Performance for Photography

I came down to the United States without my desktop, only my Dell XPS M1330, which is going on 2.5 years. Since purchasing it, I’ve done some upgrades to keep it performing at an acceptable level. The original floppy keyboard was replaced with a firmer version, the RAM was upgraded to 4GB and perhaps the key, the Hitachi 120GB hard drive was swapped out for a Patriot Warp 32GB SSD, and then a Kingston 128GB SSD.

I always thought it would be games that would be the thing that forced upgrades down the road. Quite unexpectedly, it turns out that photographic work brought my computer to its knees far before any games did (which I really don’t play anymore).

Intel’s Lynnfield launch gave me the perfect opportunity to get some great performance at a much lower price than the Bloomfield i7’s. For under $500, I put together an i5 750, 2x2GB DDR3, Radeon 4350, GigaByte mATX P55 board, and an Antec NSK1380 case. I repurposed the Kingston 128GB SSD for the desktop build, and stuck the old 120GB hard drive back in the M1330. For $500, I now have a substantially more suitable platform for photo editing. Next up will be to get another 4GB of RAM. Photoshop and Capture NX2 take up a heck of a lot of memory.

To take advantage of all that power, I picked up Scott Kelby’s Photoshop CS3 book for photographers. I’ve dabbled with Photoshop here and there, but never truly learned any formal techniques. Getting great out of camera photos is a wonderful thing, but I have to admit, most of my shots need some form of post-processing help. I’ve already tried a couple things from the book (very effective tips), and I now have one image post processed on the new computer with some new techniques. This photo is from a few weeks ago.

Upon further reflection

Acer Timeline Finally Puts Battery Life First!

Finally, a consumer laptop is pushing all my requirements buttons – battery life, weight, aesthetics. It may come as a surprise to hear that the company behind it is Acer. Yesterday, Acer announced the Timeline series laptops, coming in 13.3″, 14″, and 15.6″ sizes. The one I’m most interested in is the 13.3″ version, the 3810T.

Acer Timeline Laptop

Acer has put battery life as the number one priority in the new Timeline series, opting for ultra-low power Intel CPUs across the board. Coupled with some power saving features including an LED display and SSDs, the lineup should get 8 hours+ of battery life on the standard 6-cell battery. With the 6-cell battery, the 3810T weighs around 3.5lbs and will be just about an inch thick, 23.4mm to 28.9mm. To add some flare, the LCD lid is constructed with brushed metal (aluminum, presumably). What’s even better is that the whole package is slated to come in between $699 and $899. In all honesty, anything even around the $1000 mark, given decent build quality will put it directly in my sights for my next laptop.

The Dell XPS M1330 I’m writing this on has served me decently for the better part of two years, and it probably won’t be replaced before its 2 year anniversary. Unfortunately, what started off as a great laptop experience took a turn for the worse around the time BIOS A12 was released and the 8400M GS died. Now, to prevent the GPUs from dropping like flies over and over again, Dell’s recent BIOS updates for the M1330 have ramped the fans up to a dull roar, even when it’s sitting idling. That coupled with increased power consumption and the battery wear on both the 6 and 9 cell batteries have chopped battery life down to 2:15 and 4:00 respectively for typical productivity tasks (web browsing, email, word processing).

I’m on the market again, but very few laptops have put battery life first and foremost, at a reasonable price and portability. Hopefully production samples of the Acer Timeline don’t disappoint. Acer’s been on a roll with the Aspire Ones, so I’m holding out hope they’ll deliver.

Dell XPS M1330 Keyboard Replacement

A little less than a month ago, I received what will go down as one of most useful comments on this blog thus far, regarding the Dell XPS M1330’s keyboard. Essentially it sucks in comparison to the exact same form factor keyboard found on the Vostro. After conversing through email with the gentleman who left the comment, I hit up eBay, PayPal in hand, to purchase a new keyboard for my M1330.

I received the keyboard (part# JM629) earlier this week and installed it yesterday. Wow. The difference is unbelievable. My perception of the sturdiness of the laptop has increased immensely. The vast difference makes me wonder why Dell isn’t installing this type of keyboard by default.

There were several problems associated with the stock M1330 keyboard. Due to the thin and flimsy backing, the keyboard flexed quite a bit and exhibited a hefty bulge in the middle. The keys were rattly and generally made the laptop feel far less well-built than is actually is.

Dell XPS M1330 keyboard bulge
You can see the bulge in the keyboard, near the power button

A comparison of the two keyboards shows that the new keyboard uses an inflexible metal backing that provides a lot more support for typing – no flex at all. Because the keyboard doesn’t flex, the bulge has also disappeared. Keystrokes feel far, far better than before and there’s no more rattling that sounds like the keyboard’s about to fall out the bottom of the laptop. If you buy a replacement, make sure it’s of the solid back type, not the same as the one you’re removing from your M1330.

Dell XPS M1330 keyboard backing comparison
Top: Old keyboard, Bottom: New keyboard. Notice the solid metal backing of the new keyboard.

Furthermore, I’m quite taken with the black instead of silver. The black keyboard now flows from the bezel and touch media controls. The black color no longer feels like an afterthought when opening the laptop, but an integral part of the design. You decide for yourself. Here’s a photo of the M1330 with lthe new keyboard installed.

Dell XPS M1330 with black keyboard

Replacing the keyboard’s straightforward. Take out the battery and remove the two screws beneath the battery that hold down the media control panel. Then, flip the laptop over and remove the two little covers at the top left and right of the keyboard. Then with a bit of force, remove the media controls. I found it easiest to pull up from the middle of the panel, which will disengage the little clips that hold it down. Then there are two more screws at the top of the keyboard to remove. The keyboard is attached through a ribbon connector that flips up to allow the cable’s removal. Install the new keyboard’s ribbon cable and clamp down the connector. Replace the screws and media panel and you’re done!

Moral of the story? If the stock keyboard feels a bit lacking, grab yourself a Vostro 1400 keyboard and replace it.

Dell XPS M1330 – A Year In

Product reviews are always a double edged sword. They are mostly written after a short amount of time (relative to the useful life) with the product, in order to inform interested early adopters. On the other hand, the short time also means there are things that can’t be thoroughly tested, like reliability. After over a year with the Dell XPS M1330, loving the laptop, blundering through a GPU failure, and having people tell me that my review should be updated with the developments of the NVIDIA GPU defect, it’s time to provide the entire ownership experience.

The M1330 was one of the most talked about Dell laptops pre-launch and even today, it remains quite popular. However, many discussions of the M1330 of late labour over the NVIDIA GPU die-packaging defect and its effect on the M1330. While Dell and NVIDIA are adamant that the defect is contained and relatively rare, my experience has indicated otherwise. Two friends own M1330’s with the 8400M GS and two friends own M1530’s with the 8600M GT. Over the past year, those two M1330’s, along with mine, have all had their mainboards replaced due to dead GPUs. The two M1530’s haven’t run into any problems thus far. I certainly don’t mean to imply that there is a 100% defect rate for 8400M GS equipped M1330’s. It simply points to some bad luck and coincidence, but also indicates a wider-ranging problem than Dell is letting on with the laptop. Statistics demands it.

When Dell first acknowledged the GPU defect via the Direct2Dell blog, it was towards the end of my summer university semester. Hoping to avoid any problems associated with the GPU, I preemptively called Dell support to see if I could purchase a warranty extension. After my explanation of the NVIDIA defect, and hoping I could get a cheap extension as a result, perhaps around $100 for a year, I was quoted $300 for a single year or a ‘promotional’ price of slightly over $550 for two years of standard coverage. Unable to control my laughter, I asked how much an out-of-warranty repair was: $250. I decided to take my chances.

My next step was to attempt a replacement of the possibly defective GPU with a defect-free one. Citing standard warranty procedures, technical support informed me that the GPU would only be replaced if it could be diagnosed as defective within the warranty period. No amount of explanation (or Direct2Dell references) was able to change their mind.

Now, fast forward to the middle of final exams, and literally two days after my warranty had expired. Poof. My M1330 boots to a screen filled with colorful vertical lines. Dell technical support forwarded me onto out of warranty repairs, despite pleas to make an exception, both due to the defect as well as being so close to the warranty window. But seeing as I was up the creek without a paddle, I decided to tough it out. I was in the middle of exams and I wouldn’t have the repair completed before they ended in any case. In the meantime, I found myself in a seriously awkward position. Being a computer engineering student, well, my computer was a priceless tool for my studies. I was fortunate enough that a friend had a laptop he could loan me, allowing me to continue studying. Clearly frustrated with Dell, I posted a stinging but professional comment at Direct2Dell, stating my displeasure.

As a result of the comment, I was contacted by a community liaison, who informed me that he would set me up with someone who could help me with my issue, despite being out of warranty. I was pleased by the turn of events and thanked him profusely.

That is, until a week passed and I had heard nothing back from anyone at Dell.

Shortly afterward, Direct2Dell posted some information about a 1 year warranty extension for systems affected by the NVIDIA defect. I was absolutely relieved that I hadn’t purchased the exorbitantly priced warranty extension and would soon have my laptop repaired through normal channels.

With warranty extension information in hand, I called technical support, and despite pointing out the Direct2Dell post, I was again denied warranty service. Technical support knew nothing about the warranty extension and would not repair the laptop under warranty. Some more emails to the community liaison turned up the fact that he’d been on vacation and hadn’t realized that nobody had contacted me yet. He assured me he’d ‘track down’ who was responsible. Then more silence.

I was seriously stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was nearly three weeks without a working laptop and I still had no indication that anyone was even willing to help, despite two potential solutions. It was at this point that I did something I promised myself I wouldn’t.

Since purchasing my M1330, I had been in contact with a product manager at Dell, who took interest in some things I’d written about the laptop. We built up a friendly relationship over the past year, which I valued. It was based on mutual respect and I didn’t want to jeopardize it by using him as a backdoor resource. Yet, given the situation, I saw little alternative. I contacted him in his official capacity as a Dell employee, voicing my displeasure.

Not expecting any less from a person of his character, I received a timely response. He had personally contacted some resources to see what was happening. Not long afterward, both the community liaison and an executive support representative contacted me regarding repairs.

There was still one more obstacle. Even several weeks after the acknowledgment of the GPU defect, it still wasn’t clear if the defective NVIDIA chips had worked their way out of Dell’s supply chain. Questions to that effect to Lionel Menchaca of Direct2Dell fame were either curiously sidestepped or simply brushed aside, with an explanation that the warranty extension would cover any issues with the GPU. The non-denial certainly sounded like the replacements would still be with possibly defective parts.

I attempted to ascertain from the support representative whether the replacement parts were defect free. All I got in response was some nonsensical explanation that GPU errata were common and that this one had been fixed. As a note, an erratum is a logic error within a computational device, something that is indeed fairly common, but causes only computational errors (which can lead to system instability and corruption). The weak die and substrate packaging material was a hardware defect that could cause physical, hardware failure, not an erratum. I was disappointed that even an executive support representative was either misinformed or thought they could slip one by the customer. Not having much choice regardless (I couldn’t even downgrade to the integrated Intel video if I wanted to), I went ahead with the repair.

Really the only bright spot of the experience was the surprisingly quick turnaround time for the return to depot repair service, which took less than a week, round trip, with both to and from shipping paid for by Dell. I’m now using the still functioning system to write this update. It’s held up okay so far and I’m crossing my fingers for the next year or so that I’ll use this laptop.

When everything is said and done, the main point here is that Dell is treating the situation as if everything were business as usual. Unfortunately with the defect, that’s simply not the case. I’d like to hear a confirmation that parts being used in new systems are defect-free. Otherwise, even with the warranty extension, the 8400M GS could still be a ticking time bomb in the M1330. I also would have liked to avoid the 4+ weeks without a laptop. I asked for a reasonably priced warranty extension due to the defect and was rejected. I asked for an in-warranty replacement of the stated defective GPU and was denied on the basis that it hadn’t yet showed symptoms. This would be acceptable under normal circumstances, but not when there’s an acknowledged manufacturing defect. Those 4 weeks without a working M1330 worked out to 8% of the ownership time of the laptop at that point. If a new car had to spend 8% of its first year with a mechanic, I’d be livid.

I’d like to see better communication between the different branches of Dell. While communications can be difficult in a large company, the disconnect between Direct2Dell, which is supposed to be an official voice of Dell, and technical support was simply unacceptable.

Finally, it’s time for Dell to stop hiding behind the problem. While there were numerous frantic bouts of finger pointing in NVIDIA’s general direction, the customer purchased the finished product from Dell. Dell needs to be responsible for the ups and downs of the product life cycle. I don’t go knocking on Synaptic’s door if the touch wheel on my iPod dies. I go to an Apple store. It’s the same thing here. One of the advantages of ordering a pre-built computer is that there’s a central point of contact for any problems. I expect that support system to be there when issues occur. Of course, it’s important to note that Dell isn’t the only manufacturer affected. HP and Apple have both acknowledged the issue as well.

The Dell XPS M1330 is a great laptop, unfortunately affected by the NVIDIA GPU defect. While I’d like to believe that the defective GPUs have worked their way out of inventory, there’s been no official confirmation either way. With the warranty extension well established at this point, you can be pretty certain that any issues will be resolved; however it doesn’t eliminate the fact that you could still run into hardware issues in the first place.

Dell XPS M1330 – The Cursed Laptop

To put it mildly, my Dell XPS M1330 experience hasn’t been the smoothest. Starting with a ridiculous 6 week wait for the laptop to receiving one that wobbled with an uneven base, the M1330 certainly had a troubled birth. Then a couple months later, the original 6 cell battery already had a large amount of wear after very little use. While certainly a nice laptop, I don’t know if it was worth the trouble. And now, as I type away with a dead M1330 beside me, I’m definitely regretting my purchase.

Ever since posting a comment regarding my 2-days-out-of-warranty dead M1330 on August 12th, I’ve been in sporadic contact with a Dell community liaison representative, who promised to get me in touch with someone who could resolve the issue. Seeing as the 1 year warranty extension on my laptop wasn’t unofficially announced at Direct2Dell until August 18th, I didn’t have much choice but to go along at that point.

However, after hearing nothing back after almost a week, I decided to inquire with the representative about getting in contact with a support team that could help. Asking whether I should go through normal channels or wait for someone specific to contact, I was informed to wait to see who was assigned to the case.

Fast forward another week and at this point I decided that I had put my laptop’s fate in another person’s hands for long enough and called Dell technical support myself. Unfortunately, that did also not solve the problem at all. The XPS technician I spoke to knew nothing about a warranty extension and referred me to out-of-warranty service. Fair enough, so when I mentioned that Dell had indeed extended the warranty on my machine, I was transferred to Customer Care to confirm. Upon getting a representative on the line there, I was told that I could only purchase a warranty extension if I was still covered under warranty, despite me making it very clear that I was after a specific warranty extension offered by Dell for the GPU issue. Seeking some information about the Dell warranty extension for my model, I was transferred again… To technical support. I hung up at this point.

Now I understand that this is NVIDIA’s part that failed, but I bought it as part of a complete package and support must go through Dell. NVIDIA may be to blame for the hardware issue, but I’m placing the terrible service and general lack of knowledge of the situation squarely on Dell. Not only have I been without my laptop for the past 2 weeks, no one, and I really mean no one has been able to help me, despite indications on Direct2Dell otherwise.

The GPU problem along with the terrible service makes me regret recommending and helping two friends purchase Dell XPS laptops over the past 6 months. I would feel partly responsible to those people if something were to go wrong with those systems.