Dell XPS 13 (2017) Review

Dell’s XPS 13 defends its crown with fresh Intel firepower

Now packing quad-core fury, the Dell XPS 13 is still the best laptop you can buy.
Now packing quad-core fury, the Dell XPS 13 is still the best laptop you can buy.
Now packing quad-core fury, the Dell XPS 13 is still the best laptop you can buy.

Highs

  • Still a beautiful machine
  • Light, but solid
  • Great display options, up to QHD+
  • Strong, well-rounded performance
  • Solid battery life

Lows

  • Quiet speakers

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 8th-generation “Kaby Lake R” processors, the XPS 13 has received yet another internal update, and so has our Dell XPS 13 review.

Our review model packs the latest Intel i7-8550U into familiar slick silver chassis that’s as trendy as it is eye-catching. In the 2017 variety, Dell currently offers two XPS 13 models which feature 8th-generation processors, both of which are top-end offerings, starting at $1,250 and $1,650. 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. That includes the newer 2018 version of the Dell XPS 13, which includes 8th-gen processors and a flashy new design.

The 2017 Dell XPS 13 was once a trend-setter, but systems like the Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe, Lenovo Yoga 920, and even the HP Spectre 13 are every bit as premium. Is the 2017 XPS 13 still worth buying?

Small, yet big

Opening the Dell XPS 13 immediately reveals its most prominent design trait: an InfinityEdge display. The bezels 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.

At its narrowest point it’s 9mm thick, and 15 mm thick at its widest point. It’s a very lightweight laptop, but it doesn’t quite feel that way. Maybe it’s the blend of plastic and aluminum, but it feels thicker in the hand than a system like the MacBook Pro 13 which is 14.9mm thick all the way across.

Similarly, the all-aluminum ZenBook 3 Deluxe also feels like a much thinner laptop, despite the fact that it’s only about 2mm thinner than the XPS 13 at its widest point.

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.

This notebook comes closer to a true “edge-to-edge” display than its competition.

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.

It’s still a looker, but in a marketplace chock-full of slim, svelte, and increasingly well-built competitors, the Dell XPS 13 isn’t quite the stand-out it used to be. It still feels solid in the hand, build quality is as robust as ever, but the plastic inner bezel around the display feels a little dated.

USB 3.0 dominates, but USB-C is included

Wired connectivity is adequate. It offers two USB ports, both 3.0, along with a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port, which handles video and additional peripheral connections. The Dell does not charge over this port, but instead still includes a proprietary charger. We’d prefer to see USB-C charging supported.

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 might be worrisome for anyone who’s been burned in the past by bad laptop keyboards, but don’t worry, you’re in good hands here. Or, well, your hands are. In good hands.

Best laptops Dell XPS 13 review (Kaby Lake)
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Individual keys provide solid feel, with reasonable travel and a firm bottoming action. Though the laptop is relatively thin, it doesn’t feel flimsy when typing, and no keyboard flex is noticeable in regular use. You can find a better keyboard – Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 series has it beat, for example – but Dell’s effort is solid.

A ton of space between individual keys leads to our only complaint. The key caps could be larger, and the Backspace key is too small. This didn’t trouble us, but users with large hands might find it a problem.

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.

Pleasing pixels, sub-par speakers

The standard XPS 13 comes with a 1080p display, featured on our the Core i7-8550U model we most recently reviewed. It has a non-touch matte surface, with a maximum brightness of 267.5 lux. That is less than most competitors, but the non-gloss surface makes the minimal backlight useable in almost all conditions. Its contrast reached 902:1 with the brightness all the way up, coming in ahead of the competition, but just barely. Color accuracy wasn’t as strong, at 2.21.

Lower is better in this test, and some competitors – like the Apple MacBook Pro 13 and Microsoft Surface Pro – achieve a score of less than one. That’s a significant improvement. However, you might not notice (or care) if you don’t handle professional photo and video editing. The XPS 13’s color error is low enough to look good if you’re watching a movie or playing a game.

The glossy 3,200 x 1,800 display on the more expensive QHD+ model 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 900-1000 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.

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, especially when the laptop is viewed in a dim or dark room.

There’s also a glossy 1080p option 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 less than impressive. The speakers don’t sound terrible, but they can’t output enough volume to fill a room with sound, and at high volumes you lose a lot of detail. External speakers or headphones are a necessity for anything other than system notifications and YouTube videos.

A strong showing from the 8th-generation

We’ve reviewed a handful of XPS 13 configurations over the past two years, and the newest model features, as we mentioned, an Core i7-8550U processor, the latest and greatest from Intel. It’s the first quad-core available in the XPS 13 – all previous models had dual-core hardware.

The 8th-generation processor is a strong competitor and a worthy successor to the Core i7-7500U. The new CPU pushes well ahead of the pack, eclipsing most of its competitors featuring 7th-generation chips.

Predictably, the extra cores make their presence known in the Geekbench 4 multi-core test. There, the new Core i7-8550U-powered XPS 13 scored 11,133. A previously reviewed XPS 13 with the Core i7-7500U only scored 7,952. The 8th-generation Core processor was also good for a few hundred additional points in the single-core test.

However, the new XPS 13’s Geekbench 4 scores slip behind other recently updated competitors. The Lenovo Yoga 920 and Asus Zenbook 3 Deluxe scored 14,566 and 13,086, respectively, in the multi-core test. Both scores are a fair bit higher than the Dell, and suggest that the small XPS 13 has trouble using its processor to its full potential.

Dell XPS 13 review (Kaby Lake)
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

We also tested the XPS 13 using Handbrake to encode a 4K video. Here, the 8th-generation processor maintains its lead, outperforming 7th-generation chips by a solid margin. For instance, the new XPS 13 with the 8th-generation processor finished the encode in about 14 minutes, while the previous 7th-generation model finished the same encode in 18 minutes.

Once again, though, the new XPS 13 isn’t the quickest option. The Lenovo Yoga 920 also features an Intel Core i7-8550U, and it finished the encode in a breezy 10 minutes. The new Zenbook 3 Deluxe with 8th-gen Core i7, though, finished the encode in 15 minutes, a little slower than the XPS 13.

The 8th generation Intel Core i7 processor breathes new life into an old favorite.

Even though you might not notice the speed boost in everyday use — web browsing, running Microsoft Office, or that kind of thing — it’s a big enough performance improvement that you will notice it over time. The 8th-generation processor will shave minutes off video encodes, keep resource-hungry applications like Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Pro well-fed and purring along.

What you get out of a quicker processor is a longer overall life out of the system. The faster your processor is today, the better equipped it will be to tackle resource-intensive applications in the future.

Go with PCIe

PCIe SSDs have become the standard in high-end laptops, and it’s no different here. The newest XPS 13 model featured sustained read speeds of 1,150 megabytes per second, and sustained writes of 569.7mb/s. That’s right around what we got out of the previous model.

That means the XPS 13 is still in league with the fastest laptop hard drives on the market, nipping at the heels of Razer’s Blade Stealth and Apple’s MacBook. Competitors like the Asus ZenBook Flip S, which we tested with 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.

The latest ZenBook 3 Deluxe and Lenovo Yoga 920 however, eclipse the XPS 13’s write speeds by a significant margin, almost doubling them, even if they are neck-and-neck in the read-speed race.

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 i7-8550U model of XPS 13 achieves a Fire Strike score of 1,114, better than most of its competitors, but not exactly an impressive score in the grand scheme of things. It’s an improvement over performance we saw on the i7-7500U model, which hit a score of 882, but still isn’t fast enough for the latest games.

Even in a low-impact game like Civilization VI, we only averaged about 12 frames per second on medium settings and 1080p resolution — not exactly what you’d call playable.

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 League of Legends, 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 and thicker than other laptops in its weight class, such as the HP Spectre 13 and ZenBook 3 Deluxe, 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 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.

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 Basemark battery benchmark, the Core i7-8550U version of the XPS 13 kept going for just over three and a half hours. It brushes past results from the latest ZenBook 3 Deluxe and Lenovo Yoga 920, which managed 157 and 203 minutes, respectively.

However, the XPS 13 didn’t take the lead in our web browsing and video loop tests. It lasted 322 minutes in the former, and 541 minutes – over nine hours – in the latter.

Dell XPS 13 review (Kaby Lake)
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

That may seem like a long time, and it is, but the Asus ZenBook 3 and Lenovo Yoga 920 last even longer. The Lenovo is particularly impressive. Equipped with a 70 watt-hour battery, it lasted just a few minutes short of 14 hours in our video loop test.

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

2018 brought a brand new XPS 13, building off many of the successes of its previous iterations. You’re better off going for that one, though the 2017 model still holds up pretty well, especially if you can find it on sale somewhere. The XPS 13-inch remains our favorite laptop, and it’s still a great all-around buy – especially with that new processor. But, just to be sure, let’s break it down.

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 Deluxe has made a splash, but despite its finicky keyboard, the latest version puts it in league with the XPS 13 in terms of raw performance. The Lenovo Yoga 920 offers similar pricing, a higher degree of versatility, and the same 8th-generation processor.

More than anything, we’d recommend the 2018 version of the XPS 13. It’s only $50 more on Dell’s website right now, and it gives you 8th-gen processors, a brand new design, and a better-positioned webcam. The benefit of the 2017 model is that you get a Core i3 configuration, starting at only $800, which isn’t offered in an 8th-gen variety.

If you want to stray away from the Dell camp, the 8th-generation ZenBook 3 Deluxe starts at $1,700. That isn’t as attractive an entry price as $1,250, which is what the 8th-generation XPS 13 starts at. The Yoga 920 is also a little more expensive, starting at $1,330.

If you’re looking for something a bit more business-oriented, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 series might be a good place to look. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon, for instance, features a carbon fiber chassis, and the signature trackpoint ball in the center of the keyboard. On top of that, it offers a familiar, stylish, and spartan design if the XPS 13’s aluminum accents aren’t quite your taste.

The Surface Laptop and Surface Pro offer compelling alternatives – alongside the Surface Book 2 – but your money goes a bit further with the Dell XPS 13. 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 laptops. It has Thunderbolt 3, plus two USB-A ports 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. We’d recommend the newest 2018 version, but in the end, the Dell XPS 13 is still the best laptop you can buy.

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