Review: Dell XPS 13 Is One Of Our Top Back-To-School Picks

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The choice in laptops these days is both amazing, and for many parents, daunting. There are options that weren’t there just a short few years ago when you were looking to buy for your teen or college-bound student. That is both a blessing and a curse. Do you buy a Chromebook, a Mac or a Windows-based laptop? Do you buy a hybrid, a convertible, or just go with a tablet? Do you go for the $250 or $800 device- or higher if you can afford it? If it’s high performance and portability you need, Dell may have put out the laptop to beat and let me tell you, it is quite the looker!
 
What is it that you look for in a laptop? Well, I can tell you that what you get when you look at Dell’s latest XPS 13 laptop may be envy. Especially that display! Oh. My. That display! But can a laptop sell based on the quality of its display alone? Fortunately, Dell won’t have to answer that question because there’s a lot more to love than just the glass.
 
For this review, Dell supplied me with one of their top tier XPS 13’s, kitted with the 13.3-inch UltraSharp QHD+ (3200 x 1800) InfinityEdge Touch Display. This was mated to a Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid state drive, running Windows 10- though you’re still able to order it with 8.1. Rounding out the rest of the hardware, you’ll get 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, Dual Band 2.4 & 5GHz Wi-Fi, two USB 3.0 ports, a mini display port, headset jack and 3-in-1 Card Reader that supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards.
 

An Infinitely Mesmerizing Display

The centerpiece of Dell’s new XPS 13 laptop is the new 13.3” InfinityEdge display. It’s available in both touch and non-touch configurations with the former sporting a Gorilla Glass, 3200x1800 QHD+ screen, while the latter is 1920x1080 FHD. There is an option to upgrade one of the non-touch models from FHD to QHD+ at the cost of $300. Let me tell you that the QHD+ display is magnificent! It’s bright, beautiful and readable outdoors at full brightness. You’ll need to crank that up outdoors because the display is glossy (a personal pet peeve) and picks up plenty of reflections. I know why manufacturers use glossy displays but matte is just so much more functional and I really wish we’d have the option to order a unit with a matte screen. It should be noted that the 1920x1080 models come with anti-glare screens but you’d be giving up QHD+ for the benefit of anti-glare.
 
Dell designed the InfinityEdge display so that you get an IPS panel that is 13.3” diagonally, but fits into roughly 11” of space, adding to the feel of portability. How did they do that? By getting rid of as much bezel as they could, and it’s a great look. One area they didn’t shave is the panel’s sensitivity. The touch version I have is very responsive whether you’re using the default setup with the windows icons, buttons and menus a touch friendly large size or if you get under the hood and adjust the settings so that those icons, buttons and menus are their native size at the QHD+ resolution. Most people will probably want them somewhere in the middle but I just wanted to see how navigable Windows 10 was with the icons ant-sized and I’ll have to say that I was surprised at how well I was able to get around. Obviously you have to be more exacting when hitting the mark, but not so much that you’re taking painstaking measure to hit the mark. I didn’t feel like I was putting forth that much more effort for a small-centric interface than the larger, touch-friendly icons, buttons and menus the system arrived defaulted to.
 
The only other thing you’re going to want to be aware of that could be a minor complaint is the position of the built-in webcam. In order to trim those bezels, Dell had to do something about the camera placement so they moved it from the ideal location for video chatting, the top, center of bezel to the bottom, left-hand corner. That won’t be a problem until you’re collaborating on something with someone where you’re video chatting and typing. Your knuckles will end up covering up much of the on-screen image that the other party sees. If you’re a gal, you’ll look like you’re reenacting the famous Jerry Seinfeld “Man Hands” episode as your meathooks will look huge positioned right in front of the camera like that. While we’re on the subject of video chatting, one of the complaints I also had was that my typing during the chat was obnoxiously loud, so if you’re not using a headset with mic, be aware that the mic placement on the XPS 13 is such that it will pick up your typing VERY WELL. At least I can tell you that those dual array digital microphones work quite well! And that’s a good thing.
 
 

Dell In Daily Use

This is the part where I tell you about the experience of using the XPS 13 as my daily driver. You know, because that’s the word everyone likes to throw around these days, “experience.” Companies aren’t just focused on creating awesome hardware, or software, they’re looking at things holistically and hoping to create an “experience” that will evoke a positive emotional response from the use of their product. They want you to be excited about using their widget (and, hopefully share that excitement with others). While I wouldn’t call my use of any laptop anything to be giddy about, I can call my use of the XPS 13 highly enjoyable. I’d put it on par with my other favorite Windows experience, the Surface Pro 3. With the touch enabled screen, I can interact with the laptop in whichever manner makes most sense for me at that moment. It’s fun when that happens because you’re not actually thinking about how you're using the laptop. Until we get that Star Trek, flawless voice control interface, having a hybrid (HID) keyboard/trackpad/touch interface is one of the purest forms of conventional tech interaction in my opinion. It really allows the laptop as a tool to melt into the background and the tasks you’re performing to take center stage.
 
The individual components of the tool can make a world of difference in that “melting into the background” and though I found the backlit keyboard a bit mushy on the travel, the chiclet keys are well-spaced, and sized well though the mush had me missing a key press here and there from time-to-time. The trackpad was a joy to use. Tap, or click, no matter. It’s responsive and with the right amount of friction when performing tasks like two-finger drags for scrolling up or down, or some of the custom three-finger taps and swipes.
 
One of the hallmarks of the latest generations of Windows has been how fast it starts and shuts down and with the hardware inside the XPS 13, you won’t be disappointed. My model came with the Core i5 option packed with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD which had me ready at my desktop, or closing the lid for the night in no time flat. Obviously that will change a bit over time as you add more software/services to your laptop but I can tell you that my own Windows laptops at home that are running Windows 8.1 or 10 are still shutting down or booting up pretty quickly. When it does boot up and you’re ready to get to work, you’ll be greeted by the soft touch paint on the carbon fiber deck of the XPS 13. On the upside, it’s very nice to look at and very comfortable to rest your palms on. On the downside, it is a serious fingerprint magnet so if you’re OCD just know you’ll need to keep that microfiber close at all times. Good news on that same front, the outside of the lid and bottom of the laptop are fairly fingerprint resistant. On the left side of the laptop, where you’ll find  the headphone jack, mini display port, USB 3.0 port and power, you’ll also see the battery charge indicator which you simply push to watch the line of LEDs light up to indicate how much charge you have. That button was kind of a pain to activate and could do with not being quite so recessed so as to make it easier to consistently access.
 
The biggest impact on daily use for any laptop user is always going to be battery life. Dell claims that you should get a total of 15 hours out of the XPS 13 but that’s for the non-touch 1920x1080 display on the model running Windows 8.1. With this QHD+ model running a fresh install of the newly publicly available Windows 10 (read: they’re still tweaking the OS), I was getting battery life that was much more than adequate for my use. I’ve been off the charger, Skyped, done Google Hangouts, had very busy Slack channels, streamed video, worked on documents and done my general writing and social media tasks and still had 20% of my battery left after 12 hours of off and on use. That for me meant periods of use, mixed with periods of the laptop in Sleep mode. I did run a battery benchmark, Battery Eater Pro, which ran for approximately 4 hours with the screen on 75% brightness, and Wi-Fi on. That taxes the laptop hardcore, simulating high frame rate gameplay. If you go with the non-touch version, I've seen reports of battery life as high as 12 to 13 hours of use.
 

Sound

The XPS 13 features two side-firing speakers that produce loud, clear audio. It’s about what you’d expect from a laptop with an 11” footprint and speakers this size though I have to say that the bass, mids and treble are all reproduced at a volume and quality that is easily enjoyable. From any teen or college student, you’re not going to get much complaint about sound. If you find you’re the one complaining about the loud sounds emanating from their laptop, just tell 'em to throw on some headphones! A word of caution: they will find the sound output through the headphone port to be loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage when paired with a quality set of headphones so be sure your not so little ones are listening at safe audio levels. They should be doing this with all devices, especially when wearing earbuds.
 

Wrap Up

Dell’s XPS 13 is easily one of the best ultraportables I’ve tested and/or used personally and I’d have no problem recommending it to any parent looking to purchase a laptop for a high schooler or college student who needs something robust that can handle word documents, photo/video editing or pretty much anything else you can throw at it. Though it has no discrete video card -your “little” gamers shouldn’t expect it to play like a gaming rig- they’ll still be able to get some pretty good gaming done on the XPS 13.
 
If you want to save some money, you can pick up the XPS 13 with the non-touch screen but if you have the money, I’d definitely spring for the QHD+ touch version with the i7 and 256GB solid state drive. I always recommend that you buy as much computer as you can get for your money so that you can hold on to it for a good amount of time. I firmly believe in passing down technology to the younger ones in my home and with a laptop of this quality, doing just that should have very few downsides for the child next in line for the hand-me-down.
 
 
 
Disclosure: Dell provided me with a demo unit of the XPS 13 for the purpose of this review.
 
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