Dell’s XPS 13, introduced earlier this year, may be the best notebook of 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 6th-generation Core processors, it has received an internal refresh that ensures it isn’t left behind by the competition.
We received two models for review, both decked-out flagships. The silver model came with a Core i5-6200U processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB solid state drive, and a 3,200 × 1,800 InfinityEdge touchscreen, all for $1,400. The more expensive gold edition, at $1,650, swaps out the Core i5 for a Core i7-6560U.
Both configurations are significantly more than the $800 base model, but the low base price means the upgraded versions are still competitive with other Ultrabooks, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina.
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 anything we’ve yet seen. They also help the XPS stay small, as it’s only one foot wide and eight inches deep. Acer’s 11-inch Chromebook 720P, by comparison, is only seven-tenths of an inch narrower.
Such compact dimensions may raise durability concerns, but touching this Dell crushes them without hesitation. The carbon fiber and aluminum chassis feels absolutely 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 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 limited gold model resolves 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.
Wired connectivity is not the XPS 13’s strongest point. It offers just two USB ports, both 3.0, along with a Thunderbolt 3/USB 3.1 Type-C port, which handles video and additional peripheral connections. An SD card reader and an audio jack are also included. There’s no Ethernet or HDMI.
You may not need Ethernet, because the base XPS 13 comes standard with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
There’s finally a good Windows touchpad
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.
Multi-touch gestures are smooth and accurate thanks to the brilliant touchpad.
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.
While the standard XPS 13 comes with a 1080p display, our review unit arrived with the upgraded 3,200 × 1,800 touchscreen. That’s about 280 pixels per inch, or 60 more per inch than a MacBook Pro with Retina. Predictably, that makes for a sharp experience. While the display can’t do native 4K, there is a noticeable bump in image quality between 1080p and 4K content.
That said, low-resolution video still looks reasonably good. Why? Dell has nailed the fundamentals. We measured a contrast ratio of 680:1 at maximum brightness, low black levels across the board and a gamut that spans 97 percent of sRGB. All these figures are in the top tier of notebooks we tested.
Color accuracy is another highlight. We measured an average difference of 1.9 (lower is better), a figure that’s bested only by recent 4K notebooks like the Asus Zenbook NX500. A color difference of one or less is generally undetectable by the naked eye.
Not everything is perfect. We noted a gamma reading of 1.9, off the target of 2.2, and a maximum brightness of just 196 lux. That’s not a bad reading, but alternatives like the Asus NX500 and Acer Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition can exceed 250 lux with ease. Glare from the XPS 13’s screen can prove distracting in bright environments.
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.
Skylake powers up
As mentioned, we’ve tested two XPS 13 models. The $1,400 Core i5-6200U edition is not especially powerful given its price, but the gold edition ups the ante with a Core i7-6560U. That has a major, positive impact on performance.
Of the systems in the graph above, the HP Spectre x360 and LG Ultra PC represent the old guard, 5th-generation hardware. The Asus UX305CA is an new, 6th-gen chip, but part of the ultra efficient (and thus less powerful) Core M line. The Surface Pro 4, meanwhile, was reviewed with a Core i5-6300U.
As it turns out, the Pro 4 is quicker than the XPS 13 with a Core i5-6200U. But the Core i7 model of XPS 13 outruns them all, and does so with ease. Its single-core score is 28 percent higher than the Core i5 model. A pretty nice upgrade, given the price gap between it and the Core i5 version is only 18 percent.
And it’s not just the processor that’s been upgraded. Dell has also switched the older XPS 13’s SATA hard drive for a PCIe solid state unit. That results in sustained read speeds of 1,118 megabytes per second, and sustained writes of 314MB/s.
While write speeds haven’t improved much over the earlier version, the read speed roughly doubled. There are quicker notebooks, like the Asus Zenbook UX501, which hit a read score of 1535MB/s and write score of 1572MB/s — truly outstanding performance.
Still, 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.
Better graphics, but still not a game machine
The Core i5-6200U is flanked by Intel HD 520 graphics, a mid-range version of company’s latest integrated graphics processor (IGP). The faster Core i7-6560U has a more impressive HD 540 IGP. We threw them into 3DMark to see what they’re capable of, and were pleased by the results.
As you can see, the Core i5 model of XPS 13 achieves a Sky Diver score of 3,482, which puts it firmly above older generations of laptops, and very close to the more powerful Surface Pro 4 we reviewed. The Core i7 model, meanwhile, scores a big win with its Sky Diver score of 5,260. That’s far ahead of the typical curve, and double older 5th-generation laptops like the HP Spectre x360 and LG Ultra PC 14Z950.
The Core i5-6200U with HD520 graphics isn’t up to serious gaming, despite its respectable score. Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm averaged 54 frames per second at 1080p resolution and low detail. Turning everything up to maximum slowed the game to a slideshow average of just 16 FPS.
But the Core i7-6560U is workable. It averaged 84 FPS in Heroes of the Storm at 1080p and low detail. Turning the game to maximum decreased that to 30 FPS, which is on the border of playable. The i7 is not a gaming powerhouse, but it will handle some mainstream 3D games if it must.
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. While these numbers are low, they’re not enough to put the system in league with the lightest available, like the Lenovo LaVie Z and LG Ultra PC. In fact, this Dell feel chunky in hand despite its low weight. That’s another effect of the thin bezels. The XPS 13 is much smaller than other laptops sporting a 13-inch display, and thus denser.
The XPS 13’s nine hours of battery will easily take you through your workday.
Battery life is strong, thanks to a large 56-watt-hour battery and the efficiency of Intel’s latest processors. In the Peacekeeper battery benchmark, the Core i5 versions of the XPS 13 lasted seven hours and 52 minutes. Our web browsing loop extended life to eight hours and 23 minutes.
The Core i7 edition lasted a fair bit less, at four hours and 44 minutes in Peacekeeper, and five hours and 23 minutes in our web browsing loop. That penalty seems the result of performance, which is significantly enhanced, as we’ve already stated. Our tests do place a fair bit of load our the system. In mixed use, though, the XPS 13 with Core i7 can last longer than eight hours.
These results are impressive, and put the XPS 13 in the top tier of notebooks. The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 only lasts six hours and 26 minutes in Peacekeeper, the Asus UX305CA lasted 5 hours and 51 minutes, and the Toshiba Satellite Radius 12 lasted three hours and 39 minutes.
The XPS 13’s efficient 6th-gen Core processor seemed to help it stay cool at idle, where its maximum external temperature hit a maximum of 78.1 degrees Fahrenheit — barely above ambient. The fan was whisper-quiet, as well, and power draw was a modest 10 watts with the display at maximum brightness.
Full system load caused the XPS 13 some stress. Its maximum external temperature soared to 108.6 degrees, forcing the fan to kick in, producing a tolerable but noticeable 42.3 decibels of noise. Power draw exceeded 33 watts, which is actually on the high end for an ultrabook.
We did not record much variation between the Core i5 and i7 model. Temperature readings were no greater than one degree Fahrenheit, and noise varied no more than a decibel.
Most modern competitors are a bit cooler at load. The Asus Zenbook UX305CA warmed to no more than 100.6 degrees, while the HP Spectre x360 only hit 96 degrees. However, some do exceed the Dell. LG’s super-thin 14Z950, for example, hit a toasty 116.2 degrees.
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.
Dell’s XPS 13 is an excellent piece of engineering that combines the latest Intel hardware with a robust, attractive and portable chassis.
There are minor flaws. The speakers could be louder, the glossy display can be distracting in bright rooms, and the fan can be loud at load. But such nitpicks are outweighed by numerous advantages. Display, keyboard, touchpad, performance, weight, battery life, size; in all these areas and more the XPS 13 excels.
It’s so good, in fact, that it steals the portable laptop crown away from Apple, which has held it firmly since the release of the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina. Dell’s XPS 13 is lighter, quicker and offers better pixel density. It even has a roughly equal touchpad, though it obviously doesn’t support the advanced gestures found only in OS X.
In short, the Dell XPS 13 is the best 13-inch notebook available today. Anyone who can afford it should give it a chance, even if that means settling for the $800 base model.