A Fresh Cup is Mike Gunderloy's software development weblog, covering Ruby on Rails and whatever else I find interesting in the universe of software. I'm a full-time Rails developer and contributor, available for long- or short-term consulting, with solid experience in working as part of a distributed team. If you'd like to hire me, drop me a line. I'm also the author of Rails Rescue Handbook and Rails Freelancing Handbook.

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Tuesday
Sep042012

Project Sputnik Report #1

Fedex dropped off my new Dell XPS 13 laptop today, courtesy of the Project Sputnik beta program. (Full disclosure: Dell gave me a 20% off coupon for the hardware when I was accepted to the beta program). Yes, dropped off: the driver left it on our doorstep and rang the bell. Amusingly, I got an automated call from Fedex an hour later telling me a signature would be required for the nine buck video dongle that was shipped separately.

I've got two primary reasons that I'm interested in this program. First, I'm tired of paying the Apple tax. Macs have been good machines, but they're high-priced (even higher when you add the mandatory Apple Care, because the hardware quality isn't really all that good) and increasingly locked down. Second, I'd love to have a laptop that knew how to install stuff for me, rather than wasting two days every time I need to rebuild.

The XPS 13 is a sexy little beast. Feels very solid, to the point where the iPad feels flimsy by comparison. As with just about any hardware today, there's next to no paperwork in the box, but there is fancy packaging that makes it clear the Dell guys opened a Mac or two on the way to designing the experience. The packaging weighs about three times what the computer does.

I opened it up, plugged it in, and peeled off and tossed the Dell and Windows 7 stickers. There's a permanent Windows 7 logo on the bottom, but I can live with that. Then I prepared to boot from the Project Sputnik USB key that I made on the Mac desktop box yesterday.

First hurdle: actually getting a bootable USB key with the Project Sputnik install image. Just about every computer I have running these days is a Mac, and Ubuntu says "Reversely, you can't create bootable USB flash drives for other platforms than Macs from withing Mac OS X" (the meaning is clear even if their proofreading is bad). Having discovered this, I cranked up my one old Windows test box with the slow network card, and a couple of hours later had a USB key that works. There was swearing involved, and apparently one of the USB keys I had will not be bootable no matter what. Anotehr appears to have random bad sectors. (Fortunately, none of this will be necessary with production systems, which will have the right disk image pre-installed.)

The "hard drive" is a SSD, so cold boot to login is fast - under ten seconds. That's nice. Next step was to start exploring. As far as I can see, it's a stock Ubuntu desktop. First thing I did was switch the trackpad over to two-finger scrolling so switching back and forth from Macs wouldn't drive me nuts. Even with that though the touchpad is clearly going to drive me nuts until I find some documentation; even selecting text is tough. Next was to update Firefox to Nightly and install Firebug, since that's where I spend much of my time. That was easy, as was the Sublime Text 2 install.

Somewhere in there the Update Manager popped up and wanted to update 148 packages, so I let it.

Of course, all of this involved grubbing around in Terminal and running sudo apt-get whatever commands for ages, which is decidedly not what Project Sputnik promises. But the tools for maintaining developer profiles and easily updating the box don't exist yet. So it looks to me like my testing will divide into two chunks. First, does the box have enough horsepower to handle my everyday development tasks, and hardware that won't drive me up the wall with poor ergonomics? Second, will the developer profile tools make Linux easy enough to use that I won't want to tear my hair out? Stay tuned. For the moment, I'm synching a bunch of stuff from my dropbox so I'll have things to work on.

Reader Comments (2)

Hey, good news! I'm pretty much interested in this laptop as well so your opinion really matters. thanks!

September 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVlad

But you do not need to use any text commands if you don't want to. Just use the standard program installation tools for Ubuntu/Debian.

If you do not have special needs, you should not install your own programs from source code, use the pre packaged binaries. If you don't do use the pre packed, you will not get any advantages over any other other OS, like Apple OS X or MS Windows.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnders

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