Dell XPS 13, one year later

Oct 06 2017 Published by under Technology

I don’t want this to be a rant, but I feel like I need to document this experience. I’ll try to stick to the facts.

TLDR; hardware issues, poor support.

The Good

It was just about a year ago that I got a Dell XPS 13 9360 Developer Edition. This laptop is designed to run Linux well and comes with Dell’s own version of Ubuntu with updated hardware drivers. They also push any changes they make upstream, which is nice. I’d read that Linus Torvalds uses one of the Dell XPS machines. He prefers a desktop, but if he’s on the road, he uses a Dell.

Design-wise, the laptop is pretty nice looking. It’s thin. It’s light. It’s attractive. Virtually no bezel – it’s all screen. Much smaller footprint than my Yoga 2 Pro, but the exact same screen real estate. The keyboard is standard chicklet that you get on pretty much every laptop these days. Nothing to write home about, but not horrible (except for the space bar, which I’ll get to shortly). Track pad is decent enough. Sound is fine for a laptop. It’s got 2 full size USB ports and a USB C. No complaints about the battery. The screen itself is nice, though a bit too high res for me. 3200×1800, again same as the Yoga. As this resolution generally causes more problems than it’s worth to my eyes, I usually set it to 1600×900, which works just fine and looks good enough to me. The palm rest is carbon fiber, which is pretty cool. Intel Graphics are meh, but it’s not a gaming machine, so that’s fine.

The Bad

So let’s start on the problems. The first thing I noticed was the aforementioned space bar. It had two issues. One, when I tapped it with my left thumb, it often would not register anything. And two, it would constantly add multiple spaces as I typed. I guess this might have been happening with my right thumb. This was a well known and documented issue. There are articles and Youtube videos explaining exactly why it happens and how to fix it. Unfortunately, these involve taking the computer apart, which I wasn’t going to do to my brand new still-under-warranty device. I decided to try and live with it, but it was pretty damn annoying having to constantly correct myself.

The next thing I noticed was a physical defect on the palm rest. I first noticed it as a small bump and when I rubbed it, the bump came off revealing a small pit in the palm rest. At first I thought maybe this was something I had done. But I wasn’t using anything near that computer that I believe could eat its way into carbon fiber. Still, I wasn’t 100% sure I hadn’t caused it somehow and it was pretty tiny, so I decided to try and live with that too.

Other than those two things, the computer seemed fine for many months. Then in July of this year – about 9-10 months into owning it, the display started going weird. It was just black, even on a new boot. Obvious first thought is some kind of video driver issue. Especially being on Linux, these things can crop up. Oddly, it worked fine on an external monitor. So I wasn’t really sure if it was a hardware issue or driver or what. It happened several times just before I went out of the country on vacation, so I decided to take my Yoga with me instead and deal with the Dell when I got back – reinstall Linux and if that didn’t fix it, I still had a couple of months of warranty left to get it fixed. But when I got back home, it was working fine. And never had the display issue again.

Then, one day a few weeks back, I went to reboot it, and it could not find any bootable media. I’m no stranger to UEFI/BIOS stuff, but nothing I did could get it to boot. No big deal, I thought, I’ll just reinstall Linux. But the machine could not even recognize a bootable USB drive. Note that I had already installed a few versions of Linux in the time I’d had the computer – just because I like to try different distros now and then. All through bootable USB drives, so I kind of know what I’m doing here. Time to call in the warranty.

Initially, Dell support was very helpful. They did due diligence to rule out user error, and then sent me a box to mail the pc in for repairs. While I was at it, I mentioned the space bar and display issues I’d been having. Up to this point, I was totally fine with how things were going. Computers have hardware issues. This is why we have warranties. I sent it in and expected things would get resolved.

The Ugly

After a couple of days, I got an email saying that there was evidence of spillage in the computer and this was not covered by the warranty. I would have to pay around $250 for repairs. Now, I knew, absolutely that I had not spilled any liquid into the computer. I suspect they might have been referring to the pitted spot on the palm rest. But this was one tiny spot right in the very center of the left palm rest, as far as you could get from any opening on the keyboard. Even if this was something I had caused, it was not the cause of the hard drive controller failure. I asked what the exact evidence of spillage was that they had found. The tech said that he would request photos of said evidence and send them to me.

That’s the last I heard about spillage. The next email was from a different tech saying that they had replaced the logic board and other components and they needed to reinstall the OS and needed my OK to do so, as it would wipe out anything I had on the hard drive. I said that was fine, I had backups. The next day I was told the repairs were done and the pc was on its way back to me.

This whole exchange seemed pretty sketchy to me. Like, “Let’s try to get the customer to pay… Nope, they didn’t fall for it, just fix the computer.” I never even argued about the spillage. I just asked for details and it disappeared.

The Uglier

So the computer arrived back. I cheerfully unboxed it, plugged in the power and pressed the power button. And… it could not find any bootable media. And it could not find a bootable USB drive. In fact, the behavior it was showing was identical to the behavior I sent it in with. A letter in the box said what they had supposedly done: replaced the hard drive, lcd panel, palmrest, keyboard, main logic board. And my earlier conversation with a tech had indicated that they had reinstalled the OS. In fact, the computer came back with a card containing a Windows license number.

I could not understand how they could replace that much hardware and the computer behaves no differently. I could not understand how they could have installed an operating system on a computer that would not boot. I could not understand why they would ask my permission to reinstall an OS over my existing hard drive but also replaced the hard drive. I could not understand how they replaced the palm rest and the palm rest had the exact same pitted spot that my old palm rest had.

The only things that made sense to me is that someone there was very confused or someone there was outright lying. I don’t think they did anything other than clean up my computer and send it back.

So, back in touch with tech support. They had me try various BIOS settings and repair images, but nothing could get the thing to boot or see a USB drive. In fact, I talked to different techs and they had given me totally conflicting instructions on BIOS settings. But I tried everything anyway. Finally, they said they were going to send someone to my house to replace the motherboard. At this point, I was fed up and said this was unacceptable. Either send me a new computer, or give me my money back.

The End

To my surprise, they responded right away saying they were sending a new computer. And it arrived. And… so far, it’s pretty good. It boots, no screen problems, no palm rest defects, and the space bar seems to work just fine. So, it all turned out well. But the whole experience left me with a bad feeling about Dell tech support.

To reiterate – hardware can have flaws. You produce millions of computers, you’re going to get the occasional dud. That’s not going to upset me as long as the company takes care of it. Sadly, the tech support experience left me with the feeling that they are either utterly incompetent, dishonest, or both. In spite of it being a nice computer, this experience has me doubting that I would buy another Dell product again.

4 responses so far

  • Tim says:

    The XPS line always had flashy specs but the component quality was never THE best. DELL’s mobile workstations used better components and higher build quality than the XPS. For a few hundred buck more you got a much better version of the XPS with more options for upgrades (more memory, bigger hard drive, etc). Sadly, DELL seems to have forgotten everything they knew about customer service. I’m seriously looking at the 25th anniversary ThinkPad in all it’s retro glory!

    • keith says:

      The XPS is nice and now that I have a brand new one, I’ll stick with it for a while. But I do regret not going for a Thinkpad. I have a Thinkpad T520 which is a massive beast, but still really cool for being at least 6 years old. And a Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro that is 4 years old, but still pretty close in functionality to the Dell. It was my fallback when the Dell was in the shop, and I can’t really say I missed the Dell. The 4 year old Yoga is just that good.

  • Lloyd R. Prentice says:

    I purchased the XPS 13 developer edition plus docking station on the strength of a 4-color marketing brochure with a photo of a user running two external monitors. This is terrific, I thought. I could replace my aging dev box. And, yes, I read all the reviews before the purchase.

    The equipment arrived in due course. I connected it all together and powered up to discover that I could only get one external monitor to function. That stared many exchanges and long hours on the phone with Dell techs. One tech in particular really did try to solve the problem but, ultimately couldn’t.

    Now my XPS 13 sits largely unused. I feel my money was wasted and the product was falsely advertised.

    I’ll never buy a Dell product again.

  • Jason Smith says:

    Living in Australia my experiences with Dell Support are consistently dreadful. If it isn’t Windows then they don’t even want to know. Not that they show much competence in that area either. I’d agree with your suspicions total incompetence masked by obfuscation and diversionary tactics.