Dell XPS 13 (2015) Laptop Review
To infinity... and beyond!
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Dell is starting out 2015 with a bang. The new Dell XPS 13 (MSRP $799.99, $1,399.99 as tested) reimagines how an ultrabook should look by introducing a clever new design element. It’s easy to imagine every other laptop manufacturer reconsidering how they’re handling the laptop market in response to the XPS 13.
The innovation comes in the form of the “infinity” display, which is Dell’s fancy way of saying the bezel is only millimeters thin. Content looks almost like it's popping off the sides, while also allowing Dell to fit a 13-inch display into a case normally reserved for 11-inch laptops.
After spending more than a week with the XPS 13, it's clear that this is simply a wonderful machine, striking a superb balance between performance, price, and size. If you’re looking for a lightweight, powerful, long-lasting laptop that won't break the bank, look no further.
On the third day of working with the XPS 13 a small crowd had gathered around my desk. Turns out that someone had walked by my desk and, after commenting on just how gorgeous the display looked, everyone had to come and check it out for themselves.
Dell—or at least Sharp, which manufactures the display for Dell—has done something remarkable here, crafting a striking design that will, quite literally, turn heads.
The “infinity” display minimizes the display’s border to almost nothing. By doing that, they’ve managed to fit 13 inches worth of screen into a package that’s normally reserved for 11-inch laptops. When it’s compared side by side, the thick aluminum trim of the MacBook Air or black frame of most laptops stand out like sore thumbs. If the goal of ultraportable laptops is to shave off as much dead weight as possible, the XPS 13 went the extra mile for an experience unlike any other.
But you’ll have to pay a little extra if you want the QHD+ (3200x1800) touchscreen display like the one we had in house. The non-touch models use an FHD (1900x1080) display that we were also impressed with. If you want to save a little extra cash and don’t see the need for touch, the entry level display option will serve you quite well.
No matter what you go with, that beautiful display, along with everything else, is housed in a shell of sleek aluminum. Underneath this laptop are two raised rubber bars that keep the laptop steady on a table and let air flow to help with heat management. Dell also hid manufacturing symbols behind a thin metal plate, keeping the underside uncluttered. It’s a small detail that most people probably won’t even notice, but it represents a dedication to beauty for the entire package and not just for the screen.
There is a nice black carbon fiber interior that complements the exterior. The keyboard deck feels great under your palms and fingertips and never gets too hot to be uncomfortable if you’re pushing the limits of your machine (but watch the bottom, as it can get toasty). The black chiclet keys are backlit, something that is hard to come back from once you’ve had the benefit of typing in the dark. You also won’t need to hold Fn to use the media keys or adjust volume and brightness. It’s another small thing that goes a long way to a better experience.
When it comes to ultraportable laptops the slim, lightweight frame requires manufacturers to trim the fat wherever they can find it. The XPS 13 isn’t any different from other ultrabooks and Dell only included enough ports for the basic user.
On the left side you’ll find the power adapter plug, a mini DisplayPort, a USB 3.0 port, a headset jack, and a battery status indicator light. The light is a small addition that doesn’t seem like it’s worth much, but when you’re on the go―and why not with a laptop this small and light―it’s a nice perk to be able to check how well your battery is doing without having to open the screen. On the right, you’ll find two ports: one for USB 3.0 and a full SD card slot.
The trackpad has to be my biggest gripe with this laptop. While Dell knocked it out of the park in almost every other category, the trackpad has some glaring issues. It has a soft finish that feels great, but that’s about it. The tap to click had a nasty habit of picking up my palm and the cursor would often jump on its own. It got to the point that I was much more likely to use the touchscreen to scroll than the trackpad, which shouldn’t ever be the case, especially when there might not be a touchscreen to use.
(Update: Dell has since released an updated trackpad driver that will hopefully solve a lot of these issues. Unfortunately, we no longer have a review unit in house to test how well it does now.)
Operating System & Software
Windows with only a touch of Dell
When you buy a new PC you’re practically guaranteed to get some amount of bloatware (programs and software that are essentially useless). Typically, it’s a question of how many programs manufacturers choose to include, with some being worse than others.
In this instance, Dell has left only the smallest fingerprint. You’ll only find a few pre-installed Dell apps, which are intended to help you with your new laptop. There is direct access to the Dell store, which includes links to purchase other computers and accessories, as well as access to Dell customer support and troubleshooting/repair manuals. There are also dedicated apps for registering your device, which has a hub to keep you informed about checkups, your backups, notifications, and driver/support information.
You’ll also get 20GB of free Dropbox space for a year and a trial version of McAfee (the source of some of the most annoying pop-ups on the Dell). You'd be better off removing the trial version completely and getting a full version of an antivirus program as soon as possible.
Simply great to use
The unit we tested for review wasn’t the base or top-tier model. The processor and internal storage have been bumped up to the fifth-generation (Broadwell) Core i5, with a 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM. I’ve already talked about the gorgeous infinity display, so all I’ll say is that content looks great whether it’s the higher end 3200x1800 touchscreen or the baseline 1080p non-touch display that’s available in the $799 model.
But, you wouldn’t want to use it if you plan on editing videos or for other graphic intensive jobs. The included Intel HD Graphics integrated 5500 video card just wasn’t meant to handle a serious workload. On the other hand, if you only want to play a couple of Steam games or quick edit some family photos, the XPS 13 can handle it. In this regard, it’s essentially on par with other ultrabook-class computers.
If you want an ultrabook that can take care of these tasks—and have some money to burn—the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Iris Pro) is a powerhouse of a laptop.
It’s a small conceit to make, but the super small bezel around the display displaced the webcam from its usual home at the top of the screen. In the XPS 13, you'll find it on the lower left corner, just above the hinge. If you try to take photos or use Skype, you’re going to get a nice awkward view of your chin and the ceiling above you.
Ultrabooks are known for their outstanding battery life, and the XPS 13 lives up to that standard. Using PCMark 8's intensive battery life test—which includes web browsing, gaming, photo editing, and video calls—the XPS 13 came out to about 5.5 hours at max brightness. While this is nowhere near Dell's claim of 15 hours, it's still much better than what we're used to seeing. The Asus Zenbook UX301LA-DH71T had one of the best battery life scores of 2014 and that didn't even reach 5 hours.
Setting the new standard for portability
When you shop for an ultraportable laptop you have to try to find the right balance of power, price, and size. The MacBook Air has long been thought to be the gold standard in this category, but the new Dell XPS 13 may finally give Apple a run for its money.
The XPS 13 is already one step ahead of the Air with a starting price at just $799, which is $200 less than the 13-inch Air. Combine this with Dell's new "infinity" display and the brand-new Broadwell processors—and all the battery life gains they entail—there's no denying that the Dell XPS 13 is shaking up the market.
But, it's not perfect. The touchpad has some issues that are frustrating when so much of the rest of the laptop is so amazing. Not to mention the $1,300 price tag, for this particular model, may be hard to justify for a lot of consumers. The entry level model is a steal at $800, but you’ll forfeit the touchscreen, high resolution, and substitute the Core i5 for a Core i3. Still, if this is the kind of value we can expect with Broadwell, 2015 is shaping up to be a breakout year for ultraportable laptops.
If Dell's latest isn't quite your style, we'd recommend checking out the $1,999 Asus Zenbook UX301LA-DH71T. It has a heftier price tag attached to it, but Asus has a much more reliable track record when it comes to laptops. The Zenbook also hits all of the marks the XPS 13 stumbles on, such as a Core i7 processor and a better trackpad/keyboard.
Keep in mind though, the XPS 13 is almost on par with the Zenbook in terms of performance, and it's the far cheaper option. Instead, you can get ahead of the trend by checking out what the XPS 13 has to offer. One thing's clear, Dell has set the bar pretty high for 2015, now it's up to everyone else to catch up.