The XPS 13 laptop required a redesign and Dell expected to create an impression. The XPS family has created a portion of the best and most-cherished customer ultrabooks, however this specific laptop has been smothered as of late. Since 2016, it has seen incremental upgrades that helped it stay aware of the opposition regarding performance, yet not in design, hardware perks, and general innovation.
Performance is critical, certain, yet it’s by all account not the only factor that adds to why clients pick a few laptops over others. The new XPS 13, declared at CES in January, has a lot of new attributes that Dell expectations will push the gadget back to the front of the pack: a new rose gold and snow capped white shading choice, a revived design with another warm administration framework, new biometric security highlights, and eighth gen Intel CPUs.
However, not all things have changed, and the XPS 13’s greatest test is demonstrating that it has developed well by adjusting important new highlights with solid existing highlights that clients have developed to anticipate.
Look and feel
The XPS 13 debuted with a sleek design, and it hasn’t necessarily become offensive in recent years (please hold your impassioned comments about webcam placement, we’ll get to it). But it had become unremarkably inoffensive next to similar laptops made by competitors—in short, it was boring. The new XPS 13 tries to remedy this with the biggest overhaul we’ve seen in the laptop’s design in a long time.
Most noticeable is the new white and rose gold color-way that’s sold alongside the traditional black-and-silver option. Dell offered a similar pink color-way for previous XPS 13 models, but the “alpine white” hue on the keyboard and surrounding the display pushes Dell into the modern era that treats the metallic rose and milky white combo as a standard option.
The area around the keyboard and the palm rests have new texture as well. On the rose-and-white model, woven fiber glass creates the makeshift basket weave pattern that’s subtly detectable under your fingertips. The woven construction makes for a “high-strength, low-weight” chassis and its titanium oxide coating makes the palm rests more stain-resistant than other lightly colored laptops. I don’t make a habit of dirtying my laptops, so I can’t say I noticed its stain-resistant properties in action during my personal use. However, at a pre-CES briefing, Dell did make a slash with permanent marker on one of the white palm rests of the XPS 13 and it nearly disappeared after a bit of elbow-greased cleaning.
Nevertheless, the new texture gives the area around the XPS 13’s keyboard the look and feel of a sophisticated placemat—and I mean no shade to Dell in saying that. It’s a pleasant change to see an OEM play with texture in a subtle yet sleek way. I welcome the change from the soft-touch palm rests the previous XPS 13 models had, but that material certainly has its fans and they will be sad to see it eliminated from this laptop.
The texture also gives the XPS 13 more personality, at least in its keyboard area, than a competitor like the HP Spectre 13. However, HP’s device has more personality in its C-shaped hinge than the XPS 13 has in the same area. The black-and-silver XPS 13 model also has the woven pattern on the palm rests but it’s less noticeable and less tactile than that on the white model since it’s made of carbon fiber, not glass.
In typical laptop-update fashion, Dell slimmed down the XPS 13’s frame by 3.4mm and the new model weighs just 2.68 pounds. The top and side bezels surrounding the Infinity Edge display are also smaller, measuring a mere 4mm, giving the device a 80.7 percent screen-to-body ratio. The relationship between screen real estate and the size and weight of a laptop’s body has always shaped the way I see a laptop’s overall design efficiency. Dell touts that the XPS 13 is a 13-inch laptop in a 11-inch laptop’s frame, and the large display in relation to the overall look and feel of the laptop’s chassis makes this sentiment ring true.
Dell’s new thermal solutions helped the company shave off millimeters from the XPS’s design. Inside is a new thermal management system that includes dual fans, dual heat pipes, and Gore Thermal Insulation covering some parts of those pies near the CPU and GPU. The system keeps the chassis cool by directing heat out of the device through its vents, allowing for more sustainable, strong performance over time.
We’ll discuss Dell’s power management software that works in with the thermal solution in the Software section, but the new hardware does a good job of keeping the laptop cool under pressure. Even during high workloads, the chassis showed no signs of overheating and only some warmth at the back-middle section of its underside.
Screen, ports, and that webcam
The Infinity Edge display on the XPS 13 comes as either a 4K, 3840 x 2160 touchscreen or an FHD non-touch option. I tested the 4K touchscreen configuration and my thoughts on touchscreen laptops haven’t changed much since reviewing the Spectre 13: it’s a useful input mechanism to have, especially when most devices in our lives now feature touchscreens, but it’s most useful on a device that can flex from its hinge upwards of 180 degrees.
However, I’m more frustrated that Dell considers a touch panel a premium feature when OEMs including HP, Lenovo, and others are throwing touchscreens on base laptop models. While I may not use a touchscreen on a regular laptop often, there are plenty of consumers who do and that feature is quickly becoming a necessity. It’s likely that Dell kept the touchscreen out of the base model to maximize thinness and battery life, and to keep its price tag at $999.
While barely-there bezels hug the top and sides of the XPS 13’s display, a larger bezel sits at its bottom holding the webcam and IR camera. Yes, Dell still insists on having the front-facing cameras at the base of the display, turning them both into up-nose cams. I rarely video chat on my laptops, but you won’t be able to escape the less-than-flattering angle that the webcam forces upon you if you do. It’s silly that we’re still talking about this in 2018, but alas, we are.
That also means Windows Hello facial recognition also subjects you to the webcam’s uncomfortable upward glance. But the good news is that Windows Hello works as promised even with this camera placement—it took milliseconds for the camera to recognize my face and unlock the screen, and only once was I poorly positioned enough that the camera couldn’t recognize my face. The bad news is minimal—you’ll have to see your face chin-first for a few seconds as you set up the biometric feature.
The circular power button at the top-right corner of the keyboard also incorporates a fingerprint sensor, letting you use your touch to turn on and unlock the device at once. I prefer more biometric authenticator options than not, so I was happy to see Dell including both on the XPS 13 laptop.
The new XPS 13 shuns USB Type A ports for more modern connections. It has one USB Type C port and two Thunderbolt 3 ports, as well as a microSD card reader, headset jack, and Noble lock slot. There’s also a nifty new battery gauge on the left side that shows the level of battery remaining in the device with a press of a tiny button.
As an ultrabook, the XPS 13 is meant to be an multi-purpose laptop and but most devices like these aren’t mistaken for gaming devices. But Dell made the new XPS 13 a bit better for gamers by making the Thunderbolt 3 ports support four-lane PCI connections, allowing users to connect external graphics cards to the device for a better gaming experience.
Keyboard and trackpad
The full-sized keyboard on the XPS 13 features chiclet keys with 1.2mm of travel and a buttonless trackpad directly underneath it. It was comfortable enough for me to use it as my main keyboard for more than a week, and I appreciated the clicky nature of the keys.
All of the mainstay keys are normally sized, and Dell added dedicated Page Up and Page Down keys with the directional keys at the bottom-right corner. Some find those keys indispensable and I understand why, but they often got in my way since they are half-sized keys that sit right on top of my beloved left and right arrow keys. Many times I hit either the Page Up or Down key when I wanted to hit one of the arrow keys to move one space to the side.
The Precision trackpad is smooth and perfectly fine to use. It’s my preferred input method over the touchscreen so I used it much more than others might. It’s quite responsive to full clicks and soft taps alike, as well as multi-point gestures.
The XPS 13 isn’t bogged down with a lot of bloatware, and some of Dell’s programs could be quite useful. You can use the company’s Power Manager software to control power and battery consumption with its many customizable settings and modes. Advance Charge can prolong the lifetime of the device’s battery by charging it to its fullest only during designated times, keeping the battery in a dormant state at all other times. If managing power is a priority for you, Peak Shift reduces power consumption during max usage periods and temporarily disables the AC adaptor and battery charger to avoid drawing too much unnecessary power.
While the XPS 13 already has a solid thermal management system built into the chassis, there’s a Thermal Management option in Power Manager that gives users more control over the inner workings of the laptop. Optimized, Cool, Quiet, and Ultra Performance modes handle the processor and fan different to produce a certain outcome—Optimized mode is the standard setting that produces a balanced performance, noise, and temperature relationship; Cool prioritizes heat management while Quiet puts reducing fan noise above all else; and Ultra Performance increases processor and fan speeds for more performance.
The new XPS 13 laptop performs like you’d expect another ultrabook with an 8th-gen Intel CPU would. With its quad-core Core i7-8550U processor, UHD Graphics 620, 16GB of RAM, and 512GB of PCIe storage, the XPS 13 performed slightly better than the HP Spectre 13 (which has the same processor) on nearly every benchmark. Onscreen GFX scores are deceiving—our XPS 13 had a 4K touchscreen whereas the Spectre 13 we tested had an FHD touchscreen, hence the higher frames-per-second scores for HP’s device. Offscreen tests show that the two devices are almost evenly matched.
I ran all of our tests on the Optimized thermal management mode, so the machine did not prioritize keeping the fans quiet over performing as well as it could. The notebook didn’t show much strain during our benchmark tests or during regular use, but the fans were noisy while the machine ran intense tests like Geekbench 4 and the graphics-based 3DMark trials (Even when running the tests with the laptop in Quiet mode, the fans emitted some noise, albeit softer than usual).
Dell achieved the device’s thin and light design by making most of the internal components non-upgradeable by the user. However, the SSD and battery are swappable, giving some users more freedom to upgrade or repair as desired.
The new XPS 13 laptop actually has a smaller battery than the previous model—a 54Whr battery instead of a 60Whr battery—but it still managed to last a while in our testing. The laptop stayed alive for just over 11.5 hours on our Wi-Fi test, which is slightly longer than Dell’s estimate and 1.5 hours more than the Spectre 13’s performance on the same test. On our graphics intensive test, the laptop lasted just over five hours, which is about the same as competing devices.
As with most ultrabooks, the more you it spec-out, the shorter the battery life becomes: Dell estimates that the base model of the XPS 13 with a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage will last nearly 20 hours on a single charge.
Dell comes back from behind
The XPS family is a highly praised one for a reason—it breeds laptops and convertibles with efficient yet attractive designs that house impressive internals that produce great performance. Dell didn’t bother fixing what wasn’t broken with the new XPS 13, but instead gave it a makeover that’s not solely focused on aesthetics. The new XPS 13 certainly isn’t boring to look at, but the design enhancements that make it more exciting also help it be slimmer, lighter, and more powerful than previous XPS devices of similar size.
I personally prefer a few things about the Spectre 13: its elegant design, the option to have a touchscreen in either FHD or 4K resolution, and the commonsense placement of its webcam. It’s also more affordable: you can configure the Spectre 13 to have the exact same specs as the XPS 13 we reviewed, and HP’s device costs about $450 less than Dell’s.
But the XPS 13 has a few things on the Spectre 13, including better battery life, two biometric login options, and useful power and battery management software. You get what you pay for with Dell’s device, and some will be willing to pay for those extra perks every time. It’s hard to recommend one over the other, the XPS 13 or the Spectre 13, because both are solid, stylish, and powerful laptops. For that reason, Dell succeeded—it updated the XPS 13 thoughtfully, elevating it to be a true contender among the rest of today’s popular ultrabooks.
- Updated, modern design.
- Can be configured to a 4K touchscreen.
- Windows Hello IR camera and fingerprint sensor.
- Thermal system keeps the device cool.
- Thunderbolt 3 ports support four-lane PCI connections.
- Solid performance.
- No USB Type A ports.
- FHD display option is non-touch.
- Page Up/Down and arrow keys step on each others’ toes.
- Fans can be noisy.
- When will we be rid of this ridiculous webcam placement issue?
First on Ars Technica