Dell XPS 13 review (Kaby Lake)

With the latest Intel chips, our favorite laptop just got even better

Dell's XPS 13 is the laptop everyone else is trying – and failing – to beat.
Dell's XPS 13 is the laptop everyone else is trying – and failing – to beat.
Dell's XPS 13 is the laptop everyone else is trying – and failing – to beat.

Highs

  • Light, but solid
  • Unique, attractive design
  • Great display options, up to QHD+
  • Strong, well-rounded performance
  • Solid battery life

Lows

  • Quiet speakers
Home > Product Reviews > Laptop Reviews > Dell XPS 13 review (Kaby Lake)

Dell’s XPS 13 has been a favorite laptop at Digital Trends since its revitalized debut in early 2015. The original won our Editors’ Choice award, impressing us with its excellent battery life, beautiful display, and slim dimensions. Now, with the release of Intel’s new seventh-generation Core processors, the XPS 13 has received yet another internal update.

Our two new review models both pack the latest Intel chips into a rose gold finish that’s as trendy as it is eye-catching. Both configurations are significantly more than the $800 base model, but the low base price means the upgraded versions are still competitive with other high-end laptops. Our latest units were $1,149 and $1,649 for a Core i5 and i7 more, respectively. That includes a $50 charge for the new rose gold finish.

So, does Dell’s XPS 13 still rule the ultrabook roost? Or have new alternatives like the HP Spectre x360 and Asus’ Zenbook 3 stolen the show?

Small, yet big

Opening the Dell XPS 13 immediately reveals its most prominent design trait: a barely-there display bezel. The gaps between the edges of the screen and the edges of the lid are less than a quarter of an inch thick, which means this notebook comes closer to a true “edge-to-edge” display than the competition. They also help the XPS stay small, as it’s only one foot wide and eight inches deep. That’s half an inch narrower than the new MacBook Pro 13.

Such compact dimensions may raise durability concerns, but touching this Dell crushes them without hesitation. The carbon fiber and aluminum chassis feels rigid. Even the thin-bezel display allows only the slightest flex. We feel confident the XPS 13 will handle abuse better than most systems of its size.

The exterior of the standard, silver XPS 13 is mundane with the display lid closed. Dell could have done more to differentiate the system at a glance from the Inspiron 7000 series, which also relies on silver metallic accents. Dell’s gold and rose gold models resolve that issue with a subtle change of color. Once open, both models reveal a uniquely textured, soft-touch carbon fiber interior that steals the show. No other laptop looks or feels quite like this.

USB 3.0 dominates, but USB Type-C 3.1 is included

Wired connectivity is adequate. It offers two USB ports, both 3.0, along with a Thunderbolt 3/USB 3.1 Type-C port, which handles video and additional peripheral connections. The Dell includes a proprietary charger and charging port, but the Type-C port can be used to charge if you have a compatible charger lying around.

An SD card reader and an audio jack are also included. There’s no Ethernet or HDMI – you’ll need adapters for those.

You may not need Ethernet, though, because the base XPS 13 comes standard with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

Still one of the best Windows touchpads

The small size of XPS 13 doesn’t mean the keyboard is rubbish. On the contrary, individual keys provide solid feel with reasonable travel and a firm bottoming action. A ton of space between individual keys leads to our only complaints. The key caps could be larger, and Backspace is too small. Still, it’s a top-notch effort overall, which makes maximum use of the minimal chassis.

Upgrades like the 3,200 x 1,800 panel, and classy rose gold finish, only sweeten the system.

Keyboard backlighting is standard. By default, it turns on only when the system is actively in use. Just two brightness levels are available, and a great deal of light escapes from beneath the keys, which can be distracting. A third, even dimmer setting would be preferable.

We can’t praise the touchpad highly enough. Four inches wide, and a hair more than two inches deep, it’s not particularly large, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in fluidity.

Multi-touch scroll and zoom feel wonderful, almost Mac-like, and we never had an issue with mistaken or unwanted input. The tactile left and right buttons integrated into the touchpad lack travel, but it hardly matters because tap-to-click works so well.

Pleasing pixels

The standard XPS 13 comes with a 1080p display, which was featured in the Core i5-7200U unit, while the Core i7-7500U version has a 3,200 × 1,800 touchscreen. That’s about 280 pixels per inch for the higher-end model, or 60 more per inch than a MacBook Pro. Predictably, that makes for a sharp viewing experience. While the display can’t do native 4K, there is a noticeable bump in image quality when viewing 1440p or 4K content.

The 1080p model we recently reviewed had a non-touch matte surface, with a maximum brightness of 259 lux. That is less than most competitors, but the non-gloss surface makes the minimal backlight useable in almost all conditions. Its contrast reached 970:1 with the brightness all the way up, coming in ahead of the competition, but just barely. Color accuracy wasn’t as strong, at 2.65 – once again, not the worst reading, but with some room for improvement. Gamma was way off at 2.7, which means images appear darker than they should, with lost detail in the shadows.

More: HP Spectre review

The glossy 3,200 × 1,800 QHD+ display fared a bit better. Its 279 lux maximum brightness still doesn’t reach the 350 range which we see on most high-end displays, but will suffice for most use cases. Contrast is slightly lower than the 1080p model, at just 780:1 with the brightness all the way up, which falls further from the 900-1,000 range we’re used to seeing. Its 2.0 gamma is a bit bright, but forgivable, seeing as even strong panels often fall just outside the ideal perfect range.

Both displays look good, but in different ways. The matte-screen 1080p model is a better choice if you read or write frequently on your laptop, as the high contrast and non-gloss surface help documents pop. Movies and games look alright, but the poor gamma performance does obscure detail, leading to muddy scenes in some situations.

The glossy, QHD+ display is the opposite. It’s not the best choice if you’re looking to read a document on a plane, as the mirror-like finish becomes annoying. But it does look more vibrant when displaying entertainment, espically when the laptop is viewed in a dim or dark room.

There’s also a 1080p glossy model available on some models. We didn’t test it this time around, but we have in the past. Its performance is like the QHD+ version, so it’s a good choice if you want an entry-level XPS 13, and intend to use it to watch movies or edit photos.

Audio performance is a flaw. The speakers don’t sound terrible, but they can’t output enough volume to fill a room with sound. External speakers or headphones are a necessity.

Not the quickest, but quick enough

We’ve reviewed a handful of XPS 13 configurations over the past two years, and the newest additions are the seventh-generation Intel options in rose gold. The higher-end model packs in the Core i7-7500U, while the more modest version has a Core i5-7200U.

The seventh-generation focus wasn’t on performance, so the modest speed improvements aren’t too surprising. The Asus Zenbook 3 with the same chip beats the Core i7-7500U equipped XPS 13 in our Geekbench CPU test, but not by much. Importantly, both XPS 13 models take a lead over the previous generation’s top-end gold version with a Core i7-6560U.

Our real-world CPU benchmark is more favorable to the Dells. Both the new XPS 13 models take a strong lead in our 4K video conversion test, even over other systems with stronger Geekbench scores. They’re only beaten by the previously mentioned Core i7 XPS 13. For some reason, our Core i5 model also beat out the Core i7 model, which is likely a thermal oddity. We’ve reached out to Dell and will update this post as more information becomes clear.

Go with PCIe

PCIe SSDs have become the standard in high-end laptops, and it’s no different here. The newest XPS 13 models boasted sustained read speeds of 1,285 megabytes per second, and sustained writes of 573MB/s.

The XPS 13 is in league with the fastest, running neck-and-neck with Razer’s Blade Stealth and Apple’s MacBook. Competitors like the Toshiba Satellite Radius 12, which has a SATA hard drive, struggle to offer half the XPS 13’s read performance. Of course, you can order the lower-end XPS 13 with a SATA hard drive, but the move to a 256GB PCIe SSD is sure to make a difference.

Let’s not play games

Despite Intel’s best efforts to provide gaming-ready integrated graphics, it becomes clearer with every generation that they just aren’t cut out for it.

The Core i7-7500U model of XPS 13 achieves a Fire Strike score of 882, better than most of its competitors, but not exactly an impressive score in the grand scheme of things. Meanwhile, the previous generation’s XPS 13 with a Core i7-6560U scores a slightly more palatable 1,271, thanks to its late-generation CPU with Iris graphics.

The Core i5-7200U model performs very similarly in terms of graphical performance. Both chips are equipped with Intel HD graphics which, again, aren’t our favorite. They’ll be fine for some light Counter-Strike, or maybe even World of Warcraft if you aren’t too picky about quality settings, but that’s about it. Then again, you won’t often see systems this small, or inexpensive, with dedicated graphics.

All day endurance

The XPS 13 starts at 2.7 pounds, and the high-resolution touchscreen increases that figure to a still-light 2.9 pounds. That’s slightly heavier than other laptops in its weight class, such as the HP Spectre and Zenbook 3, but whether you’ll notice half a pound or not is up for debate.

Though physical small, the Dell feels chunky in-hand. That’s an effect of the thin bezels. The XPS 13 is much smaller than other laptops sporting a 13-inch display, and thus denser. Despite how it feels, it’s one of the smallest and lightest 13-inch systems overall, and will easily fit in any backpack or bag designed to carry a typical laptop.

Multi-touch gestures are smooth and accurate thanks to the brilliant touchpad.

Battery life is strong. Dell has increased the capacity of the battery with each iteration, and it’s now up to 60 watt-hours. That’s among the largest batteries in any 13-inch laptop. Most are at 50 watt-hours, or less.

In the Peacekeeper battery benchmark, the Core i7-7500U version of the XPS 13 lasted five hours and seven minutes. Our web browsing loop extended life to six hours and ten minutes. Our video test loop went even better, reaching just over nine hours on a single charge.

That’s enough to cover a flight or a mixed load workday, but it falls short of systems like the Zenbook 3 and Spectre x360, largely due to a higher-resolution panel and more powerful CPU.

The Core i5 model offers more endurance. The Peacekeeper browser test, for example, lasted six hours and 12 minutes – over an hour longer than the Core i7 version. In addition, that result bests all the competitors we’ve reviewed including the Asus Zenbook 3, HP Spectre, and Acer Swift 7.

The lesson? While the 3,200 x 1,800 display is slick, you should stick with the 1080p model if battery life is your main concern.

Warranty

Dell ships the XPS 13 with its standard one-year “enhanced support” warranty. This is essentially the same warranty you’d expect to receive from any laptop. While it’d be nice to see a longer warranty given this model’s price, we can’t knock the company; few competitors bother to offer more than a year.

Our Take

Though this year’s updates aren’t the most exciting, Dell builds on an already successful computer with the revised Dell XPS 13. It remains our favorite laptop.

Is there a better alternative?

The thin and light laptop space has become even more crowded in the last year, but the XPS 13 still stands out as one of the best laptops in the category. The Zenbook 3 has made a splash, but its value isn’t as strong as the XPS 13, and it has a finicky keyboard. The Ideapad 710’s a nice machine as well, but lags behind the XPS in terms of performance and display.

HP’s reimagined Spectre line has also challenged the XPS 13’s superiority, with the extremely thin Spectre 13 and convertible Spectre x360. They’re priced competitively too, and offer a solid alternative with a slick look. However, the Dell XPS 13 has a wider range of display options and more attractive, more portable design.

How long will it last?

Dell’s newest XPS 13 model checks off almost everything on our list for a future-proof laptop. It has Thunderbolt 3, plus two USB Type-A for legacy support, screen options over 1080p, the latest generation of Intel processors, a sturdy design, and a large battery.

Should you buy it?

Yes. If you’re looking for a new laptop, the Dell XPS 13 is our favorite laptop overall, and you’d be remiss to not at least consider it. The base models offers good value around for the price, and upgrades like the 3,200 x 1,800 panel and classy rose gold finish only sweeten the pot.

The HP Spectre is probably the next best thing, if Dell’s offering isn’t quite doing it for you. The Spectre x360, specifically, provides a 360-degree hinge, while the Dell’s touchscreen only leans back so far. Otherwise, it’s easy to see the XPS 13 is the laptop of choice for most users.