Dell XPS 13 review: a super portable with a display that's out of this world

This compact stunner has it all

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For

  • Amazing display
  • Compact body
  • Packs power

Against

  • Average battery life (QHD+)
  • Adaptive Brightness
  • Fingerprints easily

Every once in a while a laptop comes along to set a new standard for design - whether it’s the MacBook’s thin tapered body or the Surface Book's clever dynamic fulcrum hinge.

Dell’s reimagined XPS 13 hasn't changed a lot since last year's version, but it's joined the pantheon of laptop greats, not for its slim chassis, but because of its fantastic edge-to-edge display.

Surrounded by a svelte 5.2mm-thin bezel, the 13.3-inch Dell XPS 13’ 'Infinity' display is virtually borderless and lends the machine a footprint closer to that of an 11-inch laptop. It takes up very little room whether it’s on your lap, a desk or an train table, making it one of the most portable (and desirable) 13-inch Windows laptops around.

Such innovation is usually accompanied by an eye-watering price tag, but Dell smartly offers the XPS 13 in four configurations to suit your wallet. At £849 or £949, the two lower-end models come with a non-touch Full HD matte display, 4GB or 8GB of RAM and a 128GB or 256GB SSD.

At the top-end, the two more powerful configurations tote a superior high-resolution QHD+ touchscreen that’s incredibly vibrant and crisp (but sucks up more battery life), along with a Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory and 256GB or 512GB SSD for £1,249 or £1,299. All models are bundled with Windows 8.1 (which is upgradable for free to Windows 10 from July 29 if you do it within 12 months), but only the touchscreen model will let you interact with the display using all 10 digits.

Dell XPS 13: Size and build

The Dell XPS 13’s compact, dimension-bending design makes it a dream for travellers or space-conscious desk users. It copes well with knocks and scrapes thanks to its durable aluminium lid and underside. It looks great with the lid open too; the palm rest and trackpad are made of a smooth carbon fibre material with a subtle thatched design that appears to shift in the light.

On the downside, they’re absolute smudge magnets along with the spacebar - so have a cloth to hand. At 1.18kg (1.26kg for the touchscreen model), the XPS 13 is plenty portable. It’s not as floaty-light as the new MacBook (0.9kg), but then again few laptops are - and the XPS packs a lot more beef under the hood.

Dell XPS 13: Display

While both the Full HD and QHD+ models feature Dell's Infinity display, the latter’s is covered by an attractive edge-to-edge glass panel that lends the XPS 13 a more consistent and complete appearance. On the downside it’s frustratingly glossy and makes the screen harder to read due to reflections bouncing left, right and centre. In contrast, the Full HD version's recesses slightly in the absence of glass; it’s not unattractive and copes excellently with glare and reflections but looks a touch less premium.

Dell XPS 13 and 13 inch MacBook Pro with Retina

Here’s where things get a tad complicated. Usually, it would make sense for multimedia professionals to opt for the QHD+ model due to its whopping 3,200 x 1,800 pixel-resolution, which makes everything on Windows look sharp and detailed - from text to images, menus and program windows. You can zoom in while editing images to view them in minute detail and make tweaks, or zoom out while video editing to squeeze in more toolbars and timeline, which works great.

The problem is that XPS 13 has an Adaptive Brightness feature that dynamically changes the display’s contrast setting depending on what's on the screen - making it impossible to calibrate the display for colour accuracy. You’re unlikely to notice it under general conditions, but those serious about performing a calibration will inevitably run into problems as Dell has made it so that you can't turn it off.

Dell XPS 13: Features

Adaptive brightness aside, the Dell XPS 13 is loaded with useful features - from the dazzling QHD+ display on the touchscreen version to the useful button-activated battery indicator along the left-hand edge. Unlike Apple’s new MacBook, it comes with a plentiful array of ports, including two USB 3.0, DisplayPort, a headphone jack, SD card reader and a Kensington Security Lock.

The XPS 13’s two speakers, positioned at the sides, are pleasingly loud upon first inspection - but it’s only when you crank up the bass using pre-installed Waves MaxxAudio software that they really roar. The machine's full-size chiclet keyboard is comfortable but slightly lacking in travel for my tastes, while the sufficently sized trackpad's sensitivity felt just right out of the box.

Dell XPS 13: Performance

The availability of Intel’s Core-i5 and Core-i7 processors mean plenty of internal grunt for chewing through daily computing tasks - such as web browsing, video streaming, word processing and spreadsheet editing. Opting for the version with 8GB of main memory would be wise if you’re the type that works with 20+ browser tabs open at once while resizing images, editing video - or even light gaming.

Dell XPS 13 and 13 inch MacBook Pro with Retina

The HD 5500 integrated graphics inside won’t run the latest titles without serious slowdown - it even struggles badly with some older ones like Skyrim - but it’s adequate for lesser-demanding titles such as those that run on Valve’s Source engine.

Dell XPS 13: Battery

The touchscreen version managed a meagre 4 hours and 21 minutes, under T3’s rigorous battery life test, which automatically runs through a series of real-world tasks with Wi-FI on and brightness set to 100% until depleted. You can expect to eke out a few more hours by lowering it to around 60%. The non-touch version fared much better, reaching 8 hours and 11 minutes under the same conditions - and like the touchscreen version will run for even longer with the screen dimmed. If you're worried about battery life, Dell offers a Power Companion accessory that's rated at 12000mAh and should give your XPS 13 a healthy boost in that department. While Dell sells it for north of £100, it can be had for cheaper elsewhere if you look around.

Dell XPS 13: Verdict

The Dell XPS 13 is well worthy of your attention for many reasons: it's compact, features a terrific display (especially if you go for the QHD+ version) and is a solid performer. MacBook fans interested in making the switch to Windows should be champing at the bit to give it a go - but watch out for battery life if you decide to splash out for the high-end version. Dell's latest represents especially good value at the low end because you get the same excellent design and build quality as the most expensive model. But if money is no object, the kitted out XPS 13 with the QHD+ touchscreen and Core i7 processor is the way to go - just make sure you pick up the Dell Power Companion pack to take on the move.

Is this the way all laptops should be?

A big, solid yes: high-resolution displays and compact bodies are the way laptops are heading. Tablets have been packing QHD+ displays for some time, and small portable productivity machines like the Dell XPS 13 mark an exciting shift in the industry for anyone who values a touchscreen and a full-size keyboard. Like many other laptops with pixel-packed displays, the Dell suffers from battery life drain, something that Intel's future generations of processors will look to address.