I’ve bought the Dell XPS 13 back in January 2015 and I’ve been using it as my daily-driver notebook ever since.
If you’ve read my initial review of the laptop (I suggest you check it out if you haven’t already, and then come back to this post), you know that at the time I was happy with the change and eager to get used to the several nits I still had with it.
Roughly 18 months later (at the latest update), my general opinion hasn’t changed: the Dell XPS 13 is one of the better ultraportables you can get out there, especially if you want a matte display and only have about $1000 to spend. I did ran into a few issues and flaws during my time with this laptop though, which hindered the daily experience, and some of them could make me think twice before buying this laptop again. Some of them got fixed with software updates though, and some were never addressed, as you’ll see below.
Most of the articles published about the XPS 13 are more than flattering, and the truth is this is a very good laptop. It’s compact and light, despite packing a 13-inch display. It’s well-built and beautiful. It also bundles fast hardware, good IO and runs quiet. But there are certain aspects most reviews won’t tell you about this XPS—mostly because it’s impossible to notice such details in only a few days of tests. I’ll talk about them in the following sections of this post.
Just a heads-up: You should know that I own a mid-level configuration of the XPS 13 9343, the model that was selling for $899 back in January 2015 and includes an Intel Core i5-5200U processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 128 GB SATA SSD and a 1920 x 1080 px matte non-touch display.
Also keep in mind, the initial version of this article was put together in September 2015, 8-months after I bought the laptop, and I updated it periodically afterwards.
Update1: 10 months in, nothing else has changed. The battery is still at 44Wh and I haven’t’ encountered issues with the fan or performance anymore. Just wanted to add that I’m mostly happy with Windows 10, however I feel that the trackpad is even crappier than it was with Windows 8 when it comes to two-finger scrolling and other gestures (I’m using Firefox, but it’s even worse in Chrome or Edge).
Update2: More than 36 months have passed since the original article and not much has changed. The trackpad seems to perform a little better after the latest updates, but scrolling can still get choppy on very large websites, both on Chrome and Firefox. The battery is still at 44 Wh and I haven’t run into any other performance issues since switching to Windows 10. The fan rattled a few more times since the previous update, but I mostly use the laptop lightly so the fan isn’t even active most of the time.
Update3: In case you’re interested in what I think about the updated version of this XPS, the 9350 series, you should check out this article, as well as this article that talks about the later iterations, XPS 13 9360 and 9370.
Dell did a great job with their 13-incher in terms of build quality and aesthetics, although that’s subjective and some of you might feel differently. Regardless, I’m happy with the way the XPS 13 hold on during these months. It feels solid and it barely shows any dents or scratches on its metallic exterior, despite the fact that I haven’t pampered it. The interior has held-up extremely well too, although it does collect smudges easily and I have to wipe it clean every couple of days.
Even so, the only signs that this XPS is not brand new is the coating on top of the spacebar and a few other keys, which has become a bit shinier over time from finger oil. This was expected, to be frank, as I typed countless articles on this computer.
That out of the way, there are a few things Dell could have done differently on the XPS 13. For me, the most annoying aspects are the bright LEDs placed on the charging plug and just beneath the trackpad, which are lit when the laptop is charging. The light under the trackpad does eventually shut off when the battery is fully charged, but in order to maintain battery integrity, I’ve set the battery to never charge beyond 95% (you’ll see why in a bit). As a result, that light never shuts off. Another similar annoyance is that the power button is also backlit all the time.
In an office environment, these are not going to be a big deal, but try to watch a movie at night, it’s going to drive you crazy!
Then there’s the laptop’s overall case temperatures during everyday use. I’m using this Dell lightly most of the time, running up to 10 tabs in Firefox, Skype, and usually Word. Even so, the laptop’s metallic back-casing gets to about 40 degrees Celsius on a daily basis. Again, if you tend to keep the laptop on a desk, that’s not going to bother you much, but I for one tend to use the laptop on my lap most of the time or on my thighs while lying on the sofa or even in bed. This causes my legs to sweat during the summer days. The experience is much nicer during the autumn and winter months, but for those of you living in hot environments, keep in mind that this laptop tends to get warmer than most others with daily use.
Now, high temperatures were expected on such a compact device with an aluminum case, specially since the fan rarely has to kick on. That makes the XPS 13 very quiet, at least with my use scenarios, unless I launch a game (I have Railroad Tycoon 3 installed and play it from time to time).
That aside, I also want to add a few words about the hinge. On one side, I appreciate that it’s tough. On the other, I feel it’s too rigid. There’s no way to lift up the display with a single hand and you’ll have to pull strongly even when using both hands. That’s nitpicking, but if you’ve come in contact with MacBooks and their smooth hinges, you’ll expect all premium laptops to behave the same. That’s not the case here.
Then there’s another aspect closely tied to how I use the laptop: the fact that the screen does not lean back flat, but only to about 140-150 degrees, which means that at times I struggle to look at the display head-on. I was hoping I would get used to this, but I didn’t, despite the fact that the XPS 13 actually has a great screen with no glare and excellent viewing angles.
There’s also the keyboard and the trackpad. Although better than the ones many other ultraportables offer, the keyboard on the XPS 13 is still too shallow for my liking and lacks the feedback I want. I’m for sure more sensitive to this aspect than a regular user since I type tens of thousands of words a week, and I’ve been used to ThinkPads and their excellent keyboards in the past, but there’s still work to be done here.
As for the trackpad, it feels nice and it performs well as long as you keep to swiping, pressing and taping. Gestures, on the other hand, are rather erratic, and the inability to recognize two-finger scrolling properly in some browsers (especially in Chrome) can be maddening. I use Firefox and scrolling is somewhat better, but even so I have to make sure I place my fingers in the middle of the trackpad (not towards the sides) if I want the gesture to be registered properly.
Update: Scrolling is better with the latest software updates (as of May 2016). I no longer have to swipe my fingers exactly in the middle of the surface, but I still run into occasional hiccups and freezes, especially when dealing with large webpages or the Facebook timeline.
Last but not least, there’s the battery life. Dell advertises up to 15 hours of life on this particular model that I own, but it never got more than 7-8 on a daily basis when it was brand new, and only averages around 5-7 these days. That’s not bad, but I do feel the manufacturer should not create false expectations, especially since the laptop is really far from delivering. And there’s also the issue of the battery wearing off quickly, which I will address in the following section.
OK, that’s about it for this section. At the end of the day, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression from my “complaints”. I have high expectations from my laptop and I’m aware no computer would be able to meet them all. So bottom point, while Dell did a good job with their 2015 XPS 13, certain aspects can still be improved.
Dell’s inability to fix two important issues
On the other hand, I find Dell’s lack of software response frustrating. Two main issues have been reported by countless buyers and both could have been addressed with driver updates, but never were.
The first is the glitchy trackpad, as I mentioned above, which struggles with gestures and lacks certain commands (like two finger Back or Forward), especially in Chrome. Dell did release one or two TouchPad software updates in the last months, which improved the experience, but none actually solved the problem. In fact, even the updated XPS 9350 suffers from similar issues.
Then there’s the screen. Intel powered laptops have an option hidden in the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator control panel called “Display Power Saving Technology” (Power Options >> On Battery). Dell decided to hide this setting on the XPS 13, and as a result the screen is affected by what is called “dynamic contrast”, which means that certain elements (especially the gray ones) are not visible immediately when you switch between dark and light content, and need a few seconds to adapt (this clip better shows what to expect). This also has a negative impact on the display’s perceived brightness.
The truth is I haven’t exactly noticed this problem in the beginning and I still don’t find it that annoying these days, although it is there and I notice it from time to time. But some of you might consider this a deal-breaker.
Even so, many have been complaining about these issues and Dell cared so little that they never did anything about them in the 15 months that have passed since the XPS 13 was launched. And they probably never will.
The unexpected problems
I was more or less aware of all the aspects mentioned above when I decided to keep the XPS 13. But there are a few other things I had to deal with, which I did not sign for.
First, only a few days after I got the laptop, I noticed the battery’s capacity dropped suddenly by a few Wh. The battery’s design capacity is a little over 52Wh. It quickly dropped to around 48 Wh in the first two weeks, and today it is at only 44Wh, despite the fact that I pampered the battery (never charged it above 95%, plugged it in before it got under 10%, kept it charging until full, etc) and it has around 100 load-cycles under its belt.
That’s 20% battery wear in 8 months and is completely unacceptable. My old ThinkPad’s battery lost 2 Wh in 250 cycles. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about this, since the battery in considered a consumable these days. But it’s definitely something you should keep an eye on. Launch CMD and type powercfg -batteryreport periodically in order to see how the battery’s capacity evolves over time.
Update: The Battery is still at 44 Wh as of July 2016, so it hasn’t degraded anymore.
That aside, just a few weeks ago the fan started to make a terrible noise when spinning. I was playing Railroad Tycoon when that started and the XPS sounded like it would come apart. Derek had similar issues with his unit and was one of the reasons why he decided to return it.
The fan kept rumbling for a few days, but is now quiet when it decides to kick in. I haven’t played any games ever since though.
Update: I ran into this issue a few more times, only when playing games. It doesn’t always occur and it usually gets back to its senses after a restart or two. I don’t play games often on this laptop though, but I expect this to be an issue you might run into if you will push the XPS.
Last but not least, there’s an issue I’ve been struggling with for a few months which has been addressed after upgrading to Windows 10: performance on battery. A few months ago I noticed the laptop was sluggish and narrowed it down to the fact that the CPU’s frequency was capped to only 0.8 Mhz all the time, while on battery. Everything worked fine while it was plugged in.
I mingled with the settings and tried the different BIOS updates available at the time and managed to up the frequency to a maximum of 2.2 GHz. The CPU would not go over 2.2 GHz on battery, which is still below its nominal frequency, no matter what I tried. Although not ideal, I decided to give it a rest and kept using the laptop like this for a while.
The CPU works fine now after upgrading to Windows 10. TurboBoost works as it should as well, both on battery or when plugged in. I can’t explain why, as I couldn’t explain what was wrong with it the first place when it wasn’t functioning properly.
The laptop feels a bit snappier with Windows 10, although this new OS does seem to eat more RAM than Windows 8.1 did and I can see that being a problem since I only have 4 GB of memory on this machine.
Would I buy it, knowing what I know today?
Well, yes. There are many aspects Dell did right here, and there’s no similar laptop that offers the same build quality, the same compact footprint and a matte IPS display for under $1000. I did run into some issues along the way, some of them were fixed, many were not. I’m still annoyed by the fact that a significant part of the battery has died and by Dell’s lack of software support, but overall I’m satisfied with my XPS 13, which is the reason I haven’t dumped it for something else during all this time.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X260 would be the alternative I’d consider, but it’s thicker, heavier and more expensive. The Asus Zenbook UX305UA could be a solution as well, especially since it has a great price, but not that much for me, as I’d still have to live with a subpar keyboard and the lack of keyboard back-lightning, among others. Last but not least, if I were looking at a touchscreen computer, I’d probably give the HP Spectre X360 a go instead. It’s slightly larger, but it’s also a convertible with a better keyboard, longer battery life and a more affordable price tag.
Still, I’ll probably keep this XPS 13 around until someone actually makes a powerful and well-priced fanless notebook. Performance wise, I don’t ask that much from my ultraportable companion, but I sure wish the next one would be lighter than the XPS and with no pesky fan inside.
One thing is for sure, I’ll definitely buy my next XPS from a proper place that accepts returns easily. The experience with my XPS and all the feedback from the forums shows that Dell struggles with quality control and there are quite a few things that could go wrong with this machine.
Long story short, I’m definitely not advising against buying this laptop, but if you are planning on getting and XPS 13, make sure you keep a close eye on the battery, on the display or the fan’s performance in the first 30 days, and if anything looks suspicious, better return it.
Douglas Black contributed to this report.