What's Hot: Incredibly small, light and attractive. Solid build with quality materials, excellent display options with tiny bezel. Low starting price, impressive battery life for non-touch models.
What's Not: Desirable options like a touch screen and 8 gigs of RAM quickly escalate price.
Reviewed January 23, 2015 and December 14, 2015 by Lisa Gade, Editor
in Chief (twitter: @lisagade)
The new Dell XPS 13 is the best new laptop of 2015. Hey, I know I wrote that on January 22, when the year was still very young, but it's December 2015 now and I've updated this review to add the Intel Skylake late 2015 model refresh, and it still stands as the best traditional (non-convertible) design Windows 13 inch Ultrabook on the market. Why? It's a 13.3" Ultrabook that's the size of an 11.6" to 12" model, it weighs just 2.6 lbs. and the 1080p model has insane battery life. A trifecta of portability, light weight and great battery life make this an excellent laptop. Better yet, it has good performance thanks to the Intel 5th and 6th generation U series CPUs. We're thrilled to see U here rather than the slower Broadwell Core M used in the very first 5th gen Intel portables that hit in Q4 2014.
The 2015 Dell XPS 13 starts at $799 and ends at $1,599. For $799 you'll get a 5th (now 6th) generation Intel Core i3 CPU, 4 gigs of RAM, a 128 gig SSD and a non-touch matte 1080p display. Really, it's hard to imagine a cutting edge, high end Ultrabook in 2015 without a touch screen! For $899 you'll move up to a 2.2 GHz Core i5. Want a more modern 8 gigs of RAM? That will set you back a pricey $100. RAM is soldered on board, so you can't upgrade it yourself later. Want a 256 gig SSD? That's also a $100 upcharge. The model many folks will covet is the $1,399 configuration with the QHD+ touch screen, 8 gigs of RAM and a 256 gig SSD. All models have a backlit keyboard, Dell (Broadcom) dual band WiFi 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0. We'd be pretty happy with the $999 non-touch Core i5 with 8 gigs of RAM and a 128 gig SSD (you can always upgrade the SSD later if you need more space).
A Modern Look
The latest Dell XPS 13 has a fresh look. Yes, there's some older gen XPS 13 DNA here, including the silver aluminum lid with Dell logo, patterned carbon fiber on the interior and Dell's very good and distinctive keyboard. But the new kid on the block is significantly smaller and the corners are more angular so it doesn't look like a silver lozenge. The bottom is aluminum now rather than carbon fiber, but the bottom zone design cues are otherwise similar to the outgoing model with the two horizontal rubber strips for grip that are raised to provide some room for ventilation. As ever with the XPS line, the machine feels extremely rigid, durable and solid with no flex or creaks.
The XPS 13's footprint and thickness are nearly identical to the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, which is pretty impressive since the Surface Pro 4 is a tablet with flappy keyboard attachment rather than a full-fledged laptop. The sides are tapered from 0.6" at the back to 0.33" at the front, with silver sandwiching black. Thankfully, Dell left enough room for ports and there are two USB 3.0 ports (one on each side), a mini DisplayPort (use a miniDP to HDMI adapter if you need HDMI), 3.5mm combo audio and an SD card slot (a card will stick out with 1/3 exposed). Note that the late 2015 model does away with the mini DisplayPort and replaces it with a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port-- forward thinking, but it's a bit hard to find USB-C cables and adapters right now. Dell's USB-C adapter sells for $75 and it adds HDMI 2.0, Ethernet, USB 3.0 and VGA when connected to the laptop's USB-C port.
The bottom panel is affixed with several Torx screws, and you'll need to remove that panel to access the battery, M.2 SSD slot and socketed wireless card.
Beyond the size and weight, the show stealer is Dell's Infinity display with impossibly small bezels that remind us more of a newer flat screen TV than a laptop. Those 5mm bezels mean there's no room for a webcam above the display, so it's located at the lower left corner of the display bezel. It's guaranteed to provide unflattering video chat footage--few of us look good from under the chin. Despite the nearly non-existent bezels, the display panel is rigid and strong and relatively thick. The display itself? Gorgeous! Unlike the Lenovo Yoga 900 and HP Spectre x360, it doesn't "yoga" into a tablet nor does it separate into two pieces like the HP Envy x2 13. The XPS 13 has a traditional laptop hinge that tips back approximately 30 degrees beyond upright to target the laptop crowd rather than those in the market for a 2-in-1.
The XPS 13 is available with a retro non-touch 1080p screen or a glossy QHD+ 3200 x 1800 touch screen. The only thing retro about the non-touch screen is the lack of touch. Otherwise it's a thoroughly modern Sharp IGZO full HD 1920 x 1080 matte panel with very good color gamut, good 800:1 contrast, low 0.2 black levels and plenty of brightness. In fact, given the conventional laptop rather than convertible design and Windows 10 making navigation without touch easier, I can understand the appeal of the more affordable display. I also appreciate a matte display since it looks brighter and isn't marred by reflections. While some matte displays have matte coatings that make things look murky or grainy, the XPS 13 looks clear and very colorful. If you look carefully, you'll see a wee bit of grain on white (predominantly white web pages and blank Word documents) but it's very minor compared to many matte panels. Dell claims high brightness and indeed the panel looks bright, though it was impossible to accurately measure with our Spyder Pro colorimeter since the panel dynamically adjusts brightness in zones and for certain colors to save power (this isn't the same thing as auto-brightness or ambient light sensor brightness that can be easily disabled).
For those of you who enjoy the new Windows Start environment (aka Metro) and associated apps from the Windows Store, they won't be a joy without touch. I do wish Dell offered an in-between display option--1080p touch, but alas they don't. If you want touch, you're also getting a 3200 x 1800 display. Big specs sell, and Dell has to combat the Lenovo Yoga 900 running at the same resolution, so QHD+ it is. We have both the 1080p and QHD+ versions in for review and both share a similar color gamut, contrast ratio and brightness levels. Our units measured 78% of Adobe RGB, 99% of sRGB to match the best laptop displays on the market. Note that unlike the XPS 15 late 2015 model with a 4K IGZO display, the XPS 13 doesn't offer near full Adobe RGB coverage (a rare feature in laptops). The glossy QHD+ version is covered with Gorilla Glass NBT unlike the matte version.
IGZO panels use less power, and that helps the 1080p non-touch XPS 13 achieve its stellar battery life. That said, the higher resolution model does consume more power and Dell estimates it at 12 hours of battery life vs. 15 for the non-touch model. Touch adds some weight too, so the touch model weighs 2.8 lbs. vs. 2.6 lbs. for the non-touch XPS 13.
Deals and Shopping:
LAte 2015 Dell XPS 15 (Skylake) Video Review
Early 2015 Dell XPS 13 (Broadwell) Video Review
Dell XPS 13 (2015) FHD 1080p vs. QHD+ Comparison, Plus Dell Accessories Review
Dell XPS 13 (2015) vs. 13" MacBook Air Comparison
Dell XPS 13 (215) vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Comparison
2015 Dell XPS 13 vs. Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 3rd Gen Comparison Video
HP Spectre x360 vs. 2015 Dell XPS 13 Comparison
Horsepower and Battery Life
The early 2015 XPS 13 one of the first Broadwell 5th generation Intel U series laptops to hit the market, and it offers performance similar to 4th generation Haswell U series CPUs. It has the same max 15 watt power consumption, but also operates at reduced power levels for light tasks, resulting in better battery life than Haswell. So far manufacturers have opted to reduce laptop size and thus battery size with Broadwell machines, and the result is similar runtimes to Haswell models. Dell bucks the trend by fitting a surprisingly capacious 52 WHr, 4 cell Lithium battery in the tiny XPS 13 chassis (56 WHr for the late 2015 XPS 13). That's on the big side for even Haswell Ultrabooks, and that in conjunction with the power-sipping IGZO 1080p display makes for insanely good battery life that matches the 13" MacBook Air (the runtime champ among Ultrabooks). We averaged 10-11 hours with our non-touch model in a mix of video streaming, productivity work in MS Office, email, social networking and editing 20 RAW files in Adobe Photoshop CC. Nice! That was with WiFi on and brightness set to a perfectly adequate 50%. If you go with the QHD+ touch model, battery life isn't as wildly impressive: ours averaged 7-7.5 hours of actual use time.
In terms of horsepower, the early 2015 XPS 13 with the Core i5-5200U and Intel HD 5500 graphics performs like one of the quicker 4th generation Haswell Core i5 CPUs. It has a base clock speed of 2.2 GHz with Turbo Boost to 2.7 GHz. Dell offers Core i3 and Core i7 options, though I'd lean toward the Core i5 for its noticeably better performance than the Core i3 and not much worse than the dual core i7 (there are no quad core U series CPUs). All models have integrated graphics--there really is no room for dedicated graphics in a chassis this size. We did note improvement over Haswell for Intel's integrated graphics-- a few hundred points in benchmarks and a few frames more in games.
The Intel 6th generation Skylake CPU used in the late 2015 XPS 13 offers little in the way of CPU performance gains since Intel continues to focus on improving heat and battery life rather than performance. They have worked to improve integrated graphics however, and Intel HD 520 graphics shows a meaningful though not earthshattering gain in graphics benchmarks and games (note the 3DMark 11 figures for 5th and 6th gen models below).
Above: internals with bottom cover removed, Skylake model (Broadwell model uses the same design).
RAM is soldered on board, so you can't upgrade it later, and Dell offers 4, 8 and 16 gig DDR3 configurations. The early 2015 model's SSD is M.2 and from the benchmarks on our early unit, it looks to be a SATA interface rather than the faster PCIe used in the 2015 Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and 13" MacBook Air. Does the M.2 slot support both interfaces? Probably, but at this point we can't say for sure. For those who need more storage, Dell offers 256 and 512 gig SSD options, and you can also upgrade the machine yourself later since the SSD is removable. The late 2015 model moves to fast PCIe SSDs for better benchmarks, faster file copies and slightly quicker program launch times.
We were impressed at how little the fan ran even when doing demanding tasks like running PCMark and 3DMark benchmarks. When it does kick in, it's not whiny or obnoxious by any means, and we didn't hear any coil whine from the keyboard. The bottom gets quite warm when the machine is working hard, but not burning hot. For productivity, it stays cool enough to keep on your lap, but try not to block the bottom vents. It is warmer than the last gen XPS with carbon fiber bottom since metal transfers heat more directly.
Skinny machines have low travel keyboards, and the 2015 XPS 13 is no exception. The 1.3mm key travel is short enough that my fingers bottomed out uncomfortably for the first 10 minutes of typing this review. Then I adjusted and came to enjoy the keyboard with Dell's usual non-slip, shaped keys and good backlighting. Key placement is perfectly normal and there's an arrow pad at the bottom right corner. The power button is separate from the keyboard area so you won't hit it by accident.
The large glass Synaptics trackpad is quite good, and perhaps made even better by Microsoft's new push to take back the trackpad drivers and save us from a muddle of disparate and often mediocre trackpad experiences. The surface feels much like the MacBook trackpad's, and single touch gestures worked like a charm. Multi-touch was also easy to use and reliable for two finger scrolling and pinch zooming. Some folks have had issues with palm rejection, though we didn't. Since it uses a basic OS driver, there's no control panel to set palm rejection levels. It's one of the more enjoyable trackpads on the Windows laptop market, though it doesn't beat Dell's own XPS 15 Infinity trackpad.
Dell has hit a homerun with the 2015 XPS 13: it's incredibly small and light yet it packs a bright and lovely set of display options along with extremely good battery life for the 1080p non-touch model. It's as compact and light as the MS Surface Pro 4 with Type Cover and it runs just as long as the 13" MacBook Air. Even better, it manages to look good too, with the uncannily small bezels making it look cooler than most laptops on the market. The new XPS 13 is significantly smaller (though not much lighter) than the Lenovo Yoga 900 and as you might guess, it's the perfect Ultrabook for road warriors. You really won't find another traditional 13" laptop this small, stylish and light packing full Intel Core U power. Unless you need an active digitizer with pen or a convertible, the Dell should be on your short list. If you don't mind a larger 13" footprint and 6.5 hour battery life, the Asus Zenbook UX303LA is also worth a look at $899 with full HD touch screen and 8 gigs of RAM.
Display:13.3", 1920 x 1080 matte Sharp IGZO display (non-touch) or 3200 x 1800 QHD+ gloss IGZO touch screen. Intel HD 5500 integrated graphics on early 2015 model, Intel HD 520 graphics on late 2015 model. Mini DisplayPort on early 2015, USB-C on late 2015. Miracast wireless display.
Battery:52 WHr on early 2015, 56 WHr on late 2015, 4 cell Lithium
Ion rechargeable sealed inside.
Performance:Early 2015 has 5th generation Intel Broadwell Core i3, i5 and i7 dual core U series ULV CPUs. Late 2015 has Intel 6th generation Skylake Core i3, i5 and i7 U series CPUs. 4, 8 or 16 gigs of DDR3L RAM soldered on board. 128, 256 and 512 gig M.2 SSD options (PCIe interface in late 2015).
x 7.78 x 0.33-0.60 inches. Weight: 2.6 pounds for non-touch and 2.8lbs. for touchscreen model.
Camera:integrated webcam and mic.
Audio:Built-in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
Networking:Integrated dual band
Broadcom WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.0.
Expansion and Ports:2 USB 3.0 ports, mini DisplayPort, 3.5mm combo audio and
SD card slot.