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Meet The Affordable Challenger To Dell’s XPS 13

By now it’s no secret that Dell’s XPS 13 9370 is my daily driver. It’s the laptop that carried me into my Linux journey and has remained a reliable companion since. Recently, however, an unexpected challenger has appeared on my radar. Star Labs (not to be confused with the fictional research facility which inadvertently created Metahumans), a UK-based PC company specializing in Linux laptops, recently rolled out the Star LabTop Mk III.

Star LabTop Mk III

Star Labs Systems

It’s worth paying attention to.

This is not to say the LabTop Mk III is an outright better laptop than the XPS 13, but it’s certainly putting up a strong fight — especially given the price.

Meet The Challenger

“To the outside world, the Star LabTop Mk III is just an ordinary Linux laptop, but secretly, it is one of the fastest ultrabooks available,” proclaims Star Labs on the corresponding product page. Well, that’s worth putting to the test isn’t it?

Here’s what the machine is packing:

  • Intel Core i7-8550U 1.8GHz / 4.0GHz Turbo Boost quad-core CPU (the same processor in the XPS 13 9370)
  • 8GB of 2400MHz LPDDR4 memory (XPS 13 9370 has 8GB of 1866MHz memory) or 16GB of 2133MHz memory
  • 400GB Over-Provisioned PCIe SSD
  • 13-inch IPS display (1080p, and stylistically it can’t compete with Dell’s InfinityEdge display)
  • 1x USB Type C 3.0 (Power delivery only)
  • 2x USB 3.0
  • 1x HDMI Out
  • 1x Micro SD card reader
  • Chassis: Type II Black anodized aluminum
  • Weight: 2.65 pounds (Dell’s XPs 13 9370 is 2.67 pounds)
  • OS: Ubuntu 19.04, Ubuntu 18.04.2 LTS or Linux Minte 19.1
  • Has an actual Super key (Come on Dell, add this to the Developer Edition!)

For some of you, the meaningful differences here are the inclusion of a full-size HDMI out and standard USB 3.0 ports. No adapters needed with the Star LabTop. It also has faster memory, although it’s sadly capped at 8GB. I sincerely hope Star Labs doubles that with the Mk IV.

There’s also no touchscreen option, and resolution for the IGZO display is 1920 x 1080. No, it’s not as sexy as the XPS 13. Very few laptop displays are. Another caveat is that while Star Labs ships worldwide, they only provide a UK keyboard layout.

So what does it cost? The Star LabTop has one configuration available for £847.00, or about $1085. To buy a comparable XPS 13 (equivalent CPU, 8GB of RAM, 1080p non-touchscreen and only 256GB of SSD storage) you’ll need to throw down at least $1284. Ok, so the value proposition is there (especially with its variety of ports), but how does this underdog laptop perform?

To find out, I put both machines through a battery of benchmarks using the Phoronix Test Suite and a clean, updated install of Ubuntu 19.04. I also switched on CPU temperature and CPU frequency monitoring.

Let’s start with that Star Drive disk.

The Over-Provisioned Star Drive: Yea, It’s Fast

The Star Drive: Yep, it’s fast

Jason Evangelho

StarLabs really hypes up the storage solution in this machine, and now I see why! It’s over-provisioned, meaning the inclusion of extra capacity reserved by the SSD controller to manage read and write tasks. The purpose is increased performance and IOPS (input/output operations per second). Well, mission accomplished. The Star LabTop wins basically every disk benchmark I threw at it.

Start-up time: Gnome Terminal

Jason Evangelho

Start-up time: LibreOffice Writer

Jason Evangelho

fs-mark 1000 files, 1MB size

Jason Evangelho

fs-mark: 4 threads

Jason Evangelho

fs-mark: 4000 files with 32 sub-directories

Jason Evangelho

Whether it’s application start-up times or intensive disk usage, there’s no contest here. Star Labs’ storage solution rocks and it’s blazing fast.

I also utilized GNOME Disk’s built-in benchmarking tool to measure read speeds while accessing 1000 file samples of 100MB each. The Dell XPS 13 9370 clocked in at 2.7GB/s. The Star Labs Mk III crossed the finish line at 2.8GB/s.

CPU Battle: Core i7-8550U

Next up, a head-to-head CPU battle. How does Intel’s Core i7-8550U fare in each laptop? Let’s add CPU temps and CPU frequency to the mix.

Timed Linux Kernel Compilation

Jason Evangelho

Timed Linux Kernel Compilation: CPU Frequency

Jason Evangelho

Timed Linux Kernel Compilation: CPU Temps

Jason Evangelho

Spoiler alert: the Star LabTop also wins all 3 CPU tests. But with the CPU temperature and frequency monitoring, it’s easy to see that that the Core i7-8550U is hitting its advertised 4.0GHZ Boost clock, and staying 11 degrees cooler in the process. Let’s keep going.

FLAC encoding

Jason Evangelho

FLAC encoding: CPU frequency

Jason Evangelho

FLAC encoding: CPU Temp

Jason Evangelho

There’s another clue. Note the fluctuations in CPU temperature with the Star LabTop versus the XPS 13 in this FLAC encoding test. Listening to the two laptops under load side-by-side leads me to believe that Star Labs has implemented a much more aggressive fan curve, and seeing the CPU temps here verifies that. It frequently spins up and down to varying degrees, while the XPS 13 has less intrusive operating noise. Then again, it’s getting much hotter and not performing quite as well.

Star Labs tells me there’s also a “power save” mode in the BIOS, and with version 3.08 they’ll introduce a “Balanced” mode. Once that releases it’ll be worth revisiting this benchmark suite to compare all 3 modes.

Blender (BMW): CPU only

Jason Evangelho

Blender: CPU frequency

Jason Evangelho

Blender: CPU temp

Jason Evangelho

Finally, in the Blender test, we see more or less the same behavior. In certain workloads, the Star LabTop isn’t even working the Intel CPU quite as hard. Even when it does hit peak clocks, it’s staying cooler. Is it noisier? Yes. But I’m seriously impressed with the CPU and disk performance so far.

I have more benchmarks in the pipeline, including adding the Purism Librem 15 v4 into the mix. I’ll have those for you and much more in my upcoming full review of the Star LabTop Mk III.

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