It’s tough to make a laptop that stands out in 2015. There’s plenty of competition for the title of thinnest, lightest, best display, longest battery life, or best overall performance.
But Dell managed to make a splash when the company introduced the latest version of its XPS 13 notebook at CES in January.
It’s now available from Dell.com for $800 and up.
Here are a few of the things that caught my eye when Dell launched the new XPS 13:
- Dell says it fit a 13.3 inch display into a notebook the size of a typical 11.6 inch model.
- The laptop has premium features including an Intel Broadwell CPU, a high-resolution display, an an aluminum case. But it has a starting price of just $800.
- Dell also promised up to 15 hours of battery life for the entry level model.
Dell loaned me an XPS 13 laptop to review and after testing it for a few weeks I can say it’s a fast, powerful, and nice-looking little laptop. In fact if I needed to buy a new laptop today, this is probably the model I would buy.
But while it really is the smallest 13 inch laptop I’ve ever used and it really does offer better features than I’d expect from a laptop with a starting price of $800, there’s one area where the laptop fails to live up to its promise: this laptop does not get 15 hours of run time.
It only runs about half that long.
Dell has been offering XPS 13 laptops since the company introduced its first ultrabook in 2012.
Over the past few years the company has refined the design and the latest model is thinner and lighter than the original, has a better display, a faster processor, and a lower starting price.
The 2015 model features a 5th-gen Intel Core “Broadwell” processor with Intel HD 5500 graphics, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and a 52 Wh battery.
What’s most striking about the laptop though, is the display. There bezel around the screen is just over 5mm.
While plenty of device makers talk about edge-to-edge displays, they’re usually talking about the glass that covers both the display and the bezel. Dell’s laptop really does have a display that comes pretty close to stretching from one end of the laptop to the other.
Dell offers two different display options for the XPS 13. There’s a, 1920 x 1080 full HD pixel matte display and a 3200 x 1800 QHD+ pixel glossy, touchscreen display. Both versions are bright and offer decent viewing angles, although I generally prefer matte displays since they reflect less glare when used near a bright light source.
Note that the glossy, touchscreen model does have edge-to-edge glass, while the matte version has screen that’s recessed a little behind the plastic bezel.
The lower-resolution screen is probably the better bargain. If you want the QHD+ screen you’ll have to pay $1300 or more for your laptop. Prices for the 1080p model start at $800. The cheaper model is also 0.2 pounds lighter and is said to get longer battery life.
Whichever screen you choose, you get a notebook with some premium touches including an aluminum case, a soft carbon fiber palm rest, a backlit keyboard.
There’s a large glass touchpad below the keyboard. It has integrated buttons, supports multi-touch gestures, and works reasonably well (although I still prefer to use Windows with a mouse).
The keyboard itself is comfortable, features full-sized keys, and has shortcuts for media playback, volume, brightness, and other features. If you press down hard in the center of the keyboard you may notice a little flex, but I had no problems typing at full speed on the XPS 13.
The XPS 13 Dell loaned me for this review features an Intel Core i5-5200U processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of solid state storage. It sells for $900, weighs 2.6 pounds, and measures about 0.6 inches thick.
For the past few years I’ve been using a Samsung Series 9 ultrabook for working on the go. Measuring 0.5 inches thick and weighing 2.5 pounds, it’s even thinner and lighter than Dell’s laptop. But overall the Dell XPS 13 is a bit smaller thanks to its thinner screen bezels.
The difference isn’t huge, but it is noticeable.
Dell did make a few compromises in order to keep things small.
Since there’s no room for a webcam in the tiny bezel above the display, Dell placed a camera below the screen.
That works well enough if you’re sitting a foot or two away from the laptop while using Skype or other video chat or camera apps.
But if you start typing on the computer while using the camera, there’s a good chance the person you’re video chatting with is going to get a really good view of your hands… or other parts of your anatomy.
There’s not a lot of room on a laptop this small for full-sized ports, so the Dell XPS 13 has a mini DisplayPort, two USB ports, a headset jack, and an SD card slot.
That’s all you get.
The company does offer a $60 adapter that you can plug into a USB port to gain HDMI, VGA, and Ethernet ports. It even has an extra USB 2.0 port so that you still have two USB ports available even when you’re using the adapter.
Don’t need all of those features? You can probably save some money by picking up a simpler solution such as a third-party USB to Ethernet adapter.
A note about upgrades (and software)
Dell offers the XPS 13 with up to 8GB of RAM and up to 512GB of storage. Want to buy a cheaper model and upgrade it yourself? You can do that… kind of.
There are a few things you need to know though. First, in order to open the case you’ll need a T5 Torx screwdriver. An ordinary Phillips screwdriver won’t help.
More importantly, once you get the case open you’ll find that the SSD and wireless card can be easily removed and replaced, but the RAM is soldered to the motherboard. So if you think you might need more than 4GB of RAM, you’ll want to buy a model of the XPS 13 that comes with 8GB of RAM because you won’t be able to upgrade the memory yourself.
Want to upgrade the software rather than the hardware? Dell’s XPS 13 ships with Windows 8.1, but it should be able to run Windows 10 without any problems. Microsoft will make Windows 10 available as a free update later this year.
Don’t consider that an upgrade? Dell’s XPS 13 laptops are usually pretty Linux-friendly. In fact, later this year the company plans to offer a Developer Edition that comes preloaded with Ubuntu Linux.
The Dell XPS 13 laptop featured in this review has a 2.2 GHz Intel Core i5-5200U dual-core processor. That’s a 15 watt chip aimed at relatively low-power notebooks and it’s part of Intel’s new 5th-gen Core “Broadwell” family of processors.
Broadwell chips offer a bit CPU horsepower than last the 4th-gen “Haswell” chips they replace. But more importantly, Intel says the new chips are designed to be more efficient and offer improved graphics performance.
Dell’s laptop is the first Broadwell-powered laptop that I’ve tested, and as expected it scores better in most benchmarks than any other computer I’ve used. It transcodes audio and video files more quickly, creates ZIP archives in no time flat, and generally feels pretty zippy.
It’s also one of the first laptops I’ve tested which I would actually consider using to play recent video games. Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t meant to be a gaming machine and it won’t perform as well as a system with the latest NVIDIA or AMD graphics. But it scored higher than any other laptop I’ve tested in the Street Fighter IV benchmark and so I decided to install Batman: Arkham Asylum and I was pleasantly suprised at just how great the game looked and how smooth the gameplay felt on the laptop.
While I’m not really much of a gamer, it’s nice to know that the XPS 13 has the graphics chops to handle some relatively GPU-intensive tasks. It also handles HD video like a champ.
I was able to transcode a sample video using Handbrake’s H.264 encoder almost twice as fast with this laptop as I could with my Samsung notebook with its Sandy Bridge (2nd-gen Intel Core) processor), and generally the notebook was able to handle every task I could throw at it with ease.
If you’re looking through the benchmark results above, I should point out that while I pitted the XPS 13 against computers with Intel Core chips whenever possible, the 3DMark chart compares the laptop with a few recent notebooks featuring Intel’s low-power Bay Trail processors.
That’s because I only recently started using the latest version of 3DMark and don’t have test scores for older machines. Clearly, the XPS 13 features much more powerful graphics than systems like the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 series laptop with an Intel Pentium N3530 Bay Trail processor.
The bottom of the Dell XPS 13 does get a little warm to the touch when the laptop’s in use, and there’s a fan which can be a little noisy. If you’re working from a coffee shop or listening to music you might not notice the fan, but if you’re in a quiet room you may hear it kick in every few minutes as it works to keep the laptop cool.
Dell outfitted the laptop with stereo 1 watt speakers which sound reasonably loud and clear.
For the most part I tested the Dell XPS 13 by using it for work. Since I’m a blogger, that means I’d use it for marathon sessions of web surfing and writing with some occasional forays into image editing and online video viewing.
Under those conditions, I pretty consistently got about 7 hours of run time from the laptop before the battery gave up. That’s not a bad result for a 2.6 pounds laptop which offers this kind of performance… but it’s less than half of the 15 hours Dell promised.
While 7 hours isn’t quite all-day battery life, you might be able to make it through a full work day if you leave the laptop powered down during a long lunch break. Or you can just pack the power adapter, which is relatively compact.
There’s also another option for folks that need longer battery life. Dell sells a 12,000 mAh “Power Companion” for $110.
It’s a portable battery pack that you can charge with your laptop adapter. When you’re on the go, just run a cable from the battery to your laptop’s charging port and you should be able to get at least a few more hours of run time.
There’s an LED light at the front of the laptop, just below the touchpad. It glows white when the laptop is charging, and flashes orange when your battery level reaches a critical point (around 7 percent of its full capacity).
A note about screen resolution
As mentioned above, Dell offers the XPS 13 with a choice of a 1920 x 1080 pixel matte display or a 3200 x 1800 pixel glossy touchscreen display. It’s kind of refreshing to see that there’s no option for a lower-resolution 1366 x 768 pixel display.
But a high-resolution display can be a mixed blessing on small Windows laptop.
When you’re using desktop Windows apps it’s nice to have the extra screen real estate for editing images or documents, reading web pages, or running multiple apps in side-by-side windows. But if you have less-than-stellar eyesight you may want to adjust the Windows displays ettings to make text and other items larger.
Note that this will help make icons, toolbars, and other elements larger and less likely to cause your eyes to bleed from the strain in many apps… but not all apps.
For instance, after adjusting my display settings, I found that web content looked better in the Google Chrome web browser, but browser tabs and toolbar items such as the back, home, and refresh buttons were all still really small.
This isn’t an issue if you’re running full-screen apps from the Windows Store. But when you rely on desktop apps that aren’t optimized for displays with high pixel densities, it can be a little disconcerting.
I don’t think that’s a reason to stay away from high-resolution screens. The display looks great when you’re looking at pictures, watching HD videos, or playing games. But it’s worth noting that you may have to fiddle with display settings a bit more than you may be used to.
The Dell XPS would be remarkable enough if its only unusual feature were its compact size and tiny screen bezels. But as one of the first laptops with a Broadwell U series processor it also offers strong performance for most tasks, passable performance for light gaming, and reasonably long battery life (even if the laptop doesn’t come close to the extraordinarily-long battery life Dell had promised).
The notebook is also affordable, with prices starting as low as $800. It’s hard to find a laptop that offers better performance for that kind of price.
Still, this little laptop might not be the best option for everyone. The RAM isn’t user-upgradeable. The webcam is awkwardly placed. And if you want a touchscreen display you’ll have to pay a $500 premium for that option.