Dell XPS 13 – Third Time and Still Charming

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  February 8, 2017

As part of my job, I test new endpoints pretty regularly, especially notebooks. That’s mainly since, despite challenges in PC markets, notebooks remain go-to productivity devices for hundreds of millions of consumers, mainstream business workers managers and executives.

My work also provides me the opportunity to consider how vendors are faring in terms of competitiveness, creativity and design leadership. I’d argue that during the past half-decade there’s been a substantial shakeup that has resulted in Dell moving decisively forward in terms of notebook quality and innovation. The reason for that shift? The substantial revitalization of the company’s portfolio that began with the 2012 introduction of the XPS 13.

After testing the latest generation XPS 13 it seems likely that Dell’s notebook leadership position isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Historical context

Before getting into my review, let’s consider the state of notebooks leading up to the launch of the original XPS 13 and what’s happened since then. In 2011, the Wintel PC market was in a state of shock due to key events in the two previous years; Apple’s 2009 introduction of its Macbook Air and the 2010 launch of the iPad, which inspired then-CEO Steve Jobs to claim the “post-PC era” had arrived.

Coming on the heels of its 2007 iPhone launch, Apple and Jobs were on an obvious roll, but the notable lightness and battery life offered by the Air and iPad also set them apart from conventional notebooks that were then available. Add in the fact that, like companies in virtually every other industry, PC makers were struggling with the subprime mortgage meltdown and resulting global financial crisis, and the PC marketplace was set for major disruption.

That didn’t mean that an industry that was selling about a million PCs per day was willing to go quietly. Intel and other component vendors were particularly aggressive in developing new products and pricing schemas. In fact, Intel’s “Ultrabook” campaign, which aimed to inspire slimmer notebooks featuring substantially better battery life and graphics capabilities, helped inspire OEMs to new, innovative heights.

Enter XPS13

In fact, the first generation XPS 13 that Dell launched in 2012 was its initial Ultrabook. However, other recent company notebook solutions, like the Studio and Adamo, suggested that Dell was after substantially bigger game. While some other vendors went after Apple by aping the Air’s design with cheaper components and pricing, the XPS 13 took a considerably different and more adventuresome tack.

For example, though the XPS 13’s form factor was that of a 12-inch notebook, Dell was able to fit in the same 13.3 inch 1366 x 768 resolution display that Apple used in its 13-inch Air. Dell’s design group also sponsored pioneering carbon fiber development, allowing the XPS 13 to be lighter and run cooler than many competing products. Finally, Dell launched a developer-aimed program, Project Sputnik, whose core offers were XPS 13 notebooks running Ubuntu Linux.

In other words, Dell wasn’t trying to copy the MacBook Air. Rather, it planned to surpass Apple in terms of design sophistication and product quality. That is the goal the company has pursued and, arguably, achieved since 2012.

Dell didn’t rest on its laurels after the success it enjoyed with the first gen XPS 13. Instead the company has continued to deliver new versions of the platform incorporating the latest/greatest innovations from PC component vendors, including new generations of Intel Core processors, enhanced memory, SSD storage, and high resolution touch displays with Corning Gorilla Glass. The company has also expanded the support services available to XPS13 owners as I’ll discuss later.

The latest (and definitely greatest) XPS 13

I’ve road-tested two previous XPS 13 generations: the original L321X model introduced at CES 2012 with a 1366 x 768 non-touch display, and the 2015 9343 model featuring a 5th gen Intel Core “Broadwell” processor, 8GB of RAM, 512GB SSD drive, Windows 10 and a 13.3 inch 3200×1800 HD touchscreen.

The new XPS 13 evaluation unit that Dell provided is a high-end 9360 model with Intel’s 7th gen Core i7 “Kaby Lake” processor, 16GB of RAM, 512GB PCIe SSD, a Thunderbolt 3 (with USB C support) port that replaced the mini-DisplayPort on earlier systems, and 3200X1800 QHD+ Infinity Edge touch display. There’s only one newer model that Dell launched at CES this year: the 9365 2-in-1 which utilizes a “Kaby Lake” Core i7-7Y75 CPU with passive cooling and a flexible hinge for folding over into tablet mode.

My evaluation system also includes a Killer 1535 WLAN card (with features designed for gaming enthusiasts) and an upgraded 60WHr battery (the previous gen XPS 13 sported 56WHr batteries). Additionally, Dell provided access to its Premium Support which the company says is the industry’s only consumer service combining automated support with 24X7 access to technicians and onsite service for unresolved hardware and software issues.

Out of the box, the new system worked flawlessly, offering the same solid keyboard action and responsive glass smooth trackpad I was used to in the 2015 model. Start-up is pleasurably swift—less than 15 seconds—and there’s minimal lag time for launching most applications. That’s hardly surprising given the new Core i7 processor and substantial 16GB of RAM, but that crisp performance makes browsing with 10+ open tabs a breeze and photo and video applications a pleasure to use.

The 9343 XPS 13 I tested in 2015 and the new system offer the same display resolution, which is also great for working with or viewing photographs and video. That resolution is also miles ahead (5X+, in fact) of the original L321X model XPS 13 I tested in 2012. Dell’s patented InfinityEdge display with its remarkably minimalist bezel offers a touch of design class that competitors have been unable or unwilling to emulate.

Along with the Thunderbolt 3 port mentioned above, the new XPS13 offers two USB 3.0 (5Gbps) Type A ports (one with PowerShare), a headphone jack and SD card reader. I mention this as a practicality since some vendors (Apple, in particular, in its new MacBook Pro) have abandoned USB 3.0 for Thunderbolt-only configurations.

Those vendors may consider themselves forward thinking, but squeezing out USB 3.0 or, rather, making it available only with the addition of a dock or dongle is likely to be painful for the tens of millions of customers utilizing USB 3.0 based peripherals. I applaud Dell for opting to continue supporting USB 3.0 in this XPS 13 generation. It won’t last forever with form factors continuing to shrink, but I believe it’s a decision the company’s existing and prospective customers will appreciate.

The battery life this new system offers is excellent, though the high-end Core i7 processor and QHD+ display both draw more power than XPS 13 models with Core i5 or i3 CPUs and lower resolution FHD AG (1920 x 1080) displays. I personally didn’t have any issues with the new system’s battery life, but those who are battery-concerned or constrained should consider other models. I’d also recommend the Dell Power Companion, an optional 12,000mAh backup battery for the XPS 13 that can also be used to charge phones and other USB C compatible devices.

Finally, a couple of thoughts on Dell’s Premium Support services. Practically since its introduction, the XPS 13 has intrigued and satisfied discerning consumer and professional customers. In fact, the first gen XPS 13 models arrived just as businesses were coping with employees who preferred greater flexibility in choosing the PCs they used at work.

Providing the same sophisticated product diagnostics and handy onsite repairs for the XPS 13 that they do for their workplace-focused Latitude solutions shows how Dell recognizes that the lines between consumer and professional notebooks has become as thin as the bezels of its InfinityEdge displays. The critical point is that customers have access to the services they need, including XPS 13 owners who require the highest levels of support. Dell’s Premium Support services provides exactly that.

Final analysis

Does the new Dell XPS 13 have any shortcomings? As some other reviewers have mentioned, the web cam’s position under the lower left corner of the display can make video conferencing a bit awkward. But it’s a minor issue, at best, and part and parcel of the display design. Given a choice between the elegant InfinityEdge and a top bezel wide enough to accommodate a center-positioned web cam, I’ll take the former.

Some reviews of Dell’s latest XPS 13 have also deemed it an “incremental upgrade” over the previous generation, and that assessment is at least partly accurate. Lab tests suggest that Intel’s latest Core chips, along with battery and other component enhancements enable the new XPS 13 to deliver a 10%-20% improvement in some performance metrics. That may not entice owners of systems that are a year or so old but these enhancements and attractive pricing should make the new XPS 13 attractive to owners of earlier models.

Dell’s mix of continually improving value and performance also sets the company further apart from competitors, particularly Apple. The company’s latest upgrade of its venerable MacBook Pro line generated numerous controversies, from the aforementioned elimination of USB 3.0 ports to Apple’s decision to utilize 6th gen Intel Core chips rather than the “Kaby Lake” processors that arrived just weeks after the system’s launch to contested battery problems that led to Consumer Reports refusing (for the first time ever) to endorse the new MacBook Pro.

It would be a mistake to say that Apple has forgotten how to make compelling notebook and desktop endpoints, but it could be that those products may interest the company less than their signature iPhones and burgeoning service offerings. Indeed, while Apple reported “record” sales of Macs in its most recent quarter, that segment grew just 1% (in units sold) YoY, and accounted for less than 10% of the company’s Q1 2017 revenues.

However, that’s still substantially better than the -19% drop in iPad units sold during the same period. So what has happened to the “post-PC era” that the iPad supposedly heralded? Despite changes to the line, including developing larger “Pro” models, the iPad remains a poor platform for the productivity and creativity tasks that notebooks and desktops are designed to facilitate. That doesn’t mean that the PC market is a place of endless joy and optimism. With global units sales off about 20%+ from their historic highs, vendors along with their partners and suppliers have been under pressure.

However, some, including Dell, have responded to these challenges better than others. In its most recently released Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker, market analyst firm IDC noted that during Q4 2016 Dell shipped just over 11 million notebooks and desktops globally (the first time it did so since 4Q11), marking growth of 8.2%. Moreover, Dell enjoyed positive year-on-year growth in every global region thanks to strong notebook volumes and positive desktop sales.

Its newest XPS 13 highlights how Dell is prospering while so many of its competitors struggle and remain under fire. By developing a platform that meets the stringent requirements of professionals and consumers, then upgrading it with revolutionary technological advances, Dell has built a notebook line that delivers both exceptional customer satisfaction and substantial commercial success.

These new products are clearly the latest and greatest examples of the XPS 13 line, but if history is a guide, future generation Dell solutions will eventually, naturally surpass them.

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