Dell XPS 13 with Ubuntu: wrong wireless chipset

The Windows Tax problem and free software

At this point, you must have figured this out. I am a free software advocate. I think it’s both painful and wrong when I’m not in control at all of the software that I use on my computers.

As many users of GNU/Linux systems know, it’s incredibly difficult to buy a decent laptop without being forced into buying Microsoft Windows, even if you don’t want to use it. This is what we usually refer to as “the Windows tax.” This has two consequences:

  • we have to pay indirectly for a Microsoft Windows license fee through the manufacturer, and we do not even know how much it really costs us,

  • we get hardware that may or may not be supported by the Linux kernel out-of-the-box, which results in a waste of time in settings adjustment (or worse).

If you’re looking for information on where to get hardware free of pre-installed proprietary software, FSFE volunteers maintain a list of Hardware Vendors.

If you already bought a machine with Windows and want to get your money back, there’s also tons of information on how to get a Windows Tax Refund (make sure to look at information specific to your country).

But getting your money back does not fully fix the problem and takes a lot of time (sometimes met with deception). Indeed, it does not resolve the hardware support issue in any way because it does not impact the manufacturers’ sale, and it sure does not help to make demand of GNU/Linux grow on the market of pre-installed laptops.

So obviously, one of the best strategy is to reward manufacturers that meet our demands and supply laptops with GNU/Linux pre-installed and good hardware support. By good hardware support, I mean that it should work without requiring non-free software.

And here comes the Dell XPS 13.

Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu: wireless issues with Qualcomm Atheros AR9462

Dell logo

Dell has launched a project to provide developers with a good laptop. I am not really a developer in my day-to-day life, but I could certainly enjoy a good laptop as well ☺

Especially, the XPS 13 comes with Ubuntu. I have been told by Otto Kekäläinen (FSFE head in Finland!) there’s even a custom linux kernel and all that. I could have a look at his XPS 13 while in Berlin last month and it looked amazing.

So I decided to get one, as I was looking to replace the Thinkpad Edge that has been around me for the last 3 years (which I have not been very pleased with because of several hardware issues and not so helpful Lenovo customer relations). The only thing that was holding me on from buying the XPS 13 was the price. It’s 50% more expensive than the budget I usually put into a laptop.

About two weeks ago, I made up my mind and bought one. I got my hands on it today. And surprise! the wireless connection drops off momentarily here and then, something like every 10 minutes. And when I deactivate bluetooth using the Ubuntu menu in the top-right hand corner, the wifi drops as well (and it’s super strange to get it back, I have not found the exact pattern that works).

At this point, I was kind of surprised. But well, I go on with the setup process, hoping that the wireless connectivity does not drop too often, because the laptop is too thin to have an RJ45 port as backup!

One thing that did not go well during the setup process, even though Ubuntu asked me for the keyboard layout, it sticked to QWERTY afterwards, making it quite painful to enter passwords and stuff.

After the setup (which went very quickly), I decided to upgrade everything. Maybe that’ll solve it… It didn’t. Of course.

So I opened the terminal, and

$ lspci
Network controller: Atheros Communications Inc. AR9462 Wireless Network Adapter

Why. Oh, why Dell? Why are you doing this to me? The original page where I bought the laptop from states quite clearly:

Intel® Centrino® Advanced-N 6230 802.11 a/g/n

Having a quick look around and searching, I see that I’m not the only one who got a different wireless chipset than the one announced by Dell. I wouldn’t care so much if it were working out-of-the-box after updating. But it doesn’t!

And No, I don’t want to fix it myself. The reason why I’m buying a pre-installed GNU/Linux computer in the first place is to make sure everything is perfectly supported!

I’m now trying to get mine exchanged for the Intel Centrino wireless card… But of course, tomorrow is a holiday.

Well, maybe it’s for the best. I am not supposed to tweak my laptop these days: the bar exam orals are approaching!

comment 1

I bought mine in June on the same French Dell shop and I have the intel chip. So it is not a problem of French shop !

I hope you will be able to solve the issue, I would be very interested to get your feed back on how it ends up.

Good Luck !

Comment by Cryptie
Dell and client care

Hey Cryptie! Yes, Emma told me that you had the XPS-13. Are you happy with it BTW?

I know it's not a problem specific to France, friends in Finland reported to me that the recent purchases of XPS-13 also had the same Qualcomm wireless chipset. However, Dell sites (US, France and Finland) still advertise and sell the Intel chip (there are no mentions of the Qualcomm chip anywhere AFAICS).

The whole problem is the complete un-professionalism that Dell has demonstrated in trying to deal with this matter! It's been more than a week now, and I still haven't got an answer from them: I still don't know if they even sell the intel chip any more! It looks like the sales department over there don't even know what they're selling!

They're claiming that I bought the Qualcomm despite evidence to the contrary that the only option on the website is Intel (but maybe they can't even access their own website…). It's a complete waste of time and quite frankly this lack of professionalism is baffling. Am I talking to a computer manufacturer here?

Comment by hugo
comment 3

I was afraid that it would be like that. When I first had the wifi issue with the intel chip (which this on is patched) I tried to contact them. I end up on the technical support page where they asked me to run a .exe to pre-check my computer ^^' As the next update fixed my issue I didn't think about it until I saw your post.

For your question about whether they still sell the intel version, you may ask on one of our list, you may either find a counter example or find more people to make a join request (?). I feel like we all fell in love in it (or in the idea of no M$ tax ^^') and end up buying it whenever we need a new laptop ;-)

By the way, my general point of view is that it works quite well and I'm happy.

But a few details disappoint me : 1) since a couple of week, ubuntu is not as stable as on my others devices. All my devices are on the 12.04 as I refuse to switch until they remove their spyware in the dash. But on my others PCs I nearly never have ubuntu error and it begins to happens once a week on this one.

Comment by Cryptie
comment 4

2) some time one of the ctrl/fn/alt key stays stuck and make me do stupid things... (like just now : I wanted to make one post with all and, I don't know how, my post has been sent before I ended it, grrr) 3) there is a strange managing of audio through accounts. I have two accounts + the invited one on mine. Whenever I have a video waiting or music on one account and I switch to another, the audio do not work in the second one.

All these are not important issues, but it is a bit annoying for a pc sold with ubuntu ^^'

This slowly make me think about switching to Debian on this one but as I have (for the first time of my life!) a warranty also on the OS and that I have always being either on ubuntu or on Trisquel... I just postponed the decision for now, may be if it becomes really unstable... I would have more easily switch to Trisquel but the wifi chip needs the non free kernel :/

tl;dr I'm quite happy but it is not perfect.

I hope everything will end up well for your's. ^^ Have a nice day

Comment by Cryptie
Non-free kernel?

I thought it could run with entirely free software! What about the sputnik kernel? Are you saying there are also issues with the intel wireless chip?

I can’t believe it!

(And yes, I intend to run Debian on it in the future, as soon as there's GNOME 3.10 support)

Comment by hugo

Sputnik is based on the classical linux kernel not on the 100% free one...

When I bought my laptop, I looked at the Trisquel forum to search if someone already tried it it and I discovered this post :

So I searched a bit and it looks like that the intel chips uses a free driver but needs some non free firmware :

So you will be able to install Debian but only with the non free installer. I'm sure you are as disappointed as I was when I discovered it. :/

Each time I think Dell did the right thing, they find a way to deceive me...

Comment by Cryptie

Thanks for the info! The debian wiki shows that the touchpad may also need the dell kernel… It’s amazing that an OEM can ship something that requires so much configuration from the user!

If the new wireless chip can be used with free software only, it’s great. But so far my experience was that it’s not working properly… Well, I guess I'll try to fix the issue myself.

I'm left to wonder why the hell I’m buying a laptop with a GNU Linux distro preinstalled if I'm left having to spend as much time as with any machine to make it work the way it should with GNU Linux. What are Dell and Canonical doing?!

Comment by hugo
as you say !

It is always better to share information : to make them free ^^

About Dell and Canonical, I am in the same state : I really don't know what they are doing/thinking ... I still hope they will see the light soon ;-)

Good luck for all ^^

Comment by Cryptie