Dell XPS 13 Review Late 2015: Refreshed With Skylake

Dell XPS 13 Design and Feel

The look and feel of the updated XPS 13 is virtually identical to the Broadwell-based model from early least year, which is to say that it is beautiful.  Dell's design team created a machine that is every bit as appealing to mainstream audiences as it is to us geeks.  Here, we still find the precision machined aluminum block casing and soft touch carbon fiber lined interior we liked on the original, that makes the XPS 13 stand out without being too flashy.

Overall, the build of the XPS 13 is solid.  We don't just mean that metaphorically either.  While it weighs just 2.9 pounds and is at most 0.6 inches thick, it feels substantial.  The frame resists any flex.  The hinge moves easily yet holds itself solidly in position. And what weight it does possess is also well-balanced.  It is comfortable to use even while standing, and holding the notebook in one hand is easy because the carbon fiber provides some texture and does not feel slippery.  Both the carbon fiber and machined aluminum do an admirable job of resisting fingerprints too.  While the composite polycarbonate and carbon fiber material can wear over time, it will likely do so at a much slower rate than most other materials we've seen used on the deck and touchpad areas on many notebooks.

xps13 top view
What more do you need? A flashlight?

The exterior of the lid is very minimalistic.  It features only a small Dell logo to break up the matte aluminum finish.  There is no glowing fruit here; it doesn't need to cry out for attention to be noticed.  Turning our attention to the bottom we find a little more going on.  Two long rubberized skids along the front and rear edges protrude slightly and succeed in keeping the laptop in place on flat surfaces.  In contrast to notebooks with only small feet near the corners, we find these long skid pads improve how the laptop sits on uneven surfaces as there is dramatically less wobble.  The rear skid is accompanied by a row of narrow slits which serve as the XPS 13's primary ventilation.  These slits allow the 15W Skylake chip inside to primarily rely on passive cooling or minimal active cooling, only kicking on the fan when absolutely necessary.  The center of the bottom is home to a flip-up cover which reveals the computer's service tag number and other relevant certifications and labels. Along the leading and side edges we find eight Torx screws which can be removed to provide access to the machine's densely packed interior. While we won't be doing a teardown here, we will note that the memory is not replaceable or expandable, so be generous with your RAM consumption estimates at the time of purchase and maybe give a little extra consideration to that extended service plan.

xps13 bottom view
Keep it simple...

The sides of the XPS 13 are where the aluminum meets the carbon fiber.  The front side again adheres to minimalism with a single soft white power LED which changes to orange when you manage to bring the power level low enough.  The right side of the notebook remains identical to the early 2015 model and sports a Kensington lock, single USB 3.0 Type-A port with PowerShare, and a full size SD card reader. The left side reveals the first obvious revision.  It still serves as the location of the power port, a USB 3.0 Type-A port (no PowerShare here, sorry), a 3.5mm headset jack and a handy battery level indicator. However, it no longer possesses a mini-DisplayPort.  Instead, the XPS 13 now hosts a 40Gbps bi-directional peak bandwidth Thunderbolt 3.0 Type-C port which supports 10Gbps USB 3.1 Gen 2 and DisplayPort 1.2, in addition to PowerShare.  For some, this will make display output a little more cumbersome but technically affords more options, and with the right adapter can power multiple 4K displays.  The rear side consists of the very sturdy, near edge-to-edge display hinge which opens a generous 143 degrees by our measure.  This isn't the most extreme range to be sure, but is plenty for general "lapability" while sitting or lying down.  Notably, the XPS 13 does omit an onboard ethernet port, dedicated microphone jack, and obviously an optical drive. Of course, each of these omissions can be easily added if and when needed, via USB.

xps13 side views
Covering the essentials

Cracking open the lid reveals the gorgeous InfinityEdge display of the XPS 13.  The practically nonexistent bezels on the InfinityEdge display measure in at just about 0.20 inches or 5.2 millimeters on three sides.  This lack of framing sets up the display as the main attraction.  The view is so important to Dell that the webcam finds itself almost awkwardly mounted below the display in the bottom left corner.  Unfortunately, this can result in unflattering angles and you might not want to type on the keyboard while video chatting, unless you really want to show off your knuckles.  If a quality webcam is a priority for you, you will want to spring for a separate USB powered solution. Beneath the fold is the power button, adjustable backlit tenkey-less keyboard, and responsive multi-point trackpad. And good news, there is only a single Intel sticker on the deck.

xps13 that display tho
That display though...

Turning our attention back to the display, we find that Dell offers two options.  The first is a standard non-touch matte finish 1080p IPS display and the second, as reviewed, is a touch-enabled 3200x1800 UltraSharp display which packs over 5.7 million pixels at 276 pixels per inch.  Colors on the UltraSharp display are bright and true with appropriate saturation.  Unlike the XPS 15, however, Dell does not include their PremierColor application for easy profile management on the XPS 13 at this time.  The panel itself does not exhibit any trace of backlight bleed or other manufacturing defects, thankfully.  Screen glare is actually mitigated quite well despite the glossy finish and only picks up light marginally more than the matte-finish 1080p option.  Reflections are a different story though.  While the matte-finish 1080p display reflects almost nothing, you will see yourself reflected in the touch display.  To demonstrate how much crisper the UltraSharp Touch display is, we created a simple 5x5 pixel checkered pattern and displayed it on both panel options, side by side.  The results speak for themselves with nearly double the apparent resolution.

xps13 display resolution comparison
Left: UltraSharp 3200x1800 panel. Right: FHD 1920x1080 panel. Click for wider view.

In all, we recommend the touch display even if you never actually touch it simply because the extra pixel density produces a much higher quality image.  Using this panel at full resolution without scaling really isn't an option unless you enjoy giving your eyes a workout, so it comes factory configured at 250% scaling.  This amounts to an effective resolution of just 720p, which doesn't gain you any screen real estate compared with most other laptops, but does vastly improve the sharpness of onscreen elements including photos, text, and icons.  We found we could lower the scaling to about 175% comfortably which gives an effective resolution near 1080p to increase work area but does trade off touchability as many screen elements become smaller targets.  No matter the scaling level, however, the fact remains that some applications just aren't made to scale properly.  Yes, the situation in Windows 10 is better than with Windows 7 or even Windows 8.1, but that doesn't stop some things like the launcher, for example, from being nearly unreadable.  Such is the price of living on the edge of technology trends, we suppose, and it certainly isn't anything to hold against Dell.

xps13 display for ants
What is this, a program for ants?

Finally, a note on noise.  Actually, there really isn't any.  As mentioned above, Dell primarily aims to use passive cooling with this machine, which not only reduces power consumption but also makes it truly silent when not under load.  However, even when the fan does kick in it is very quiet.  The fan volume barely registers at 26dB over an ambient volume of 21dB.  The stereo speakers onboard are also surprisingly loud, topping out at around 68dB against the same ambient background using the built in Windows speaker test.  The quality of the speakers, however, isn't earth shattering.  The sound is clean but naturally it doesn't possess much of a low register.  Still, it doesn't leave an impression that you are listening on ultrabook speakers and the quality stays true even when topped out.

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