Dell wowed the crowds at CES 2015 with its newly redesigned XPS 13 laptop, which squeezed a 13-inch laptop into what felt very close to an 11-inch body, and more importantly, cut the bezel surrounding the screen down to the barest minimum.
We said at the time that this was a system that moved the needle on laptop design, taking a cue from the past few generations of television design, where screen bezels have already been squeezed to nearly nothing. Dell called it the infinity display and described it as "virtually borderless."
Our initial review was of one of the higher-end configurations, with a 3,200x1,800-pixel touchscreen and Intel Core i5 CPU, all for a total price of $1,399 (AU$2,099 in Australia), while the base model starts at $799 in the US, and AU$1,499 in Australia. The UK configurations are slightly different, and all models include the higher-res touch display, more RAM and larger SSD hard drives, and start at £1,049.
We liked the higher-end model we originally tested and reviewed, appreciating its slick design, decent performance and extreme portability. What we didn't see was a big performance boost from the new fifth generation of Intel's Core i-series CPUs, or battery life that was more than average.
Dell followed up by sending us a lower-end version of the XPS 13, this time without the touchscreen and with only a standard 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, but with the promise of much-improved battery life. Trading down the resolution doesn't seem like a big loss in a smaller 13-inch system, but not having a touchscreen is a setback for anyone looking to use Windows 8 effectively, especially considering that the touchpad on the XPS 13 is one of the system's few weak spots.
More importantly, the non-touch display in this $899 configuration loses the edge-to-edge glass overlay that the touch version had. The screen bezel is still very thin, but it lacks that unified, tied-together look and feel you get from a single plane covering the entire front-facing panel of the laptop.
But that trade-off in design and touch brings with it a notable benefit. This version of the XPS 13 ran significantly longer in our battery life tests, running for more than 12 hours on a single charge, while the high-res version ran for about 7 hours on the same test. That's a major boost, and it puts the XPS 13 in MacBook Air territory.
Saving several hundred on this configuration and getting radically improved battery life seems like a win-win situation, but I do miss the slick glass overlay and the touchscreen. If Dell had an in-between version with a 1,920x1080-pixel touchscreen and battery life somewhat close to that 12-hour mark, that might be my perfect 13-inch Windows laptop.
Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch)
|Price as reviewed||$899|
|Display size/resolution||13.3-inch 1,920 x 1,080 screen|
|PC CPU||2.2GHz Intel Core i5-5200U|
|PC memory||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz|
|Graphics||2,000MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)|
Design and features
Much of the design of this version of the XPS 13 is the same as the high-end version reviewed previously, and both take design cues from the last generation of XPS systems, with a similar flat silver/aluminum top, gently rounded corners and a circular logo stamped right in the center of the lid.
When looked at side by side with a 13-inch MacBook Air, the difference is striking, with the Air's thick bezel standing out like a sore thumb. Dead space surrounds the MacBook's keyboard, at least compared with the tightly packed interior in the XPS 13.
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 in 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 also find the all-important two-finger scroll to be not as smooth as I'd like (or as smooth as one would expect from a MacBook). It felt notably smoother using Microsoft's IE11 Web browser than in Google's Chrome. Navigating up and down long Web pages often sent me to the touchscreen on the first, higher-end XPS 13 we reviewed, but in this less expensive, non-touch configuration, you're out of luck.
The 13.3-inch display has a nearly borderless edge-to-edge design, available in two versions, a 3,200x1,800-pixel touch panel and a 1,920x1,080-pixel non-touch version. We've now had a chance to test and use both versions, and which one you choose makes a fairly significant difference to the overall experience.
The higher-resolution screen has a glossy glass overlay that provides touch control and also serves to create a single-layer smooth surface over the entire top panel of the laptop. The 1080p version has a matte finish and lacks that glass overlay. That means the bezel is slightly raised above the screen itself, and you don't have a single, level surface, but instead a screen that is slightly inset.