Updating a Dell XPS 13 9370 to Ubuntu 18.04

The Ubuntu Dell XPS 9370 is a fantastic portable workhorse, but I’ll extol its virtues in another article. One of its downsides is that it comes with the now fairly dated Ubuntu 16.04, this is because 16.04 is the long term support release that, presumably, gives Dell a stable base to build upon for a well supported system.

16.04 is showing its age, though, and the many, many UI and UX improvements in 18.04 alone make it worth the – somewhat painful – process to upgrade.

First off, if you’ve already started using your 16.04 XPS 13 then this article isn’t for you. I had no end of trouble attempting to *upgrade* a system from 16.04 to 18.04. Trying to install 17.10 and then 18.04 resulted in a boot loop. Trying to force an upgrade straight to 18.04 resulted in a boot loop. Suffice to say I had something of an adventure. The steps I’ll walk you through here will be for a fresh install, uncoupled from Dell’s shipped Ubuntu but- insofar as I can tell- still working fine with the display, keyboard, trackpad, function keys, WiFi and Thunderbolt/USB-C (well insofar as Thunderbolt/USB-C ever work anywhere close to fine).

Okay, let’s get started.

Preparing a boot microSD

Okay, so the Dell XPS 13 9370 is absolutely brimming with USB Type-C ports. They’re great, I love them, and they are the future. But they are also a dongle nightmare pain in the backside most of the time. There’s no regular USB port to insert a USB drive in so instead we’re doing to use a good ol’ micro SD card. Anything 8GB or larger will do.

You will also need the Ubuntu 18.04 installation ISO.

If you’re preparing the boot media with a Windows system (this is what I did) then I recommend Rufus. If you’re using the Ubuntu system that you’re upgrading from (assuming you haven’t already managed to trash it) then use the already available Startup Disk Creator. If you’re using Rufus make sure you use GPT and burn the image in DD mode, I had installation issues the first time I tried file copy mode.

Booting from the microSD

Push the microSD securely into the SD card slot on the right hand side of your XPS 13 and fire up your computer from a cold boot. Hit F2 to enter the bios, and go to the Boot Order menu. You need to bump the SD card up to the top of the boot order, so that it boots first.

Upon boot make sure you pick the “Install Ubuntu” option, and *not* the “Try Ubuntu” function. There’s some quirk of display scaling on the 18.04 installer that makes it crash in a booted environment, and the install simply wont work. The straight up “Install Ubuntu” option is much smoother.

From here, opt to replace the existing installation of Ubuntu 16.04- although if you’re given the option and have some personal files/settings in place you may have luck upgrading it.

BIOS Upgrades

As far as I can tell the automated BIOS upgrade utility normally available on pre-installed versions of Ubuntu 16.04 ( I was prompted for a BIOS upgrade on the Precision 5520 ) will be broken if you roll a vanilla install of 18.04. You can get around this quite easily by downloading the bios .EXE file – yes the whole, compressed, Windows-compatible .EXE file – stuffing it onto a FAT32 formatted SD card, and hitting F12 on boot to enter the one-time-boot menu and switch into BIOS upgrade mode. The BIOS is able to parse and install the .EXE file with no trouble whatsoever and I managed to bump this computer from 1.2.0 to 1.3.2.

How does it fare?

So far I’ve been running 18.04 on this XPS 13 for only a matter of hours so I’m not sure what trouble I might run into, but I’m connected to WiFi, I’m successfully writing an article and not an hour or so ago I was playing Natural Selection 2 with a GeForce GTX1060 in an e-GPU enclosure. I’d say it works pretty well, so if you’re looking to grab an XPS 13 with Ubuntu and save a few coins you’d otherwise spend on a Windows license then you should be good to stick 18.04 on it right out of the box. Hopefully after the release of 18.04.1 in late July Dell will consider moving officially to the new LTS release, since support for 16.04 will expire in April 2021 which is would be slap in the middle of the kind of lifespan I’d expect for a new laptop.

Ubuntu 18.04 still has dozens of touchscreen quirks, though. The “Show Applications” button in the bottom left corner never really knows what it’s doing, sometimes I have to press and drag on it. No amount of single or multi finger drags will scroll Firefox and pinch gestures do nada- both of these things work in Chromium though so you could swap to that for casual touchscreen use. Although it seems to interpret scrolling as clicks far too often, so it’s far from perfect.

Oh and I’m infatuated with the XPS 13″ series. It’s the computer I wish I’d picked instead of the Razer Blade, but it’s still early days for e-GPUs and I wanted to make sure I could game without having to jump through too many hoops (prohibitive cost being one of them). The XPS 13 9370 is no exception, it’s a premium little machine through and through, and the 4k touchscreen really pops.

Honestly- I’d probably still use Windows 10 as my primary OS since Ubuntu appears to have some trouble with my Thunderbolt 3 dock, and doesn’t much like me hot-plugging/unplugging the e-GPU either (something that most of the time works fine on Windows).