad business range. Here, this is a product range that makes no distinction between the small-business/SOHO user class where a few of these computers are managed and the large-business/government user class where you are talking of a large fleet of computers handling highly-sensitive data.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon press image courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon has been refreshed to newer expectations

The new ThinkPads come in the form of a newer ThinkPad Yoga business convertible, a refreshed ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook and a refreshed ThinkPad X1 Yoga convertible. For example, the ThinkPad Yoga 370 has the 13.3” Full HD screen, the classic ThinkPad TrackPoint button as a navigation option but is driven by Intel Kaby Lake horsepower. This machine can be specified up to 16Gb RAM and 1Tb solid-state storage and has a Thunderbolt 3 connection along with 2 USB 3.0 ports. Lenovo even designed in protection circuitry for the USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 port to protect the ThinkPad against those dodgy non-compliant USB-C cables and chargers. Like the rest of the new ThinkPad bunch, this computer comes with the Windows 10 Signature Edition software image which is about being free of the bloatware that fills most of today’s laptop computers. The computer will set you back US$1264.

Other ThinkPads will also come with either a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connection depending on their position in the model range. For example the T470 family and the T570 family will be equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connections. Let’s not forget how the ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Yoga have been refreshed. The Carbon implements horsepower in the Intel Kaby Lake Core i family, a 14” Quad HD display, 16Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD storage, and an expected battery runtime of 15 hours along with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. The X1 Yoga has been given the similar treatment with similar RAM and secondary-storage capacity but can be outfitted with an LTE-A wireless-broadband modem as an option.

Lenovo Legion Y720 gaming laptop - press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

Lenovo Legion Y720 gaming laptop with Dolby Atmos sound

Gamers can relish in the fact that Lenovo has premiered the Legion range of affordable high-performance gaming laptops. The Legion Y720 is the first of its kind to be equipped with Dolby Atmos sound. The Y520 has a Full HD IPS screen driven by NVIDIA GeForce GTX1050Ti dedicated graphics chipset, the choice of an Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU, 16Gb RAM and hard disk storage between 500Gb and 1Tb or solid-state storage between 128Gb and 512Gb, and network connectivity in the form of 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet. Peripheral connectivity is in the form of 1 x USB-C, 2 x USB 3.0 and 1 x USB 2.0 and an audio jack, with this computer asking for at least US$900. The better Y720, along with Dolby Atmos, has a bright IPS screen either as a Full HD or 4K resolution and driven by NVIDIA GeForce GTX1060 graphics chipset with 6Gb display memory. Lenovo was also offering a MIIX 720 creative-arts mobile workstation that eats at the Apple MacBook Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro lineup.

Dell XPS 15 Notebook press image courtesy of Dell USA

Dell XPS 15 ultraportable in a 15″ size

Dell had refreshed the XPS 13 lineup of Ultrabooks, known for offering the right combination of features, durability, comfort and price. But they also offered a convertible 2-in-1 variant of the XPS 13, again offering that right combination of features, durability, comfort and price. They also released the XPS 15 which is the smallest 15,6” laptop with Intel Kaby Lake processors, NVIDIA GeForce dedicated graphics and a fingerprint reader.

Dell XPS 27 all-in-one computer press image courtesy of Dell USA

Dell XPS 27 all-in-one computer with best bass response in its class

The XPS and Precision all-in-one desktop computers have had their sound quality improved rather than having it as an afterthought. This has led to audio quality from the XPS 27 and the Precision business equivalent being equivalent to that of a soundbar, thanks to the use of 10 speakers working at 50 watts per channel, including two downward-firing speakers to make the work surface augment the bass. Two passive radiators also augment the system’s bass response. Both have a 4K UHD touchscreen  while the Precision certified workstation can work with AMD Radeon graphics and Intel Xeon CPUs.

Like Lenovo, Dell had exhibited their business-grade computers at a trade fair typically associated with goods targeted at the consumer. This could underscore realities like people who use business-tier computers for “work-home” use including those of us who are running a business or practising a profession from our homes. Dell have been on a good wicket here because of themselves selling computers direct to the public and to business users for a long time.

Here, Dell had refreshed their XPS, Inspiron, Optiflex, Latitude and Precision computer lineups with new expectations. They would come with Kaby Lake horsepower under the bonnet, USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connectivity depending on the unit along with newer dedicated-graphics options from NVIDIA or AMD. The business machines would be equipped with Intel vPro manageability features to work with business-computer management software.

Dell Latitude 5285 business detachable 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Latitude 5285 business detachable 2-in-1 – the most secure of its class

In the case of business computers, Dell had underscored a desire to integrate the aesthetics of consumer-tier ultraportable computers with the security, manageability and productivity wishes that the business community crave for. For example, the latest Latitude Ultrabooks and 2-in-1s show the looks but come up with the goods as a business “axe” computer. One of the systems in the Latitude lineup is the Latitude 7285 detachable 2-in-1s which implement WiTricity wireless charging and WiGig docking while the Latitude 5285 detachable 2-in-1 sells on a highly-strong security platform with Dell-developed data-protection / endpoint-protection software and the option for a fingerprint reader or smartcard reader.

Samsung had shown some Windows 10 tablets but they also presented the Notebook Odyssey gaming laptop, available as a 15” variant or a 17” higher-performing variant. Both of these implement “dual-storage” with a solid-state drive in the order of 256Gb for the 15” variant or 512Gb for the 17” variant along with a 1Tb traditional hard disk. RAM is in the order of 32Gb or 64Gb for the 17” variant while these are driven by Intel Core i7 CPUs. Graphics is looked after by NVIDIA GTX dedicated GPU with 2Gb or 4Gb display memory but the 17” variant also has a Thunderbolt 3 connection for external graphics units.

There is also the Notebook 9 which implements a 15” HD display driven by NVIDIA 940MX graphics processor and Core i7 processor. Of note, the Notebook 9 implements a Windows Hello fingerprint reader along with a USB-C port which is its power socket thanks to USB Power Delivery.

HP was not silent but had fielded the Spectre x360 15” convertible Ultrabook, one of the few 15” portable computers that can be a tablet or laptop. It is driven by Intel Core i7 Kaby Lake horsepower and has the quota of 16Gb RAM and either a 256Gb or 512Gb solid-state storage. The 15” 4K IPS screen is driven by an NVIDIA GeForce 940MX graphics processor with 2Gb display memory, but the sound-reproduction has been tuned by Bang & Olufsen while there is an HP-designed noise-cancelling microphone array. The Webcam is an HP infra-red type which is Windows Hello compatible for facial recognition login. Connectivity is in the form of an HDMI socket, 1 USB-C socket, 1 Thunderbolt 3 socket, 1 traditional USB Type-A socket and an SD-card drive. Expect this convertible’s battery to run for 12 hours and be ready to go after 90 minutes of quick charging. The expected price is US$1299 for the 256Gb variant and US$1499 for the 512Gb variant.

Another interesting trend highlighted at CES 2017 has been an increase in the number of “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers.  This is thanks to use cases like augmented-reality / virtual-reality gaming and an emphasis on aesthetics for desktop-based computing and has been brought about by the likes of the Intel Skull Canyon NUC. One of these was a range offered by Elitegroup with computers powered by Intel Braswell, Apollo Lake and Kaby Lake processors.

Zotac Mini PC press photo courtesy of Zotac

The latest Zotac Mini PC that is the hub of a “hi-fi” approach to computing

But Zotac approached the NUC trend in a manner not dissimilar to the “micro component” hi-fi systems, especially some of the premium offerings that emerged from Japan through the early 80s. These premium “micro-component” systems offered for their amplification needs a control amplifier and a power amplifier so as to provide more power output, along with their source components being a tuner and a cassette deck. In the case of Zotac, they offered the C-Series NUC midget computer which could be powered through its USB-C port thanks to USB Power Delivery. It came with the Intel Kaby Lake processors, NVIDIA GeForce dedicated graphics, a Thunderbolt 3 connector along with a few other features. The C-Series even has corporate manageability and security abilities such as Intel vPro and AMT system management along with the UNITE secure conferencing feature.

But Zotac offered an external “card-cage” graphics dock with a PCI Express x 16 expansion slot for graphics cards, 3 standard USB 3.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port supporting QuickCharge, but being able to supply power to the host computer via the Thunderbolt 3 port using USB Power Delivery. The graphics module’s power supply has a power budget of 400 watts and the module is known to be compatible with NVIDIA and AMD graphics cards.  They even offered their own NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Mini graphics card as a partner card for this dock.

The goal here was to supply a two-piece high-performance computer setup with a system unit and a module that can serve as its graphics subsystem and power supply. But users still had the ability to install better equipment when they felt like it. Or the graphics module could be purposed to provide extra graphics horsepower to portable, “all-in-one” and other small computers that are Thunderbolt-3-equipped as well as supplying necessary power through this port to host computers that honour USB Power Delivery.

Mobile Devices

Even though Samsung had suffered a deep blow with the exploding Galaxy Note 7 phablets, the mobile-computing platform has not died yet. It is although we may be hanging on to our smartphones for longer than the typical two-year contract period in order to save money.

At the moment, the phones that are being given an airing are the mid-tier Android smartphones like the Huawei Honor 6X with a dual camera and the ASUS Zenfone 3 Zoom which is one of the first to have an optical zoom on the rear camera’s lens.

Samsung launched their Galaxy A3 and A5 Android smartphones which are still positioned in the mid-tier segment. This is while Sony came to the fore with the XPeria X2 premium smartphone which has a 5.5” 4K display and 5Gb RAM, just above the baseline expectations for RAM capacity in a desktop computer.

LG had launched a range of low-tier Android smartphones that are equipped with user-replaceable batteries. The K3 is a compact unit with a 4.5” display while the K4 comes with the standard 5” display. There is the K8 5” selfie smartphone which has a highly-optimised front camera for taking those selfies to appear on Instagram or Facebook. Then LG brought the 13 megapixel camera featured in the G series lineup to the K10 5.3” smartphone. They also offered a Stylus 3 phablet with an integrated fingerprint scanner.

The next in the series will cover high-resolution monitors, computer accessories and the home network including the distributed-WiFi trend.

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Dell’s XPS 13 convertible laptop underscores value for money for its class

Article

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook press picture courtesy of Dell USA

The convertible 2-in-1 variant of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Why The Dell XPS 13 2 In 1 Is The Best Convertible Laptop | iTech Post

Laptop Mag CES 2017 Awards: Best Mobile Tech | Laptop Mag

My Comments

Previously, I had written an article about Dell underscoring value for money with their XPS 13 Ultrabook laptop. This was about choosing the right mix of functions and features that represent what most users are after when they are after that kind of product and offering it at a price that won’t bring “sticker shock” to most potential customers.

Initially I had a chance to review the first generation of the XPS 13 Ultrabook, finding it as a valid secondary notebook computer option for those of us who have a desktop or large laptop but want something to use while “on the road”. But Dell had consistently improved the computer over the subsequent generations, factoring in the newer features that would improve the user experience while keeping a highly-durable compact product that runs for a long time on its own batteries.

In the article, I drew an analogy to most if the mid-tier Panasonic (National) VHS home videocassette recorders offered in Europe, Australia and New Zealand through the mid 1980s, and the Sony mid-tier MiniDisc decks like the MDS-JE520 offered through the mid-to-late 1990s. Both these product ranges came with the features that were considered important for their end-users but at a price that was affordable to them.

But Dell went further when they released the Kaby-Lake-based iteration of the XPS 13 Ultrabook. Here, they issued a convertible variant of this model alongside the traditional clamshell variant. But they didn’t just attach “convertible” hinges to the XPS 13 Kaby Lake laptop. Rather they made sure it had the proper features and specifications associated with the XPS 13 lineup and for a similarly-affordable price.

For example, a baseline “secondary-computer” variant with Intel Core i5 horsepower, 4Gb RAM and 128Gb solid-state storage could set you back US$999. The limitation with the Intel Core i5 and i7 processors offered with the 2-in-1 is that they are based on the Kaby Lake equivalent of the Core M processors and are really targeted and tuned for “on-the-road” use with emphasis on power efficiency and reduced heat output, but wouldn’t perform well for advanced computing tasks.

With this model, there will be a need to buy extra accessories like a USB-C expansion module to connect most USB peripherals, external displays or digital-camera SD cards. But this is more engineered as a highly-portable computer and who knows what the next iteration of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook or convertible computer could be like.

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Investing in an external graphics module for your laptop

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module

Just lately, as more premium and performance-grade laptops are being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection, the external graphics modules, also known as graphics docks or graphics docking stations, are starting to trickle out on to the market as a performance-boosting accessory for these computers.

The Thunderbolt 3 connection, which uses the USB Type-C plug and socket, is able to provide a throughput similar to a PCI-Express card bus and has put forward a method of improving a laptop’s, all-in-one’s or small-form-factor computer’s graphics ability. This is being facilitated using the external graphics modules or docks that house graphics processors in the external boxes and link these to the host computer using the above connection. What it will mean is that these computers can benefit from desktop-grade or performance-grade graphics without the need to heavily modify them and, in the case of portable computers, can allow for “performance” graphics to be enjoyed at home or in the office while you have battery-conserving baseline graphics on the road,

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Microsoft

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 – can benefit from better graphics thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and an external graphics module

The devices come in two classes:

  • Integrated graphics chipset (Acer Graphics Dock) – devices of this class have a hardwired graphics chipset similar to what is implemented in an all-in-one or small-form-factor computer.
  • Card cage (Razer Core, Akitio Node) – These devices are simply a housing where you can install a PCI-Express desktop graphics card of your choice. They have a power supply and interface circuitry to present the desktop graphics card to the host computer via a Thunderbolt 3 connection.

What will they offer?

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 "card cage" external graphics module - press image courtesy of Akitio

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module

All these devices will have their own video outputs but will yield what the high-performance graphics chipset provides through the host computer’s integral screen, the video outputs integrated with the host computer as well as their own video outputs. This is in contrast to what used to happen with desktop computers where the video outputs associated with the integrated graphics chipset became useless when you installed a graphics card in these computers.

I have read a few early reviews for the first generation of graphics modules and Thunderbolt-3 laptops. One of these was Acer’s integrated graphics module kitted out with a NVIDIA GTX960M GPU, known to be a modest desktop performer but its mobile equivalent is considered top-shelf for laptop applications. This was ran alongside an Acer TravelMate P658 and an Acer Aspire Switch 12S, with it providing as best as the graphics would allow but highlighting where the weakness was, which was the mobile-optimised Intel Core M processors in the Switch 12S convertible.

Simplified plug-in expansion for all computers

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

The Intel Skull Canyon NUC can easily be “hotted up” with better graphics when coupled with an external graphics module

Another example was a manufacturer’s blog post about using their “card-cage” graphics dock with one of the Intel Skull Canyon “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers which was equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connection. This showed how the computer increased in graphics performance once teamed with the different graphics cards installed in that “card-cage” module.

It opened up the idea of using an “AV system” approach for enhancing small-form-factor and integrated computers. This is where you connect extra modules to these computers to increase their performance just like you would connect a better CD player or turntable or substitute an existing amplifier for something more powerful or plug in some better speakers if you wanted to improve your hi-fi system’s sound quality.

This usage case would earn its keep with an “all-in-one” computer which has the integrated monitor, the aforementioned “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers or simply a low-profile desktop computer that wouldn’t accommodate high-performance graphics cards.

Software and performance issues can be a real stumbling block

What I had come across from the material I had read was that as long as the host computer had the latest version of the operating system, the latest BIOS and other firmware to support graphics via Thunderbolt 3, and the latest drivers to support this functionality then it can perform at its best. As well, the weakest link can affect the overall performance of the system, which can apply to various mobile system-on-chip chipsets tuned primarily to run cool and allow for a slim lightweight computer that can run on its own batteries for a long time.

At the moment, this product class is still not mature and there will be issues with compatibility and performance with the various computers and external graphics modules.

As well, not all graphics cards will work with every “card-cage” graphics module. This can be due to high-end desktop graphics cards drawing more current than the graphics module can supply, something that can be of concern with lower-end modules that have weaker power supplies, or software issues associated with cards that aren’t from the popular NVIDIA or AMD games-focused lineups. You may have to check with the graphics module’s vendor or the graphics card’s vendor for newer software or firmware to be assured of this compatibility.

Multiple GPUs – a possible reality

A situation that may have to be investigated as more of these products arrive is the concurrent use of multiple graphics processors in the same computer system no matter the interface or vendor. The ability to daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 devices on the same Thunderbolt-3 connection, along with premium desktop motherboards sporting this kind of connection along with their PCI-Express expansion slots, will make the concept become attractive and easy to implement. Similarly, some vendors could start offering Thunderbolt-3 expansion cards that plug in to existing motherboards’ PCI-Express expansion slots to give existing desktop PCs this functionality.

Here, the goal would be to allow multiple GPUs from different vendors to work together to increase graphics performance for high-end games or multimedia-production tasks like video transcoding or rendering of video or animation projects. Or it could be about improving the performance and efficiency of a multiple-display setup by allocating particular graphics processors to particular displays, something that would benefit larger setups with many screens and, in some cases, different resolutions.

Highly-portable gaming setups being highlighted as a use case

A usage class that was always put forward for these external graphics modules was the teenage games enthusiast who is studying at senior secondary school and is ready to study at university. Here, the usage case underscored the situation where they could be living in student accommodation like a college dorm / residence hall or be living in a share-house with other students.

The application focuses on the use of a laptop computer that can be taken around the campus but be connected to one of these modules when the student is at their home. I would add to this the ability to carry the graphics module between their room and the main lounge area in their home so that they could play their games on the bigger TV screen in that area. This is due to the device being relatively compact and lightweight compared to most desktop computers.

That same application can cover people who are living in accommodation associated with their job and this is likely to change frequently as they answer different work placements. An example of this would be people whose work is frequently away from home for significant amounts of time like those who work on ships, oil rigs or mines. Here, some of these workers may be using their laptop that they use as part of their work during their shift where applicable such as on a ship’s bridge, but use it as a personal entertainment machine in their cabin or the mess room while they are off-shift.

What could be seen more of these devices

Once the external graphics modules mature as a device class, they could end up moving towards two or three classes of device.

One of these would be the integrated modules with graphics chipsets considered modest for desktop use but premium for laptop use. The expansion abilities that these may offer could be in the form of a few extra USB connections, an SD card reader and / or a higher-grade sound module. Perhaps, they may come with an optical drive of some sort. Some manufacturers may offer integrated modules with higher-performance graphics chipsets along with more connections for those of us who want to pay a premium for extra performance and connectivity. These would be pitched towards people who want that bit more “pep” out of their highly-portable or compact computer that has integrated graphics.

Similarly, it could be feasible to offer larger-screen monitors which have discrete graphics chipsets integrated in them. They could also have the extra USB connections and / or secondary storage options, courting those users who are thinking of a primary workspace for their portable computer while desiring higher-performance graphics.

The card-cage variants could open up a class of device that has room for one or two graphics cards and, perhaps, sound cards or functionality-expansion cards. In some cases, this class of device could also offer connectivity and installation options for user-installable storage devices, along with extra sockets for other peripherals. This class of device could, again, appeal to those of us who want more out of the highly-compact computer they started with or that high-performance laptop rather than using a traditional desktop computer for high-performance computing.

Portable or highly-compact computers as a package

Manufacturers could offer laptops, all-in-one and other highly-compact or highly-portable computers that are part of matched-equipment packages where they offer one or more external graphics modules as a deal-maker option or as part of the package. These could differ by graphics chipset and by functionality such as external-equipment connectivity or integrated fixed or removable storage options.

This is in a similar vein to what has happened in the hi-fi trade since the 1970s where manufacturers were offering matched-equipment packages from their lineup of hi-fi components. Here they were able to allow, for example, multiple packages to have the same tape deck, turntable or CD player while each of the package was differentiated with increasingly-powerful amplifiers or receivers driving speakers that had differing levels of audio performance and cabinet size. It still was feasible to offer better and more capable source components with the more expensive packages or allow such devices to be offered as a way to make the perfect deal.

Conclusion

Expect that as more computers equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection come on the market the external graphics module will become a simplified method of improving these computers’ graphic performance. It will be seen as a way for allowing highly-compact or highly-portable computers to benefit from high-performance graphics at some point in their life, something that this class of computer wouldn’t be able to normally do.

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Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake ultraportable–check for software updates for best performance

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Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook - press picture courtesy of Dell

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook – keep this running at its best with the latest downloads from Dell’s Website

Dell XPS 13 (9360) with Kaby Lake gets a suite of new drivers and fixes | Windows Central

From the horse’s mouth

Dell

New XPS 13 Ultrabook

Product Page (Buy Here!) – currently AUD$2299

Support Page

My Comments

You may be pestering your boss about a new ultraportable computer for your work or perhaps your old laptop has been showing the dreaded doughnut for a bit too long and you have enough money set aside for one of the latest and greatest Ultrabooks. Dell has the latest XPS 13 Kaby Lake variant just released with a price of AUD$1899 (Intel Core i5 Kaby Lake CPU, 8Gb RAM, 128Gb SSD, Windows 10 Home) but keep an eye on the Dell website for specials where the machine may be offered cheaper.

This “portable-typewriter-size” Ultrabook will have the latest Intel processor and chipset, Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C connectivity and other niceties with the ability to exploit 802.11ac Wi-Fi network segments with a strong reliable signal thanks to Rivet Killer Wireless technology. But are you sure you are getting the “best bang for the buck” once you order it from Dell?

Because this Ultrabook has just been released with drivers and firmware “just out the gate”, you may find that it may not cut the mustard as expected like with equipment that has just been released. But Dell have answered this reality by issuing the latest drivers and patches for this system that have been “tuned up” to bring out the best performance from this Ultrabook.

The article recommended that, as part of getting your new “toy” ready for its full-on use, you make sure it is running the latest drivers and support software for its hardware functionality. Most likely, you will spend time making sure it works with your home and/or business network and peripherals; installing the software that is important for your work and play activities; verifying you can get to your online hangouts from this new device, as well as enabling the features that are so important to you. But you would need to factor in spending time checking for newer drivers so the computer performs at its best.

They may not show up on the Dell Update utility software packaged with this system as “critical” but are more likely as “recommended” downloads. You may find it more reliable to hit up the support page and download the necessary updates here. Some of the drivers listed may be about assured stability with the “expansion-module” docks that Dell has available for this system. Here, you may not think of them as being relevant for you if you didn’t purchase any of those accessories from Dell, but they can be as relevant for any adaptors or “expansion-module” docks that appear under a different brand but use the same electronics as Dell’s accessories for one or more of their functions.

The same situation will also apply to whatever new computer you have purchased especially if it has just been released, whereupon you may have to use the manufacturer’s software update utility to pick out the drivers and support software for your system’s hardware. Similarly, you may have to visit the manufacturer’s support or downloads page to find the latest downloads for your computer such as to update the supplied software to newer and better standards.

A similar situation had crept up when I was doing some support work for a friend of mine who had problems with his laptop not associating with his home network since he upgraded it to Windows 10. Here, it required the installation of drivers and firmware from the manufacturer’s support Website in order for it to work properly under that newer operating system and take advantage of what it had to offer. Again, you may have to use the manufacturer’s software update utility or visit their support or downloads page after you perform a major update on the computer’s operating system.

The same thing can happen if your computer is equipped with a subsystem like a wireless-network chipset or audio chipset which implements software-defined behaviour. This is where the subsystem’s functionality is evolved under the command of driver and support software – newer software could improve the subsystem’s existing functionality, make the subsystem honour new standards and become more compatible, or add extra capabilities to that subsystem.

One of the issues that was raised in the article was whether Dell, like the rest of the computer manufacturers, will make these drivers available through the Windows Update mechanism that Microsoft provides or not rather than having to write and furnish an update utility of their own.

A reality that may be seen more is that the OEMs who supply the chipsets or other electronics that look after a particular function, such as Intel, Qualcomn or other wireless-network chipsets that are furnished with newer laptop computers, is that these OEMs may provide the updated drivers for the electronics concerned and you may find that these drivers haven’t been updated as far as the computer manufacturer is concerned. Here, if you know whom the OEM is for that chipset, something you can identify in Device Manager which will list the the extant software drivers installed on your system for its hardware. This same situation also faces desktop computers that you build or upgrade yourself or have built up by an independent computer store.

Similarly, for computers that implement a recovery image for the operating system and supplied applications, you may find that updated versions of the drivers and supplied software may not make it to the recovery image. This can be annoying if you have to “strip” your computer back to ground-zero and reinstall everything during situations like rectifying faults or preparing to hand the computer over to someone else. This could be improved with the ability to amalgamate newer versions of the same software in to the recovery image.

Paying attention to Windows Update, the software-update software delivered by your computer’s manufacturer or the computer manufacturer’s support / download pages can allow you to keep your computer like the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook to the expectations that its manufacturer placed on it.

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A Surface Book variant is actually a portable gaming rig

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Should you buy the Surface Book with Performance Base for gaming? | Windows Central

My Comments

Microsoft Surface Book press picture courtesy of Microsoft

A performance variant of the Microsoft Surface will show up as the stealth gaming rig

There have been the rise of gaming-grade laptops that have enough CPU and graphics-processing acumen to handle the latest games on the market with the full performance expectations. Here, most of the manufacturers are releasing at least one model with these abilities but most of these are styled like a muscle car or street rod.

But a few manufacturers are approaching this by offering performance computers that have a “stealth” look where their looks don’t betray the performance under the hood. Microsoft has now joined the party with a performance variant of the Surface Book which works with a “performance base”. This uses a keyboard base with the same graphics ability as the baseline variant of the Surface Studio all-in-one PC.

As with other Surface Book variants, the tablet detaches from the keyboard base so it can simply be a Windows 10 tablet but, when attached, it becomes a convertible laptop. Microsoft could provide the Performance Base not just as part of a system variant for how you wish to order the Surface Book, but as an upgrade option for existing Surface Books for those of us who want to upgrade them as a full-bore gaming or multimedia PC.

It is very similar to what can be done with Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C where manufacturers can offer a graphics module that connects to portable, all-in-one or low-profile computers to enhance their graphics performance. But this idea could be taken further with the use of coprocessors that are part of “performance modules” that could improve existing computers’ performance for gaming and multimedia tasks.

Personally I would find that the trend for portable and “all-in-one” computing is to offer gaming-rig performance as a model variant in one or more product lines rather than as its own product line. This is even though the manufacturer will offer a dedicated premium product line or brand that is focused towards gaming. Such products would appeal to those of us who value the performance angle for multimedia creation or gaming but don’t think of it like owning a “street-machine” car.

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