Dell’s new flagship laptop is thinner, faster and has longer battery life than its predecessor.
The Dell XPS 13 has become a firm favourite among Windows laptop buyers – and for good reason. Dell has managed to reduce the bezels to almost zero and, in doing so, created a luxurious edge-to-edge screen. The result: a 13.3-inch display squeezed into what previously would have been a 12in chassis.
Despite this, however, Apple’s MacBook Pro has maintained its reputation as the very best of laptops. But could that be about to change with the 2018 Dell XPS 13?
After testing the latest model, we think it could. Dell has updated the XPS 13 with a number of tweaks, including an upgrade to eighth-generation (Coffee Lake) Intel Core processors.
The design of the XPS 13 has remained more or less unchanged for the last several years, and that's very much a positive – it's one of the best-looking notebooks around, and Dell is smart to avoid messing around with it.
As before, the chassis is finished in a gorgeous anodised aluminium with sharp, angular corners, while the keyboard surround uses the XPS range's signature carbon fibre-effect finish. Despite the fact that this is basically the same aesthetic that Dell has been using since 2015, it hasn't really aged all that much – in fact, it still looks downright excellent.
The few changes that have been made are largely positive. For example, it's thinner than ever before, measuring 11.6mm at its widest point, and it's 80g lighter, too. For reference, that's noticeably slimmer and lighter than Apple's outstanding MacBook Pro. There have been some sacrifices made to achieve such a thin profile though (which we'll cover in more detail later) but the XPS 13 truly earns the ultraportable moniker.
Along with the classic silver and black colour scheme, the new XPS 13 is also available in a white and rose gold option. This new colour scheme is, alas, hideous – we’d advise sticking with the original colours.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard itself, much like the visual design, is more or less identical to previous generations. It's still using the same backlit chiclet keys and responsiveness and feedback is still nice and crisp. However, we're increasingly finding ourselves missing MacBook-style keyboards and their almost seamless spacing.
What's more, Dell is still infuriatingly fitting the XPS 13's keyboard with half-height left and right arrow keys, with the page up and page down keys directly above them. While we applaud its efforts to maximise space, we frequently found ourselves hitting the wrong key and jumping to a completely different browser tab or document section, which is mightily annoying.
The trackpad is really nice. The petite chassis means there's a limit to how big the trackpad itself can be, but Dell has made good use of the space – although we would have preferred it to be a little wider. One particularly nice touch is that the right-click function is only activated by clicking the bottom right corner of the touchpad – everything else registers as a left click. This is surprisingly intuitive and ensures that accidental right-clicks are minimised.
While a good display is an important component of any laptop, the screen has always been one of the highlights of the XPS range, thanks to the Infinity Edge display introduced as part of the series' last redesign. True to form, the razor-thin bezels make the 13.3in screen feel much larger than it actually is and create a pleasantly immersive viewing experience.
Our review model came with a 1080p IPS screen, but a touchscreen 4K version is also available. We think you're better off sticking with the 1080p display though unless a touchscreen is an absolute necessity. After all, on a screen this size, the extra clarity of a 4K resolution is all but imperceptible, and the extra strain it puts on the battery is a steep price to pay.
Dell claims that its screen achieves 100% coverage of the sRGB colour spectrum, but we suspect that this figure applies only to the 4K model as our tests only showed a 90% coverage rate. That's still an excellent result, mind you and certainly nothing to be sniffed at. We've seen more impressive coverage from rival machines like the MacBook Pro, but it's still more than creditable, and certainly good enough for basic design work and video playback. The same is true of the average Delta-E score of 2.49.
Brightness is also excellent, and the peak brightness of 454cd/m² is more than high enough to work outdoors in bright sunlight with no issues. In a departure from previous XPS models, the screen hasn't been treated with the usual matte anti-glare coating, but it has had some form of anti-reflective treatment applied to it. We experienced no viewability problems even under harsh lighting, and as an added bonus, the slight muting of colours that an anti-glare treatment usually results in is no more.
Next: Performance, battery life, ports and verdict
Dell is usually fairly quick off the mark to adopt the latest components, so it's no surprise that the latest XPS model is sporting Intel's latest eighth-generation processors. It's available in Core i5 and Core i7 varieties, and the model on review was fitted with a 1.8GHz quad-core Intel Core i7-8550U processor, coupled with 16GB of RAM.
We've been incredibly impressed by the performance of Intel's eighth-gen processors so far, but the XPS 13's performance is nothing short of astonishing. In our performance benchmarks, it racked up an overall score of 96, which compares extremely favourably to the previous model.
Even more unbelievable is the fact that it manages to outpace the most recent 13in MacBook Pro. The Apple machine’s top-end configuration – which uses a dual-core seventh-gen processor with a clock speed of 3.1GHz – was noticeably slower than the XPS 13 in the Geekbench CPU test, with single and multi-core scores of 4,365 and 9,223 versus the XPS’s 4,744 and 15,047.
Storage comes in the form of a PCIe solid state drive with a variety of capacities. For a Windows machine, it's very speedy; it clocked up 2.2GB/sec read speeds, and 444MB/sec write speeds. While not a patch on the MacBook Pro’s blazing disk speeds, it's certainly in the upper echelons for Windows notebooks.
We would expect such storming performance to equate to a less impressive battery life, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that despite having a smaller battery than its predecessor, the new XPS 13 actually lasts considerably longer.
In our battery tests, the XPS 13 lasted 10hrs 7mins from a full charge, which is more than two hours better than the outgoing model's time. It's still some way behind the 11 and a half hours racked up by the 2015 version, admittedly, but it's broken the ten-hour mark, and that's something that many notebooks can't.
Ports and features
If we have one complaint about the latest XPS, it's that Dell has finally succumbed to temptation and sacrificed its legacy ports on the altar of slimness. While the 2017 model features two full-sized USB 3.0 ports and an SD card reader in addition to its Thunderbolt 3 port, the newer version has sacrificed these in favour of two Thunderbolt 3 ports and one USB 3.1 Type-C port. The SD card reader has also been replaced with a microSD slot.
This is a necessary compromise to achieve a chassis as thin as the XPS 13's, but it's still irritating and inconvenient to not have at least one proper USB port, and it means you'll likely have to cart an adapter around with you just in case.
As you'd expect, the XPS 13 supports biometric authentication via Windows Hello, in the form of a fingerprint reader built into the power button and a facial recognition camera. This camera, unfortunately, is still located on the bottom edge of the screen – which means that finding an angle that doesn't result in a horrendously unflattering double chin may be a struggle for video calls. The only small comfort is that it's shifted from the bottom corner to the centre of the bottom edge.
Prices for the 2018 XPS 13 range from $2,099 to $3,699, although Dell often offers discounts. The entry-model features an Intel Core i5-8250U processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB PCIe SSD, Full HD 13.3in non-touch display and Windows 10 Home. But as usual there's a range of configurations, with options including a Core i7-8550U or i7-8650U chip, 16GB of RAM, 512GB or 1TB SDD, 4K touchscreen display and Windows 10 Pro.
By comparison, the MacBook Pro model that’s equivalent to the entry-level XPS 13 costs $2,199, while Apple’s equivalent high-end model costs a whopping $4,399 – and it includes a previous-generation Intel processor.
If you’re looking for a bargain, Dell is (at the time of writing) offering its previous-generation models at significant discounts, starting at under $1,500. But we’d suggest stretching your budget to the new XPS 13 if you can. The design retains the classic XPS look whilst being more portable than ever, performance is astonishing and the battery life is markedly better than its predecessor. The loss of some of the older USB ports is a shame, but this device is without a doubt the best XPS 13 that Dell has ever made.
More importantly, though, it's also the first XPS 13 that not just matches, but beats, the competing MacBook Pro. Apple's flagship 13in laptop is slower, thicker, heavier and considerably more expensive than Dell's rival machine.
Of course, Apple may fight back with its next MacBook Pro, but right now, the Dell XPS 13 is the new king of laptops.