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Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch) review: Drop the high-end display in Dell's XPS 13 for better battery life

The design on this less expensive version of the XPS 13 isn't as slick, but battery life gets a big 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 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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7 min read

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.

dell-xps-13-non-touch-01.jpg
8.5

Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch)

The Good

Dell's revamped XPS 13 has a nearly borderless display, a very small body for a 13-inch laptop and the latest Intel CPUs. Battery life in this lower-end configuration gets a big boost.

The Bad

Dropping the higher-resolution screen and edge-to-edge glass overlay means the look is not as slick, and losing touch makes Windows 8 harder to use.

The Bottom Line

Taking a second look at the new XPS 13, this lower-end version costs less and has better battery life, but isn't as tightly designed.

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."

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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
Storage 128GB SSD
Optical drive None
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.

Sarah Tew/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 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Aesthetically, the design suffers, and you also lose out on touchscreen controls. Traditionalists will tell you touch in a laptop is unnecessary, 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.

As it is, you're stuck between a lower-res, non-touch, matte screen and a high-res touchscreen with a glossy surface, and nothing in between. If I were designing an XPS 13 configuration that included the best of both worlds, I'd ask for a 1,920x1,080-pixel touch display under edge-to-edge glass.

Ports and connections

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

Connections and performance

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 light-up battery meter on the left side, although the button you press to turn it on is overly recessed and hard to hit.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Dell offers a few optional accessories, which may make up for some of the omissions. The $59 (AU$89) port adapter 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.

Both XPS 13 models include Intel's new Broadwell Core i5 CPUs, which are the fifth generation of Core i-series chips. We've previously 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.

The Dell XPS 13 models we reviewed both use the new 2.2GHz Core i5-5200U. We compared it with other 13-inch systems with 2014 Core i5 CPUs and found that the Dell XPS 13 slightly outperformed the competition in our challenging multitasking test and was at least 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 the new Core M. The XPS 13 with the lower-resolution screen was a few seconds faster on the multitasking test, perhaps reflecting the extra horsepower required to drive a 3,200x1,800-pixel display, but the difference wasn't significant enough that you'd notice in everyday use.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life got a big boost in this lower-end version of the XPS 13. The 3,200x1,800-pixel screen version ran for 7 hours and 2 minutes in our video playback battery drain test, which was nearly the same score as the Surface Pro 3, but this 1,920x1,080-pixel version, without a touchscreen, ran for 12 hours and 6 minutes, which is a very impressive score. It's hard to believe that a simple change of screen panel could have such a huge impact, so perhaps there's some further optimization going on under the hood. In any event, this is as close to an all-day, travel-ready laptop as you're going to find without switching to an OS X system.

Conclusion

This version of the Dell XPS 13, one of the standout products at the 2015 International CES, costs less and runs for much longer on a single battery charge when compared which the premium configuration we originally tested. That makes it sound like a clear-cut winner, but there are a few important caveats.

The display has a lower resolution, and it loses its touch capabilities, which can come in handy when trying to navigate Windows 8. The edge-to-edge display, which helps maintain the illusion of a bezelless design is missing here, and the inset panel doesn't look as clean and seamlessly designed as the more expensive version.

Still, aesthetic and touch considerations aside, this version of the XPS 13 offers great build quality and engineering, plus amazing battery life, for a great price.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test

Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch) 428Dell XPS 13 (2015, touchscreen) 441Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 478Microsoft Surface Pro 3 523Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 682
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 236Dell XPS 13 (2015, touchscreen) 243Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 253Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch) 263Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 263
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Apple iTunes encoding test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 76Microsoft Surface Pro 3 108Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch) 112Dell XPS 13 (2015, touchscreen) 113Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 142
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 986Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch) 726Microsoft Surface Pro 3 448Dell XPS 13 (2015, touchscreen) 422Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 346
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System configurations

Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch) Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2,000MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 128GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (2015, touchscreen) Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 3,839MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 256GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.9GHZ Intel Core i5-4300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD 4400 Graphics; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) Apple OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks ; 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-4260U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1,536MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 128GB SSD
Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y60; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 3,839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD

dell-xps-13-non-touch-01.jpg
8.5

Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 7Battery 9
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