Over Christmas I found myself playing some Civilization V - I bought it for Linux some time ago on Steam but hadn’t played it a lot. So I fired it up to play in the background (one of the advantages of turn based games). Turns out it’s quite CPU intensive (the last Civilization I played was the original, which ran under DOS so there was no doing anything else while it ran anyway), and my 6 year old Dell E7240 couldn’t cope very well with switching back and forth. It still played well enough to be enjoyable, just not in a lightweight “while I’m doing other things” manner. On top of that the battery life on the E7240 hadn’t been that great; I’d had to replace the battery in November because the original was starting to bulge significantly and while the 3rd party battery I bought had much better life it was nowhere near the capacity of the old one when it was new.

The problem is I like subnotebooks, and my E7240 was mostly maxed out (i5-4300U, 16G RAM, 500G SATA SSD). A new subnotebook would have a much better CPU, and probably an NVMe SSD instead of SATA, but I’d still have the 16G RAM cap and if I’m looking for a machine to last me another 5 years that doesn’t seem enough. Then in January there were announcements about a Dell XPS 13 that would come with 32G. Perfect, thought I. 10th Gen i7, 32G, 1920x1200 screen in 13”. I have an XPS 13 for work and I’m very happy with it.

Then, while at FOSDEM I saw an article in Phoronix about a $200 Ryzen 3 (the M141) from Walmart. It looked like it would end up similar in performance to the E7240, but with a bit better battery life and for $200 it was well worth a shot (luckily I already had a work trip to the US planned for the middle of February, and the office is near a Walmart). Unfortunately I decided to sleep on it and when I woke up the price had jumped to $279. Not quite as appealing, but looking around their site I saw a Ryzen 5 variant (the M142) going for $400. It featured a Ryzen 5 3500U, which means 4 cores (8 threads), which was a much nicer boost over my i5. Plus AMD instead of Intel removes a whole set of the speculative execution issues that are going around. So I ordered one. And then it got cancelled a couple of days later because they claimed they couldn’t take payment. So I tried again, and that seemed to work. Total cost including taxes etc was about $440 (or £350 in real money).

Base spec as shipped is Ryzen 5 3500U, 8G RAM + 256G SATA m.2 SSD. Provided OS is Windows 10 Home. I managed to get it near the start of my US trip, and I’d brought a USB stick with the Debian installer on it, so I decided to reinstall. Sadly the Buster installer didn’t work - booted fine but the hardware discovery part took ages and generally seemed unhappy. I took the easy option and grabbed the Bullseye Alpha 1 netinst image instead (I run testing on my personal laptop, so this is what I was going to end up with). That worked fine (including, impressively, just working on the hotel wifi but I think that was partly because doing the T+Cs acceptance under Windows was remembered so I didn’t have to do it again to get routed access for the installer). I did need to manually install firmware-amd-graphics to make X happy, but everything else was smooth and I was able to use the laptop in the evenings for the rest of my trip.

The interesting thing to me about this laptop was that the RAM was easily upgradable, and there was some suggestion (though conflicting reports) that it might take 32G. It’s only got a single slot (so a single channel, which cripples things a bit especially with the built in graphics), but I found a Timetec 32G DDR4 SODIMM and ordered it to try out. It had arrived by the time I got home from the US and I eagerly installed it. Only to find the system was unreliable, so I went back to the 8G. Once I had a little more time I played again, running memtest86 (the UEFI variant) to test the RAM and hitting no problems. So I tried limiting memory to 16G (mem=16G on the Linux command line), no issues even while compiling kernels. 24G, no issues. Didn’t limit it at all, no issues (so far). So I don’t know if I missed something the first time round such as cooling issues, or if it’s something else entirely that was the issue then. The BIOS detects the 32G just fine though, so there’s obviously support there it just might be a bit picky about RAM type.

Next thing was I had hoped to transplant the drive from my old laptop across; 500G has been plenty for my laptop so I didn’t feel the need to upgrade. Except the old machine was old enough it was an mSATA drive, which wouldn’t fit. I’ve a spare Optane drive so I was hoping I’d be able to use that, but it’s a 22110 form factor and while the M142 has 2 m.2 slots they’re both only 2280. Also the Optane turned out to not be detected by the BIOS when I set it in. So I had to order a new m.2 drive and ended up with a 1T WD Blue, which has worked just fine so far.

How do I find it? It’s worked out a bit pricer overall than I hoped (about £550 once I bought the RAM and the SSD) but I’ve ended up with twice the RAM, twice the disk space and twice the cores of my old machine (for probably less than half what I paid for it). Civ V is still slower than I’d like, but it’s much happier about multitasking (and the fans don’t spin up so much). The machine is a bit bigger, but not terribly so (about 1cm wider) and for a cheap laptop it is light (I had it and my work laptop on my flight home in my hand baggage and it wasn’t uncomfortably heavy). The USB-C isn’t proper Thunderbolt, so I can’t dock with one cable, but the power/HDMI/USB3 are beside each other and easy enough to connect. Plus it’s HDMI 2.0 which means I can drive my almost-4K monitor at 60Hz without problems (my old laptop was slightly out of spec driving the monitor and would get unhappy now and then). Other than Civ V I’m not really noticing the CPU boost, but day to day I wasn’t expecting to. And while it’s mostly on my desk and mains powered powertop is estimating nearly 6 hours of battery life. Not the full working day I can get out of XPS 13, but pretty respectable for the price point. So, yeah, I’m pretty happy with the purchase. My only complaint would be the keyboard isn’t great, but I’m mostly using an external one and the internal one is fine on the move.

The Dell XPS 13 with 32GB? Still not available on Dell’s site at the time of writing. I won’t be holding my breath.