I’ve never done a hardware review before (with the exception of the odd Amazon review), so bear with me.
For those who’ve been following my rarely updated blog, I’ve been plagued with laptop issues for a while (here, here, here and here – oddly enough all LCD related) so I figured it was about time I found some sort of reliable work horse that I can just *get stuff done* rather than having to faff around with hardware every handful of months (the last post about LVDS cables covers a significant period of time, and recently started playing up again). So it was about time for a change.
I’ve mulled over the various brands over and over again, but being out of the hardware industry for a long time now, I was having a hard time making a decision on what’s going to be the best for me as my next work horse. My recent scouring for hardware started with the Asus X555LJ, the laptop that I linked in the Amazon review further up this post. That turned out to be a grave disappointment, for reasons you’ll be able to read about in the review post. I won’t go into it any further in this post.
When that got sent back, I was effectively back to the drawing board, scouring the net for other brands of laptops that were roughly within my price bracket. Friends kept suggesting “Get an Asus ROG” or “Dude, Alienware”. All of these are outside of my price bracket at this point in time. And while I *really* want an Asus ROG, now is not the time. Then I started to think about brands in the past, and machines that I’ve touched in one way or another the last few years. HP and Dell came to mind. 2 machines came to mind. A friend recommended the HP Envy line, and I was scouring Dell’s website for something that would be fit for purpose that also sits within my rather strict requirements for hardware. I looked at the HP Envy, and while they seem OK, I went with the Dell. An Inspiron 5558 to be precise. Which I’ll write about now.
Very little to write home about here to be honest. A slimline box turned up that contained the laptop (with battery already installed), the power supply, and a quick start guide telling you what and where everything is. The laptop came in one of them soft cloth-like bags to protect it, and between the screen and keyboard was another piece of cloth-like substance, as you’d expect most laptops to turn up these days. A bit of cardboard padding, and that’s about it.
The laptop came with a roughly 90% charge. Turned it on, and again not a lot to write home about. The Dell screen popped up and Windows 10 proceeded to boot. (Side note: I hate Windows, I’m a total Linux freak, so won’t spend too much time ranting about it. Just thought you should know that!). Initial boot was slow. Very slow. Of course, Windows went through the mandatory “installing critical updates” almost the second after you connect it to your WiFi network.And then proceeds to tell you to wait some more while it does….something. And then reboots. Says “Hi.” in white text on a black screen, then goes away and tells you to wait some more. What in the actual f*** is it doing?! My god…
Got past all that after about 10 minutes and then Dell’s software pops up asking you to register. And Window’s own registration thing pops up also asking you (although it seemed more like a demand) to register. Both of which I declined to do. Just to test the waters in terms of boot times, I rebooted it a couple of times after I’d gotten rid of all these prompts, and it appears to be somewhat respectable. Around the 20-30 second mark from the Dell POST/UEFI screen to a login prompt. B- could do better.
Yes, I dismantled it. Well, kind of. I have a Samsung Evo 850 SSD to use instead of a spindle disk. As a slow computer *really* annoys me. So I turned the machine off and flipped it over. Underneath is a large hatch which allows access to the HDD, RAM and the WIFi card. 2 screws hold it down, and bit of prising to loosen the clips and off it came. The HDD’s caddy is held down with 4 screws, and the HDD itself is connected to the mainboard in the weirdest way I think I’ve ever seen. The SATA cable is this tiny little flat-flex ribbon cable connected to the mainboard, with this chunky SATA data/power adapter on the other end. When replacing the HDD, you should be *very* careful with this. Past experience with flat flex cables is less to be desired. Either way, gently prised the connector off the HDD, unscrewed it and replaced it with the SSD. Reversed the dismantling process and job’s a good-un! All in all, well manufactured, everything that should be accessible IS accessible (unlike in the Asus that I reviewed on Amazon..what a nightmare!).
Also extremely uneventful. My distribution of choice is Fedora. At time of writing, that’s Fedora 22. Installed the ISO onto a USB drive and plugged it in. Booted fine from it without any questions. Picked up the SSD, installed perfectly. In about 10 minutes. It’s one thing that gets me about Windows, is that the install process is so long, I wonder what it’s actually doing in the 40 odd minutes Windows takes to install. All you’re doing is copying files dammit!
After the installation, the system boots up. A quick setup wizard and we’re good to go. Boots in around 15 seconds. Marvellous! Drop into the BIOS and disable most of the extensive hardware check that it does on every power up drops that to around 10 seconds. I can probably get it to go faster by reducing the timeout in Grub.
Overall, this seems like a sturdily built laptop. I’m writing this article on it. On battery power. A small amount of workload currently going on, Chrome’s playing music, Skype is running and I’ve got a few tabs open. 34% left, quoted at around 1hr usable battery time remaining. Seems pretty good.
The display is crystal clear. Turned the brightness up a bit from the default and the picture is perfect. Full 1080p resolution as expected. Everything’s readable. There’s no glare. The screen is matte finish, which probably helps with that. My last laptop had a glossy finish, and while the picture was probably a bit clearer again on that, the trade-off is that that was a £1000 laptop! So for £549, this is more than enough.
Inside is an Intel i5-5250U, clocked at 1.6Ghz and turbo’s up to 2.7Ghz. Though how Linux handles that, I’m not sure. I don’t know at this point whether that’s an automatic feature of the CPU or whether some software needs to handle that for you. It also has the built-in Intel HD6000 GPU, alongside an NVIDIA GeForce 920M GPU. This is one of those bizarre configurations where they decide to put 2 GPU’s in a laptop and have some software switch between them depending on the workload. Unfortunately, Linux does not support such a configuration (at least, not yet – time will tell), so the NVIDIA chip will go unused until such a time as this is available in a future kernel.
It’s definitely able to use the full SATA3 bus. A benchmark on the SSD I inserted topped out at 530MB/s read, and around 490MB/s write. A testament to the quality of the Samsung Evo SSD. For sure, other cheaper SSD’s can get somewhere near those figures (and I’m sure Sandisk has one that can kinda go past those figures), but from a speed perspective for the cost (£68 – typical, it’s gone down since I bought this, I paid £79 *grumble*), you really can’t complain.
Other than that, there’s a DVD drive (that will probably go unused), a USB3, HDMI, and RJ45 ports alongside an SD card reader on the left, and 2 USB2 ports and aheadphones socket on the right. And a kensington lock slot if you’re also that way inclined.
The keyboard feels firm to type on. It’s not backlit, which is not the end of the world, but I don’t care right now. It’s responsive to all the keys I’m pressing, not missing anything (though butter fingers typing this often missed certain keys because they’re in an ever so slightly different position than what I’m used to, but I guess that’s what happens every time you buy a new laptop. Just deal with it). The touchpad is one of the best I’ve used in a while. It’s not spongey. It’s not cheap feeling. The clicks offer great feedback. It doesn’t press down too much, and the touchpad’s sensitivity to me moving the cursor and scrolling around with 2 fingers works flawlessly.
On the front is a solitary LED that can serve one of 2 purposes. It can either be a power/charging indicator, or a HDD activity indicator. I like to see HDD activity, so I set about trying to work out how to make that happen. An undocumented method of switching between the modes is available in the full manual for this machine, not the quickstart. Fn+H switches modes. Just, FYI.
All in all, this feels like a rugged laptop that’ll last the 3-5 years I expect out of my computing hardware. I’ll probably upgrade again well before that, as of right now I just need a machine that works. But until then, I think this will do just fine. It’s sturdily built. It has a good picture, very bright. It’s lightweight, and has a ton of options in the BIOS that talk about how the charging circuits should work, amongst many other things. This article’s already far too long, so I’ll spare you the details (though If you want to know more, comment below and I’ll try and provide as much info as I can).
And the bonus points: Linux. Just. Works.
Would I recommend this laptop? Yes. For Linux users as well? Yes. Though I’d install an SSD in it in either case.