Dell XPS 13 review - It's good, but it's not the one
Dell’s compact, stylish MacBook Pro rival gets (almost) everything right
For a long time now, if you’ve been looking for the very best in slim, light laptops, you’ve had to turn - however reluctantly - to Apple's MacBook family. With great battery life, top quality displays, zippy performance that doesn’t deteriorate over time and cutting edge design, its laptops have delivered every time. But the challenge from Windows portables is steadily growing, and Dell’s latest laptop - the Dell XPS 13 - aims to overtake Apple and pull ahead. See also: what are 2015's best laptops?
From a design perspective, Dell has got it nailed. The laptop’s lid and base are finished in silky smooth aluminium that feels stiff enough to survive a nuclear strike - or at the very least being sat on on the sofa. The keyboard surround is clad in a sumptuous, soft-touch carbon-fibre effect plastic, and despite the bombproof build, the whole thing is very light, weighing a mere 1.27kg. That’s a smidge lighter than the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina display.
It outdoes the Cupertino crew on practicality, too, with two long rubber feet stretching across the width of the underside of the chassis, giving it a grippy footing on a desk or your lap, and an LED battery capacity indicator on left edge, activated by pressing a small button.
The keyboard is decent: it’s backlit, and has a light yet positive action, and the touchpad is pretty good, too. It’s accurate and, for those who prefer clicking to tapping, the integrated buttons work without fuss.
Dell XPS 13 review: screen quality
The real attraction of the XPS 13 is its so-called infinity touchscreen, which sees the bezel reduced to a width of a mere 5mm to the left, right and above the screen, producing a machine that, in terms of its overall size, feels more like an 11in laptop than a 13in one.
Indeed, its dimensions of 304 x 200 x 20.7mm are closer to those of a MacBook Air 11in (300 x 192 x 17mm) than its real rival, the MacBook Pro 13. The latter is 14mm wider, 19mm deeper and 310g heavier than the Dell XPS 13. Dell has certainly done sterling work in squeezing the screen into less space.
On first impression, the quality of the IPS panel used looks pretty good, too. The QHD+ resolution of 3,200 x 1,800 means everything looks incredibly sharp. (As always, though, do bear in mind that legacy software that hasn’t been optimised for high-DPI screens may be very fiddly, with miniscule buttons and tiny text.)
It’s exceedingly bright, reaching up to 385cd/m2, while the black level dips down as low as 0.15cd/m2 with the brightness settings pushed to maximum. Taken at face value, these numbers are extraordinary. But the reality is, however, somewhat less impressive: Dell employs aggressive dynamic contrast to brighten the display when the screen image is light, and to dim the backlight when the onscreen content is dark.
In fact, the XPS 13’s screen delivers a contrast ratio of 1,076:1. That’s absolutely fine, but what isn’t acceptable is that the dynamic contrast cannot be be disabled: essentially, you’re stuck with a screen that brightens and darkens noticeably when the screen content changes, something that’s been annoying enough for some customers in the US (where the XPS 13 has been available for a while) to send their laptops back.
More seriously, it makes it impossible to use the Dell XPS 13 as a colour-critical photo editing tool, since you’re never certain of the level of your backlight. The backlighting is also disappointingly inconsistent. In Alphr's screen tests, the panel was noticeably brighter in the top-left corner than elsewhere, and afflicted by visible backlight leakage in the bottom corners. For a machine costing this much, that simply isn’t acceptable.
Dell XPS 13 review: performance and specs
It’s a huge shame, since elsewhere the Dell XPS 13 is a perfectly capable ultraportable. Every model in the range employs Intel’s latest 14nm Broadwell CPUs, from the entry level £875 Core i5 model to the range-topping, £1,271 2.6GHz Core i7-5600U specification.
Dell sent Alphr the slightly less expensive 2.4GHz Core i7-5500U model for testing, and it performed admirably, achieving an overall score of 0.7 in our Real World Benchmarks. That’s a fraction slower than the Asus Zenbook UX303LA, which has the same CPU, but the difference is small enough to be academic. The whiny fan is aggravating, though, especially as it kicks into action every time you push the processor hard.
Still, it’s enough horsepower to run all but the most demanding creative applications without slowing down, and the rest of the specification is up to the mark as well. There’s 8GB of RAM and a 256GB Samsung PM851 M.2 SSD for storage, which is reasonably quick, gaining sequential read and writes speeds of 514MB/sec and 231MB/sec in AS SSD. It isn’t a patch on the MacBook Pro 13in’s drive, however, which reached speeds of 723MB/sec and 616MB/sec for sequential reads and writes.
Elsewhere, Intel’s integrated GPUs keep improving, so should you want to indulge in a little out of hours gaming, you’ll find the Dell XPS 13’s Intel HD Graphics 5500 more than capable. You won’t be gaming smoothly at the native resolution of the 3,200 x 1,800 display, or even at Full HD, but drop the resolution and details settings further down and you’ll be fine.
The XPS 13 achieved framerates of 44fps, 27fps and 4.9fps in our Low (1,366 x 768), Medium (1,600 x 900) and High quality (1,920 x 1,080) Crysis tests - that’s easily enough grunt for a little light gaming on the side.
Dell XPS 13 (2015) review: battery life and connectivity
Where the new, super-efficient 14nm processor ought to make its presence fully felt is battery life, but sadly that isn't the case. It lasted 11hrs 16mins in Alphr's standard light-use test, only marginally better than the last-generation, Haswell-based MacBook Pro 13 with Retina, and a long way behind the Asus Zenbook UX303LA, which kept on trucking for 13hrs 6mins. Still, anything over ten hours in this test for a laptop with this much power is good.
Connectivity is more disappointing, however, with only two USB 3 ports, a mini-DisplayPort out for video, an SD card slot and a 3.5mm headset jack, plus no Ethernet port of any description. Wireless isn’t all that impressive either, with 2x2 stream 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4LE, but no 4G option.
Dell XPS 13 review: verdict
To tell the story of Dell’s XPS 13 is to relate a story of what might have been. It’s a stunning design, of that there’s no denying: it’s attractive, beautifully built and practical, and Dell has squeezed into this glamorous chassis a 13in laptop that’s closer to most 11in portables in overall dimensions.
Despite its talents, this is a laptop that’s beset by little niggles, and none of these are more disappointing than the infinity display - it really should have been the star of the show. If all you want is a fast Windows laptop with a bright screen, and you don’t care about colour accuracy, it’s a fantastic piece of kit. But it simply isn’t as good as it should have been.
Dell XPS 13 specifications
|Processor||Dual-core, 2.6GHz Core i7-5500U|
|Size (WDH)||304 x 200 x 20.6mm|
|Sound||Realtek HD Audio, 3.5mm headset jack, stereo speakers|
|Pointing device||Touchpad, integrated buttons|
|Screen resolution||3,800 x 1,800|
|Graphics adaptor||Intel HD Graphics 5500|
|Optical drive type||No|
|USB ports||2 x USB 3|
|Networking||2x2 801.11ac Wi-Fi|
|Memory card reader||SD card|
|Other ports||3.5mm headset jack|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 64-bit|
|Waranty||1yr Pro Support and NBD warranty|
|Price inc VAT||£1,099|