The superfast Ryzen-powered KDE Slimbook

I’ve had the privilege of testing and using the brand-new 15.6″ Ryzen-powered KDE Slimbook laptop for the past month. During that time, I worked with the Slimbook developers to perform QA and polish Plasma for this laptop. They’re awesome people who hosted our Plasma+Usability & Productivity Sprint last year at their offices. I’d like to share my impressions of their latest laptop.

Full disclosure: this laptop was sent to me for free for testing and development, so I have no financial skin in the game. They haven’t asked for it back yet, but I plan to either send it back, or purchase it, if I want to keep it. My configuration retails for 930€ (roughly $1,075), which is a steal for what you get. Regardless, what follows is what I believe to be an honest, unbiased review.

Performance and battery life

Here’s what I know you’re all waiting to hear about, so I’ll just start with it: performance with the 8-core/16-thread Ryzen 4800H CPU is unbelievable!

I can compile KWin in five minutes, compared to over 11 with my top-of-the-line Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga with a 10th generation Intel i7 processor. Everything feels smooth and fast. The power of this machine is awesome, and the Ryzen CPU makes it heaven for people who need to perform processor-heavy tasks on a regular basis.

Despite this, case temperatures remain cool and the fan remains off when the machine is not under heavy load. The thermal management is excellent–far better than on my ThinkPad.

Additionally, battery life is amazing. The machine idles at around 3 watts and goes up to only about 7 or 8 with average tasks that don’t involve compiling KWin. πŸ™‚ Because of this and the positively enormous 92 watt-hour battery in the 15.6″ model, I get about 12 hours or more of real-world, actual usage battery life.

OMG WTF

This level of battery life is just incredible. I’m honestly jealous, as my ThinkPad gets barely 4 hours with average use and never appreciably cools down. In practice, it means that I can work with the Slimbook from any room in my house without having to worry about where the cord is, while with my ThinkPad, I’m always tethered to the nearest plug and it’s always toasting my lap. The Slimbook is a clear winner for travel, obviously. There’s no compromise between power, battery life, and cool temperatures. It’s pretty impressive, really.

Case and ports

The KDE Slimbook’s understated magnesium case is lovely. Medium silver is my favorite case material/color as it strikes an excellent balance between not showing fingerprints and not showing dirt.

The whole machine is incredibly thin and light for a 15.6″ screen laptop: 17mm (0.67 inches) thick and weighing exactly 1.5kg (3.3 pounds). Despite this, it is nice and rigid, without much flex. It definitely feels durable enough to throw in a backpack and travel the world with.

I generally prefer small and light laptops and for this reason I usually go with 13.3″ and 14″ laptops–but the 15.6″ KDE Slimbook is actually barely larger: it fits into the same compartment in my travel backback that I slot my 14″ ThinkPad into.

The lid opens with one hand–no need to hold down the bottom. This is a nice touch.

The case has a good assortment of ports, including two goodies that are becoming increasingly rare on thin-and-light laptops: full-sized ethernet and HDMI ports! In addition you get 3 USB-A ports, one USB-C port, a MicroSD card reader, and obviously a headphone/microphone combo jack. The laptop supports WiFi6. It includes a fairly hefty 90-watt power adapter with a right-angle barrel jack plug which weights 0.49 kg, but the USB-C port supports charging just as you would expect.

Here’s what it looks like under the hood:

Access is super easy. You just remove nine philips head screws and then the bottom cover pops right off.

The RAM, wifi card, and SSD are all upgradable. My unit came with a single 8GB RAM stick in single-channel mode. I asked the SlimBook folks about this and they said that the 8GB configuration ships in single-channel mode like this, but all other configuration options (16GB, 32GB, and 64GB) will include two sticks and support dual-channel mode.

Despite the enormous battery, there is clearly room for an even bigger one if some of the internal components were rejiggered a bit. There’s a big empty space to the left of the right-most fan that’s just empty right now. Obviously you wouldn’t want to put a battery right next to the heat pipes, but potentially the speakers could be moved closer to the top of the case and made upwards-firing, which would leave enough room at the bottom of the case for the battery to be even wider.

Display

Overall the laptop’s screen is perfectly nice.

It’s a 1080p 15.6″ (197mm) matte non-touch panel with 100% sRGB coverage, the combination of which results in everything looking roughly the right size on screen. However I find myself wishing it were a 4K panel. The pixels are a bit big for my tastes and double the pixel density on a screen of this size would make everything so much more sharp and crisp looking, especially text. This would of course reduce the battery life a bit, but the machine’s cavernous 92 watt-hour battery would surely be able to handle it. I personally would be willing to go down to only 7-10 hours of battery life in exchange for a higher resolution screen, and I wish it were at least an option.

There is no visible ghosting, and the refresh rate is just fine.

The maximum brightness level is fine for indoor use, but a bit dim for outdoor use. It’s usable, but not as nice as if it got about 100 nits brighter, as my ThinkPad’s screen does.

Colors look good, but they do feel a little bit washed out and de-saturated to me, and the black level is not as dark as I would prefer. This is a function of the display surface being matte rather than glossy, and it’s why I personally prefer glossy screens. Yes, you get more reflections and glare with a glossy screen, but in exchange you get richer colors and darker blacks, and glare can be offset with a brighter backlight. Now, if you’re a fan of matte screens, obviously, this is all a feature, not a bug. πŸ™‚ However those of you who are willing to accept the trade-off of glossy screens are out of luck, as the laptop only comes with a matte screen.

There is no option for touch or 2-in-1 functionality, which should not be a problem as a 15.6″ touch laptop is kind of a silly idea in the first place.

Keyboard

Text and symbols on the final keyboard will be using the Noto Sans font, breeze icons for the function keys, and the Plasma logo for the Meta key! My unit did not have this yet, but the final shipping units will.

The keyboard is a bit of a mixed bag from my perspective.

The keys themselves have a satisfying feel and bottom out firmly. However the activation force could be a bit higher for my tastes, and the larger-than-average keys initially caused me to accidentally press adjacent keys more often that usual. I got used to it eventually though. Overall, the typing experience is pretty good, but not amazing–at least when compared to a ThinkPad keyboard! Keep in mind that I’m a keyboard snob who spends most of the day typing, so the KDE Slimbook’s keyboard would probably it would be considered excellent by most people. It’s certainly leagues better than those horrible low-travel “maglev” or “magic” keyboards plaguing certain high end laptops.

However the keyboard does have a real drawback: the fact that the keys themselves are silver with dark gray text. This makes the text a bit difficult to read under dim-but-not-dark lighting conditions. Black keys with white text would be far superior, and in fact the older KDE Slimbook laptop already had this setup! This version should do the same, so I find it a bit odd that it does not. Unfortunately the keyboard backlighting is dim and uneven, and often makes things worse:

I generally keep the keyboard backlight off except in very dark conditions where it actually helps. In comparison, the text on my ThinkPad’s keys are more visible, and the backlighting is more useful in more lighting conditions.

In the end it’s not a huge deal as my old HP Spectre was afflicted with the same problem and I lived with it for four years. Still, higher contrast would be better.

On the plus side, the keyboard layout is very good. You don’t have any bizarre departures from normalcy like putting the PrintScreen key between Alt and Ctrl and the Fn key in the bottom-left corner as on ThinkPads, or replacing the right Ctrl key with a fingerprint reader in in newer HP laptops. There’s none of that nonsense here! You get a conventional layout with a few real improvements, like the inverted T arrangement of the arrow keys, rather than having smooshed up and down arrow keys. And I really like the a column on the right side of the keyboard with Home, End, PageUp, and PageDown keys:

Having the Home and End keys close to the arrow keys makes efficient text processing a snap, and it’s easy to hit Ctrl+PageUp/PageDown with one hand for fast tab navigation. This is present on the 15.6″ model that I have, but not the 14″ model. It would be nice to have it on that one, too.

Unfortunately, the function keys are annoying. They behave as F keys (F1, F2, F3, etc.) when pressed; to access the secondary functionality, you have to hold down the Fn key in the corner, which makes it irritating to do things like quickly adjust the volume or the brightness. I wish these features were triggered by default without having to hold down the Fn key, which is how most laptops seem to have it set up these days, or at least they offer it with a function lock feature. Unfortunately there is no option for this with the KDE Slimbook.

Additionally, a minor annoyance concerns how to toggle keyboard backlight: there is one key to increase the keyboard backlight’s brightness, and another to decrease it (there are two brightness levels). This is unnecessary fiddly, and I wish there was a single brightness level and a single function key that toggled the keyboard backlight on and off, or cycled through the modes if there have to be multiple brightness levels.

As one final nitpick, I would prefer play/pause, back, and forward media keys, and a microphone mute key. However the lack of these is a pretty minor thing as it’s easy enough to assign them yourself them in the System Settings Global Shortcuts page.

Oh and one more really final thing, this time just for Americans: a US American layout is offered, complete with wide Enter and Shift keys. My unit has an ISO English keyboard layout, so that’s what the photos depict, but a US American layout is available. Not to worry. πŸ™‚

Touchpad

The touchpad is serviceable. Usable. But not amazing.

The physical feel is fine–not wonderful, but fine. It doesn’t have a glass surface, but the plastic surface is smooth, not rough, and will probably become smoother over time. So that’s good. However there is a small amount of play in the touchpad such that you can press it down a tiny bit and hear a low but audible click without it actually clicking. By contrast the touchpad on my Thinkpad is rock-solid, and does not move or emit any sound until you click it.

Tracking is fine, but the resolution could be a bit higher to make cursor movement feel smoother.

Overall there is room for improvement, but it’s not terrible. It’s notably not as good as my ThinkPad’s touchpad, but it’s usable. In practice I suspect that only very picky people or those who have used Apple hardware will be disappointed, while people who have only ever used typical crappy PC laptop touchpads and think all touchpads are terrible will just plug in a mouse like they always do. πŸ™‚

Speakers

The KDE Slimbook’s speakers are surprisingly good. I was honestly not expecting much from them as they are just two small downward-pointing stereo speakers, but they produce good sound with a high maximum volume and even a bit of bass. At the high end, the sound becomes a bit tinny, but they are just laptop speakers, after all. πŸ™‚ Listening to music on the SlimBook is pleasant and enjoyable overall. A very good showing in my opinion.

Camera

The KDE SlimBook’s camera is also surprisingly good! Its picture quality is adequate and the responsiveness is excellent. This is a welcome change from the camera in my ThinkPad, which is visibly laggy. Maybe this is a driver issue, but the SlimBook’s camera is just better to use.

Software integration

The KDE Slimbook ships with KDE Neon as the operating system, which runs like a top. Boot is very fast; pressing-power-button-to-login-screen is about 11 seconds. Everything works just like you would expect. The hardware’s features are all fully supported out of the box–except for the infrared facial recognition camera which we in KDE haven’t managed to add support for yet. So boo us! It’s an omission we’re hoping to address in the future. One final thing is that the volume up/down keys on my unit send double events, so pressing them increases or decreases the volume by 20%, not 10%. This is a firmware bug that the Slimbook folks are tracking down and hopefully it should be fixed soon. In the meantime, you can change the volume step value to 5% in the Audio Volume applet.

Otherwise the hardware-software integration Just Worksβ„’, exactly as it should.

In conclusion

There are very few compromises with the KDE Slimbook. You get a thin, light, rigid, and durable laptop with a nice screen, a powerful CPU, and crazy battery life. It’s nice to type on and its speakers sound good. The price is reasonable, starting at 930 € (roughly $1,075) for the 8GB RAM 250GB SSD configuration.

I have no reservations recommending this laptop. You should buy it. Heck, I feel like I should have bought it!

In some ways, this is the machine I should have gotten instead of the ThinkPad X1 Yoga I wound up with–had it been available a few months ago! It’s better than my former HP Spectre x360 laptop in virtually every way, and a straightforward upgrade. Had I not gone with the ThinkPad, I never would have been spoiled by the pleasures of a 4K screen and the amazing ThinkPad keyboard. True, it doesn’t have a touchscreen, but I could have kept my old laptop for testing touch support.

Verdict

The good:

  • Outrageously amazing performance
  • Incredible battery life
  • Runs cool and quiet
  • Keyboard has a sensible layout
  • Speakers are surprisingly good
  • Built-in camera is surprisingly good
  • Case is very thin and light despite large screen size; super portable
  • Includes full-sized HDMI and ethernet ports and WiFi 6
  • Very attractive machine overall
  • Great integration with KDE Plasma

The okay:

  • Screen is fine, but I would prefer at least an option for a brighter glossy 4K screen
  • Keyboard is fine but I would prefer smaller keys and firmer activation force
  • Touchpad is fine but the physical feel and resolution could be improved

The bad:

  • Keyboard keys are silver with dark gray lettering, so text is hard to distinguish in many lighting conditions, and backlighting often makes things worse
  • Function keys’ secondary functionality is annoying to access

But as you can see, those negatives are pretty minor in the scheme of things–mostly just little annoyances, nothing dealbreaking. It is an amazing computer overall. So what are you waiting for?! Go buy one!

Laptop update 3: fixed the audio jack input source

I found a way to get external microphones connected to the audio jack working for my laptop ! KDE contributor Debarpan Debnath pointed me to an Arch wiki page that helped me reach a solution:

  1. Open/create the file /etc/modprobe.d/alsa.conf and add the following on a new line: options snd_hda_intel index=0 model=dell-headset-multi
  2. go to System Settings > Audio > Advanced > and check the checkbox saying “Automatically switch all running streams when a new output becomes available” (this applies to inputs too)
  3. Reboot
  4. Mute the microphone using the keyboard’s microphone mute button

Now the audio jack microphone is detected and will be automatically switched to! This also fixes the issue I was having with the mute button not muting the right microphone; it was in fact the same problem as the external microphone itself not working. I have added this information to the relevant Kernel bug report.

Now my headset’s microphone is working as expected–too late for last week’s virtual Plasma sprint though. Oh well, my colleagues got to hear my kids playing/rioting a lot. πŸ™‚

There is now one remaining issue with the use of an external microphone: the two audio input sources are represented in the plasma-pa applet as different devices rather than as different ports of the same device, which would make the switch-on-connect module unnecessary and clean up the display in the Plasma audio applet. Apparently this is a PulseAudio issue in that the device’s hardware doesn’t fit cleanly into PulseAudio’s abstraction model! There are some PulseAudio patches to clean things up which I have reviewed. So for now, this is the best we can do:

Slow but consistent progress…

Laptop update 2

Here’s an update on the trials and tribulations encountered with my new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga gen 4.

Audio

I have submitted a merge request to clean up the audio display by filtering out inactive devices, which takes it from this:

… to this:

High DPI Scaling

The issue with plasma shadows not respecting the scale factor has been fixed.

Upstream (i.e. non-KDE) issues

I have filed Kernel and PulseAudio bugs to track the issues with audio and power management:

The saga continues…

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga: impressions, bugs, workarounds, and thoughts about the future

My new laptop arrived last week and I’ve been using it since then! Here are my impressions so far of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga (gen 4), and how it compares to my old laptop, a 2016 HP Spectre x360:

Hardware side

Case and ports

Top-notch quality. The laptop feels lightweight given its size, and it is very rigid. I had worried that the dark aluminum case would show fingerprints, but it’s not a problem. Port selection is generous: 2 USB-C+Thunderbolt+charging ports, 2 USB-A ports, an HDMI port, and a combo audio jack. Perfectly sufficient for my purposes, and better than the laptop it replaced! I do wish the USB-C ports were more snug, though. USB-C cables tend to wiggle around when plugged in. Also it would be nice if the lid could be opened with one hand, but that’s a very minor nitpick. Overall it is solidly better than my old laptop.

Screen

The Thinkpad X1 Yoga’s 4K screen is unbelievable. Color reproduction is excellent, there is no significant ghosting, and brightness goes high enough to use it outdoors without limitation. I turn the brightness down to 50% when using it indoors. It’s by far the best screen I’ve ever had the pleasure of using, and a huge upgrade over my old laptop!

Keyboard

The keyboard feel is perfect; typing on it is a dream! And its black keys contrast perfectly with the white backlighting to produce a good low-light typing experience too. However the layout of the keys presents a few annoyances that I’m having to get used to:

  • Left Fn and Ctrl keys are reversed compared to every other PC laptop keyboard. This can be changed in the BIOS, but then the labels don’t match the functionality, which is somehow even more confusing.
  • The PrintScreen key is located between the right Alt and Ctrl keys, and I find myself constantly pressing it when I mean to press the right Alt key, especially to hit Alt+Left to go back in Dolphin or Firefox. Seems like a weird place to put it.
  • The Home and End Keys are located up at the top of the keyboard, away from the arrow keys. I find myself wishing they were in a column at the right side of the keyboard as on my old laptop, where they were easier to press without changing the positioning of my right hand which often hovers around the arrows.
  • There are no dedicated media playback keys. This is not a major issue as I have mapped Alt+Ctrl left/right/space to those functions in Plasma’s shortcuts KCM. Still, I do miss the dedicated keys.
  • Toggling the keyboard backlight is done with Fn+Space, rather than a dedicated key. Also the multi-level brightness feature seems kind of superfluous. Simple on/off modes would be better IMO. Not really a big deal though.

Overall, compared to my old HP Spectre x360 laptop, I would say I prefer the typing feel and black key color of the Lenovo’s keyboard, but prefer the key layout of the HP’s keyboard.

Touchpad

The touchpad is perfect. It’s just the right size: not too big, and not too small. The glass-covered surface makes it a pleasure to use. With the Libinput driver, thumb and palm rejection are perfect, enabling my favorite way of using a touchpad: with my right thumb lazily resting at the bottom as if there were a physical button there. I click with the thumb and use the rest of my fingers to move the cursor or perform scrolling gestures. This is how I got used to using Mac touchpads back when I was an Apple user and the Lenovo’s hardware is good enough to replicate that. It’s not quite Mac quality, but I’d say the experience is 90% there. It’s really, really good, and a huge upgrade from my old laptop whose trackpad was a bit worse in almost every way.

Speakers

The speakers sounded great in Windows during my initial test so I know that the hardware is quite capable. However, on Linux the sound is not so good, and more work is needed on the driver side. So at the moment, the speakers are a disappointment and a regression compared to my old laptop, but hopefully improved audio drivers will make them better in the future.

Camera

The camera is horrible, which is an unwelcome surprise for this very expensive computer. Its resolution is a very low 720p, and there is noticeable lag/latency, which makes video conferencing annoying for other people as my mouth does not match my words. This is a significant regression compared to my old laptop, which had a 1080p camera with no appreciable lag. I didn’t test the camera in Windows before installing openSUSE Tumbleweed, so I don’t know if the lag is a hardware limitation or a driver bug.

Software side

On the software side, things have not been as good.

Installing openSUSE Tumbleweed was not too big of a hassle, given that I’ve done this a number of times before. I had to disable secure boot, which entailed a trip to the BIOS and bricking Windows. After installation, a number of local workarounds were required to make things function, in particular the audio, which still does not seem to be working properly. Just check out the relevant Arch Wiki pages! That’s a lot of stuff that you need to fix manually. After the OS was installed, I started to run into other issues:

Speakers and sound

Initially, the speakers were not detected at all. The relevant Arch Wiki page was very helpful here: installing the sof-firmware package fixed that, but then the audio quality was horrible. Compiling PulseAudio from source to get version 14 (which is not released yet) made it better, but still not as good as it was on Windows. I have filed a bug on PulseAudio as it seems like more work is needed: https://gitlab.freedesktop.org/pulseaudio/pulseaudio/-/issues/914

Also, there are pointless devices corresponding to the three HDMI/DisplayPort audio outputs, which should not be shown unless they’re actually in use. This affects both the Plasma audio applet as well as the Pavucontrol app:

It’s not totally clear to me whose fault this is, so I filed a bug on PulseAudio and also one on plasma-pa. We may be able to improve the display in Plasma at least, and I’m working on a merge request.

Power management

Battery life is poor. This laptop has a 51 watt-hour battery (up from 42 Wh on my previous laptop), but draws between 8 and 10 watts at idle. When actually using the machine, I’m only getting about 4 hours of battery life! Reviewers said that it got at least 7 hours in Windows, so this is pretty terrible. powertop reports that the display backlight uses 10 watts of power at full brightness, 5 watts when at its lowest level, and 4 watts when turned off entirely! And the bottom of the case is always warm, so perhaps the CPU is also not idling enough. So I suspect that there are some performance and power management bugs somewhere, as this level of power consumption does not seem expected, even with the 4K screen. On the plus side, at least the laptop charges very quickly with the included 65W charger. :/ I have not filed any bugs on this particular set of issues yet as I’m not suite sure where to start.

Touchscreen

Out of the box, the touchscreen did not work properly on X11 with Plasma, KDE apps, and other Qt apps–but it did work with GNOME and Electron apps! After filing a bug report on Qt, I discovered that switching to the libinput driver fixes the issue! To do this, you can uninstall the xf86-input-wacom package (which will also remove the Wacom page in System Settings, which may be undesirable if you’re using it) or alternatively you can apply the following patch to /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/70-wacom.conf:

diff -rubd /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/70-wacom.conf.orig /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/70-wacom.conf
--- /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/70-wacom.conf.orig       2020-06-08 08:08:01.576986784 -0600
+++ /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/70-wacom.conf    2020-06-08 08:07:04.624218429 -0600
@@ -19,7 +19,7 @@
         MatchUSBID "056a:*"
         MatchDevicePath "/dev/input/event*"
         MatchIsTouchscreen "true"
-        Driver "wacom"
+        Driver "libinput"
 EndSection
 
 Section "InputClass"
@@ -43,7 +43,7 @@
        MatchProduct "Wacom|WACOM|PTK-540WL|ISD-V4"
        MatchDevicePath "/dev/input/event*"
        MatchIsTouchscreen "true"
-        Driver "wacom"
+        Driver "libinput"
 EndSection
 
 Section "InputClass"

Ubuntu has already made a similar change to their packaging and I filed a bug report for openSUSE as well: https://bugzilla.opensuse.org/show_bug.cgi?id=1172669.

Next up, touch scrolling did not work in Firefox. I already knew how to fix this, and I’ll teach you too:

  1. Add MOZ_USE_XINPUT2=1 to the /etc/environment file. This turns on touchscreen scrolling and enables pixel-by-pixel touchpad scrolling.
  2. Doing the above triggers a nasty bug that breaks scrolling when a notification appears, but you can work around that as follows: Open System Settings > Window Management > Window Behavior > Uncheck “Click raises active window”.

Obviously we should just fix the KWin bug that makes this workaround necessary. We eventually will!

After this, touch input works well, especially for GTK apps. We have a lot of work to do to make our own KDE apps work as well with a touchscreen as GTK apps do on average.

Broken Flatpak apps

I briefly encountered an issue where none of my Flatpak apps would launch:

$ flatpak run com.discordapp.Discord
Gtk-Message: 07:05:34.667: Failed to load module "unity-gtk-module"
Gtk-Message: 07:05:34.667: Failed to load module "canberra-gtk-module"
No protocol specified

(Discord:4): Gtk-WARNING **: 07:05:34.667: cannot open display: :99.0
[fake-sandbox: zypak-sandbox] No data could be read (host died?)
[fake-sandbox: zypak-sandbox] Quitting Zygote...

This utterly bizarre issue turned out to have been caused by me setting the computer’s hostname incorrectly, using sudo hostname <new hostname> instead of sudo hostnamectl set-hostname <new hostname> which triggers an SDDM bug which is fixed by the following open pull request: https://github.com/sddm/sddm/pull/1230. Hopefully the SDDM bug will be fixed soon, and in any event I should just add a GUI method of setting the computer’s hostname which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. See https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=259285.

Scaling issues in Plasma

On X11, Plasma did not auto-detect that I was using a 4K screen, so I had to manually change the scale in the KScreen KCM. Then I had to manually sync that to SDDM in the SDDM KCM to make the login screen not look tiny. It would be nice if the appropriate scale factor would be autodetected, at least for 4k screens. I have filed https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=422552. Happily, this already works out of the box on Wayland! So go Wayland.

In addition, once I did set a 200% scale factor, all the icons in Plasma looked tiny, making everything hideous. This is https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=356446, and I worked around it by setting PLASMA_USE_QT_SCALING=1 in the environment, which fixes the issue and makes Plasma look fantastic at 200% scaling. However it also makes the minimize animation zoom into the wrong location. Boooo! As before, all this stuff works out-of-the-box on Wayland. Hmm…

Once I had the scale properly set, I noticed that various UI elements were not automatically scaled:

The first three actually work fine on Wayland! So I’m getting the sense that I should just bite the bullet and use Wayland, since the high DPI behavior is much better.

Next, I incrased the scale to 250% to make everything a bit bigger, and then various icons that are supposed to be monochrome became colorful. This is a minor issue, but I’ve submitted a patch to fix it: https://invent.kde.org/frameworks/breeze-icons/-/merge_requests/3

Anyway, other than these issues, scaling works great. We’re pretty close, I think.

Conclusion and the future

I wish I could say that it’s been a pleasant, trouble-free experience and that I’m loving my new computer. In truth, getting the ThinkPad X1 Yoga to function well enough to comfortably write this post took several frustrating days of poring over documentation, filing bug reports, tweaking config files, and altering kernel parameters. On top of that, it’s still not quite there yet and is worse than my old laptop in several ways despite costing twice as much money. The high DPI scaling issues are our fault in KDE, and we need to do better, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The problems run throughout the entire software stack. Simply put, this is not acceptable in 2020. We need to up our game of partnering with hardware makers to ship FOSS operating systems by default. Everything I’m going through with this computer is the kind of problem that should be caught by paid Linux QA teams so that it can be fixed before the hardware is released to customers.

I continue to believe that we will get nowhere until more hardware comes with a Linux-based OS pre-installed. People shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of nonsense! My wife has been happily using KDE Neon on her laptop for two years, but I had to do the initial installation. Normal people want their computers to just work, not endlessly fiddle around with settings to make things functional that should have been so out of the box in the first place.

Part of me wishes I had instead gone with the SlimBook Pro X 15 or the System76 Lemur Pro, which were strong contenders in my search. The SlimBook laptop can even be pre-installed with Plasma-bearing operating systems like KDE Neon and Kubuntu, and I’m sure the System76 folks would have done likewise had I asked nicely enough. Everything would have worked perfectly out of the box, because SlimBook and System76 have QA teams paid to do what I’ve been doing myself for the ThinkPad X1 Yoga. Alas those laptops didn’t have some of what I was looking for in the hardware department (principally touchscreens and higher quality speakers), but perhaps I was underestimating the importance of integration into a cohesive product. It certainly stands in stark relief right now.

I’m sure things will get better over time. Kernel fixes will accumulate, and the bug reports I’ve filed will start to get fixed. I may even fix some of them myself. But this state of affairs is simply not acceptable if we ever want to grow our audience beyond the ranks of tech nerds. No normal person spends over than a thousand dollars on a laptop for real productive purposes that will have to become an extended science experiment before it works properly. We need more hardware sold with our software pre-installed, period. That’s the next frontier, and I strongly believe that we need to make it our end goal for everything we do.

Laptop update

Thanks to the KDE community, I’ve finally chosen and ordered a new laptop: a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga. People heavily recommended the X1 Carbon, which is essentially the same computer except less touch-focused. That led me to the Yoga which seems to fit the bill perfectly: in addition to the necessary touchscreen, according to reviews it has otherwise excellent screen characteristics, a perfect keyboard, great speakers, and a great trackpad. I also like the look and probable durability of the aluminum case. Though it’s not a Ryzen 4000-series laptop, CPU performance is still three times better than my current laptop, so I’m not complaining. Mine arrives in three weeks. Thanks again everyone!

Help me choose a new laptop

I’ve been doing all my development work on a late 2016 HP Spectre x360 for the past few years. Though a fantastic machine overall, it’s starting to fall apart: the screen backlight has partially burned out, the battery barely holds a charge anymore, and the trackpad sends a double or triple click when I press down on it. This thing has been worked hard and dragged all over the country and the world, so it feels like the time is coming for a replacement.

So I did what a typical OCD nerd does for a major purchase: I made a spreadsheet with all reasonable options and gave myself terrible analysis paralysis! πŸ™‚

Analysis paralysis in action

For my research, I found two resources in particular to be invaluable: notebookcheck.com for its exhaustive long-form technical reviews, and Lisa Gade’s MobileTechReview YouTube channel for focusing on each machine’s overall user experience.

After nearly a month, I made my decision: the late 2019 Dell XPS 13 with a 6-core CPU which I figured would really speed up my code compile times, and the rest of the laptop seemed super high quality. Unfortunately, after it arrived I found that I did not like the feel of the keyboard: the key activation force was quite mushy, and the travel was low. But even worse, the display suffered from unbelievably terrible ghosting–which I had been warned about in reviews, but foolishly ignored–and it emitted an awful coil whine when in use. I sent it back. What a nuisance!

So I moved on to the second laptop in my list: the early 2020 HP Envy 13. I ignored reviews complaining about the trackpad surface not having a glass coating, which again was stupid: I didn’t like the feel at all of the rough plastic texture. But the rest of the laptop was solid, and the trackpad surface wasn’t a fatal flaw as these tend to smooth out over time in my experience. I decided to keep it. Not having yet wiped the disk to install openSUSE Tumbleweed (my current OS of choice), I performed the initial set of Windows updates just in case there were any firmware updates. It completed and I rebooted… and then the laptop became a brick! It was stuck in a half-on-half-off state, with the power LED illuminated, but no activity. The laptop could neither be turned on, nor fully powered down. I returned that one too.

So now I’m kind of feeling stuck. Out of two well-researched laptops, I’ve gotten two lemons, and I’m feeling like it’s time to reach out to the wider KDE community for assistance.

I need your help to find a good laptop!

What I’d like

This will be my one and only computer, used for both work/KDE development and also my personal stuff, so like Mary Poppins, I need for it to be practically perfect in every way (that’s not too much to ask, is it!?):

First, it needs perfect or near-perfect Linux compatibility; there’s no point in buying great hardware if it doesn’t work with your software.

Next, the built-in input and output devices that I’m going to actually use the computer with must be perfect:

  • Perfect keyboard: durable; firm key activation force; at least 1.3mm of travel, preferably more; firm bottoming-out feel; not too noisy; black keycaps that are not too large, with white lettering and backlighting; dedicated Home, End, PageUp, and PageDown keys for faster text editing; ideally dedicated media play/pause, forwards, and backwards keys. The keyboard is very important as I’m typing all day.
  • Perfect screen: 400+ nits of brightness; good refresh rates/no visible ghosting; close to 100% sRGB coverage; good color reproduction; must have touch functionality (I need to be able to test for touch friendliness with my and other people’s patches); 16:10 or taller aspect ratio preferred; full HD resolution is preferred, but 4K is acceptable. Size-wise, I like 13.3″ – 14″ screen sizes, but would consider a 15-incher if the case isn’t so big that it impedes portability in a backpack (more on that later).
  • Perfect trackpad: smooth, ideally glass-covered surface; aspect ratio matches that of the screen; button is durable and will last a long time; uses Microsoft Precision drivers on Windows (sign of good-quality hardware).
  • Excellent speakers: Reasonably loud, forward/upward firing, preferably four, ideally with some woofers for at least a bit of base.

Next, it needs to be powerful. I want 16 GB of RAM with excellent multi-core CPU performance to improve my code compilation times. This means good thermal management too, so that that performance can be maintained and the machine doesn’t damage its battery or other internal components with excessive heat, which I suspect happened with my current machine.

Also, I need for it to not have an NVIDIA GPU. I have no graphical needs beyond what an integrated GPU can accomplish, and don’t want to deal with Plasma-on-NVIDIA drama. Sorry, NVIDIA.

The machine needs to have a solid and durable metal case, as I will be traveling domestically and internationally with it multiple times a year (once the world beats COVID-19, that is). For similar reasons, it should be reasonably lightweight and get very good practical battery life. Extreme thinness is not required, but excessive thickness would be nice to avoid, as I like to travel to Europe for work events and conferences with only a backpack and no checked or hand luggage. An excessively thick laptop takes up space needed for socks and underwear (unless I’m going to Germany, in which case I wash them in my hotel room and dry them on the towel warmer! TMI… sorry-not-sorry!).

Finally, I want the laptop to not look stupid. No bling-bling effects, no gaudy blue and gold two-tone color effects, no flashing multicolored lights, no fake (or real) wood, no trying to look like an expensive watch or a traffic accident, no sharp chiseled edges–none of that attention-getting crap! Just a basic boring matte silver or gray metal case. Ideally it will not be a fingerprint magnet.

Within reason, price is not a practical consideration as this is a business expense for me and I am comfortable spending big bucks on something that provides my livelihood which I expect to keep for several years.

So given these conditions, what do people recommend? Help me, KDE community, you’re my only hope!