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Things to improve Ubuntu 16.04 on Dell XPS 13 (9630)

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This week my new daily driver arrived. A brand new Kaby Lake Dell XPS 13 Developers Edition (late 2016) that comes with Ubuntu pre-installed. It’s the first time in good number of years that I’m working with latest gen hardware and it’s also the first time I try a laptop with manufacturer support for Ubuntu. Interesting indeed. I also purchased a Dell WD15 dock to hook it up to my 2 22″ screens in the home office.

Apart from a few “paper cuts”, I just love this laptop. It’s the first time ever that I own a laptop with more than 6 hours of (realistic) battery life out of the box. The screen is gorgeous and the backlit keyboard feels really comfortable. If you’re looking for a high end laptop to run Linux, I highly recommend this one.

But as I said above, there are a few annoying things that needs to be improved. This blog post is my way of documenting the changes I’ve made so far and it’s very likely that I keep expanding this post as I discover and hopefully fix issues.

Touchpad

This laptop comes with a really nice trackpad. But when the computer first boots, it will have two separate trackpad drivers active. This makes synclient (the software that controls trackpad configuration) all confused and attach to the wrong driver. The trackpad will mostly work, but it’s not going to be possible to disable the trackpad while typing. This in turn means that if you enable “tap to click” on the trackpad, you will accidentally move the cursor around by “tapping” the trackpad with the palm of your hand driving you insane very quickly.

The solution is a two step process:

Install touchpad-indicator

touchpad-indicator is a utiility that sits in the upper right hand indicator area in Unity. This util gives you some additional configuration settings for the touchpad, “disable touchpad on typing” being the important one for me.

Touchpad indicator

Touchpad indiator UI

To install it:

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:atareao/atareao
$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get install touchpad-indicator

After installing it, I had to start it manually once, and then tell it to autostart on it’s General Options tab.

$ /opt/extras.ubuntu.com/touchpad-indicator/bin/touchpad-indicatDisable the unneeded touchpad driver

Before touchpad-indicator can work, I also needed to disable the unnedded touchpad driver, the third answer in this thread explains how it’s done: https://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=2316240

Edit: Another thing that might improve the touchpad is to enable PalmDetect, I haven’t played around with it enough to know if it matters or not, but I have to add a line int a X11 config file to enable it:

$ sudo nano /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/50-synaptics.conf

And then after line 13 i added ‘Option “PalmDetect” “1”‘

edit 50-synaptics.conf

 

 

WD15 Dock

There’s a lot to say about the Dell WD15 dock. For the most part, it works as expected but there are some annoying buts that goes with it. From researching online I realized that with the Linux kernel that comes with stock Ubuntu 16.04 a lot just works and for that I’m thankful. The poor customers that tried to make this dock work with previous versions of Ubuntu have suffered much more than I have. There are a few things that doesn’t work though.

Audio

The WD15 has a 3.5 mm loudspeaker jack on the back that doesn’t work and an similar 3.5 mm headphone jack on the front that does. Not a huge deal for me, I still get decent quality sound to my external speakers, but the installation could have been prettier:WD15 dock

The other annoying thing with the dock is that I have a ton of trouble making it understand when to enable the external monitors, when to wake up from suspend and what resolution to use. I’ve had similar issues with other docks (HP) in the past. I don’t have a solution for it, I guess I just slowly adjust to a lot of rebooting and manual screen resolution management.

The super key

One of the most odd things with this laptop is that the pre-installed Ubuntu 16.04 comes with a Dell specific package named dell-super-key. This package seem to do just one single thing: disable the super key. If you’re the least bit familiar with Ubuntu, you know that the super key used a lot so exactly what the product developers at Dell was thinking is a mystery to me. Why?

Anyway, it’s easy to fix. Just uninstall the dell-super-key package and you’re good to go.

$ sudo apt-get remove dell-super-key

Conflicting keyboard mapping

I’m not sure if this is specific to the Dell installation of Ubuntu or not but I haven’t had this issue on any other laptops, including my last HP that was also running 16.04. I work a lot with different works paces and I use Ctrl+Alt+Up/Down to move between them. On this one, there was a conflict in mapping so that the Ctrl+Alt+Up combo was also mapped to “Maximize horizontally”. Whenever I had focus on a window that could be maximized, Ctrl+Alt+Up would maximize that window instead of taking me to the work space I wanted.

Searching around in the standard places for where to fix this turned up nothing. I disabled the maximize action in every place I could think of; System Settings -> Keyboard -> Shortcuts as well as using the dconf-editor. Turned out to be the Compiz plugin “Grid” that caused the problem. I solved it by simply disabling these keyboard mappings from Grid.

First, install the Compiz settings tool:

$ sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager

When install, launch it and search for the Grid plugin:

Compiz Config Settings Grid

Then in the Grid settings, click to disable and then re-enable the Grid plugin, it will detect the keyboard mapping conflicts and ask you how to resolve them. I told Grid to not set any of the keyboard shortcuts that conflicted with the “Desktop wall” plugin. That way I can keep some of the Grid features I like, such as maximizing a window by dragging it to the top of the screen:

Resolving conflicts in compiz settings

 

Conclusion

Compared to 10 yeas ago when I first started using Linux as my primary OS, the tweaks needed to make this laptop work as I want it are minimal. Linux and Ubuntu have come a long long way since then and it’s world of difference.

It would be easy to point a a finger at Dell for shipping a laptop with these issues, but I think that would be very unfair, instead I applaud them for sticking to their Developer Edition program. Sure, the super key thing is weird and perhaps they could have solved the touchpad thing better, but those are solvable. I prefer Dell to keep assembling great hardware, after all, there’s a great community of Linux users around to get the last few issues resolved.

If you have any questions or if you’ve found another Ubuntu and Dell XPS related issue, please use the comment field below.

 

2 thoughts on “Things to improve Ubuntu 16.04 on Dell XPS 13 (9630)

  1. Thanks for the excellent tips on how to fix the touchpad, it’s been annoying me for weeks.

    You’re right, the disabled super key thing is plain weird – someone told me it was to do with some licensing issue and the use of the Windows logo but I don’t know if that’s right.

    The only other issue I’ve seen is sometimes when waking from suspend the wifi doesn’t always work properly and I have to reboot, but that’s pretty minor.

    I agree with your conclusion and overall the XPS13 is a brilliant LInux laptop.

  2. Hey thank you for this article!
    If you could choose docker, would you take wd15 again?
    I have he same notebook and I am looking for working docker for that.
    Thanks again!

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