Dell XPS 13 – the Apple of the Windows world

Stage 2 of Operation Bye Bye Apple Pie is in progress.

My replacement for the two-year-old MacBook Pro arrived yesterday.  Having owned a Dell desktop for around three years before switching to the Mac platform, I know just how reliable and well built Dell PCs are.  Indeed – I gave the old Pentium 4 Dell desktop to my in-laws, and it lasted them two-three years with just a graphics card and hard drive replacement required to get it working again after a year of heavy use.

I chose a Dell XPS 13.  It has a 13″ screen but within a 12″ body.  If you thought Apple were the only ones making well-made laptops, think again.  This thing has what is called an “infinity display” – the screen’s bezels are extremely thin., giving you more screen for your buck.  The keyboard closely resembles a MacBook Pro – chicklet keys that are satisfying to type on (albeit now with a Windows layout and the @ and £ symbols moved around a bit).

The system comes with 16Gb RAM, 1Tb  NVe PCIe SSD and Windows 10.  I chose to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro because the ability to generate, host and muck about with Hyper-V virtual machines are extremely useful for work related purposes.  I shall just tap my nose at this point – all will be revealed later.  The most important feature of Windows 10 Pro is the Bitlocker filesystem encryption.  With the Mac you’re rather spoilt with FileVault, so it makes sense to do the same thing with WIndows.  Speaking of the Mac, FileVault has given me quite a bit of jip over the years – see my articles on fixing FileVault on new Macbooks and CoreStorage jiggery-pokery – which will probably make all this look tame when Apple moves to their brand new filesystem, Apple FIle System (or APFS) with MacOS Sierra.  I doubt Microsoft will ever move away from NTFS / BitLocker for quite some time.  I’ve enabled BitLocker and it’s roughly 38% through encrypting the drive.

The SSD itself is a thing of beauty.  I’d always been wary of using SSDs with Windows because for the longest time there was never much in the way of “TRIM” support.  Trim helps manage the areas of the SSD where data has been written and erased.  Over time, the SSDs cells will eventually wear out (despite not having any physical moving parts).  Trimming will help manage the cells and remap where necessary.  A typical SSD should last around 5 years or more even with constant use (constant use being something like writing over 100Gb a day to the drive).  As this Dell uses Intel’s Skylake processor range, it also supports the latest chipset revisions.  It supports the SSD optimised management system called NVMe, an architecture designed around SSDs.  The internal Samsung SSD fully supports it.  From boot to use, Windows 10 Pro is ready to be used within 10 seconds.

The display is a touch screen, super high-resolution beast.  Like the iPad Pro, the screen suffers from a lack of support from developers.  Anything that doesn’t support resolution independence will look a bit blurry and rubbish.  On the other hand, applications such as Adobe Bridge are absolutely hideous – the screen is so small you’ll need to look at it through a magnifying glass.  I’m happy to report, however, that Adobe Photoshop is just fine.

The touch screen makes extensive use of Windows 10 tiles and touch facilities.  You could potentially use this laptop like a tablet – although the screen is firmly attached to the unit and you can’t twist the screen around.  It puts it in the same category as Dell’s excellent Chromebook range (albeit this XPS has a much better display).  It’s rather odd touching the Start menu with your fingers and not your mouse.

My biggest bugbear so far is that while Microsoft provides an OS X-like Preview app for viewing multiple images in separate windows, the Windows 10 Photos app adds all manner of guff to each window which you can’t get rid of.  If you just wanted to look at a photo by itself without the headers or toolbars – tough luck.  But you can, through a registry hack, bring back an older image app called Windows Photo Viewer.  This is much better – it’s easy to resize images through scrolling, resize the windows, etc.  I’ve tried looking for third-party applications that can do this – just in case Microsoft does something silly with Windows Photo Viewer – but nothing comes close to it in functionality.  I have yet to try Adobe Lightroom, however.

Overall, my experience with Windows 10 – my first proper experience with Windows 10 not involving running it in a virtual environment/lab – has been a good one.  But I’m not done there – I still have ti move over my photos and manage them as well as iTunes.  While the iTunes thing is more or less done through Google Play Music now, I’d still like to keep the physical files that I own on the SSD and access them through some form of desktop player.  Microsoft’s Groove player, maybe?  We’ll see.

This weekend I will be waving a sad goodbye to my MacBook Pro.  It was fun.  But it was two generations behind and, as I’ve said, I don’t have much faith in Apple going forward.  Besides, this new machine has cost me far less than what I originally paid for two years ago, has on site warranty for three years, and offers greater tinkering possibilities.  It also fits in with what I do at work, and – finally – who doesn’t like a change once in a while?  I had been stuck in Apple’s complete ecosystem for far too long.

New Mac (running Yosemite)? DON’T enable FileVault during set-up..

.. otherwise you’ll end up having to boot into recovery mode, delete Core Storage volumes, format the SSD, re-install OS X, restore everything from Time Machine backup (see my article on clearing away Core Storage volumes – originally written in 2011).

There appears to be a bug:

that affects anybody enabling FileVault during the initial set-up of OS X whether it be an upgrade from OS X Mavericks, a brand new machine, or a re-install of OS X.

Enabling FileVault during the set-up process can seemingly lead to the disk never finishing the initial encryption phase.  It’ll be stuck in “paused” mode forever more.  Some have said that leaving the machine online for 24 hours will fix it.  Some have attempted PRAM, SMC and disk repairs.

But there is only one way to get things moving along: nuking the current OS X Yosemite installation, re-install OS X again, but DON’T enable FileVault during the initial set-up screens.  Instead wait to get to the desktop, open System Preferences -> Security & Privacy -> FileVault and enable it there.

OS X Mountain Lion “clean” install gotcha: Core Storage / encrypted disk issue

Some of the information in this article may be out of date now that OS X Yosemite is the current version of OS X (although I have just experienced an enormous amount of pain with a new Mac shipping with Yosemite – there are STILL problems with FileVault/Core Storage).

There appears to be an issue with the Disk Utility that comes bundled with the Mountain Lion recovery/installation system.

If you are looking to do a completely clean Mountain Lion install, and already have an encrypted filesystem created by FileVault from OS X Lion – you may encounter the following problem when attempting to erase or delete it through Disk Utility. I have been able to reproduce this across two machines now (an early 2011 17″ MacBook Pro and a mid-2011 21″ iMac).

Once you’ve booted from the USB drive and fired up Disk Utility – if you delete the encrypted volume, you’ll find you’ll come across this message:

Disk Encryption Failed
Disk encryption failed with the error

There is not enough free space in the Core Storage logical volume Group for this operation.

You cannot do anything at all with the boot volume – you cannot create a new partition, you cannot install, you are snookered.

However, don’t panic! Just quit Disk Utility, go to the Utilities menu and fire up Terminal. Then issue the command:

which gives you a list of logical CoreStorage volumes (and a physical volume as well – but ignore that). Copy the long UUID string of the logical volume. Now type:

where UUID is that long string of characters. During the process, the text-based progress bar appears for a bit before the confirmation that the volume’s deleted. The whole process looks like this:

IMG_0404-1024x764

 

You can then quit Terminal, fire up Disk Utility, partition to your heart’s content and then finally install a fresh, clean Mountain Lion from scratch. Hoorah.