After company privatisation and realigning its focus for the business market, Dell has only gone and launched the most desirable 13-inch consumer laptop that we've ever seen: the 2015 version of the XPS 13.
But business, consumer, whatever label is put upon a product doesn't matter – quality is what we're interested in. And on that front the XPS 13 has plenty of headline grabbing specs: a super-high resolution (3200 x 1800 pixel) display labelled "infinity" given an almost entirely absent bezel; lightweight machined aluminium and carbon fibre construction; and the smallest 13-inch form factor available on the market. But all that doesn't see it scrimp on the power front, with fifth-generation Intel Core i-series architecture under the hood.
On paper the Dell XPS 13 seems as though it can do no wrong; it's the Windows 8 machine to give the Apple MacBook Air something to chew over. But having used the touchscreen XPS 13 for a week on our travels, is it as infallible as the specification suggests?
We first saw the Dell XPS 13 behind closed doors back in November 2014, but under an embargo agreement so strict that we couldn't talk about it. Ever. Which was a shame, given that of all the product previews we've been to of late, the infinity screen design was something standout in an industry otherwise pushing familiar, arguably stale, design forms. Not so the XPS 13.
As we type this review on our MacBook Air, the Apple machine is made to look somewhat giant by comparison to the XPS 13 at its side. The infinity display cuts back on the Dell's bezel to such a degree that it's close to non-existent – something's got to hold that screen in place after all, right? – giving a screen-centric, small form-factor device. For the digit-hunters out there it measures 200 x 304 x 15mm and weights 1.26kg. Nay bad.
Upon first pulling the XPS 13 from its box, it seems no corner has been cut in the exterior look and feel of the device. The aluminium shell looks great, but has slightly scuffed after a week of use; the carbon fibre base delivers ample wrist resting space when typing; while the degree of travel from the keys of the back-lit keyboard feels just right. The keys are fairly tightly knitted together in the F-keys top row, but it felt familiar and easy to use from the getgo.
The only oddity isn't in the looks department, but in the placement of the fan opening – it's on the bottom of the device. Sure, air needs to circulate for cooling, and this position hides it out of the way, keeping that neat silver and black aesthetic uninterrupted. Besides, given the slender design there's no other logical place available, the sides are too slim to be effective. But open your ears and it's not long before the hum of the fan becomes apparent – and under little pressure.
There are two elongated rubberised feet on the base to ensure air can flow, but rest the XPS 13 on your lap or any kind of material other than a hardened desk and it may cause some audible problems. Nothing jet-engine like, mind, just a hum.
Plenty of power
A little hum is no surprise given what's under the hood though. There are various power configurations available, starting with the 2.7Ghz Intel Core i5 processor and topping-out at the 3.2Ghz Intel Core i7 option, each option paired with 8GB RAM and Intel HD 5500 graphics. No discrete graphics, unfortunately, but even so there's enough power here to churn through whatever you may want to throw at it.
In the 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 configuration we've received for review (oddly the i7-5500U CPU comes in 3Ghz options only according to the Dell order page) it's not a gaming laptop by any means – Dell has Alienware to handle such audiences – but that doesn't mean many Steam games won't run, just not at their highest settings. We've been digging through the usual mixture of Photoshop, VLC for movie playback, Microsoft Word (an Office 2013 Trial is included) for word processing, and simultaneous heavyweight browsing all with no problems.
For plugging in extras there are two USB 3.0 ports (despite no blue colour, keeping a more uniform look), a mini DisplayPort, full size SD card reader and 3.5mm headphones jack. No particular surprises there. If you want Ethernet then you'll need to use an adaptor accessory – a compromise that many laptops now have to make given slimmer form factors.
Dell claims a "long battery life" – we had heard reports of 15-hours per charge, but we're getting a little over half of that in what we would call standard use – delivering around 8-hours of constant keyboard battering. Want more? An optional 12,000mAh power pack accessory can be added, which is great to throw in a bag for backup.
In the UK all default XPS 13 configurations come with a touchscreen, and as much as we tend to prefer keeping the screen pristine and fingerprint-free, it's a useful feature to have in conjunction with Windows 8.1. Some other territories offer the standard, non-touch screen, but as with Windows 8 on the whole, the touch integration is something that we've grown to like and use more over the past couple of years. It's particularly good in full-screen browsing, for example.
We can wax lyrical for an age about the positives of the XPS 13's infinity panel. It looks stunning, is crammed with stacks of resolution, delivers a crisp image with decent viewing angles, and offers ample brightness (adjustable via the F-keys).
For all its positives, however, there are a couple of negatives: primarily it's the slightly gloss finish that pulls it down a step; secondly the lower corners, towards the hinge, bleed a little light as some backlit TVs tend to. Neither issue is a death knell for the device, though. The screen is not hyper-glossy to the point it ruins usability, but a matte finish would be preferential to avoid catching those reflections.
Being a business focused company, Dell has its own Backup and Recovery software on board as standard. It's not wildly intrusive like some, though, with simple cloud-based or external drive backup options on offer.
There's also a 12 month subscription to McAfee Live Safe – the kind of thing many personal users won't care much about, but some businesses may require. Otherwise the bloatware isn't too in your face overall. As we touched upon earlier there's also a Microsoft Office 2013 Trial available, rather than the full-blown software, which is a bit of shame given the high price of the product.
Starting at £1,049 and pushing to £1,249 at its highest configuration the Dell XPS 13 isn't a budget machine by any means. But is it worth it? We think so. Quality design and high-end features fare worth paying for. Saying that, we had some qualms about the price of the inventive Lenovo Yoga Pro 3, which is less powerful but more versatile than the Dell.
And now for the inevitable Apple MacBook Air comparison: Dell has got the upper hand in a number of departments, delivering a smaller overall device with similar-to-better levels of power and a far higher screen resolution. However, it can't trump the Mac in the battery life department (unless adding the optional battery accessory).
Despite a few of minor moans – some fan noise, a slightly reflective screen and exaggerated battery life claims – there’s not an equivalent Windows laptop we can commend more highly than the Dell XPS 13. It’s enough to give Apple something to chew on.
Take one look at it: the Dell XPS 13 is a good looking, well conceived laptop with a smaller footprint than any 13-inch competitor on the market. That infinity screen paired with its significant 3200 x 1800 resolution goes beyond the current standard and is one of the more significant design features to arrive in a laptop for a number of years.
It’s not a cheap buy given its four-figure starting price, but as a considered investment the Dell XPS 13 is one mighty Windows 8 laptop whether buying for business, pleasure or a combination of both. To infinity and beyond.
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