Dell Inspiron 5576 (AMD) review [Update 7/29/2017]

[Update: after upgrading to mesa 17.1.3 there is a distinct increase in performance, I now get somewhat higher performance in Bioshock: Infinite on max settings than I previously did with shadows off.]

I am reviewing the AMD model of this chassis: FX-9830P CPU, RX460 GPU.

I chose this model for linux compatibility due to having an AMD GPU, and it was also available at a fairly steep discount ($680, down from 800$, this model regularly goes on sale). If more relevant information comes to light I will update the review accordingly.

Build quality

Build-wise it is pretty nice, nothing special which is to be expected at this price point, but not bad at all. The case does show some flex, but does not feel flimsy. The bottom panel comes off with one screw, revealing easy access to the HD, RAM, and an m.2 slot (don’t know if this is SATA only or if it will take a PCIe drive). The only complaints I have about the build are that the hinge only supports the screen at the edges, so pressure on the center could be bad. Also the left side of the keyboard is not perfectly seated, though this problem seems to be going away with use.

If you have read anything about this laptop, or its higher end sibling the 7567 you will have heard that the screen is crap. It is. As in; early 2000s laptop bad (but at a modern resolution). If you are buying this laptop you should be planning on replacing the screen, which will cost you anywhere from 60-100 dollars based on the prices I’ve seen. The AU Optronics B156HAN01.2 panel is known to work, and there are others, anything that works in the 7567 should also work in this model. The actual process of changing the screen is not too complicated if you are comfortable with opening up the machine in the first place. Its just a little nerve wracking the first time you do it (I haven’t done it with this one yet, so I can’t give specific instructions).

Cooling appears to be good, I haven’t noticed any overheating from the outside of the case, except for the one time the GPU was running and the intake vent was blocked. It has three different exhaust vents. However I have yet to get any temperature readings under load.

Battery life is decent for what I’m accustomed to: sleeping overnight only uses a few percent of the charge, medium usage gets 3-4 hours. Using the 460 results in one, *maybe* two hours. All within expected margins.

Linux Compatibility

I initially installed Manjaro Linux, but after getting tired of fiddling with interface issues I switched to Ubuntu MATE 17.04 (IIRC there may have been a few crashes / startup troubles as well). On Ubuntu the GPU switching worked out of the box using the DRI_PRIME=1 environment variable when launching a program, however performance was initially bad. After I installed the Padoka PPA drivers, performance improved significantly.

I have had many crashes while using the RX460 and switching to a different program while the computer is under load. I do not know the source of these problems, it may be my fault, it may be due to the GPU drivers which are under heavy development at the moment. For that reason I am not holding the computer to account for the problems, just mentioning that they exist.

This laptop has an Elantech trackpad, which as I recall worked fine under Manjaro, but only works for a few seconds after startup under Ubuntu. Make sure you have an alternate mouse.

Performance

Now we get to the major flaw of this computer: the CPU.

The FX-9830P by the benchmarks on notebookcheck.com is about in line with intel products like the i5-5200u. In terms of subjective performance my previous laptop used an i7-5500u, with this laptop I notice sluggishness a couple times a day that wasn’t there on the other machine. However I haven’t noticed any cases of one program slowing down others. This fits the usual wisdom that AMD is worse at single thread speed and better at multi-threaded workloads.

Unfortunately this has implications for the laptop’s selling point: an inexpensive gaming laptop. As part of testing the laptop among other reasons I binge-played through the Bioshock series after getting it. The first two games ran perfectly well, or as well as they can considering that they are known for bugs, they were running in wine, and Bioshock 2 is a terrible console port. No problems with the machine here.

Bioshock: Infinite on the other hand reveals that the CPU bottlenecks the GPU. Notebookcheck says that the desktop version of the RX460 should get about 55fps in BS:I on ultra settings 1920×1080 resolution. The mobile version is going to have slightly less performance from cooling and power limitations, though I believe it is the same silicon. Also the linux version of BS:I has about a 10% fps penalty, due to it being essentially a builtin specialized version of wine. I expected to get around 45fps.

In practice I got on average around 30 fps. In areas with few or no NPCs and static scenery it could reach mid-40s without difficulty, in a few instances even reaching above 60fps. In areas with many NPCs, or active scenery this could drop to as low as 20fps, sometimes with stuttering. Certain transitions (like the ones during the ending) caused stuttering as the game loaded a new area on the fly. Changing graphics settings including resolution did not effect this, with the only exception being dynamic shadows, which as I understand it are a CPU-bound feature.

At the request of reddit user /u/TiZ_EX1 I tested with Unigine, and got these results:

Uingine Heaven

Integrated GPU, low settings, 1920×1080
fps min/avg/max: 7.7/27.3/46.6, score: 688

Integrated GPU, ultra settings, 1920×1080
fps min/avg/max: 2.6/4.2/9.3, score: 106

RX 460, medium settings, 2xAA, no tessellation, 1920×1080
fps min/avg/max: 7.5/27.9/49.7, score: 703

RX 460, ultra settings, 1920×1080
fps min/avg/max: 5.9/14.9/29.3, score: 375

Uingine Valley

RX 460, medium settings, 2xAA, 1920×1080
fps min/avg/max: 11.2/23.8/43.7, score: 996

RX 460, ultra settings, 8xAA, 1280×800
fps min/avg/max: 11.0/21.0/37.4, score: 879

RX 460, ultra settings, 1920×1080
fps min/avg/max: 7.8/13.3/25.3, score: 555

During the tests I had other programs running in the background, but nothing stressful. This is typical usage for me.

Conclusion

Would I recommend this laptop?

If you don’t need single thread speed, and are willing to change the screen, and can get it on sale, and you are unwilling to wait a few months. Yes. But in the immortal words of Jayne Cobb: “I smell a lot of if coming off this plan”.

There is also the question of whether the crashes I’ve been getting are a side effect of the GPU drivers, or a deeper problem.

However if you don’t mind getting an NVIDIA GPU, the Intel/NVIDIA version of this computer would probably be better, or one of the many, many other gaming laptops with that combination.

If you want an AMD GPU and are willing to spend quite a bit more money there are a few laptops out now that have RX400 series GPUs.

If you are willing to wait for a few months then Ryzen based laptops should start appearing. While they will probably still be slower than an i7-7700hq, they will be much faster than the fx-9830p. Fast enough to not be bottlenecks.

So on balance, no, I would not recommend this laptop. Wait and get something better.

 

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