Dell Precision 5520 with Ubuntu 16.04 Reviewed

I spent some time with the Dell Precision 5520 and it didn’t take long to fall in love. This absolute beast of a portable workstation has all the trappings of Dell’s beloved XPS lineup, but with a focus on professional workloads that makes it handily overpowered for most things I might want to throw at it. So, of course, I tried games and TensorFlow.

The 5520 loaned to me was, as far as I could tell, a mostly maxed out configuration in all the aspects that mattered. The “Details” utility in Ubuntu reports a “Intel® Xeon(R) CPU E3-1505M v6 @ 3.00GHz × 8” (that’s an 4-core “Kaby Lake” Xeon with 8 threads) and a respectable “31.3 GiB” of RAM. If, like me, you’ve utterly lost the plot with the computer numbers game then you can simply consider this machine “flippin’ powerful.” While compiling TensorFlow, and typically keeping 8 threads busy on the task, the machine still felt responsive and was still usable- so there’s no need to take to wheeled office chairs with foam swords to pass the time.

Backing up the CPU is a discrete NVidia Quadro M1200 with 4GB RAM and a respectable 5.0 compute capability (whoops, I compiled TensorFlow with 6.1 to match the external GTX1060 I was testing- now recompiling it as I type this).

Incidentally, recompiling TensorFlow and rendering in Blender ran side-by-side fairly handily and desktop usage, browsing the web, typing, moving the cursor, etc all remain responsive. I could even- almost- play 4k video on YouTube on top of this, but it suffered from intermittent stutters. That’s a silly amount of horsepower for a laptop, and places this squarely in the workstation class- you’d be running Adobe Premiere if it weren’t a linux box, and as it is perhaps making heavy use of virtualization, running Blender and other GPU-heavy specialist productivity apps. If, like me, you’ve left the world of desktops behind in favour of portable powerhouses (albeit my choice was a gaming-focused Razer Blade) then this is a safe bet.

Specs aside- honestly, I can’t bring myself to care about them too much these days- the juicy innards of the Precision 5520 are crammed handily into a weighty but sleek-looking shell that looks and feels like an XPS with a little bit more heft.

Since this configuration sports the 4K touchscreen part of that heft will be due to the required 6-cell (97Wh) battery that must accompany the power-hungry display. You might be a little like me and be tempted to scoff both at the pointlessness of a 3840×2160 display and of touchscreen, but… good grief… I lament switching back to my 1080p Razer Blade.

Ubuntu 16.04’s support for the 4K display is pretty stellar, allowing you to dial a slider in the bizarrely named “Screen Display” utility (search term stuffing?) from 3 all the way up to 12.2. Moving this slider results in a realtime update to the scale of everything on your desktop, allowing you to quickly find a setting that works for you. For focusing down and using the touchscreen effectively I found 3x to be the sweet spot, and for heavy productivity and pages of code I tend toward 1.5x. Ubuntu’s support for the display is good enough that it feels worth it- a couple of notable exceptions are apps like Steam which simply ignore the scaling settings and appear laughably tiny alongside everything else, and the initial login which appears unscaled and then bumps into scaled mode.

Beautiful handling of screen scaling aside, I expected Ubuntu’s touchscreen support to be lacklustre but instead found it to be at least useful. It’s marred by the typical Linux age old problems of the whole app ecosystem and UX being a random, disjointed and inconsistent wild wild west. By far the best treatment of the touchscreen comes from apps like Google Chrome which supports two finger scrolling, pinch to zoom, gestures, copy & paste and more just the way you would expect it. The worst? It’s seemingly impossible to interact with drop-down menus in utilities like “Appearance” and when you fire up LibreOffice you might just as well not have a touchscreen at all.

Aside from this, at 3x UI scale everything is easily interacted with, and many actions – particularly those in Chrome – are much more efficient than with the trackpad. In conclusion I find it’s better to have the touchscreen – since it comes free with the beautiful UHD/4k display – for the times when it works well, than never to have it. Incidentally I had no idea it even *was* a touchscreen until I went to flick a particle of dust away!

The Precision 5520 build quality is solid, with sleek lines all around and a clean, professional black/silver colour scheme. The top surface of the keyboard has a subtle carbon fibre effect. Dust and dirt will no doubt find its way in the gap around the trackpad which looks to be almost a millimetre, but there are no speaker grilles on the top to get properly janky. They are, instead, small slots on the bottom front edge and deliver clean and punchy sound.

It’s worth noting right now that I am *not* a desktop Linux user. While I interact with Linux pretty frequently during the course of my job, and have tinkered with it as a desktop system for some 20 years, I really find it grates on me since Linux is just so damned awful at the simple things. Getting the right NVidia drivers on this Precision for an e-GPU, for example, was a trial.

All in all, if I’d chosen a Dell Precision 5520 as my primary workstation I think I’d have been pretty happy with my choice. I don’t think I’d opt for Ubuntu as the OS, but I’d no doubt make heavy use of the RAM/CPU to virtualize various Linux systems for cross compiling and other tasks. Support for an external GPU seems solid, even in Linux, and despite the heft from the larger battery and screen it’s not excessively heavy. I’m used to carrying around a weighty laptop and having a powerful CPU/GPU available to me at all times. Still, I’m mighty tempted by the XPS 13 paired with an e-GPU since the times I actually require all this CPU and GPU grunt are not necessarily frequent enough to warrant that extra heft. It’s a coin toss! But if they keep churning out products like this, I’m 90% certain my next laptop purchase will be a Dell.

In conclusion, this thing is a beast and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to people whose needs it fits.