Dell XPS 13 (2015) review: Stunning screen, compact design make XPS 13 the first great laptop of 2015

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The Good Dell's revamped XPS 13 has a nearly borderless display and a very small body for a 13-inch laptop, plus the latest Intel CPUs.

The Bad Upgrades can get expensive; a touchscreen isn't included by default; the boost from the new CPU is minimal.

The Bottom Line This new Dell XPS 13 is the first great laptop of 2015, but it owes that title more to a smart design revamp than Intel's new processors.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Battery 8

It takes a lot to move the needle on laptop design. Hybrids have proved inventive over the past few years, with Yoga-style systems and the slick Surface Pro line redefining what a portable PC can look like. But for clamshells that don't swivel or twist, the flagship design may still be Apple's MacBook Air, which is already several years old.

Dell now steps to the forefront with a laptop design tweak that feels so obvious, it's a wonder we haven't seen it before. Taking a cue from the past few generations of television design, the screen bezel, the outer border of glass and aluminum that surrounds the display, has been reduced to mere millimeters. Dell calls it the infinity display, and describes it as "virtually borderless."

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's not truly borderless (a development I'm sure is not too far off), but the difference between this and the previous-generation XPS 13 is striking, and the same can be said comparing this to any other high-end 13-inch laptop or hybrid, from the MacBook Air to the Yoga 3 Pro . This allows the chassis to be smaller than other 13-inch laptops, fitting a 13-inch display into the same body size as an 11 or 12-inch laptop.

At the same time, this is an important laptop for more reasons than just the thin display bezel. This is the first laptop we've tested with one of Intel's new fifth-generation Core i-series CPUs, also known by the codename Broadwell. The new Core i3/i5/i7 processors are just hitting systems in early 2015, and will be found in most new PCs going forward.

The new Dell XPS 13 starts at $799 in the US, £799 in the UK and AU$1,499 in Australia, which gets you some decidedly entry level (but still decent) specs, as outlined below.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Our review model trades up from the entry-level Core i3 CPU and 128GB SSD flash drive configuration to a Core i5 and 256GB SSD respectively. Just as notably, the 1080p non-touch display in the $799 model has been replaced with a 3,200x1,800 touchscreen one, all for a total price of $1,399 (£1,099 in the UK or AU$2,099 in Australia). Premium territory to be sure, but the low starting price for the same excellent build quality and design makes it tempting for mid-price shoppers.

The latest Intel processor performs fine in its first time out, with decent battery life and speed, but it's not blowing any systems with last-gen CPUs out of the water. It's not the quantum leap you might be expecting from Intel's marketing hype -- maybe it'll get better as Microsoft and software makers optimize for it -- but it's a far sight better than the low-voltage Core M Broadwell chip we test drove late in 2014. That one, designed for super-slim laptops and tablets, didn't live up to our performance or battery life expectations.

If you gauge performance and battery expectations accordingly, there's little to nothing with which to be disappointed, and quite a lot to love. You'll be looking at the new XPS 13 because it packs a big screen into a small body, and, operating system aside, is almost what most people would think of as their ideal MacBook Air redesign. So long as you invest in the worthwhile CPU, screen and storage upgrades -- we'd recommend something close to our $1,400 review config -- the Dell XPS 13 is the first great laptop of 2015.

Dell XPS 13 (2015)

Price as reviewed $1,399, £1,099, AU$2,099
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch 3,200x1,800 touchscreen
PC CPU 2.2GHz Intel Core i5-5200U
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz
Graphics 3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500
Storage 256GB SSD
Optical drive None
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit)

Design and features

At first glance, this XPS 13 doesn't look all that much different than previous versions. The last version we looked at was in early 2014, and both that model and this one have a similar flat silver/aluminum top lid, with gently rounded corners and a circular logo stamped right in the center. We jokingly called the older XPS the DellBook Air, and the comparison is still apt, even if this version is closer to the 11-inch Air in overall footprint.

Side by side with a 13-inch MacBook Air, the difference is striking, the Air's thick bezel standing out like a sore thumb. Dead space surrounds the MacBook's keyboard, at least compared to the tightly packed interior here. This is much closer in physical footprint to the 11-inch version of the MacBook Air, and while most of the interesting new designs of late have involved hybrids that flip or fold into tablets, this is a rare case of a forward-looking design built firmly around the idea of a clamshell laptop.

The 11-inch MacBook Air, followed by the XPS 13 and 13-inch Air. Dan Ackerman/CNET

While the outer surface is matte aluminum, the inside is basic black, with a subtle dark pattern over the wrist rest and black keys set into a black keyboard tray. The keys are backlit, which is a welcome bonus is a system this thin and small. While on the shallow side, the island-style keys are responsive and well-spaced for touch typing. Media functions on the F-key row are reversed, which means you can adjust the volume and screen brightness without having to hold down the Fn key.

The large clickpad-style touchpad is similar to what we've seen on recent high-end Dell systems. It works fine for basic navigating and tapping or clicking, but I found the all-important two-finger scroll to be less smooth than I'd like (or not as smooth as one would expect from a MacBook). Navigating up and down long websites often sent me to the touchscreen to flick my way through, but if you go for one of the less expensive non-touch configurations, you're out of luck.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 13.3-inch display is the first thing you notice about the XPS 13, largely because of its nearly borderless edge-to-edge design. The screen in our test system is the higher-end of two options, a 3,200x1,800 touch panel, versus a 1,920x1,080 non-touch version in the sub-$1,000 configurations. The higher-end version looks clear and bright, with excellent off-axis viewing angles, and the better-than-1080 resolution means you likely won't see individual pixels or a screen door effect no matter how close to the screen you get.

Other 13-inch laptops have jumped to this resolution, notably Lenovo's Yoga Pro line, and some 15-inch screens are now full 4K 3,840x2,160. These higher resolutions are overkill for most users, and can hit both performance and battery life, but they can also be very useful for photo and video editing, or just to maximize screen real estate. Many common apps, and Windows 8 itself, scale well to the higher resolution.