Hands on: Dell XPS 13 review

Dell's latest Kaby Lake laptop goes for (rose) gold

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Our Early Verdict

Dell's refreshed XPS 13 is immaculately crafted, sports a sharp QHD+ touchscreen, Intel 7th Generation processors and a rose gold color...but opting for the premium color scheme is going to cost you.

For

  • New Intel Kaby Lake processors
  • Svelte, sexy 11-inch form factor
  • Ultrasharp QuadHD+ screen

Against

  • Rose gold price hike
  • non-upgradable GPU

Dell's taken a page from Apple's playbook with this year's XPS 13 model – now offering its powerful 13-inch Ultrabook in gorgeous rose gold. Sure, some might still consider the XPS series a cheap shot on Apple's MacBook Air, but this is a laptop even the team in Cupertino could learn a few lessons from.

Take, for instance, the InfinityEdge Display that almost entirely eliminates the bezel, or the UltraSharp QuadHD+ screen with a stunning 3200 x 1800 resolution, just two of the many smart design decisions Dell continues to offer on this year's line-up.

Oh, and Dell's got its own version of "one more thing" – the 2016 XPS 13 models are packing heat under the hood: a full range of Kaby Lake Intel processors.

If this isn't the MacBook killer, I don't know what is.

Dell XPS 13 review

Design

If the XPS 15 series is a butcher's knife – all business and cuts straight to the chase – the XPS 13 is the butterfly knife; it's slimmer and sleeker, but no less effective in the right hands.

The non-touch version of the XPS 13 measures in at 0.33 x 11.98 x 7.8 inches (9 x 304 x 200mm; H x W x D), while the touch version comes in at a slightly larger 0.6 x 11.98 x 7.8 inches (15 x 304 x 200mm; H x W x D).

At half an inch thick, the XPS 13 is in the running for the smallest laptop on the market. Smallest, but not slimmest. The HP Spectre holds that honor with its skeleton-thin 10.4mm-thick screen. But even if it doesn't quite claim the top spot, this year's model is as thin and light as it's ever been.

Dell XPS 13 review

Weight-wise, the XPS 13 is a totable 2.7 pounds (1.2kg). It's something you could toss in a bag between classes or take with you on your next business trip and barely notice it's there. (That said, it's probably for the best if you cover your new investment with a case just to be safe.)

The screen itself is Dell's new InfinityEdge Display. Images go nearly to the edge of the screen with only a thin strip of plastic separating the glass from the edge. The distance separating the two, for the record, is a measly 5.2mm.

Dell XPS 13 review

The XPS 13 can be outfitted with an UltraSharp QuadHD+ screen with a brilliant 3,200 x 1,800 resolution, capable of displaying 2.5 times the number of pixels than a Full HD display. It's all shown on a 400 nit screen, making it as bright as the average LCD LED TV.

But, if touch isn't your thing, there's also a standard FHD (1920 x 1080) InfinityEdge display as well.

Looking at inputs, Dell's definitely taken to Apple's minimalist approach. All said, there are only two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, a headphone jack, a lock slot and one USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port. If that port configuration sounds familiar, it's because it's almost identical to the inputs available on this year's MacBook Air, with the only exception being that the Dell XPS uses Thunderbolt 3 for faster 10GB/s file transfers.

Dell XPS 13 review

Then there's the fully backlit keyboard surrounded by a carbon fiber palm rest and precision touchpad. The keys felt comfortably spaced and the pad spacious enough to poke, pull and prod without feeling cramped – something that can be a real problem on 13-inch laptops working with limited real estate.

Last up is the HD webcam that Dell snuck into the lower righthand corner of the XPS 13's display. It's strange placement to be sure and seems, to an outsider, like it was the sacrifice the team made in order to keep the bezel as trim as possible along the top of the screen.

Dell XPS 13 review

Performance and specs

The exterior is nice, but there's no correlation between a carbon fiber palm rest and how well programs like Photoshop and Adobe Premier are going to run.

Thankfully, to run those programs as smoothly as possible, the XPS 13 rocks Intel's 7th Generation Kaby Lake Core processors – the Intel Core i3-7100U processor that has a 3M Cache, up to 2.4 GHz; Intel Core i5-7200U processor with a 3M Cache, up to 3.1 GHz and Intel Core i7-7500U processor with a 4M Cache, up to 3.5 GHz.

It's a decent assortment that should appease both the web surfing, word processing crowd and the power users alike.

Dell XPS 13 review

Memory options include 4GB, 8GB and 16GB Dual Channel LPDDR3 SDRAM running at 1866MHz, while on the storage side of things you can pick from a 128GB, 256GB, 512GB or 1TB PCIe SSD. (Can't decide how to build out your machine? It depends what your needs are, but 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD should see you through the next three or four years just fine.)

Let's talk graphics for a second. Here's where the Dell XPS 13 could run into a problem. If you're looking to do anything more than light gaming on the XPS 13, you might have to look somewhere else – while Kaby Lake promises a number of advantages, the on-board Intel HD Graphics 620 GPU probably isn't going to hold a candle compared to a proper dedicated Nvidia mobile GPU.

Dell XPS 13 review

That said, every app I saw running on Windows 10 looked gorgeous on the QHD+ display. While most versions of the XPS 13 will ship with Windows 10, Dell also offers a developer edition of the series that trades out Microsoft's operating system for Ubuntu 16.04 LTS and shaves $50 off the sticker price – a good deal if you're, say, a computer science student looking to cut some costs or working at a startup that's short on cash.

The last stop on our tour of the specs sheet is the new Killer 1535 Wireless-AC 2x2 network card that supports Bluetooth 4.1 that offers two external 5GHz signal amplifiers to improve your performance at longer distances and boosts speeds to 867mbps.

So all these components and 400 nit screen must mean that the XPS 13 has a shortened battery life, right? Wrong. Dell says that you can expect up to 22 hours from the 2016 models with the FHD screen or around 13 hours from a single charge on the QHD+ panel, thanks in no small part to the new processors and reduced physical space.

Dell XPS 13 review

Worth its weight in (rose) gold?

Until now, I've carefully avoided talking about price. That's not done in an attempt to disguise the final cost of the machine, but more importantly I wanted to give myself enough space to talk about its value-to-dollar ratio.

The silver edition of the XPS 13 starts at $799 (about £610, AU$1,060) for the base configuration out there. But to get the rose gold model you'll have to shell out at least $1,149 (about £880, AU$1,520).

The rose gold version does have a few upgrades on top of the gilded exterior, but the price of admission is still higher than most Ultrabooks. Colors are nice, but is rose gold really worth an extra $350?

We can't be that addicted to this whole rose gold fad. Can we?

For $799 the price is right. The XPS 13 is a well-oiled, well-spec'd machine that emphasizes processor power for the most frequent tasks like web browsing. Loaded up with the right components, the XPS 13 is a workhorse that could theoretically last the next few years without suffering any massive slowdown – though I'll need to put it through its paces before I can make that call with any authority.

Dell XPS 13 review

Early verdict

The Dell XPS 13 squeezes a 13-inch laptop – packed to the gills with the latest Kaby Lake hardware and stunning QuadHD+ display – into an 11-inch form factor. It's a feat of engineering and worthy of all the praise we've given it these last few years.

To that end, this year's models are just as svelte as their predecessors but they have the added bonus of extra processing power and a beautiful – if somewhat overpriced – rose gold exterior.

The Dell XPS 13 with Intel 7th Generation Processors goes on sale October 4 and starts at $799 for the silver version, $1,149 for the rose gold version and $949 for the developer edition that ships with Ubuntu 16.04 LTS.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.