On and off the Road with Dell’s New XPS 13

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  May 20, 2015

Like many IT industry analysts, I tend to use computing devices that emphasize mobility. Part of that is due to the job itself, which requires a significant amount of travel, but part is also a matter of preference. While I once owned and used desktop systems exclusively, when laptops became fully, comfortably mobile, I never looked back.

Most recently, I’ve been using and occasionally reviewing Dell Latitude and XPS models, including the original XPS 13 that the company released in 2012 which I considered the first Windows-based laptop to truly challenge (and, in many ways, surpass) Apple’s popular Macbook Air. At CES 2015 in January, I attended the Dell event that introduced their new Venue 8 7000 Android tablet and the fully redesigned XPS 13. Both highlighted notable new features and design points, so it was not terribly surprising that Dell took home six CES innovation awards, more than any other vendor.

When the company asked if I’d like to try out a new Dell XPS 13 for possible review, I was happy to oblige and I’ve been using the loaner at home, in the office and on business trips for the past month. The system I’m discussing includes a new generation (Broadwell) Intel Core i5-5200U 2.2 Ghz CPU, Intel HD 5500 graphics, a 256GB SSD, 8GB of RAM and Dell’s UltraSharp Quad HD+ (QHD+ 3200 x 1800dpi) Touch display. The system runs Microsoft Windows 8.1, upgradeable to Windows 10.

List price for the system is $1,400.00 or about $500 more than the base non-touch version of the XPS 13. The loaner isn’t the top line model – one with an Intel Core i7 processor and 512GB SSD is also available – but it’s more than adequate for my business needs.

XPS 13 evolution

So how does the new XPS 13 compare to the original 2012 model? Weight-wise, the new model weighs just 3 ounces less than the original, but there are some striking visual differences. The new version is smaller (11.98″ W x 7.88″ D vs. 12.4″ W x 8.1″ D) but the case corners are considerably sharper – nearly squared-off. The thickness is nearly the same with the new XPS 13 being slightly (about 1/16″) higher in front. In addition, the bottom of the new laptop case is smooth, machined aluminum – a stark contrast to the original’s black carbon fiber composite.

Open, the differences begin to multiply. While the original sported a smooth rubberized finish, the new XPS 13 interior utilizes black carbon fiber composite with a pleasant non-slip finish. The new unit’s keyboard is slightly smaller but doesn’t feel particularly crowded. The trackpad is slightly wider, allowing easy access.

The biggest difference, though, is in the display which, despite the smaller case (similar in size to 11″ laptops), is the same 13″ size as the original. Dell accomplished this by creating a much smaller bezel (5.2mm or less than half as thick as the original model’s 13mm bezel). The result is what the company calls an “infinity display” that mimics infinity swimming pools that appear to be suspended in mid-air.

The Quad HD+ touch display deserves additional attention. Not only does it offer higher definition than competitors’ products (4.4 million more pixels than HD+, 2.5 times more than Full HD and more than Apple’s 2880x1800dpi retina displays) but the Corning Gorilla Glass surface promises notable durability. Visually, the new XPS 13 is stunning – terrifically crisp (as you’d expect) with clear, rich colors and a 170º viewing angle.

The new XPS 13’s ports include two USB 3.0 ports (one with PowerShare), one mini DisplayPort, SD card reader, headset jack and Noble lock. The original XPS 13 was somewhat similarly outfitted but had just one USB 3.0 port (plus, one USB 2.0 port) and no SD card reader. The new XPS 13 also came with a small (2.5″ x 2.5″ x 0.5″) USB 3.0 Dell DA100 adapter which includes HDMI, VGA, Ethernet and USB 2.0 ports, a nice addition for business travel and for utilizing an external display or wired network.

Finally, the new system also included a Dell Power Companion, a rechargeable 12k mAh supply that weighs about 10 ounces and can be used to power the XPS 13 or charge it when it is in off mode. Along with inputs/output for laptops, the Power Companion includes two USB ports for charging phones and tablets.

Performance perspectives

How did the new XPS 13 do both in and out of the office? Though I don’t do benchmark tests (those are available in XPS 13 reviews on sites, including AnandTech, Endgadget and PC World), system performance is pleasingly fast. Booting-up from full-off requires roughly 15 seconds, and waking from sleep takes about a third of that time. Application performance is solid and dependable, including opening and viewing large images and video files. Connecting to public and private wireless networks was seamless.

For people on the go, battery life is a critical point, and my own experience found the XPS 13 with QHD Touchscreen delivering just under ten hours of work on a single charge. That’s a bit less than Dell’s claim of eleven hours but still better than I expected and more than enough for most work situations. Plus, the Dell Power Companion essentially eliminated the power concerns I’ve become used to with other laptops, especially when working on long flights or at events with minimal/non-existent charging options. Portability is obviously a key issue for mobile computing, and the XPS 13 did not disappoint. Size- and weight-wise, the new system is simple to pack and carry.

Final analysis

So what did I think of the new XPS 13 overall? In essence, Dell continues to deliver the goods in what it calls “ultimate experience” laptops. This XPS 13 is new in more ways than one, with the latest generation Intel Core i5 silicon, spectacular QHD+ Touch display, additional well thought out ports and adapter and valuable Power Companion charger. This all makes it an exceptional solution for mobile workers, but the machine is also professionally distinctive – something you’d be proud to open up in a business meeting.

Was there anything I disliked about the review system? A couple of points come to mind.

  • The slightly smaller keyboard was a bit uncomfortable at first and was also highly sensitive. Time and adjusting the settings addressed those points, but it took a while to sort out.
  • While the QHD+ display is the best I’ve ever seen in a laptop, using the touch features means regular cleaning or watching video through fingerprint smears, a common enough issue in other touchscreen devices.
  • Finally, the system I used offered excellent battery life for a touchscreen laptop, but users with more stringent power requirements might consider the non-touch XPS 13, which Dell says can deliver up to 15 hours of battery life.

Those points aside, just as it did with the original XPS 13, Dell has reset the bar on necessary and desirable features in a premium, highly portable laptop. It may be just a coincidence, but a couple of weeks after the new XPS 13 became commercially available, rumors began circulating about a major Macbook Air refresh planned for later this year. That would not be especially surprising given the XPS 13’s excellence in design and performance.

With this newest “ultimate experience” laptop and other products, such as the Venue 8 7000 tablet, Dell has assumed a leadership position in mobile computing development and design. Competing vendors, including Apple, would do well to get moving or risk being left even further behind.

© 2015 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.