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

Taking a hint from TV-makers, the bezel narrows to nearly nothing, while performance gets a small Broadwell boost.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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8 min read

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.

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8.4

Dell XPS 13 (2015)

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.

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.

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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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I have not tried the 1080p non-touch version, and for $799, one could certainly make a case that losing touch is a worthwhile tradeoff. But when navigating Windows 8, I always find myself reaching for the screen at least a few times per session, so skip the touch at your own peril.

Interestingly, the thin bezel means there's no room for a webcam on the top edge of the screen. Instead, the camera moves to the lower left side, below the screen. In Skype tests, it worked fine, but the subject is shot in a nearly up-the-nose angle, and you're more likely to see the ceiling than the wall behind you.

Dell XPS 13 ports & connections

Video mini-DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance and battery

With a body this small, some ports and connections are simply going to have to go. Here you get a mini-DisplayPort connection, two USB 3.0, and audio and SD card ports. No HDMI, no Ethernet. You do, however, get something I think more laptops need, which is a battery meter on the left side, although the button you press to turn it on is too recessed and hard to hit.

Dell sent us a few optional accessories, which may make up for some of the omissions. The $59, AU$89 port adaptor is a small square box that connects via a built-in USB cable, and offers an HDMI output, Ethernet jack, VGA output, and one USB 2.0 port. The $107, AU$169 portable power companion is a USB-tethered 12,000mAh battery pack that looks and feels like a small portable hard drive.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This is our first opportunity to test one of Intel's new Broadwell Core i5 CPUs, which are the fifth generation of Core i-series chips. We've previously only tested the new Core M variant, which is a Broadwell chip for thinner, lighter, tablets, laptops, and hybrids, as featured in the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro in late 2014. We liked that the Core M allowed for inventive fanless designs, but it certainly felt more sluggish for everyday work tasks than a standard Core i5 would.

In this case, the Dell XPS 13 uses the new 2.2GHz Core i5-5200U. We compared it with with other 12- and 13-inch systems with 2014 Core i5 CPUs and found the Dell XPS 13 slightly outperformed the competition in our challenging multitasking test, and was highly competitive in single-app tests. There wasn't a huge overall difference between this and other standard fourth-generation Intel Core i5 CPUs, such as the one found in the Surface Pro 3 , but it was significantly faster than both the new Core M and an ultra-low-voltage Y-series Core i5 from 2014.

None of this is surprising, as Intel hasn't promised a radical performance (or battery life) boost from the new CPUs, just a steady evolution. In hands-on use, the XPS 13 felt fast and responsive, and definitely easier to use than the Core M Yoga 3 Pro. For nearly any mainstream task, from Office docs to HD video streaming to basic photo and video editing, this is more than enough power.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The latest version of Intel's integrated graphics is called HD 5500, and like previous versions, its not really meant for mainstream PC gaming. Many older games should work fine, but even scaling down the resolution down to 1,920x1,080, the XPS 13 ran Bioshock: Infinite at 13 frames per second, and Tomb Raider at 12.1 frames per second. That's at high detail settings for both, so dialing that down should yield better results.

Battery life was decent, if not at the same level as the ever-popular 13-inch MacBook Air. The XPS 13 ran for 7:02 in our video playback battery drain test, which was nearly the same as the Surface Pro 3 or the 13-inch HP Spectre X2, and nearly 90 minutes better than the Yoga 3 Pro. The lower-end version of the XPS 13, with a Core i3 CPU and lower-res 1,920x1,080 screen, may do even better.

Conclusion

For this nearly bezel-less design, the starting price of $799 is an excellent value, although you're very likely going to want to trade up to the better Core i5 CPU and the higher-resolution touchscreen, which puts this in the same territory as a premium system like the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Dell's revamped XPS 13 was one of the standout products at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, and in real life, it's practical and easy to use, even beyond the smart-looking redesign. While it would have been pleasing to see a bigger boost from Intel's new processors, it's nice to start the year with a high-quality laptop I can recommend nearly without reservation.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test (in seconds)

Dell XPS 13 (2015) 441Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 478Microsoft Surface Pro 3 523Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro 682HP Spectre 13 x2 715
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 236Dell XPS 13 (2015) 243Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 253Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro 263HP Spectre 13 x2 334
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 76Microsoft Surface Pro 3 108Dell XPS 13 (2015) 113Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro 142HP Spectre 13 x2 157
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 986Microsoft Surface Pro 3 448HP Spectre 13 x2 435Dell XPS 13 (2015) 422Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro 346
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

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8.4

Dell XPS 13 (2015)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 7Battery 8
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