These days slim bezels are all the rage in smartphones and laptops alike. But Dell was ahead of the curve when the company updated its XPS 13 line of laptops a few years ago by offering models with incredibly slim top and side bezels.
When I reviewed the Dell XPS 13 with a 5th-gen Intel Core processor in 2015, I noted that Dell had managed to cram a 13.3 inch display into a notebook the size of a typical 11.6 inch laptop.
Dell updated the hardware year after year, while keeping the same wallet-friendly $799 starting price. But the company didn’t significantly update the design in 2016 or 2017.
That changes this year with the launch of the new Dell XPS 13. It comes equipped with an 8th-gen Intel Core processor, which means you get up to 40 percent better performance without compromising battery life. But Dell has also updated the design: the 2018 model is just 0.46 inches thick, features even slimmer bezels, and now comes in a choice of black & silver or white & rose gold.
The new model still weighs about 2.7 pounds, which isn’t much of a change from its predecessor. But the updated design makes the new model a bit more interesting to look at than its predecessor… although you’ll have to pay a bit more for the updated design and specs: the 2018 Dell XPS 13 sells for $999 and up, while the 2017 model is still available for $799 and up.
Dell sometimes offers discounted though. At the time I’m writing this review, you can:
- Save $50 on laptops priced $799 and up with the coupon code SAVE50
- Save $100 on models $999 or more with SAVE100
- Save $150 on systems priced $1499 or higher with SAVE150
- Save $200 on notebooks priced $1899 or higher with SAVE200
Dell loaned me a new white & rose gold XPS 13 to test, and I’ve been using it pretty extensively for the past two weeks. There’s a lot to like about this laptop. It’s compact, powerful, and gets long battery life.
But there are also a few quirks to get used to. The webcam is still awkwardly placed. The backlit keyboard can be hard to read in some situations. And Dell’s decision to go all-in on USB Type-C ports feels a bit premature in 2018.
Overall, this is a pretty great laptop. But there are a few things you should probably keep in mind before spending money on it. So read on for our detailed review.
Overview and design
The demo unit featured in this review is a Dell XPS 13 9370 laptop with a 1920 x 1080 pixel non-touch display, an Intel Core i5-8250U processor, 8GB of DDR3-1866 RAM, 256GB of PCI NVMe solid state storage and Windows 10 Home.
Dell currently sells this configuration for $1499 (or less with a coupon).
The company also offers configurations with up to a Core i7-8550U processor, up to 16GB of DDR3-2133 RAM, up to 512GB of storage, and up to a 4K touchscreen display. There are also Developer Edition models that ship with Ubuntu Linux instead of Windows 10.
Dell says the new laptop is 3.4mm thinner and overall 24 percent smaller by volume than the XPS 13 models it’s been releasing for the past few years. That’s not something you’ll notice if this is your first XPS 13… but what you will probably notice is that this is certainly one of the most compact 13 inch laptops you’re likely to find.
The borders around the screen are just 4mm thick, and Dell says the laptop has an 80.7 percent screen-to-body ratio, which is just about the highest you’ll find on any laptop.
You do make one compromise for the nearly non-existent top and side borders: there’s no room for a webcam above the display. Instead Dell puts it below the screen, which sounds like a good idea until you actually try using the camera.
The position of the camera means that it’s on the same level as your hands while you’re typing, which means that if you plan to make a video call and type at the same time, the person you’re chatting with will get a pretty good look at your fingers rather than your face. And if you sit on your hands, the low angle of the camera still makes shots look kind of odd, since the camera points upward at your chest and chin instead of straight ahead at your eyes.
Dell has been putting webcams on the bottom of its XPS 13 and 15 laptops for the past few years, and the company says it’s comfortable compromising the webcam experience for that slim top bezel because the slim borders make its laptops stand out for everyone, while most people rarely use their webcams at all.
The 2018 model also moves the webcam from the left side of the computer to the center and adds an IR camera for Windows Hello face recognition.
Facial recognition works reasonably well… as long as the screen is tilted back far enough. If the screen is too far forward, it’s hard for the IR camera to find your eyes and I’ve sometimes had to duck down to login using my face.
Speaking of Windows Hello, the new XPS 13 also has a fingerprint sensor built into the power button, which is to the upper right side of the keyboard, next to the Delete key.
Press the circle once to turn on the computer. And if you’ve registered a fingerprint, you can rest your finger on the power button to quickly login to Windows 10 without entering a password or PIN. In my tests the fingerprint reader works quickly and effectively most of the time. Rarely did I have to lift my finger and try again, and even when I did, it was still usually faster to use a fingerprint to login than to enter my password using the keyboard.
Dell also equipped the laptop with a 4-microphone array, which the company says supports far-field voice detection, allowing you to interact with Windows 10’s Cortana voice assistant from up to 14 feet away.
In a quiet room I couldn’t get it to recognize my voice from more than 7 feet away. Your results may vary. But the computer had no problem recognizing my “hey, Cortana” request when I was sitting right in front of the laptop.
You probably aren’t going to use the XPS 13 as an Amazon Echo replacement anytime soon. But if you’re already using the computer and want to ask a question instead of typing it, that works just fine.
The laptop has a CNC machined aluminum lid and bottom with a silver or rose gold finish.
If you opt for the black & silver version of the XPS 13 you get a carbon fiber palm rest that’s similar to the one Dell’s been offering for a few years. But the new white & rose gold model uses a brand new woven glass fiber material.
Dell says the palm rest on the white XPS 13 is stain resistant, UV-resistant, and durable. It has 9 layers of woven crystalline silica fiber and while I’m not sure I agree with the company’s assertion that it “looks and feels like silk,” it does provide a comfortable surface for resting the palms of your hands while typing. It’s not cold like metal, not does it get particularly warm when the laptop’s under heavy load.
The woven finish does give the surface of the laptop a sort of bumpy texture if you rub your fingertips against it. But you don’t really feel the bumps with the palms of your hands. Overall, I’m a fan of the new material, although I’m not sure if it alone would be worth paying the extra $200 for.
Dell representatives tell me the company also rethought the keyboard backlight in order to design a white version of the XPS 13. I think that project was a bit less successful.
In a well-lit room, the keys of the keyboard are pretty easy to see. But in dimmer lighting, it’s actually easier to make out the labels on each key when the backlight is off. That’s because the keys have a black letter-on-white-background look with no backlight. But when you turn on the light, it shines through the letters and gives things more of a white-on-white look.
Perhaps if Dell had opted for red or green lighting, it’d be easier to make out the lettering. But as it is, you have three options for the keyboard backlight: High, low, or off. After spending some time playing with the keyboard at home and in coffee shops, I’ve found that I usually prefer off.
Another keyboard feature I’m not too fond of: the placement of the home and end keys. They’re in the upper right corner, between the F12 and Delete buttons.
Typically I’d expect to find Home and End near the arrow, Page Up, and Page Down keys. In fact, the last time I reviewed a Dell XPS 13, that’s exactly where these functions were. This time it seems like Dell moved them in order to fit the screen brightness controls into the bottom corner… but even after two weeks of using this laptop I find myself having to stop and think every time I want to hit Home or End.
It’s the sort of thing you can get used to over time, especially if you’re not constantly switching between computers (and keyboards) the way I am. But it still seems like an odd design choice.
And here’s one more interesting design choice: here’s the total list of ports on the new XPS 13:
- 3 USB Type-C ports (2 Thunderbolt 3 and 1 USB 3.1)
- 3.5mm headset jack
- microSD card slot
That’s it. There are no full-sized USB ports, Ethernet jacks, or HDMI ports. You’ll need an adapter, hub, dock, or appropriate cable if you want to connect a monitor, connect to a wired network, or use most PC accessories including flash drives, mice, keyboards, printers, scanners, or just about anything else you’re likely to plug in.
Fortunately Dell does include a USB Type-C to Type-A adapter in the box, so if you just need to plug in one USB item at at a time you won’t need any special adapters. And over time we’re likely to see more and more PC accessories adopt the new USB Type-C standard. But at a time when most peripherals still use USB Type-A, it’s a bit annoying that there’s not a single full-sized port on this laptop.
On the plus side, you can plug the USB Type-C power adapter into any port to charge the laptop. And if you get a USB Type-C to HDMI or DisplayPort cable or adapter, you can plug a monitor into any port. But it still feels like this is a laptop designed for a world we don’t quite live in yet.
Then again, it would have been hard to fit full-sized ports on a laptop that measures just 0.46 inches thick, so there is that. A full-sized SD card slot would have been nice though.
OK, so to sum up my design nitpicks: the port situation might be less than perfect, the camera placement is awful, and I’m not a fan of the keyboard backlight on the white model.
But I do love the slim profile, the compact design, and the light weight of this laptop. It also has an excellent display and respectable performance.
When I requested a demo unit for testing, Dell asked if I’d rather have a 4K touchscreen model or a 1080p non-touch version with longer battery life from the same 52 Whr battery. I opted for the latter, because it’s cheaper and more portable if you can go an extra few hours between charges.
Despite having a lower-resolution display, the 1080p model has a screen that looks pretty great. It has 72 percent color gamut, up to 400 nits of brightness, and 178 degree viewing angles. It’s a glossy screen, but Dell uses an anti-reflective coating to reduce the amount of glare you’ll see from bright light sources shining on the screen.
The XPS 13 also has stereo speakers, one on the left side of the computer, and one on the right. They’re reasonably small and won’t offer a lot of bass. But unlike laptops with bottom-facing speaker, their placement helpsensure the XPS 13 delivers reasonably clear sound no matter whether the computer is placed on a table, desk, or lap.
The Dell XPS 13 isn’t designed to be a gaming machine or a mobile workstation, but it’s the first laptop I’ve tested to feature an 8th-gen, quad-core Intel Core i5 processor and the first with PCIe NVMe storage. Those factors combined with a decent amount of RAM and the latest version of Windows 10 made this one of the fastest laptops I’ve tested, at least in terms of raw horsepower.
It was able to transcode audio and video files more quickly than any other notebooks I’ve benchmarked to date, and it created a ZIP archive containing more than 2,000 files more quickly than any other system I’ve tested.
The Dell XPS 13 also scored higher in synthetic benchmarks such as PCMark, and 3DMark, and held its own in the Street Fighter IV benchmark.
In terms of real-world usage, I had no problem playing a few levels of StarCraft II on this laptop, streaming HD videos from YouTube, or using the Chrome web browser with more than a dozen tabs open at a time.
I wrote the majority of this review on the Dell XPS 13, as well as a few dozen shorter articles for the site which have been published in recent weeks.
During that time the only issued I’ve had are that the XPS 13 would sometimes fail to reconnect to my home WiFi network immediately after resuming from sleep. But a quick right-click on the WiFi status icon to launch the “troubleshoot problems” feature usually resolved the issue in a matter of seconds. I’m not sure whether to blame the hardware or Windows 10 for that issue, but I wouldn’t call it a dealbreaker.
The keyboard is pretty comfortable to type on. There’s not a lot of key travel, and if you press down hard in the center of the keyboard you’ll notice a bit of flex. But for the most part, the spacing and responsiveness of the keys makes touch-typing a breeze.
The touchpad is nice and wide, has a pleasant smooth surface and pretty responsive performance. I had no trouble performing multi-touch gestures such as two-finger scrolling or right-clicking, or sliding three fingers up or down to switch between running windows.
While using the laptop for hours at a time for blogging or web surfing, the bottom stays pretty cool, the fan remains idle, and the XPS 13 is nearly silent. But under heavy load the metal bottom of the laptop can get hot, causing the fan to kick into gear and create a bit of noise.
Fortunately the heat dissipates pretty quickly, thanks to a dual-fan, dual heat-pipe solution, so while the fan will keep spinning up during long-term gaming sessions, most of the time the it will kick into high gear for a moment or two, then quiet down when its work is done.
I noticed quite a bit of fan noise while using Vidcoder to transcode a large 1080p video to H.264, and while playing StarCraft II. The fan was much less noticeable when streaming videos, editing documents, or performing less CPU and GPU-intensive tasks.
Dell is a serial exaggerator with its battery life claims. The company says you can get up to 19 hours and 46 minutes of run time with this laptop. In my experience, you should expect to get about half that.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m pretty happy with the 8-10 hours of run time I get from this little laptop. Pretty much every time I’ve headed out to a coffee shop with it, I’ve left the power adapter at home. And around the house, I sometimes go a few days without plugging it in, since it’s not the only computer I use on a daily basis.
This is also better than the 7+ hours of battery life I got from the XPS 13 I tested in 2015.
I just wish Dell wouldn’t use unrealistic benchmarks in its marketing materials. The company also claimed its 2015 model should last for up to 15 hours.
Keep in mind that battery life will be shorter on models with 4K touchscreen displays.
Charging the Dell XPS 13 is a snap: just plug the USB Type-C adapter into any of the USB ports on the notebook. There’s a status light on the front of the notebook that will glow light when it’s charging. And there’s also a light on the adapter that glows whenever the adapter is plugged into an outlet (whether it’s connected to a PC or not).
Dell sent me a demo unit running Windows 10 Home, and it’s likely that most people who buy an XPS 13 will opt for Windows. But Dell is also one of the only major PC vendors that regularly offers a Linux option.
Many of the company’s computers, including the 2018 Dell XPS 13, are available in “Developer Edition” configurations that come with Ubuntu Linux.
Dell does not make its Ubuntu images available for download, so I wasn’t able to test the exact software that you’d get if you bought one of these preconfigured models. But I did load a standard Ubuntu 16.04 LTS image onto a USB flash drive and boot the XPS 13 from that drive to check for any compatibility issues. I didn’t find any (except that I needed to use a USB Type-C adapter, since I don’t have any USB Type-C flash drives).
Booting from an external drive is as simple as hitting F12 during the boot menu and choosing whether to boot from internal or external storage.
Once I loaded Ubuntu and connected to my home network, I checked to see if audio and video were working by streaming some YouTube videos in Firefox. No problems there.
Then I checked to make sure the keyboard shortcuts all worked properly, and they did. I could adjust the volume, screen brightness, and keyboard backlighting with a few key presses.
Since I was running Ubuntu from a flash drive rather than internal storage, I didn’t run any benchmarks or battery life tests. But it’s good to know that whether you buy an XPS 13 with Ubuntu preloaded or decide to install it on your own, it seems like key hardware components should work out of the box.
Speaking of out of the box experiences, the XPS 13 is a box that isn’t really meant to be opened. There are 8 hex screws on the bottom of the laptop that you would need to remove in order to open up the case. I didn’t feel like buying a hex screwdriver just to peek under the hood: but from what I understand, the SSD can be replaced, while the RAM cannot.
That disappointing, since Dell continues to offer just 4GB of memory on its entry-level model. If you’re considering purchasing an XPS 13, I’d strongly recommend opting for a version with at least 8GB of RAM, even though that will drive up the price.
It’s also a little disappointing that there’s no option for a 1080p touchscreen display at all. While touch isn’t necessarily a must-have feature for a clamshell-style notebook, particularly one that doesn’t open up to a very wide angle, it’s a nice feature to have… and one that’s become so common on other laptops that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reached up to touch the display on the XPS 13 only to remember that it doesn’t have a touch pane.
Overall, the 2018 Dell XPS 13 is a pretty great laptop… with a few quirks and a rather high price tag.
If you don’t really care about the awkward webcam placement or iffy keyboard illumination, the laptop has a compact design, long battery life, good performance, an excellent display, an eye-catching design, and comfortable materials.
The black and silver model with the carbon fiber palm rest and black keyboard should also have a more legible backlit keyboard.
I’d definitely consider picking up an XPS 13 if I needed a new laptop tomorrow… if I could find one for the right price.
Unfortunately list prices for the new version of Dell’s thin-and-light 13.3 inch laptop start at $999, and that only gets you a Core i5 processor, a 1080p display, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage.
That’s a lot of money for a laptop with those specs, but you end up paying about 50 percent more to get the version featured in this review with twice the RAM and storage.
I guess it’s a good thing Dell frequently offers sale prices on its laptops.
The Dell XPS 13 is available for purchase from Dell.com.