Dell XPS 13 review: 2015’s best Ultrabook

The Dell XPS 13 is a premium Ultrabook. Dell designed it to show off what it can do with the format. It does that with style. You won’t find a better Windows 8.1 clamshell laptop. This is the first Dell PC I’ve been excited about in a long time.

For a while it looked as if traditional Windows laptops were a thing of the past. The main mobile computing action moved to smartphones, tablets and hybrids.

Microsoft muscled in on the territory with its Surface and laptop-like Surface Pro tablets. Meanwhile Apple MacBook sales took off.

The Dell XPS 13 addresses everything you didn’t like about conventional Windows laptops. Well, almost everything. It’s lightweight and slim. It has a 13-inch screen but is smaller than my 13-inch MacBook Air and as powerful as a MacBook Pro.

Dell sent me the NZ$2500 top-of-the-line model with an Intel i7 processor, 256GB of solid state storage and 8GB of Ram.

Bright, sharp, glorious display

From the moment I opened the box it was clear this is special. The Dell XPS 13 display is glorious with 3200 by 1800 pixels. It’s bright and sharp. Too bright at times. On a night flight I worried about waking fellow passengers and tried to dial the brightness down. I couldn’t find out a quick way to do this, so ended up closing the computer down.

On the positive side images look great and, for the most part, text is easy to read. We’ll revisit this point later.

There’s a lightweight aluminium frame with almost no gap between the edge of the screen and the edge of the lid. That’s the bezel in laptop-maker jargon. The small bezel means the case is about the size of other computer makers’ 11-inch models. In practical terms it means it fits on a tray table on a business class flight.

One curious aspect of the tiny bezel is the webcam isn’t in the normal spot at the top of the screen.

This was noticeable the moment I powered up the computer because Dell uses facial recognition software to replace the traditional Windows password. The camera looks for your face, then asks you to centre your image. I had to hunt for the camera, located under the screen on the left to get this to work.

Intel i7 processor

Dell’s processor choice is interesting. The Intel i7 is fast by any standard. It is fan-less which makes for a quiet computer and uses Intel’s Broadwell design, which means better battery life.

Better than what? Dell says you can get 11 hours from the XPS 13. That may be true if you crank down the screen brightness and don’t overtax the chip. I found it lasted about nine hours, enough for a normal day’s work if you don’t push it.

If I sat and worked non-stop the battery would fade after a few minutes more than six hours. That’s less battery life than I get from an 18-month-old MacBook Air, but still good considering the grunt inside the box.

Dell’s keyboard is good enough for most work. The keys are smaller than I like and I found typing is a touch more cramped than is comfortable. Sometimes the keys don’t feel as if they move enough. However, I’m sure I could adapt if this was my main computer. The touchpad is excellent, the best I’ve seen in a Windows laptop.

Touchscreen are something you love or hate. I get fingerprints on my MacBook Air screen after spending time on a touchscreen computer, but for the most part I find I get wrist pains lifting my hand from the keyboard to point and touch the display.

My only serious niggle with the XPS 13 isn’t Dell’s fault. Windows 8.1 still struggles to use high-resolution screens sensibly. Often apps don’t scale and you find yourself staring at microscopic type. That’s something I don’t see on a Mac with a Retina display.

Dell XPS 13 verdict

Dell has managed to overcome all the things that annoy me about Windows laptops. This one is small, light, powerful, has a great screen and day-long battery life. For all these reasons it gets three thumbs up.

Even so it’s not the right machine for me. Although if I was planning a move back to Windows I’d consider this ahead of the Surface Pro 3 purely because of the better keyboard and trackpad.

Most of the time I use a word processor and a browser. These apps don’t require i7 grunt and the battery life trade-off that entails. There are days I need the 10 hours or more I can squeeze from my MacBook Air.

5 thoughts on “Dell XPS 13 review: 2015’s best Ultrabook

    • It isn’t a simple head-to-head choice.

      Put aside the question of Windows versus OS X, you can run Windows on a MacBook. The MacBook design is all about mobility. It doesn’t have a powerful processor, but it is lighter and smaller. The Dell XPS 13 is far more powerful and can handle heavy duty processing. It also has a touch screen.

      For my needs as a journalist, which mainly means writing with a little CMS, web design and photo tweaking, then the MacBook is a better choice. If I wanted to edit video, handle Photoshop, or do serious number crunching then I’d pick the Dell.

        • A good point. There is a $1700 version with a lower resolution screen and an i5 processor, but the same battery. You won’t get much sense out of Dell about battery life though, according to the web site, all three configurations have “up to 15 hours battery life”. Realistically I reckon you’d get another hour to 90 minutes on the lower spec model. But that’s a guess, not science.

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