Dell XPS 13 (2018) review: compact compromises
It’s been three years since Dell led the charge for what a modern, ultraportable laptop should look like. The XPS 13 set the standard for compact, no-compromises laptops, with its small footprint, tiny bezels, and full-power performance. Since then, other laptop makers have caught up, with their own tiny-bezel, big-screen designs, cramming ever larger displays into ever smaller chassis. At this point, it seems unfathomable to purchase a laptop with giant borders around its screen.
The original XPS 13 wasn’t without faults, however, and many of Dell’s competitors have come out with thinner, lighter, even more modern designs. So an update to the XPS 13’s design has been overdue for some time, and for 2018, Dell’s delivered. The new XPS 13, which starts at $999 and can be configured to over $2,000, looks familiar, but it’s thinner, lighter, and even smaller than before.
But for every step forward Dell has made, it’s taken a half-step back, which makes the latest version of the XPS 13 not as appealing as it could be.
The best feature on the prior XPS 13 was its tiny bezels that framed a full-size, 13.3-inch display. On the new version, they are even thinner, which has allowed Dell to keep the same size screen while shrinking the overall footprint of the computer even more. As a result, the new XPS 13 is the smallest 13-inch laptop you can buy.
The new display is fantastic: it’s bright, colorful, and really pops, thanks to those tiny bezels surrounding it. It’s available in either a 1080p panel or a pixel-dense 4K version. Unfortunately, to get a touchscreen, you have to opt for the 4K screen, which pushes the price up to $1,600 and will take a hit in battery life. Dell really should offer a touchscreen on the entry-level model, which still commands $1,000. I would also prefer the screen to have a 3:2 aspect ratio, which is way more conducive to productivity work than 16:9, but other than that, there’s little to complain about here.
The new model is available in Dell’s standard black-and-silver color scheme or a very attractive rose-gold-and-white finish. Dell says the white deck of the rose gold model is stain resistant, and sure enough, it was able to resist discoloration when my colleague Paul Miller squirted mustard all over it.
In addition to being smaller on the lap, the new XPS 13 is slightly thinner and slightly lighter, which brings it in line with the weight of computers from HP, Microsoft, and others. It still feels like a dense and solid computer, but it’s slightly less taxing on my shoulder.
The keyboard on the new model is slightly less mushy than before, and its full-travel keys are a joy to type on. Similarly, the Windows Precision trackpad is smooth and easy to use for Windows 10’s various gesture controls.
Despite being smaller than ever, the XPS 13 is no slouch when it comes to performance. It has eighth-generation Core i5 or i7 processor options, up to 16GB of RAM, and up to 512GB of storage. The Core i7 / 16GB RAM / 512GB SSD / 4K display configuration I’ve been testing (which lists for an eye-watering $2,100) has been able to handle all of my productivity needs without blinking, and I’m confident the Core i5 processor would have little issues, either. Unsurprisingly, you can’t really game on the XPS 13, but its Thunderbolt 3 ports do allow for plugging in an external GPU and gaming that way.
My only performance-related complaint is how intense the fans are when the XPS 13 starts cranking (or when I’ve opened up too many tabs in the browser). They are loud, obvious, and annoying.
But in the process of slimming down the XPS 13, Dell did make a compromise in the capacity of the battery, and stamina is noticeably worse than the prior model. On the 4K model, I’ve been averaging just six hours of battery life with my normal workload (lots of web browsing, email, Slack, social networking, etc.), which is less than a full day of work and lower than I’d expect from a computer of this caliber. The 1080p screen will likely provide slightly better battery life, but I don’t think it will reach the levels of the prior model either, and you have to give up the touchscreen in the process.
Dell also made compromises in the port options. The new XPS 13 has ditched all legacy ports and relies solely on three USB Type-C ports, a headphone jack, and a microSD card slot for its I/O needs. I love that I can charge the laptop from any of the USB-C ports, and two of them are full-speed Thunderbolt 3 compatible, but it’s frustrating that there isn’t a single USB-A port for all of the peripherals that still require it. That means living the dongle life, and at least Dell is kind enough to get your collection started with a USB-C to A adapter in the box.
The switch from the lovely and useful full-size SD card slot to a microSD one is equally frustrating. Either give me a full-size slot or don’t bother. The microSD port is a crummy compromise. On the plus side, Dell hasn’t removed the battery indicator, which lets me easily check the status of the battery without having to open the lid.
And then there’s the perennial problem that every XPS 13 has suffered from: awful webcam placement. The new model has moved the camera from the lower-left corner of the display to the center and added much-needed Windows Hello integration, but it still has an awful, unflattering, up-the-nose viewing angle. If I try to type while on a video conference, my fingers block the camera even more than before. It’s so bad that I’ve avoided using the XPS 13 for all video calls while reviewing it, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of the webcam. It’s very frustrating that Dell hasn’t figured out a better solution for this by now.
My biggest complaint with the redesigned XPS 13 is that Dell just didn’t do enough and instead mostly stuck with what it is comfortable with. It didn’t fix the webcam, it didn’t rethink what the XPS 13 should look and feel like, and it made some frustrating changes to the port selection when it didn’t necessarily have to. And then there’s the disappointing battery life to contend with.
If you can get over all of that (which, admittedly, is a lot), then the XPS 13 rewards with great performance, a lovely display, and an attractive, very portable package. Had Dell combined those features with the best of the prior generation — namely a useful port selection and reliable battery life — and figured out the right way to do a webcam, it’d have the best laptop you can buy. But if it were up to me, I’d choose a computer that gives me all of that without requiring the compromises of the Dell.