Review: Dell XPS 13

Introduction and design

If you’re looking to purchase a powerful, portable and attractive laptop, the $799 (£849, AU$1,799) Dell XPS 13 is a top contender. The notebook features a sleek design, lightweight chassis and a revolutionary display that makes it the smallest 13-inch Ultrabook in its class.

In terms of size, this little boxer is actually closer to an 11-inch ultraportable, but it’s a powerhouse outfitted with an Intel Core i7 Skylake processor and a fast PCIe solid-state drive (SSD).

The XPS 13 may have won the title of best laptop and Ultrabook last year, several worthy competitors have risen to challenge the claim. Lenovo has perfected its 2-in-1 laptop, the $1,199 (£1,449, AU$2,199) Lenovo Yoga 900, and equipped it with enough power to rival Dell’s champion. Likewise, Apple has given the $999 (£849, AU$1,549) 13-inch MacBook Air a fresh set of internals and an even longer 12 hours of battery life.

Any of these laptops would make for an excellent buy. However, the XPS’s innovative display and master class design differentiates it from what is an already-exceptional Ultrabook market.

Dell XPS 13 review

Design

The Dell XPS 13 truly is a revolutionary device, considering it packs a 13-inch screen into a much smaller frame. It looks deceptively small and, though it feels dense, the ultra-compact machine is light in the hand.

Both the top and bottom of the notebook are built from sheets of machined aluminum with a silver anodized finish, similar to the MacBook Air, in sheen and durability. After weeks of tossing the machine about in my travels, it still doesn’t show any signs of wear, let alone fingerprints, smudges or scratches.

Dell XPS 13 review

The palmrest and keyboard deck are made with an exquisite carbon fiber composite that’s delightful to touch. The material’s weave is visible, but Dell has coated the entire surface in a rubbery resin, mimicking the feel of soft touch paint. Unlike some other laptops with plastic or metal, the XPS 13’s palm rest doesn’t heat up over time and wicks away moisture. Even after eight hours of usage, I experience no discomfort or sweaty wrists.

Although the laptop is made up of two differing materials, the whole design coalesces neatly. The two durable, metal halves sandwich and protect the softer, carbon fiber interior engineered for maximum comfort. Beyond the overall excellent build of the XPS 13, Dell has included a few extra touches that elevate the quality of this machine.

Dell XPS 13 review

On the left hand side, there’s a handy light-up battery gauge, something I haven’t seen since the MacBook Pro did away with optical drives. When you press the button, you’ll see a series of five small indicators light up denoting how much battery life is left (five notches being fully charged).

There’s also an arguably useless – but still cool – metal flap on the notebook’s underside hiding the serial number.

Dell XPS 13 review

And despite the machine being so thin, there’s a full set of ports including a SD card reader, two USB 3.0 ports and a newly added USB-C port that replaces the mini DisplayPort on the the previous XPS 13. The added ThunderBolt 3.0 support allows the connector to push a 4K signal, but you’ll always need to plug in an adapter whenever you want to use an external display, as there are no dedicated video ports.

You’ll also find the notebook’s two side-firing speakers along the edges of the machine. While they don’t produce bass-bumping audio, the sound quality is natural and fluid. This machine is nowhere as tinny and screechy on full-blast as other units we’ve tested – namely the Asus Zenbook UX305 – but this is by no means a device made for users that appreciate the full complexity of David Bowie’s Life on Mars.

Dell XPS 13 review

To ‘Infinity’ and beyond

Open up the lid, and you’re greeted by a nearly bezel-less display, giving you 13.3 inches of screen real estate, while the laptop itself has a footprint of 11.9 inches. The screen-to-body ratio will also tickle your fancy, as the display covers 80% of the panel. Compared to the 13-inch MacBook Air, the XPS 13 has you looking at smaller black borders and 11% more screen real estate.

There’s so little bezel, the LCD actually pushes all the way into the upper corners of the screen. Along the top and sides, there’s barely any black lip and the biggest border measures about an inch on the bottom of the display. The extremely thin bezels provide a cinematic viewing experience, and it’s easier to swipe in from the edge of the touchscreen.

The QHD+ version of the XPS 13 packs a 3,200 x 1,800 resolution display into a small laptop, most of which don’t go beyond full HD resolution (1,920 x 1,080). The added pixels put the XPS 13 far above the 13-inch MacBook Air. It’s also on par with other reigning 13-inch Ultrabook resolution champs: the Lenovo Yoga 900 and the Toshiba Satellite Radius 12.

Dell XPS 13 review

Though the display is plenty sharp, it’s a bit on the cool side, causing whites to look slightly blue and a loss of shadow detail. It won’t be too distracting for most users, but photographers and creative types will want to calibrate their screen for 100% accuracy before getting down to any serious media work.

One thing the XPS 13 isn’t lacking is screen brightness. The 400-nit panel is blinding at full brightness and more than enough to overpower sunlight outdoors. While using it indoors, I find myself often sticking to settings below 25%, as it’s more than radiant enough for an office environment.

Dell XPS 13 review

Small fry

In order to make the XPS 13 as small as it is, Dell relocated the webcam to the lower left edge of the bezel. From this position, the camera captures your face from the chin up with a worm’s-eye perspective. Not only is the angle unflattering, your nose hairs will be in full view of your virtual correspondents, and you’ll terrify them with your massive hand if you try typing during the call.

Secondly, because the screen goes all the way to the top edges of the device, there isn’t any room for your fingers to grab the top panel without pressing directly on the screen. The base of the laptop doesn’t even include a little lip for you to slip your finger underneath. Instead, the whole device folds into one seamless block that’s looks very clean but it’s an absolute pain to open as your run your fingers along the perimeter of it, looking for someplace to pry it open.

Dell XPS 13 review

Another consequence of the XPS 13’s smaller frame is the keyboard is a smidge tighter than it would typically be on a 13-inch laptop. All the keys have been shaved a few millimeters on all sides, as has the spacing between each button. You also won’t find a lot of travel on the keyboard, but the buttons respond with a satisfying springing action and audible click.

Luckily, the glass trackpad dodged any sort of cut backs. It’s proportionally sized for the 13-inch screen, and the multi-touch gestures work perfectly to control Windows 10. In fact, if it were a bit bigger, this pointing device would easily be on the same level as the Microsoft Surface Book.

Specifications and value

The XPS 13 doesn’t only offer less space along its borders – it’s more compact in general. It’s only 0.59 inches (1.5cm) tall, 11.97 inches (30.4cm) wide, and 7.87 inches (20cm) long. Compared to last year’s model, the new XPS 13 has exactly the same chassis but it weighs 0.13 pounds (0.6g) more, thanks to its denser battery.

By comparison, the MacBook Air seems like a needlessly large, 13-inch laptop measuring 12.80 x 8.94 x 0.67 inches (32.5 x 22.7 x 1.7cm). Also, compared to slim and small Yoga 900, Dell’s Ultrabook is 0.78 inches (1.98cm) narrower and nearly an inch shallower 0.15 inches (0.38cm) but equally as thick.

Dell XPS 13 review

The XPS 13 is also one of the lightest devices on the market. The standard, full HD model weighs only 2.7 pounds (1.2kg). Meanwhile, the touch-enabled, quad HD model weighs slightly more at 2.93 pounds (1.33kg), thanks to the added digitizer and cover glass. To put the XPS 13 in perspective, the Lenovo Yoga 900 weighs 2.84 pounds (1.29kg) and the 13-inch MacBook Air weighs 2.96 pounds (1.35kg).

Of course, it’s no competition for the lightweight champion, the Lenovo LaVie Z, which weighs only 1.87 pounds (0.85kg).

As you’ll soon see, this year’s XPS 13 is brimming with the latest high-end laptop components. From the newest Skylake Intel Core i7 chip to gobs of RAM and storage, the setup with which I wrote this review should see you through well into 2018 and possibly beyond.

Dell XPS 13 review

Spec sheet

  • CPU: 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U (dual-core, 3MB cache, up to 2.8 GHz with Turbo Boost)
  • Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520
  • RAM: 8GB LPDDR3 (1,866MHz)
  • Screen: 13.3-inch QHD+ (3,200 x 1,800) InfinityEdge touch display
  • Storage: 256GB PCIe SSD
  • Ports: 1 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 3.0 w/PowerShare, 1 x USB Type C and Thunderbolt 3, SD card reader, headset jack
  • Connectivity: DW1820A 2×2 802.11ac 2.4/5GHz; Bluetooth 4.1
  • Camera: 720p widescreen HD webcam with dual array digital microphones
  • Weight: 2.93 pounds (1.32kg)
  • Size: 11.97 x 7.87 x 0.35 – 0.59 inches (W x D x H) (30.4 x 19.9 x 0.89-1.5mm)

Priced at $1,449 (£1,149, AU$1,999), what you see above is the second best configuration that the XPS 13 you can put together. The UK model is slightly different in that you can’t get the QHD+ screen upgrade without automatically bumping up to an Intel Core i7 CPU.

For quite a bit less, you could get a Lenovo Yoga 900 with double the storage and a faster Core i7 processor for $1,299 (£1,449, AU$2,599). Similarly, you can pick up the 13-inch MacBook Air for $1,449 (£1,209, AU$2,249) after upgrading to an Intel Core i7 CPU and increasing the memory to 8GB – but there’s nothing you can do about the significantly duller, 1,440 x 900 display.

If a high-resolution screen is superfluous to you, there’s the option of dropping down to the non-touch, 1080p version for $999 (£849, AU$1,799). In the US, you’ll also find a unique $799 configuration, edging it into the budget space with only an Intel Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD.

Dell XPS 13 review

That all said, I would recommend going for broke when you configure the XPS 13. The battery and processor are more than enough to keep the high-res screen running for a decent chunk of time.

In terms of aesthetics, the QHD+ model also just looks better. In front of the high-res screen is an an edge-to-edge sheet of Corning Gorilla glass that makes top section of the notebook look like it’s made of nothing but the display.

Though you can to tap on the XPS 13’s touchscreen, the Lenovo Yoga 900 offers a full tablet experience, with its convertible design and lower price point. And if you’re looking to save as much as possible, the MacBook Air is the most affordable notebook in Apple’s lineup. Though, there are some decent Windows-powered alternatives, including the Asus Zenbook UX305.

Performance and features

On top of being one of the most portable laptops in the world, the Dell XPS 13 is a reliable little machine for everyday use. Equipped with an Intel Core i5 processor, I was able to use it for everything from basic internet browsing to heavy image editing, all without it breaking a single sweat.

Since the XPS 13’s Broadwell debut in early 2015, it has seen a few upgrades in this iteration, including Skylake processors, faster M.2 PCIe SSDs up to 1TB and the battery capacity has been increased slightly – going from 52 to 56 watt hours. Overall, the new model is faster and marginally longer lasting, which we’ll soon see in the benchmark results.

Dell XPS 13 review

Benchmark scores

Here’s how the Dell XPS 13 (late 2015) performed in our suite of benchmark tests:

  • 3DMark: Cloud Gate: 5,484; Sky Diver: 3,462; Fire Strike: 809
  • Cinebench CPU: 284 points; Graphics: 26 fps,
  • GeekBench: 2,983 (single-core); 6,288 (multi-core)
  • PCMark 8 (Home Test): 2,276 points
  • PCMark 8 Battery Life: 4 hours and 44 minutes

Let’s just remind ourselves how that compares to the Broadwell (early 2015) model’s scores:

  • 3DMark: Cloud Gate: 4935; Sky Diver: 2745; Fire Strike: 739
  • Cinebench CPU: 258 points; Graphics: 29 fps,
  • PCMark 8 (Home Test): 2,104 points
  • PCMark 8 Battery Life: 4 hours and 21 minutes

Thanks to upgrading from Broadwell to Skylake, there’s a positive, but tiny, increase in the XPS 13’s performance scores across the board. There aren’t any remarkable improvements to behold and, in fact, I’m almost a bit disappointed that the new model only ran for 23 minutes more while completing the PCMark 8 battery test.

Overall, the new XPS 13 is a better machine, but there’s nothing significant enough to make owners of the early 2015 model shell out for this latest one.

While Dell’s latest Ultrabook doesn’t blow away its predecessor, it performed well and has the most processing power compared to its competitors. Its PCMark 8 benchmark score of 2,983 is more than a few ticks above the Lenovo hybrid’s 2,104 point performance. Likewise, the 13-inch MacBook Air trailed behind with a GeekBench multi-core score of 5,768 compared to the XPS 13’s 6,228 points.

Interestingly, the Lenovo convertible lead the charge on the graphical front, consistently putting up better scores on every 3DMark test. You’ll be able to easily play Hearthstone on high settings on both systems, but you might run into more framerate hitches on Dell’s 13-inch wonder.

Dell XPS 13 review

Battery life

The XPS 13’s battery lasted 4 hours and 21 minutes during the PCMark 8 Battery Life test, which performs a wide range of tasks simultaneously, including video editing, web browsing and gaming. In another test, I was able to crank out 8 solid hours (20 minutes more than the Broadwell XPS 13) of Netflix streaming while lowering the screen brightness and audio volume to 50%.

Compared to the Lenovo Yoga 900 and the MacBook Air, however, the XPS 13 underperforms. The MacBook Air lasted for 13 hours and 24 minutes while streaming online video. With regular usage, including word processing and internet browsing, I can squeeze about five hours out of the XPS 13, and the Yoga 900 ran for over seven hours despite utilizing a more power hungry Core i7 processor.

Dell XPS 13 review

That said, you could easily extend the Ultrabook’s run time to six hours by lowering the screen brightness and turning off features, such as Bluetooth and the backlit keyboard.

If you’re a fan of the XPS 13’s design, but you absolutely require a longer-lasting battery, you may want to consider the full HD version rather than the quad HD+ model. The high-res screen adds additional pixels and touchscreen functionality – both of which will drain the battery three hours faster than the standard model, according to Dell’s estimates.

Verdict

The new XPS 13 enters a competitive marketplace. Its stunning Infinity display and lightweight design easily puts it in a pole position for the best Ultrabook category. However, its cramped ergonomics and shorter battery life won’t be to the liking of everyone.

We liked

The XPS’s edge-to-edge display differentiates it from all other Ultrabooks. It’s hard to imagine a small form-factor laptop delivering captivating visuals, but that’s exactly what the XPS 13 does. By trimming the border surrounding the laptop’s display, Dell was able to maximize screen real-estate and produce a compact Ultrabook.

Even if you choose to go with the full HD version, rather than the quad HD+ touchscreen upgrade, the edge-to-edge panel will impress you.

Fortunately, Dell’s XPS 13 upgrades include under-the-hood improvements as well as cosmetic ones. This laptop outperforms most Ultrabooks in almost all benchmarking tests. Although it’s a bit more graphically challenged, you’ll still see better frame refresh rates on this machine than most other notebooks available today.

We disliked

Almost all of the XPS 13’s flaws are superficial. The keyboard is a bit smaller than I prefer. The battery life is shorter than other competing Ultrabooks, and I expected more from going to a more efficient Skylake chipset. And while you won’t love the speakers, but they won’t terribly detract from your listening experience.

Overall, nothing wrong with the XPS 13 is a real deal breaker, and there are many more things to love about this compact Ultrabook.

Verdict

The Dell XPS 13 is a brilliantly-designed laptop that outperforms its competition under the hood. The Infinity Display should soon cause a ripple effect in laptop design and, on a personal level, dramatically improves your experience with the device.

Fortunately for us, the XPS 13 isn’t all beauty and no brains. This laptop features the horsepower to make work and play enjoyable, and it has just enough battery life to never leave you in a lurch.

Regardless of whether you choose to upgrade to the touchscreen, quad HD+ version or stand pat with the full HD model, the Dell XPS 13 will be a joy to use for years to come.

Related