The last time we had a look at the Dell XPS 13 was a couple of years ago, back when the CPU of choice was a second generation Intel Core product. Not much has changed with the unit since then in terms of the way it looks, but it does have a much improved fourth generation Intel Core CPU running things. It’s an Ultrabook that’s definitely worth your time, but it still has a few issues that could be annoying.
- Vibrant Full HD screen
- Good battery life
- Swift overall performance
- Solid build quality
- Screen is very glossy
- Can get noticeably warm
- Annoying dynamic contrast changes
Dell's XPS 13 features aluminium and carbon fibre construction, and is blessed with looks that are appealling. It has some tiny drawbacks, in our opinion, but should nevertheless be considered if you're after an Ultrabook that has good build quality, fast performance, and long battery life.
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Build quality and features
There was an overwhelmingly positive vibe about this 13.3in Ultrabook when we showed it to people in the office. The looks and overall design of the product seem to be a hit, and the screen also encouraged a few words of praise from the crowd — it’s true, it is a nice screen — especially because it’s a touchscreen and people could touch and move tiles around the Windows 8 Modern UI interface.
What we also heard was that it feels a little heavy, yet well balanced — it tipped our digital scales at 1.38kg. It features a combination of machined aluminium and carbon fibre in its construction, and apart from those materials making the body feel solid, the finish on the carbon fibre adds a bit of grip that makes the unit feel reassuring to hold — there is little to no chance of it accidentally slipping out of your hand.
A slim profile makes the XPS 13 look sporty, and true to the minimalist nature of things that are sporty, there isn’t much to see along the sides. You get a couple of USB 3.0 ports (one on each side, which is useful), a combination headphone and microphone port, and a Mini DisplayPort.
There is also a button you can press that’s linked to a battery indicator, so you can easily see if the unit needs to be charged without having to log in and check the remaining time as reported by Windows. If only one or two lights on the battery indicator come on, then you should plug in the compact charger to replenish the notebook’s battery. The charger’s plug has a white light so that you can find it even in the dark, and you’ll have to unplug the charger from the wall if that light annoys you.
The left side has one USB 3.0 port, the headset port, and the power port.
The right side has the Mini DisplayPort, another USB 3.0 port, and a battery level indicator.
What’s missing from the base is an SD card slot, which would come in handy for getting photos off a camera in a quick fashion (or to add a little more storage to the unit), and there also isn’t an HDMI port, which would suit connections to a TV or projector easier than the included Mini DisplayPort. That said, the Mini DisplayPort could come in handy in a professional setting where a connection to a better-than-Full-HD monitor needs to be made.
Apart from that, you get usual features, such as a built-in webcam, dual-band Wi-Fi (though this is 802.11ac, which is faster than usual), and Bluetooth 4.0. The 802.11ac Wi-Fi performed well on our standard network, recording transfer rates that hovered around 20 megabytes per second on our 450Mbps router, using the 5GHz band. We also used the Bluetooth function effectively for streaming music to our Bluetooth-enabled stereo, though it did have some subsequent problems with pairing and we sometimes had to restart the machine to get the audio output working again.
The speakers are decent considering the size of the laptop, and should provide a reasonably enjoyable close listening experience.
Performance and battery life
Performance is fast thanks to a strong configuration that includes a fourth generation Intel Core i7-4500U CPU, 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM, and a 256GB solid state drive (SSD). Graphics are handled by the Intel HD 4400 chip that’s part of the CPU. In our Blender 3D test, the XPS 13 got a time of 44sec, while in our HandBrake DVD-to-MP4 conversion test it recorded 20min 12sec. These times are on par with what we’ve seen from other Ultrabooks that use the same CPU, such as Acer’s Aspire S7-392.
Graphics performance as judged by the latest 3DMark tests was quite good, too, with the Intel HD 4400 chip recording 4624 in the mid-range Cloud Gate test, and 630 in the high-end Fire Strike test. Both are slightly faster than what the Acer scored using the same chip.
As for storage, the 256GB SSD could take little time to fill up if you’re not selective in what you install and the data that you keep, but it’s fast. In CrystalDiskMark, it recorded a read rate of 513.8MBps, and a write rate of 335.6MBps. Both are great results. During general usage, the XPS 13 felt responsive, with applications launching quickly, and boot up time was a mere 7sec (the time it took the Ultrabook to cold boot to the Windows login screen). It woke up from sleep in about 2sec from the moment we lifted the lid.
Battery life ended up being very good, with the XPS 13 lasting 7hr 15min in our rundown test. In this test, we loop a video after we disable power management (that is, putting it on high performance and not letting the screen switch off or dim), enable Wi-Fi, and use the maximum screen brightness. With lower screen brightness and a balanced power profile it will last longer, but it will depend on the tasks you run, too. The battery is internal and not removable, which is what allows the form factor to be slim and the build to be solid.
The overall user experience is a good one, with the XPS 13 feeling mostly comfortable to use. However, it did take us some time to get used to the keyboard, which has rounded, isolated keys that have their letters printed smack-bang in the centre of the key. None of the keys are in non-standard positions, though, which meant we could easily hit the Delete and Backspace keys during the flow of our typing sessions when we made mistakes — on some laptops these keys can be located in slightly different positions, such as on the ASUS Zenbook UX301, which has the power button where the Delete key should be.
Key travel is impressive considering the thin nature of the chassis, but the feel of the hit is quite hard once the key stops travelling. We think the keys need a little more resistance on the way down to counter this feeling. If you type at night, you’ll appreciate the backlight, which looks good, and there are a couple of intensities to choose from. If the keys haven’t been hit after a short while, the light switches off, but it comes back on again if you move the touchpad (in addition to hitting a key).
The keyboard is good, but the keys tend to feel a little hard at the end of their travel. The glass touchpad also felt a little abraisive during our tests.
The touchpad is a large one (100x62mm), and it supports gestures such as two-finger scrolling and three-finger flicking. It was accurate during our tests, but the texture did feel a little too abrasive. Support for Windows 8 swipe-in gestures is included, though we found ourselves invoking these by mistake quite often. The pad is centred according the chassis rather than the space bar (though there's not much difference there).
Finally, the 13.3in touchscreen has a Full HD resolution and we love how vibrant it looks. Colours appear rich and the brightness is intensive enough to make the screen viewable in a well-lit office environment.
Unfortunately the touchscreen's Gorilla Glass overlay is very glossy. Reflections were always annoying, but especially so when there was a light source located behind us.
Because the edges of the screen have a rubber outline that helps seal the lid against the chassis when it’s closed, swipe-in gestures to bring up Charms or switch apps can feel irritating against your fingers.
Another annoying thing we noticed about the screen was a dynamic brightness change that occurred every time we switched from a dark screen to a bright screen. It had nothing to do with the adaptive screen brightness setting in Windows 8, which we disabled, and we couldn’t find a setting anywhere else regarding this slight change in luminance.
When using this Ultrabook in your lap, heat could end up being an issue. Though the fourth generation Intel Core CPUs run efficiently in terms of how much heat they put out, the XPS 13 can, nevertheless, get quite warm. The base has air vents that can be easily blocked if you use the XPS 13 in your lap or on a soft surface. A fan pushes air out of the chassis through vents that are located along the spine, and this air comes out in front the screen when the lid is fully open. The fan is audible when it’s running, but not as loud as it was on the older model we reviewed.
The Dell XPS 13 is very much a standard Ultrabook that has strong build quality, good battery life, and a vibrant, Full HD screen. We also like its fast storage. We’ll be picky, though, and say that the keys could use some more resistance in their downward travel, and also that the touchpad could stand to be a little smoother against the skin. We also wish that the screen wasn’t so glossy and that it didn’t exhibit dynamic brightness changes.
Pricing for the XPS 13 starts from $1499 ($1899 in New Zealand), which includes a Core i5-4200U and a 128GB SSD. The unit we reviewed, with the Core i7-4500U CPU and a 256GB SSD, costs $1999 ($2599 in New Zealand).