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Dell XPS 13 review

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I’ve been searching for the perfect Windows laptop ever since Windows 8 was released, three years ago. For much of that time, I reluctantly opted for the MacBook Air simply because there weren’t better, Windows-native options. But running Windows on an Apple laptop isn’t ideal, if only because the keyboard is laid out differently. After that frustrating three-year search, I’ve finally found the best Windows laptop. It’s a laptop that doesn’t resort to origami touchscreen gimmicks or feel like it’s cloning the MacBook yet again. It’s the new Dell XPS 13.

Dell has been working at perfecting the XPS 13 for a while, including an overhauled version it introduced early this year. It was smaller than a MacBook Air, thanks to a beautiful 13.3-inch edge-to-edge display. It was also the first Windows laptop that has come close to the quality and reliability of a MacBook Air. I switched to that early 2015 model as my main machine six months ago, but a few nagging, real problems made it frustrating. Like most Windows laptops, it had trackpad issues, the speed wasn’t quite what it should have been, and Dell’s claim of 11 hours battery life didn’t pan out. The ideas were all there, but it was not a polished experience.

But now, Dell has refreshed the XPS 13 again with some minor improvements that focus on exactly the things that bothered me with the first one: battery life, performance, and the trackpad. I’ve been using the new Dell XPS 13 for the past couple of weeks, and — again — I’m convinced it’s the best Windows laptop out there. Sorry, Surface Book.

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Very little has changed externally with the new XPS 13. It looks identical to the same model from earlier this year. Both have stunning edge-to-edge displays that no other laptop makers use, and they’re really the centerpiece of the XPS 13.

Most manufacturers are racing to create the best 2-in-1 hybrid with a crazy Yoga-like hinge, 4K display, and touchscreen, but Dell has gone back to the basics of what we all love about a portable computer. The new Dell XPS 13 shines as a result. I’ve been primarily testing the non-touch model as I prefer its matte display and longer battery life. I don’t need to flip my laptop around into a tablet or touch the display regularly. I’m convinced most people don’t need to just yet either. I love the idea of a combined tablet and laptop, but until there’s enough touch apps designed for this hybrid world, I just want a laptop that works.

THE XPS 13 GOES BACK TO BASICS AND GETS IT RIGHT

Dell’s non-touch model comes with a 13.3-inch 1080p display. But what gets you is just how tiny the bezels around the screen are. It’s like the first time you switched from 3G to LTE: you never want to go back. I’ve ventured back to other Windows laptops like Lenovo’s Yoga 900 and they look old and out of touch by comparison. I can’t bear using my MacBook Air anymore because the aging display in it just feels blurry and old at this point. Dell has done a great job of making the screen blend into the entire laptop, and Windows 10’s dark theme complements it really well.

Dell has also kept the combination of an aluminum finish and a wedge shape that doesn’t make the XPS 13 look like a MacBook Air ripoff. It has a sleek dark finish, and a black deck for the keyboard and trackpad that all combine to make it feel premium. The soft-touch finish on the palm rest is really comfortable, and although it picks up smudges, they’re not that noticeable. Dell’s keyboard doesn’t feel as solid as the one on Microsoft’s Surface Book, but I don’t have any major complaints. Keys are well spaced and comfortable to type on for hours, and the function keys are actually useful instead of being in the way.

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Windows trackpads have been terrible for what feels like forever. Luckily, the Dell XPS 13 trackpad feels like the perfect size. It’s still the same large glass pad with a soft finish like earlier in the year, but Dell has definitely improved the driver situation, so the trackpad performs very smoothly across Windows 10. I still notice some occasional scrolling issues in Chrome, but I have those problems with every Windows laptop I use. The cursor doesn’t randomly jump across the screen anymore, and two-finger scrolling is smooth everywhere it needs to be. I’ve tested many Windows laptops this year, and this is without a doubt one of the best experiences for using gestures and just simply scrolling. You would think Microsoft’s own Surface Book trackpad would be better, but Dell has done a great job of balancing the size and position relative to the small form factor of this laptop.1

Like the trackpad improvements, most of the new XPS 13 changes are hidden away. Dell has added a USB Type-C connector on the side, but it’s the only external change. It’s useful for new peripherals that will start to appear regularly next year, and will also support Thunderbolt 3, but it’s mostly just future-proofing. There are still two standard USB 3.0 ports and a full-size SD slot. The only thing that’s missing is a DisplayPort, and Dell has removed that to make way for USB Type-C. For most that won’t be an issue, but if you want to hook up a monitor, you’ll need an adapter.

Sadly, Dell hasn’t solved the webcam issue — it’s still in the lower left corner of the display. That’s the price you pay for an edge-to-edge display, but it means there will be plenty of unflattering up-the-nose angles during video calls. Whenever I’m on conference calls the participants wonder why I don’t have my video enabled, and this terrible webcam position is to blame. The camera also lacks support for Windows Hello, a new Windows 10 feature, so you won’t be able to log into the XPS 13 with just your face.

DELL HAS MADE SOME IMPORTANT CHANGES BEHIND THE SCENESTwo other key changes to the new Dell XPS 13 provide performance improvements. Dell has refreshed the processor with Intel’s latest Skylake chip, and the non-touch models use the Core i5, while the touchscreen version is powered by Intel’s Core i7. Apart from the base model, all of Dell’s new XPS 13 variants ship with faster solid state drives. I haven’t noticed a huge change in performance from the model earlier this year, but the addition of Windows 10 certainly makes the new XPS 13 feel snappier. Running Chrome, Slack, Office apps, Photoshop, and a variety of Windows 10 apps doesn’t seem to slow the XPS 13 down at all. I’ve been using it to work daily, and it has never frozen up or frustrated me at all. Dell hasn’t loaded the XPS 13 with a lot of bloatware apps either, and a McAfee trial can easily be removed quickly.

Dell’s chip changes are also designed to improve battery life. Dell is claiming up to 18 hours of battery life for the 1080p model. That sounds like phenomenal stamina, but unsurprisingly, the reality is far less. In our Verge battery test it lasted 10 hours, which is about what we’ve come to expect from a laptop of this size. During my own daily use the XPS 13 usually lasted around 7 or 8 hours of average usage before I’d have to recharge. That’s enough for me to comfortably leave and travel to a meeting and work away from my desk, and it’s close to the dream of working a full day without charge. I would still like a little more battery life and for the XPS 13 to get closer to Dell’s over-the-top claim.

THIS WINDOWS LAPTOP IS EXCITINGIt’s extremely rare for me to be excited by a laptop, but the Dell XPS 13 has made me switch back to using Windows full time. Lenovo and Microsoft make some great hardware, but Dell has managed to focus on what laptop users actually care about: the basics. There are no gimmicks here: no wobbly hinges, no tablets, not even a touchscreen. If you just want a really good Windows laptop, then this is simply the best out there right now, thanks to a great combination of display, trackpad, keyboard, and overall build quality. It’s small and light enough to slip into a bag, and comfortably sleek enough to make me feel like I am using a unique, premium laptop.

I hope that other laptop makers follow Dell’s lead here. Apple has made a good start with its new 12-inch MacBook, and I think it’s time the industry stops obsessing over touchscreens and focuses on some raw laptop innovation. My MacBook Air is gathering dust thanks to the XPS 13, and I have no plans to switch back.

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