Archive for July, 2015

XPS 13 Developer Edition (2015): Rushed

July 29, 2015

Dell’s XPS 13 Developer Edition from 2015 has some nice hardware, but it was rushed to market. The machine isn’t usable as delivered. Either no QA testing was done, or an impossible deadline was imposed. I’m pretty sure it was a deadline. It took the managers a while to realize this is a problem, but they finally decided to act by no longer selling it until they fix it. Someone with basic Linux sysadmin skills and some time to install the various fixes can get it working quite well so long as they aren’t a fast typist; key repeats are only mostly fixed as of now. With the fixes, I find it can still fail to resume from suspend, but it doesn’t happen often and leaves nothing logged to indicate the problem. Overall, I like the machine more than I should.

I went for a model with the 1920×1080 display and no touchscreen because I don’t like glossy displays. I do like resolution, and this is plenty for the small size. I’ll be using font anti-aliasing for a while longer; probably could turn that off with the higher resolution model.

Dell shipped it in a cardboard shipping box that distinguished itself by including a plastic handle so it can be carried around like a briefcase. Inside that is the power supply and cable, and a black box. A very nice looking black box. Inside that is the XPS 13 with foam above and a plastic tray below that is very well fitted. Clearly a lot of though went into this, more than I have managed to convey. Underneath the computer is a folded paper on using MS Windows. I know the Developer Edition uses the same hardware as the XPS 13 with Windows pre-installed, but I didn’t expect it would include the same, but useless, documentation. Not a big deal, but maybe a harbinger.

When turned on, the XPS 13 quickly boots and brings up a legal document. Fun stuff. After a short delay, although long enough that I thought it would let me read the document, a video starts playing full-screen. The video cannot be stopped, and trying to switch away doesn’t work. Alt-tab brings up the window switching menu, but it doesn’t switch. I also couldn’t mute the audio or change the volume; I’m used to pressing two keys to get the functions like volume control, but only one was required. I eventually figured that out, but it did make the compulsory video rather annoying. What made it obnoxious was that it was just an animation of logos zooming about put to music that meant nothing.

With the video done, I got back to reading the legalese. I needed to scroll the text, so I got to use the mouse. It occasionally quit working for two seconds or so before accepting more input. There is a fix for this from Dell, but not on the part of their website for supporting purchased products. That is, if you were to purchase a XPS 13 Developer Edition, log into your account on Dell’s site, find the item you bought, and try to download fixes, then you won’t find them. The fixes are on Dell’s website, just not there. It is apparently reserved for Windows related fixes and system firmware, aka BIOS. A search engine is the best way to find the Developer Edition fixes. Once applied, the mouse no longer ignores input, but occasionally when trying to scroll with it, the system will respond like alt-tab is down and cycles through the windows super fast. I have no idea how to reproduce the issue. It hasn’t happened in the last couple of weeks, but I’m not sure it won’t happen again.

Soon after that, I got to try typing. It regularly repeated key inputs until another key was pressed. This didn’t take fast typing to observe. A BIOS update mostly corrects it, but people who type really fast report that the change only mitigates the problem. The issue affects Windows as well. Considering that keyboards are common computer hardware that have generally worked well for decades, and that Dell botched it in 2015, it is amazing the rest of the hardware came out as well as it did. The group within Dell that put Ubuntu Linux on the XPS 13 clearly had a hard time dealing with this hardware.

After this, it was time to update the installed software. The Ubuntu Software Updater ran until it got to grub, then seemed to hang on the update while still responding to user input. After waiting half an hour, I killed it and what seemed to be a related process that was eating processor time. Then I used apt-get from a shell and ran whatever command it told me to run when it complained about some problem. Since then, updates have worked correctly. I have to wonder if an uncorrected hung update would render the system unbootable.

Following that, the system needed updates for the graphics to resume reliably from suspend. I still have an occasional issue with it, but matters greatly improved. A remaining issue is how the screen brightness automatically adjusts: it darkens for a mostly dark frame, brightens for a bright frame, and offers no user configurability at all. I was worried this would be an issue for working with photographs, but the screen’s limited color gamut, at least compared to another display I have, has proven a much bigger issue. I just have to learn to avoid over saturating the color.

Other than that is an occasional crash for no apparent reason. I’ve had it happen shortly after booting the computer and starting to browse the web. It was occurring twice a week, but hasn’t happened in a couple weeks or so; maybe something was fixed.

The XPS 13 Developer Edition was in no condition to ship. Asus did a much better job with their Eee PC line; they might have been limited by their Linux distribution, but they worked fine right out of the box. Still, I’d rather not buy a computer with Windows pre-installed, and I like that Dell is going through some effort to support Linux, including getting patches into the mainline kernel to improve hardware support. I’m guessing the XPS 13 issues were unexpectedly time consuming to fix and management didn’t want to wait.

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The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, firmware updates, and auto-focus

July 27, 2015

Here is the quick summary: the firmware update for the Canon mount Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 (2014-8-22) did more than add support for the EOS C100, as claimed by Sigma. It also changed the lens ID from 137 to 150, and seems to have improved auto-focus accuracy, although not precision. Update: The auto-focus is as good as a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8.

I got one of Sigma’s 18-35mm f/1.8 lenses to go with a new Canon EOS 70D over a year ago. At a New Year’s event with a local band that includes a neighbor of mine, I took a bunch of pictures with this combination. The result seemed to work pretty well in spite of the low light at the outdoor venue. However, I have found that many images I have taken with the lens since then have not been in focus when using the optical viewfinder. This is a fairly common problem with Sigma lenses, although it doesn’t account for its early good performance. I’m guessing that at the New Year’s event most of the pictures had a deeper depth of field from focusing far enough away.

To deal with the problem, I got one of Sigma’s dock gizmos. I printed out a focus test page and made a table that I filled out with the adjustments needed. Every time I used the dock, the Sigma software asked about updating the lens firmware. I always refused because Sigma claims they just added support for a camera I don’t have. I don’t like to update things unless the update is actually beneficial. It is a way of limiting the chances of dealing with an update that breaks something.

Auto-focus calibration tool

Auto-focus calibration tool

The attempt at improving auto-focus didn’t go well. I got very contradictory results from two attempts, each starting from no adjustments, and neither improved the results. I figured the paper at a 45 degree angle was to blame, so I built a focus target out of Lego. When I cleared the adjustments on the lens before testing, I decided to update the lens firmware just to keep the software from incessantly asking about it. Every test I did with the Lego target suggested the lens was fine. Some tests with more common subjects suggest the accuracy is decent, but the precision still isn’t as good as with Canon lenses, so it is still a good idea to take several pictures and review them.

The software I use for keeping track of my photos, Digikam, did not at first identify this lens. Instead it called it lens 137; it has since been updated. I think the Canon protocol uses an 8-bit unsigned integer to identify the lens model, although now additional information like the focal length range is needed to identify a specific lens model. Since I updated the firmware, Digikam identifies the new images as being taken with lens 150.

I don’t know if this change from 137 to 150 is needed to make the lens work with the EOS C100. It is possible that the change will affect how the lens and camera work together. From what I’m seeing, it has a favorable effect on auto-focus performance with my EOS 70D. I don’t know why Sigma wouldn’t mention this, and I really don’t like the short list of changes common in the photographic industry for such updates. I have suspected that some changes are omitted from the public list of changes, and my experience with Sigma’s 18-35mm f/1.8 lens deepens that suspicion.


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