Dell XPS 13 (2017): A great laptop, improved even more
Update: There’s now a newer version of this laptop, the Dell XPS 13 (2018), which features a redesigned chassis, and a new pristine white and rose gold exterior. The new model has dropped the USB-A connections in favour of two USB-C ports, and there are a few other significant upgrades that are much less obvious at first glance. To find out what we think of the new model, read our full review.
Original review continues:
They say you should put your money where your mouth is, and that’s exactly what I did when I saw the Dell XPS 13 at CES 2015. Squeezing a 13.3in screen into what is, for the rest of the industry, a 12in chassis remains a magical achievement. That its major sleight of hand is to reduce the bezels to almost zero, and in doing so create a luxurious edge-to-edge screen, only adds to its desirability.
That’s why I chose it as my work laptop over 18 months ago. Despite a bruising existence of being thrust in a rucksack each day, and the occasional trip to Las Vegas, it’s holding up exceptionally well. Still, I was curious whether Dell’s latest update to its iconic laptop would make me keen to upgrade.
First let’s tackle the number of major changes Dell has made to the design. Which is, a big fat zero. There is now a 2-in-1 model with a lid that rotates through 360 degrees, much like Lenovo’s Yoga laptops, but the basic XPS 13 design remains nigh-on identical.
Fiddling with perfection
Compared to my original XPS 13, there have been minor tweaks both inside and outside. The micro-HDMI port of the first model was replaced by a USB Type-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support last year, so if you’ve invested in a Thunderbolt-toting monitor or peripheral then you’ll be delighted. For those, like me, who use that micro-HDMI port to connect to a slightly older monitor, an adapter is the only choice, with no other video outputs available.
If you have £400 or so to spare, though, take note of Dell’s Thunderbolt Dock TB16. Complete with 180W power supply, this has enough might to charge the XPS 13, plus the bandwidth to feed three Full HD displays, two 4K displays or a single 5K unit such as the Philips 275P4VYKEB. With just one cable to contend with, this will neaten up your desk at a stroke.
It’s not the prettiest object, stemming from the solid-cube-of-black-plastic school of design, but I’d be willing to live with this for the extra connectivity it provides. Namely two USB 2 ports, three USB 3 and Gigabit Ethernet. You do get two USB 3 ports on the XPS 13 itself, one on either side, plus the still-useful SD card slot. There’s also a single 3.5mm headset jack, a battery gauge button and indicator (which I’ve used twice in the past 18 months) and the power input. Aside from the thoroughly average speakers built into the sides, that’s your lot.
This means that anyone looking for a wired connection to a network will again need an adapter or dock, but the 802.11ac Wi-Fi Dell includes provides a solid connection. The relatively small disappointment here is that Dell sticks with a 2×2 MIMO antenna. There’s Bluetooth 4.1 as well, but no room for a SIM slot.
Kaby Lake factor
Dell also upgrades the key specs inside, with our model including a seventh-generation (Kaby Lake) Intel Core i7-7500U. This quad-core chip runs at 2.7GHz with a Turbo Boost to 3.5GHz, so sits near the top of Intel’s mobile range, and a score of 50 in our benchmarks means the updated XPS 13 is fast enough for all but the most demanding tasks.
It’s a modest boost over the previous Dell XPS 13, based on a sixth-generation Core i7-6500U processor, which scored 46 overall in our benchmarks. It might have done a little better if Dell had submitted a unit with 16GB of RAM – the maximum it offers – but I’d be most tempted to upgrade the SSD. You can buy the XPS 13 with anything from 128GB to 1TB of storage, but be careful. The bottom-end model’s 128GB SSD is a slower SATA drive, so not only will it become rapidly full but it will feel slower than the NVMe drives Dell otherwise uses. Even though it costs £999 and includes a perfectly good Core i5-7200U processor, the £999 offering is best avoided. If you want 1TB of storage, though, you’ll have to pay £1,699 – albeit with 16GB of RAM and a touchscreen. Amazon UK have the 256GB at £1,081 (Americans can go via Amazon US they have the 128GB at $829).
Dell constantly switches configurations and provides offers on its website, but expect to pay around £1,400 for what I would consider the sweet spot: a 512GB SSD and 16GB of RAM. Coupled with the i7-7500U, that’s enough power and storage to comfortably get you through the next three years. Notably, you can upgrade the Dell XPS 13’s SSD yourself, so unlike most modern laptops, you aren’t limited to what you can afford at the time of purchase.
With the upgrade to Kaby Lake, I also hoped for improved battery life, but it’s actually a little worse. Where the previous version lasted for 7hrs 58mins in our video-rundown test – we set screen brightness to 50%, switch off Wi-Fi and set a looped video running – this time it gave up after 7hrs 46mins.
That may sound at odds with Dell’s promise of “up to 22 hours, 21 minutes of continual use”, but that’s with the Full HD screen rather than the 3,200 x 1,800-resolution model we tested. This has a telling effect on life, with Dell’s own official tests showing that an XPS 13 equipped with a Core i3 processor and Full HD screen at 40% brightness can indeed last for 22hrs 21mins in MobileMark 2014; but that drops to 13hrs 15mins with a 3,200 x 1,800 screen and Core i5 processor.
This makes your choice of screen all the more crucial. I opted for the 3,200 x 1,800 display back in 2015, but that’s only because the higher-spec models tend to include it. A Full HD, 1,920 x 1,080 resolution suits the 13.3in screen size perfectly well, and means you avoid the occasional problems with tiny system text.
Dell sent our review sample with the higher-resolution display, and as expected from previous XPS 13 models, this performed well in our technical tests. It covers 92% of the sRGB gamut and reached a peak brightness of 290cd/m2, and is a joy to gaze at. (Until you think about all that battery life it’s consuming.)
Our review sample also included touch support, and while this worked well, it should be seen as a bonus rather than a must-have. It adds 90g to the unit’s weight, up to 1.29kg from the non-touch 1.2kg, and while I’ll admit that it can be useful to reach out and touch – especially when web browsing – most of the time the excellent, wide touchpad suffices.
You may also be tempted by the Rose Gold model of the XPS 13 that Dell offers. Here, personal taste very much applies, but I wasn’t tempted when I saw it on show at this year’s CES, simply because a solid mass of faux gold can end up looking tawdry. Dell’s UK arm appears to agree, with only one configuration available in Rose Gold from dell.co.uk at the time of writing.
Laying my hands on the latest XPS 13 reminded me of many things that I still love about this laptop. The design remains a phenomenon: sleek and stylish without pretention, with a high-quality display that very nearly lives up to Dell’s “InfinityEdge” branding.
The keyboard is also a joy to type on. The only design annoyance is the mediocre webcam that sits underneath the screen – hardly the optimum position for conference calls. Gamers will also be frustrated by the Intel HD Graphics 620 chip inside; you’ll have to drop right down in resolution if you want to play any recent 3D games.
If gaming is an interest, you’d be far better served by the excellent Razer Blade Stealth, which offers an optional graphics enclosure for £200. Just add this, and your graphics card of choice, and serious gaming is within your grasp.
So, should you buy the XPS 13? As the logo on the previous page rather betrays, this remains my favourite laptop for running Windows 10. It’s more than fast enough, battery life remains a strength, and even after two years the design remains unsurpassed.
The competition is mounting, though, whether from offbeat pretenders such as Razer or more conventional rivals such as Asus with its ZenBook 3. Tellingly, both beat Dell for value. Asus offers a ZenBook 3 with a 512GB SSD, Core i5-7200U and 8GB of RAM for £1,065 inc VAT; Razer sells a Stealth powered by a Core i7-7500U with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD for £1,350.
Compare that to the exact system we put to test here: a Core i7-7500U, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD currently costs £1,299. That would seem far too expensive but for the 13.3in, 3,200 x 1,800 touchscreen display. And Dell’s luscious, bezel-less screen remains a decisive factor – both Asus and Razer’s laptops use a 12.5in display but their chassis are a similar size as the XPS 13.
The XPS 13 remains a fantastic choice. No doubt. Personally, there isn’t quite enough here to make me so green-eyed I must upgrade, but I do quite fancy a larger SSD. Time to dig out the screwdriver.