Dell XPS 13 review (2014)

When Dell unleashed the XPS 13 it was one of the few Ultrabook devices that could stand up against the strength of the Apple MacBook Air. Not all of us are Apple users, of course, so the prospect of a slim, light, attractive and powerful Windows portable was tempting.

A couple of years on and we've got hold of the 2014 model, complete with Windows 8.1 and the latest Intel Haswell architecture. The design remains the same to the 2012 model we reviewed previously, albeit with a shift in focus to accommodate a new touchscreen and all that brings.

Given how taken we were with the previous generation model, the XPS is off to a flying start. Does the behind-the-scenes boost lend enough to make the 2014 Dell XPS 13 among the best Ultrabooks on the market?

Delightful design

We've seen a lot of laptops in our time and the XPS 13 stands out as one of the most considered that we've laid our hands on.

The top lid is a single cut slice of aluminium that looks and feels top notch. This metal theme doesn't continue throughout, but even so Dell manages to impress a sense of quality. There's a carbon fibre base and inside the keyboard's keys are surrounded by a premium plastic.

"Premium plastic" might sound like an absurd impossibility, but the matte black interior not only looks quality, it feels great too, almost like a solid version of the rubberised grip material that many high-end compact cameras use. It does mark rather prominently with fingerprints, however, so you'll want to keep those fingers from straying too much.

The 13.3-inch screen is coated in Corning Gorilla Glass for scratch resistance, not that we think you'll be running sets of keys up and down it. More impressive is the limited amount of bezel that surrounds the 1920 x 1080 resolution panel. Typically laptops have larger black borders, but as these are slight in the Dell's design it takes on a smaller form than some of its competitors.

At its thickest the body measures 18mm when closed, which tapers down to a mere 6mm at the thinner front end. The 1.36kg weight is so much less than our now-years-old MacBook Pro that the difference we've felt in carting it around has been significant for our needs.

There's a lot of good to say about the design, which may sound somewhat fickle, but for us it's one of the key things that makes a laptop desirable in the first place. 

The only downer to the XPS is its lack of ports. Just two USB sockets, a mini-DisplayPort and 3.5mm headphone jack complete the ins and outs. And the power input, but of course.

The USB sockets are on opposite sides of the base which is useful as many USB sticks have irritating oversize exteriors, but the lack of an SD socket is something we sorely missed. No Ethernet port is a more common standard these days for the sake of size, but if this is important to you then you'll need to grab a converter for a wired connection.

That screen

The Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution panel is among the highlights of the Dell XPS 13. There are laptops out there with more significant resolution, but it's not all about the numbers. The sheer amount of detail available at this 13.3-inch scale we think is just about the perfect balance. Colours are bright, the viewing angle is wide and there's little more we could ask for on this front. Pixel for pixel you can watch a Blu-ray quality movie and it looks amazing.

The addition of a touch-sensitive panel is one of those features that will divide some users. We found it half useful for some tasks, and yet dirtying up the screen with fingerprints is an irritation on a laptop in our view. In short we wouldn't be likely to use it too much, except for those almost compulsory side-swipe actions that Windows seems to like so much.

The touch-sensitivity is reasonable, although not the best we've ever seen. We did find ourselves tapping at the screen multiple times to assert a virtual button press. And because of that scale we did sometimes miss the small "x" to close a window and such like too.

Touchscreen was an inevitability given the Windows 8.1 operating system though. Microsoft has been pushing for touch-based design for a couple of years now. If you're not a fan then it's possible to set the laptop up to avoid the touch-based Tile interface and jump to the desktop as you please if you're a stringent trackpad and keyboard kind of person.

And using said features makes for a generally great typing experience. The XPS 13 keys do look plasticky and are labelled with an unusual font, but they give just the right amount of resistance when tapping away and are perfectly positioned apart for speedy typing. When the lights go down there's back-lighting so you can always see what you're doing too.

The trackpad joins this top performance with a decent sensitivity panel that's of an ample size and, importantly, feels good in use. No lack in response to your finger movements or anything like that and the smooth surface doesn't feel tacky and therefore isn't tricky to use.

Performance

With the older XPS 13 model back in 2012 we called battery life we called into question. But that was older Intel architecture at play. It's not directly linked to Dell, but what the company has been doing with its architecture is nothing short of amazing.

With the latest Haswell architecture in the XPS 13 (2014) model - the laptop reviewed here is the "9333" model - battery life lasts a lot, lot longer than before. Use for a full office day is no problem at all. We used the Dell unplugged for just short of a 9-hour office day. That's an improvement of 60 per cent or so.

Much of that work was web browsing and typing rather than heavy work, with a couple of breaks and some quick photo editing thrown in too. Therefore the XPS 13 will see you through most long-haul flights, especially if you go easy on the screen brightness, which is very good news indeed.

The latest Intel Core i5 processor doesn't run hotter than we'd expect, but it can certainly get warm under more processor intensive tasks. The combined 1.6GHz processor (2.6GHz boosted), 8GB RAM and Intel HD Graphics 4400 in this particular model is an accomplished list of numbers and digits. It saw us playing Goat Simulator in 1080p at a smooth frame-rate with no problems at all. No discrete graphics, so it's not an ultra-powered machine, but there's enough pep here to do as much day-to-day stuff as you'd care to throw at it.

However, we encountered one or two small issues. Should the cooling fan fire up it sounds like a mini vacuum cleaner has fired off inside the body. On one occasion and with no specific applications running Windows crashed and the cooling fan jumped into an off-on situation every five seconds. Irritating, but not something we could specifically replicate. If that fan needs to come on at any point then it's louder than we'd anticipated.

Another performance quibble came when putting the XPS 13 to sleep and then waking it. Sometimes a press of the power button was irresponsive, so after waiting for a number of seconds a repeat press was needed. But this isn't immediate: power is still being delivered, as shown by the key backlighting, during which time it's not possible to wake the laptop up again. A small thing, but a nuisance nonetheless. On one occasion we closed the lid, then realised we'd forgotten to grab a phone number from our screen, so flipped the screen back up just seconds later but had to wait in this strange power-out limbo. It would have been quicker to restart the machine.

Software

Bloatware has been kept to a minimum in the XPS 13. After loading the clean Tile or desktop experience is one to savour, without the usual onslaught of "updates" that many new PCs will throw at you.

There's a Microsoft Office 2013 trail as standard - it'll cost a bit more to upgrade to the full version - and McAfee virus protection is also included for 12-months in the price. Granted, the update prompts will probably come flying in after those 12-months, but there are other solutions out there such as Windows Defender that may cater for your needs.

Dell's own software is limited to My Dell Support which, again, doesn't automatically open. We like this light touch.

Verdict

The Dell XPS 13 isn't a budget buy by any means. With prices starting just under a grand it's actually pricier than the MacBook Air. Which might be a hard pill to swallow for some.

But if you're after a solid Windows 8.1 system with enough power and style to take on the best of them, then we think Dell has crafted an absolute winner in the XPS 13. Yes, there might be a limited number of ports, there are some fan noise and sleep/wake quibbles, but these are largely forgivable. 

Why? Because just look at it: the XPS 13 is a gorgeous machine. It's not often we'll say that about any laptop device. The aluminium and carbon fibre finish - it sounds like we're describing a fighter jet or race car rather than a laptop, doesn't it? - meets an excellent Full HD screen for one very well-featured device.

Just like its predecessor the Dell XPS 13 captures what an Ultrabook should be: speed, style and sophistication all wrapped into a light and portable package. But now with the power of touch (whether you use it or not) and a Intel Haswell securing improved battery life the 2014 model is a step better than its predecessors. Can't say better than that.