Dell XPS 13 (2018) review: A redesign that's almost on the nose

07-dell-xps-13-2018

The webcam (still) sits below the screen. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite an all-around makeover of the physical design of the system, the camera remains stubbornly anchored to the blank expanse below the screen. That means any attempt to use it results in a less-than-flattering view, emphasising one's neck, chin and nostrils.

Unless, that is, you're attempting to type while you Skype. In that case, it's some giant fingers in the foreground, with your nostrils stuck in the background.

win-20180227-15-36-50-pro-2

A view from the nose-cam on the Dell XPS 13. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

If you're a regular video chatter, this may be a deal-breaker. As someone who does more typing and reading than chatting, I've been willing to overlook this particular quirk of the XPS 13, although this would have been a perfect opportunity to reimagine the layout, as some PCs now offer webcams that pop up from the top of the screen, or even from under the keyboard.

A touchy subject

Also high on my agitation list, the lower-end of two configurations of the XPS 13 we tested is missing a key feature found in nearly every even vaguely semi-premium laptop (aside from MacBooks) -- a touchscreen. According to the configuration options available on Dell.com right now, only the optional 4K display offers touch, which drives the starting price up to at least $1,599. Not only does that mean a touch-enabled laptop will cost a lot more, the 4K resolution also means a hit to battery life. You may not use a touchscreen on a Windows 10 ($148 at Amazon) laptop every day, but it's a feature that belongs in this price range, and anyone under a certain age practically expects every screen to be a touchscreen.

You'll also pay extra for the cool-looking new Alpine White woven glass fiber design. That's an additional $50, and includes a rose gold lid. Otherwise, you're getting a silver lid with a black carbon-fiber palmrest. The glass fiber is reportedly highly stain resistant, which is good for a white laptop surface, but I also miss the dark soft-touch finish on previous versions of the XPS 13.

But despite these quirks and annoyances, the XPS 13 is still a fantastic laptop, especially in its higher-end, touchscreen version. It's one of the few laptops that I found myself going back to again and again, for the very premium feel, excellent keyboard, and slim, highly portable design.

After working on laptops from HP, Apple, Asus and other companies with super-shallow keyboards, it's a refreshing change to have the hefty, deep keys of the XPS 13 keyboard. The glass touchpad is as good as Windows versions get, but as we've experienced in many other Windows laptops, two-finger scrolling is smoother in Microsoft's Edge browser than in the Google Chrome browser.

17-dell-xps-13-2018
Sarah Tew/CNET

While previous XPS 13 models kept full-size USB ports and an HDMI output even as other PC makers ditched these, the new XPS 13 finally gets on board the USB-C train, with three of those all-purpose ports, plus a headphone jack and microSD slot. So, be prepared to pack some dongles if you need physical connectivity. I did, however, like the Windows Hello fingerprint reader stealthily built into the power button, and the small light-up battery gauge on the left edge, which is a feature I'd love to see more often.

Along with the new body, there's an upgrade to the latest 8th-gen Intel Core processors. No surprises here -- both models we tested had excellent performance, with the Core i7 model outranking the Core i5 version. Battery life is where we saw the advantages of the lower-end model. With a less powerful CPU and standard HD screen, it ran for 12:18. The 4K display, as expected, ran for less time, at 9:08, although both can be considered very good scores. A version of the previous XPS 13 we tested late last year combined a higher-end Core i7 CPU and the lower-res screen for a similar 12-hour score. 

Screen star

The real star here is the screen. Both the HD and 4K displays looked clear, bright and colorful, if a bit on the glossy side. But they also really popped because of the superthin bezel around the display, especially now that the slim screen outline is white, which helps it further fade into the background.

06-dell-xps-13-2018
Sarah Tew/CNET

The webcam issue feels like a solvable problem. If we can put a webcam into a pair of cheap sunglasses, there's got to be a solution to this. Another easy fix that would make the XPS 13 much more attractive would be to give every configuration a touch screen.

The nearly bezel-free look is not as exclusive to the XPS 13 as it was a few years ago, as other PC makers have adopted the same look. But it's still relatively rare, and the excellent implementation here is likely to cause some serious laptop envy anywhere you pull it out. 

Cinebench R15 Multi-core

Dell XPS 13 (Core i5, 2018)
629
Dell XPS 13 (Core i7, 2018)
568
HP Spectre 13
517
Dell XPS 13 (Core i7, 2017)
401
Razer Blade Stealth
341
Microsoft Surface Laptop
320

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 4 (Multi-core)

Dell XPS 13 (Core i7, 2017)
13,385
Dell XPS 13 (Core i7, 2018)
12,961
HP Spectre 13
12,941
Dell XPS 13 (Core i5, 2018)
12,855
Razer Blade Stealth
8,028
Microsoft Surface Laptop
3,675

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video-playback battery-drain test

Dell XPS 13 (Core i5, 2018)
738
Dell XPS 13 (Core i7, 2017)
736
Microsoft Surface Laptop
621
Dell XPS 13 (Core i7, 2018)
548
HP Spectre 13
490
Razer Blade Stealth
482

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System configurations

Dell XPS 13 (Core i7, 2018) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel UHD Graphics 620; 512GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (Core i5, 2018) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (Core i7, 2017) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel UHD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Laptop Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Razer Blade Stealth Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 512GB SSD
HP Spectre 13 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel UHD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD