Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1 – Form, Function, Flexibility

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  October 10, 2017

I’ve used and reviewed Dell’s XPS 13 solutions since the company introduced the line in 2012. At that time, the XPS 13 was a revelation—the first Windows-based product to successfully take on and in most instances, surpass, what many considered the industry’s best and lightest laptop—Apple’s MacBook Air.

Even better, since that first-generation Dell has generally stayed well ahead of Apple, as well as its Windows-based laptop competitors. Simply put: If you’re looking for a highly-portable Windows-based laptop that delivers superior performance, excellent battery life, eye-catching design and leading-edge features, it’s difficult to find something that matches, let alone surpasses the XPS 13.

Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1 – Over and under the hood

So when Dell recently offered me a review unit of the XPS 13 2-in-1 solution they introduced earlier this year, I was more than a little interested. Why so? Because this newest addition took the line in some decidedly new directions.

The new solution isn’t Dell’s first 2-in-1 or even its first XPS 2-in-1. Previous takes include the XPS 11 (a smaller, lighter form factor sporting a 360° hinge), the XPS 12 Convertible (featuring a pivoting display and stylus/pen) and the XPS 12 9250 with a removable UHD touchscreen display/tablet. Plus, the company offers 2-in-1s in its Latitude, Inspiration and Chromebook portfolios, mostly sporting 360° hinges.

But with this newest offering, Dell brings 2-in-1 functionality to one of its most successful products, along with notable component technologies. Chief among those are Intel’s “fanless” Y-series CPUs which support configurable thermal design profile (TDP) which Dell further leverages via its Dynamic Power Mode technology. So if an application requires a performance boost, the extra power is delivered in bursts whose amount/duration are balanced against the system’s internal and external surface temperature requirements.

As a result, the XPS 13 2-in-1 is designed to blend laptop-quality performance with conspicuously silent tablet functionality. Other features include integrated biometric security via a trackpad fingerprint reader and an IR camera (both linked to Windows Hello), a brilliant 13.3” FHD (1920 x 1080) InfinityEdge touch display (a 3200 x 1800 QHD option is also available), full-sized backlit keyboard, USB-C and Intel Thunderbolt data/charging ports and Dell’s latest Active Stylus Pen input device. In other words, the new XPS 13 2-in-1 shows how the company continues to think ahead and proactively evolve the XPS line.

Form, function and flexibility

So how did the XPS 13 2-in1 do in day to day use and informal tests? Very well, overall. First and foremost, it hasn’t lost any of the features and capabilities that make the XPS 13 so distinctive, including its brilliant InfinityEdge display and excellent backlit keyboard.

I initially had some concerns about whether the Intel Y-series CPUs could live up to their billing, but performance was crisp, responsive and capable of taking on both day-to-day business and consumer workloads. The maximum temperature I measured on the case was 85F, meaning the TDP and Dynamic Power Mode features were working smoothly.

There are a few issues worth noting. First and foremost is that the XPS 13 2-in-1’s 8+ hours of battery life lags what its traditional laptop sibling offers. That’s not surprising since the XPS 13’s battery life is among the best in its class, but the difference is significant enough that it’s worth keeping in mind. Another point is the XPS 13 2-in-1’s weight—2.73 pounds compared to the XPS 13’s 2.65 pounds—making it heavier than full-sized tablets. However, the XPS 13 2-in1’s full-on performance for PC applications and workloads mitigates that to a large degree.

What about the new features? Those were something of a mixed bag. For example, since the biometric fingerprint and IR camera features are linked indelibly to Windows Hello, enabling them locks the user fully into Microsoft’s applications and worldview. That’s not my preference, so I ended up disabling those features.

The 360° hinge that allows the system to be used in tablet or ‘tent’ mode feels and works solidly. That may seem simple but it’s an important issue since flimsy hinges portend lousy design and potential device failure. The 360° hinge also repairs one of the XPS13’s few flaws—its camera’s position at the bottom left hand corner of the display.

There are good reasons for this—mainly that there’s no room at the top of the XPS 13’s signature “Infinity Edge” display for a camera—but it also makes for odd video conferencing images. The XPS 13 2-in1’s camera is centered at the bottom of the display so flipping it into “tent” mode provides full-on front view images for video conferencing and calls. While you can’t use the keyboard to type notes in that mode, I don’t expect that issue to concern many customers.

Replacing traditional USB ports with USB-C and Thunderbolt ports seems primarily a design decision since USB-based peripherals are anything but dead. Dell kindly includes a dongle adapter with the XPS 13 2-in-1 but, since it only offers a single USB slot, you may decide to buy an aftermarket multi-slot adapter (I did).

The Dell Active Stylus Pen works well. Drawing and writing feels natural, though the lack of “drag” takes some getting used to. The pen also includes a palm-rejection feature that prevents the user’s hand from making accidental marks on a digital canvas, and supports software that allows the system to learn and recognize an individual’s handwriting. One minor downside is that there’s no magnet or other way to attach the pen to the system so it must be carried separately.

Final analysis

What’s the bottom line with XPS 13 2-in-1? Overall, Dell has succeeded in adding innovative, often valuable technologies to one of its most venerable commercial solutions without eliminating or degrading the features that have made it such a success.

Not every new feature or hybrid function will please and attract everyone. My own reaction to the biometric features’ lock-in with Windows Hello is proof of that. In addition, I expect that graphic artists and similarly-inclined users are more likely to appreciate Dell’s Active Stylus Pen than many others.

That said, there’s also a lot to like about the XPS 13 2-in-1. Dell preserved what’s great about the XPS 13 while embracing new technologies and improving core features. The result is a new solution that is more flexible and functional than previous generation XPS 13 offerings. In a world where adaptability has long been a critical attribute, with the XPS 13 2-in-1 Dell has succeeded in ensuring that the XPS line will continue to survive and thrive.

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