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  • Thoughts on modern laptop design and Windows compatibility

    Posted on Ascaris Comment on the AskWoody Lounge

    Home Forums Outside the box Rants Thoughts on modern laptop design and Windows compatibility

    This topic contains 0 replies, has 1 voice, and was last updated by  Ascaris 7 months ago.

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      Ascaris
      AskWoody MVP

      I just wrapped up two weeks living with a Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming 7567 laptop.

      I’ve recently had a small (very) inheritance, so I decided to scratch an itch I’ve long had and get a modern gaming laptop.  I’m not sure I really qualify at all as a ‘gamer,’ per se, but I do like to play every so often.  I’m not one of those who has to go try every AAA title on release day… I don’t even know what the AAA titles are, and I would probably only recognize a small percentage of the names if I heard them.  These days, I’m pretty unlikely to get started on any game that’s not available in Linux, given how Windows is going, but I’m not quite ready to pull the trigger on going Linux-only on most of my PCs either.

      That puts me in an interesting position when it comes to any new laptop, given that they’re all saddled with what is, to me, the completely unusable abomination known as Windows 10.  My ability to be satisfied by any modern PC is exactly equal to the extent to which alternate operating systems (and by that I mean other versions of Windows as well as Linux) can be made to run on them.

      The 7567 is a Kaby Lake PC, so it’s going to be subject to the Microsoft embargo on new CPUs on 8.x and 7.  I presumed that getting older versions to work completely would be the easy part… I knew about the trick for uninstalling and reinstalling rollups to get around the ban, not to mention the patcher, but I thought that would probably be the worst of it.

      Linux, I thought, might be trickier, given that the laptop uses nVidia Optimus to switch between the Intel integrated (iGPU) and the discrete nVidia (dGPU), whose support is still sketchy on Linux.

      I started with installing Linux.  I tried Cinnamon Mint 18.3 first, and while I was able to activate the Intel or nVidia GPUs at will, the tearing with the nVidia was simply horrible.  As I read, this has long been a complaint with the Optimus setup in Linux (called Prime), and that’s only very recently been fixed.  The fix requires an X server version newer than what came with Mint, so I either had to try another Linux or live with the tearing until Mint 19 arrives.

      I tried Kubuntu 18.04, based on the same version of Ubuntu that Mint 19 will be based on when it comes out.  There were a few issues, but I got them ironed out pretty quickly, and following the posts on the nVidia forum, I got Prime Sync (the tear-free version) working, and it was glassy smooth– absolutely gorgeous.

      Prime is a lot less advanced than Optimus on Windows.  Switching from one GPU to another is still a manual affair in Linux, and I’m still not sure if it can be done without logging out and in (that’s how it worked when I had it running on Cinnamon, but I know that was a suboptimal setup).  In Windows, the nVidia driver is constantly monitoring the demand on the Intel iGPU, and when it detects something that’s too demanding for the Intel, it automatically switches to the nVidia without the user even noticing something big just happened.  If that doesn’t work for some reason, the user can set any application to run either on one or the other GPU.

      After getting all that set up, I decided to try setting up Windows 8.1.  It installed pretty easily, but the Device Manager was full of exclamation points indicating devices that didn’t have drivers installed.  One was the nVidia GPU, while the Intel GPU had only the basic Microsoft driver.

      I tried to install the nVidia driver, but it told me I had to do the Intel one first.  So I tried that, and… well, it told me no.  Intel didn’t release any drivers for the integrated GPU in Kaby Lake setups for any Windows other than 10.

      Not to be told NO easily, I edited the .inf to tell the driver to go ahead and install on 8.1, which required rebooting with driver signature enforcement disabled to install it.  I did, and the Intel driver went in without further complaints, and the nVidia one installed easily after that.

      I installed the Windows Updates next, and sure enough, I got the obnoxious message telling me that Microsoft was going to deny me all updates because I was on Windows 8.1.  This is the same company that extended support for XP two years (even though they really, really didn’t want to) so that all of the people still using it wouldn’t be vulnerable to malware, right?

      Sometimes I miss Ballmer.

      I wasn’t surprised by that, though; I knew it was coming.  What I did not expect was that my custom Windows 8.1 theme, which works flawlessly on my Sandy desktop and my Penryn (Core 2 Duo) laptop, simply would not work on the Kaby Lake laptop.  When I tried to use my theme editor to “test” the theme, it gave an error that there was an error (though it doesn’t say where).

      I spent a couple of days manually porting the changes to the theme over to a Win 8.1 base, and I got it working just about perfect.

      After that, I resumed the setting up of the new laptop.  I’d put Classic Shell on already, and my theme was the very next step.  After that, it was time to put the Synaptics touchpad driver on in order to be able to set the advanced options, as I have with every laptop I have ever owned since 2002.  I’d noticed that (strangely) the Windows 10 installation did not have a Synaptics driver preinstalled as my other Dell laptop had.  The 7567 used a Microsoft driver that had some, but not all, of the advanced features that the Synaptics driver offered on my other Dell (bought in December 2017… the 11 inch low-end one).

      I downloaded the Dell-branded Synaptics driver, and it simply told me that the Synaptics driver was not needed.

      What?

      By my way of thinking, that’s my decision, not Dell’s, and not Synaptics’.

      I looked at the installation files for the driver, and inside the Dell wrapper was a standard Synaptics driver (one file, self extracting).  I installed 7Zip to extract the files from the .exe, then forced Windows to use the driver therein despite Windows’ protestations.

      It seemed to work, since I now had the Dell Touchpad control panel (which was still not as advanced as the options I had using the pure Synaptics driver on the much cheaper Dell), but soon I noticed that after resuming from standby (sleep), the touchpad did not work anymore.  I also noticed, in the examination of that issue, that none of the changes I made to the Dell Touchpad settings actually affected anything.  I’d been using an actual mouse so much that I hadn’t noticed that my settings were not being respected!

      Maybe it was because the PC came with 10, which I was not using, right?  I located a Dell Touchpad driver that specifically listed 8.1 as compatible, but it wasn’t any better.  Neither was the Lenovo (generic Synaptics driver) one that someone had suggested as working with all Synaptics PCs.

      I’d thought the problem might be Linux compatibility, but Linux Mint and Kubuntu both installed touchpad drivers that worked perfectly right out of the box, and the functionality of that Linux driver was at least as good, and in many ways superior to, the function of the Dell Synaptics driver (if the settings had actually worked) or the Windows 10 driver.

      I hadn’t predicted the laptop wouldn’t be compatible enough with Windows.  I didn’t have to track down any drivers to get Kubuntu or Mint to work, but Windows 8.1 arrived with all kinds of orphans in the device manager.  Finding an Intel chipset driver installer and a Thermal Framework driver that were compatible with 8.1 (but not listed as being so with Kaby, since we all know that Kaby requires 10) and the Intel driver for the wifi card corrected the rest of the !s, but with Linux… it just worked out of the box.  I had to configure it to get the Prime Sync working, but Prime itself worked right off the bat in both Linuxes.  Even the keyboard backlight worked without any effort on my part in Linux, including a slider where I could set the brightness (which I tested and found to work perfectly).

      That was all on the software end.   In terms of the hardware, I really wanted to like this laptop, given its many positives.  The IPS screen was gorgeous, and the performance of the GTX1050ti GPU was solid.  It came with a M.2 SSD slot that works with NVMe or SSD M.2 drives and a 2.5 inch HDD slot, and both of those were accessible by removing only a single screw.  Once the access cover was off, the (socketed) RAM, cooling fans, CMOS battery, the laptop battery, and the wifi card were all easily accessible, and the build quality was impressive.  Dell doesn’t cut off the warranty if you dare open the cover; instead, they provide you with a detailed, illustrated PDF service manual that tells you how to do it.

      The battery on the Dell had impressive capacity compared to others (like the MSI I was considering until I found out they did the “warranty void” sticker thing).  The UEFI setup was excellent, and the way it worked with the self-encryption feature on my SSD was perfection.

      I had no issue at all changing Windows 10 to a dual boot setup first with Cinnamon, then Kubuntu, nor was it any problem to then wipe 10 and install 8.1.  No repair of GRUB or anything else was required; dual boot still worked.

      The biggest problem I had with the 7567 was that the front edge of the palmrest, the part of the laptop that is closest to the user in the usual position, was very sharp considering that this is where the user places the underside of the wrists, an area that’s susceptible to pain and bruising when there are sharp edges.

      I couldn’t get used to that.  I kept thinking that I needed to get a file and grind a bevel into it, though that would breach the rubberized coating that covered the entire laptop.  Would it peel?  Why should I need a file to make the laptop not try to harm me when I dare to type on it?

      My old Core 2 Duo laptop has a nicely rounded corner on the front of the palmrest.  I’ve typed tons of stuff on it, enough to wear out the keyboard (which I replaced for $20, an operation that took about 3 minutes.  Pay attention, Apple).  My other laptops have also had rounded corners here, each and every one.  I never even thought to check that!

      There were other things that annoyed me about the 7567, though it is by no means unique.  The dedicated wifi button and LED are gone, as are their bluetooth counterparts.  More annoyingly, the HDD LED is gone.  I don’t care that my “HDD” is now a SSD; I still find the LED tremendously useful in conveying what the PC is doing.  SSDs transfer data faster than a rust spinner, but the usefulness of the LED hasn’t changed simply because the tech behind the drive has.

      I ended up returning the 7567, though not without reservation.  The fact that it took me two weeks to notice the flaws with the touchpad simply underscored that I didn’t much use the touchpad.  It’s a big laptop; this is not going to be a “goes everywhere” device.  It’s going to mostly be used when I have a place to “set up” when out and about, which means using a real mouse.  When gaming, I have to have my gaming mice with all of their extra buttons and macros!

      That sharp edge, though… while I expect to bring a mouse, I don’t expect to bring a keyboard.  Using the one in the laptop means the sharp edges come into effect.

      After I returned it, I looked at the other laptops they had on display, particularly the gaming ones.  They had an Alienware (by Dell), a few MSIs, a HP Omen, and an Acer… and every one of them had a sharp edge on the front of the palmrest, though none were quite as bad as the one on the 7567.

      I tried the other non-gaming laptops too, and every one of those also had the sharp corner at the front.  What is going on here?  Am I the only one whose wrists don’t like to contact a sharp edge?  Why was it that all the laptops I’ve owned have had beveled edges here, if that was the case?  It doesn’t seem like an accident.

      All of the laptops in the store had the same slab-topped, stark appearance, devoid of the rounded corners and bevels that made older designs more comfortable.  Part of it is that newer laptops are so much thinner, but even then rounding the edges is possible.

      I had to hold my nose to buy a clickpad-based laptop in the first place.  I much prefer discrete buttons (like all laptops used to have), but I reasoned that I would not be using the clickpad that much.  Buttonless clickpads, chicklet keyboards with minimal travel, missing indicator lights and wireless buttons, 16:9 screens, non-removable batteries, glued-together designs… it’s all going in the wrong direction. I can do without the optical drive and the extra bulk it requires, but otherwise, my decade-old laptop has these new ones beat soundly in a lot of important ways.  It’s not as fast and its battery life is poor, and the TN display has poor viewing angles, but it has a lot of things that were standard then that are much appreciated and much missed in newer designs.

      As a footnote, dumbo here forgot to remove the BIOS password from my SSD (which I’ve had for a couple of years) when I took it out prior to taking the 7567 back.  I don’t have the means to unlock it anymore, even though I know the password!  The Core 2 laptop won’t do it, even though I enter the same password.  It looks like I’m going to have to send it to Samsung under warranty to have it unlocked (they don’t offer any alternative).

       

       

      Group L (Linux): KDE Neon User Edition 5.14.4 (based on Ubuntu 18.04) + Windows 7 in Virtualbox VM

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