Replacing a MacBook Pro

Recently at work I ordered a Dell Precision 5520 mobile workstation running Linux as a replacement for my MacBook Pro. I have had a good experience with the MacBook Pro, but it is getting older and I wasn't interested in the current line up from Apple. In particular:

  • I want a physical "Esc" key for coding and other uses.
  • I want more than 16 GB of RAM.
  • I wanted better graphics than the MacBook Pro currently offers.
  • I want a more native Linux environment.

Despite being a Linux user for more than 2 decades, I settled on the MacBook Pro 4-5 years ago because I have to use Microsoft Office for a lot of the non-technical work I do. Linux is more appropriate for my technical work since the macOS (and its predecessors) is not supported for a lot of the electrical engineering software I use nor the embedded software development I do.

Dell and Linux

One of the reasons I went with the Precision 5520 is because of Dell's growing commitment to supporting Linux on their laptops. At work and home, I have used Dell laptops and desktops for years and have been generally satisfied, especially, with their more professional Latitude and Precision lines of hardware.

In the last few years, some entrepreneurs within Dell had the motivation to try to support Linux more directly on their hardware in support of developers--the "Sputnik" effort was born. You can check out the line up of machines they sell and support with Linux at http://www.dell.com/sputnik.

I have also had some success with their Intel-centric (Intel WiFi, Intel graphics, etc.) Latitude laptops like the Latitude 7400 series, most recently the Latitude 7480. Under Fedora and CentOS 7, the touchscreens have worked fine as well.

The Hardware

So far, I have been satisfied with the Precision 5520's hardware. The model I have has 32 GB of RAM, a 1-TB NVMe SSD, a 4K display, a Xeon processor--so fairly maxed out.

Initially, I thought that I wasn't going to get a third mouse button, looking at the trackpad. It turns out that if you click between the two mouse buttons, you can get the third mouse button after all. I haven't fully figured out where on the trackpad the transition among the three mouse buttons occurs, but it hasn't been too distracting yet. For general (left) clicking, clicking in the main touchpad area seems to be the best approach since the whole trackpad can act like a button. I have disabled "tap to click" for now since I haven't found a lot of software implementations that don't cause some hassles when typing, though, I should try it out.

Fedora 25 and Fedora 26

Given the option of what Linux to put on the machine, I opted for Fedora 25 and then upgraded to Fedora 26. The machine itself came with Ubuntu 16.04, which seemed pretty reasonable and came out of the box with things configured as expected. I am not a big fan of Unity (as only a casual Ubuntu user), and prefer Gnome 3 since I have been using it for 4-5 years. Further, I have been a user of Fedora since Fedora Core 1, so I tend to prefer Fedora over Ubuntu anyway.

Installation

Installation when quite smoothly with Fedora 25 and the upgrade to Fedora 26 went well also. The high dots-per-inch (HiDPI) display made the text terminal quite small to read when booting and during the installation, but, otherwise, things went smoothly. I am using LUKS as well, so I was pleased to see that all went well with the install. I did see a few stability issues, but it seems like that has been cleared up with Fedora 26 or recent updates to Fedora 26.

Gnome 3 on HiDPI: Your Mileage May Vary

With the default installation of Fedora 25 and 26, probably the most annoying issue I have run into is Gnome 3's support of HiDPI displays. It is fairly easy to perform integer scaling of aspects of the interface, but the scaling was not uniform (the menu fonts and some icons did not change at all). There is probably some amount of tweaking that can be done to get the display to look reasonable, but it isn't as easy as it should be.

(Update: 17 August 2017:) After resolving the issue with the Intel video driver (see below), the interface fonts for menus and things actually looked pretty good. I am comfortable again in with Gnome 3 and GDM also works pretty well also. I think there are several differences: 1. the stock install of Fedora 26 was using the nouveau driver with the X display server 2. with the Intel driver allowed to run, GDM and Gnome are both using Wayland and they look very good. I still have the Gnome Tweak Tool to scale the interface by 2 and I have scaled the font size by 1.25 additionally. Unlike with nouveau under X, all of the Gnome 3 environment elements are picking up on the scaling. The claim that Wayland support for HiDPI displays is good seems to be true.

CrossOver Office and Tel.Red's Lync/Skype for Business Client for Linux didn't pick up any scaling cues from Gnome and were very small. I suspect that the extra small size is resolvable in some way for at least CrossOver Office. I will update this blog entry when I find the solution.

KDE on HiDPI: Impressive

Having heard about good KDE support of HiDPI on either the Linux Action Show or Linux Unplugged, I thought I would try it out. So far, the support has been much better than Gnome 3 under nouveau and X and even CrossOver Office and Tel.Red's software picked up the scaling hints. Oddly, there are a few icons that are fairly small, but, generally, KDE on the Precision 5520's HiDPI display is more usable.

Firefox in Fedora seemed to pick up the HiDPI cues in both Gnome and KDE, so that was nice.

Microsoft Office Under Linux

I am still working out the kinks of using Microsoft Office under Linux again (I have used CrossOver Office and Windows VMs in the past). So far, though, I am having problems installing Microsoft Office 2013 under Fedora 26 with Crossover Office Linux 16.1.0 and 16.2.5, which isn't a surprise since Fedora 26 has only been out for a few weeks. A lot of things complete successfully during the install, but the final stage where Office is installed hangs/fails. As a sanity check, installing Office 2013 using CrossOver Office in a virtual machine running CentOS 7 worked just fine.

Update (12 Aug 2017): I believe that the install issues for Microsoft Office under CrossOver Office were probably due to missing dependencies. It seems like CrossOver Office Linux 16.2.5 was better at catching missing dependencies than version 16.1.0 and helped me install the dependencies. Now Microsoft Office 2013 installs easily, but I am getting all black windows for Office applications. I suspect it has something to do with the video drivers or something like that, but I have a question into CodeWeavers to see if they have a solution without digging around for a solution of my own.

Update (17 Aug 2017): I contacted CodeWeavers and they said I should try using the proprietary Nvidia drivers to resolve the "black window" problem. Well, I was trying to do that before they responded with little luck. I found the problem with the driver setup (see below) and now CrossOver Office applications (in particular Microsoft Office 2013) seems to be working OK and things are quite visible. I still need to figure out how to scale the applications so they look OK on a HiDPI display.

Update (25 Aug 2017): CodeWeavers got back to me and described how to modify the effective DPI for applications. Basically, there is a settings application called "Wine Configuration" in the "bottle" into which I installed Microsoft Office 2013. In the "Wine Configuration" application, you select the "Graphics" tab and then change the "Screen Resolution". I increased the default DPI from 96 to 192 (2x the default). That seemed to work quite well. Now the only issue I am seeing at the moment is a refresh issue in the application ribbon. When I select one of the "tabs" in an Office application like Word, the contents of the ribbon doesn't update until I move the cursor some. I have been running CrossOver Office under Wayland (with XWayland) and that might be a quirk with that setup. I should try running Microsoft Office under normal X Windows to see how it behaves.

Intel/Nvidia Drivers

To try to resolve the issue with CrossOver Office's black windows, I tried installing the Nvidia proprietary drivers from both negativo17.org and RPMFusion.org. Unfortunately, both cause GDM and (more specifically) libmutter to crash. I have tried several things, but no luck so far. I have also posted a question at Ask Fedora to see if anyone has any ideas. We'll see.

Update (17 Aug 2017): After reading up on the Nvidia drivers some, I discovered at least one issue. The Linux kernel command line had nomodeset included, which according to https://wiki.debian.org/InstallingDebianOn/Dell/Precision%205520%20%28Laptop%29/jessie will cause problems. Once I removed nomodeset from /etc/sysconfig/grub and then ran grub2-mkconfig -o /boot/efi/EFI/fedora/grub.cfg (See Fedora Wiki: Grub 2), GDM no longer crashes during start up. In the end this allowed the Intel drivers to load properly, which were probably important for GDM and Gnome 3 to run. If I run glxinfo in Gnome 3 under Wayland, it is clear that the Intel GPU support is enabled. If I run a Plasma/KDE session instead, X is actually running with the Nvidia proprietary drivers based on what top and glxinfo show. Anyway there is more to learn, clearly.

Conclusions (so far)

The Dell Precision 5520 is working out OK so far. The HiDPI support of Gnome 3 is not quite there under the open source nouveau driver and X but Gnome 3 seems to work quite well with HiDPI support using the Intel drivers under Wayland and Plasma/KDE's support under X is good so far under both the open source nouveau driver and the Nvidia proprietary driver, though, not perfect.

I will be using the laptop more and more, so I should have some additional comments as I work with the machine more and more.