At Consumer Electronics Show 2015, Dell’s XPS 13 2015 edition swept the awards for laptops, particularly in the $800 price range. Considering the sheer quality of its competition, this was no easy feat. But, dude, are you getting a Dell? Read on to find out.
Before going private, Dell’s sales weren’t doing great. It had slipped from the top PC seller to somewhere near sixth place in 2007. After a contested buyout in November of 2013, Dell’s future looked uncertain. However, its movements following the acquisition proved shrewd. Rather than releasing a deluge of models, as they had under public ownership, Dell refocused its efforts on building better products. The Dell XPS 13 2015 edition is part of the first line of laptops and tablets released following its departure from public ownership.
The new line of Ultrabooks still use Dell’s made-to-order approach. Buyers configure their device online, selecting from a large number of parts and value-added options, with a base price of $799. Dell then assembles the machine and mails it to their customer, avoiding expensive warehousing costs.
The business model appears to be working. Premium Ultrabooks below the $900 mark just did not exist until the release of the XPS 13 2015 edition. Judging from first-impressions, Dell didn’t cut any corners on the design or appearance of the XPS 13.
Dell didn’t skimp in the construction of the XPS. The XPS features an aluminum top and bottom deck. Sandwiched between the metal is a carbon-fiber palm-rest, with a rubberized, matte coating, and a 5mm black, plastic bezel surrounding a gorgeous 1920 x 1080 IGZO LCD screen. Dell refers to the 5mm bezel, combined with a 13.3-inch screen as an “Infinity Display”. To my knowledge, Dell licensed the screen technology from Sharp and has exclusive access to the borderless version until 2016.
The XPS offers some very unusual positionings for its speakers and webcam. It places the webcam on the lower-left side of the screen bezel. Its speakers inhabit the left and right sides of the laptop, on the same sides as the USB ports. Although unusual, unless you’re obsessed with component placement, neither interferes with the respective function. The speakers don’t sound produce weak volume and the webcam still has full viewability.
Few laptops at the $800 price-point offer carbon-fiber and metal construction. Within the same form factor, no other laptop has a similar screen resolution. However, the Lenovo LaVie also includes an IGZO screen, although it runs for $1,299 for its entry-level model. The XPS 13 costs $799.
Underneath the XPS lies two strip-style rubber feet, a magnetic service-hatch, and the air vents. The feet don’t appear to be the kind that tear off with the slightest nudge. I tried prying them up without much success — unless its glue weakens with time, these should stay in place. The air vents, on the other hand, leave something to be desired. From what I can tell, it appears that the air flows in from one side of the vent and out from the other. Ideally, airflow should travel across all components within the laptop, including the hard drive. Judging from the iFixit teardown, there’s not a lot of room for air to flow.
- CPU: Intel Core i3-5010U (optionally: Core i5-5200U or i7-5500U)
- Display: 1920 x 1080p IPS with Indium-Gallium-Zinc-Oxide (IGZO) TFT
- Ports: 2 USB 3.0 ports, Display port, 3.5″ audio-jack
- Wireless: 802.11ac/Bluetooth 4.0 module
- Storage: Samsung 128GB or 256-512GB M.2 SSD (user replaceable)
- RAM: 4-8GB (not upgradeable)
- Expandable memory: SD card slot
- Weight: 2.6-2.8 lbs
- Operating System: Windows 8.1 with Ubuntu 14.04 coming
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) of Broadwell-U does not represent a tremendous leap in performance over the former Hawell-U series: Intel claims a 3% performance boost. However, they also claim a 2x increase in performance-per-watt, and the claims don’t end there. Broadwell’s biggest advantage: its graphics performance increased 40% over Haswell. This places the i3’s graphics nearly on par with some of AMD’s best mobile APUs.
Its wattage consumption for the i5 and i7 models ranges between 7.5 and 15 watts. The i3 model’s wattage ranges between 10 and 15 watts. Under load, and while drawing power from the battery, the total wattage runs as high as 30-watts.
The Core i3-5010U variant in my possession is strictly less power efficient than the Core i5 model, due to a higher light-workload power consumption (Intel refers to this as cTDP down). However, the integrated GPU in the i3 appears nearly identical to that of the i5-5200U. The biggest difference between the two models is the i3’s lack of Turbo Boost. Turbo permits temporary overclocking of a CPU’s frequency, increasing snappiness and responsivity.
Dell relies on an integrated graphics processor, which inhabits the same chip as the central processing unit (CPU). We see this arrangement on laptops geared toward students and professionals, who value battery life and portability over the ability to quickly edit high resolution videos or play state-of-the-art video games. The integrated GPU (iGPU) is Intel’s HD 5500. It fares adequately on older games, at lower resolutions, but newer games will run poorly even at lower resolutions.
I regard Sharp’s IGZO display as the best available on today’s market for laptops. Display technology consists of a liquid crystal matrix and an electro-conductive backplane. The XPS uses the tried-and-tested In-Plane Switching (IPS) LCD, instead of Twisted Nematic (TN) — Dell’s selection allows for more vibrant colors and wider viewing angles, at the expense of power consumption.
An IGZO backplane display on a lower-priced Ultrabook is a big deal. The backplane’s superior conductivity allows for less electrical leakage and more light to pass through from the backlight, which translates into lowered power consumption. These displays cost a great deal more than the standard Amorphous Silicon (aSi) backplanes, used in virtually all LCD screens. At its $800 price point, the XPS offers both better specs and value than its competitors.
IGZO backplane displays first entered into consumer grade devices on several gaming laptops and Apple’s iPad Mini. The early release IGZO displays included an unpleasant surprise. On the iPad Mini, the infant technology developed screen burn in – the retention of an after-image. Burn-in on LCD screens occurs when deformable liquid crystals become stuck. On LCD screens burned-in images fade over time, unlike OLED screens.
Similar concerns regarding Dell’s IGZO screen arose. I tested the burn-in propensity of the 1920 x 1080 model by using a 10 minute image retention test. After ten minutes (at minimum brightness), a small amount of after-image showed up. The after-image vanished in a matter of minutes. Some might express concern that IGZO screens might be more susceptible to burn-in than aSi backplanes.
Here’s what the screen looked like after running the burn-in test:
As you can see, an after-image remains of the checkered pattern displayed on screen in the burn-in test.
On another note, the screen on the non-touchscreen version of the XPS offers excellent viewing angles. It also includes a matte screen finish, which is rarely seen outside laptops marketed to enterprise. For me, a matte-screen finish remains one of the key-selling point of the XPS. I often use it with the minimum brightness settings in well-lit rooms, without much of a loss of screen-clarity, and it’s fully viewable from the sides at most brightness settings. However, it seems that the non-touchscreen Ultrabooks of 2015 also tend to offer matte screens, such as the Asus Zenbook UX305, which will retail for $699.
On the downside, there seems to be a small amount of light bleed around the corners of the display. I didn’t find this to be as distracting as — say — the Nexus 9’s screen. But for purists, this issue might prove deal-breaking.
Broadwell Core i3
Broadwell shrinks down the lithography of Haswell to 14 nano-meters (nm). The die-shrink decreases power consumption, which gives chip manufacturers more thermal headroom to play with. Intel chose to retain the 15-watt TDP of Broadwell, so this means they shifted the power efficiency gains elsewhere. As mentioned earlier, Intel emphasizes graphics performance in Broadwell. The increase places the lower-specced HD 5500 iGPU nearly on par with AMD’s Radeon R7 7550 integrated graphics. On top of that, Intel maintained its per-core performance advantage. Overall, Intel’s hardware now stands head-and-shoulders above AMD — at least until Carrizo comes out in a couple months.
Something everyone should know about CULV processors – they are much slower than mobile (with an M appended onto the end) or desktop versions. You will notice substantially slower performance, particularly in any application requiring fast clock speeds. So why even bother slapping a CULV processor into a laptop?
The tradeoff is better battery life.
Dell quotes 15 hours of standard use for the 1080p resolution screen and around 11 hours for the 1800p screen. Reviewers have so far throw a gamut of tests at the XPS – battery scores range between 5-6 hours for heavy use of video and around 11-hours with standard battery tests. Some posted battery statistics which indicated the battery metrics were run while the unit was either updating or improperly configured for mobile use, leading to a growing consensus that the battery life of the XPS 2015 is mediocre or bad.
The impressive and efficient specifications would suggest otherwise, though. IGZO offers 56% better power consumption relative to standard screens, at the same resolution. Combined with a 15-watt Intel Broadwell CPU, the XPS in theory should offer outrageous battery life, particularly when paired with Dell’s proprietary 52 watt-hour (WHr) Li-Po battery. If used for light workloads, the XPS should manage to attain best-in-class battery life. Other laptops within the 11-inch form factor normally have a substantially smaller battery: the MacBook Air 11-inch employs a 38-WHr battery. Even 14″ laptops, such as the $1,079 Thinkpad X1 Carbon, only offer around 50 WHr.
Another part of its miraculous up-time extends from its display’s backplane technology. Up until CES 2015, all IGZO backplane displays were built into heavy-duty gaming machines. These offer poor battery life, because of power-hungry discrete graphics processors.
After CES, a handful of IGZO displays made their way into Ultrabooks, such as the upcoming Lenovo LaVie Z. But these typically cost a fortune, running over $1,299 for the cheapest laptop with IGZO installed.
It’s not just hardware that saves battery life. The software matters just as much. When running tests, I prefer squeezing out every drop of power, as many users will do when on-the-go. This means turning on Battery Saver Mode and ramping screen brightness down to its minimum. I also disable non-essential features, such as the Windows Indexing service, which takes a small chunk out of performance and battery life, and set the Windows GUI features to “best performance”, although many users may want to keep text smoothing features enabled.
My test is simple: I put the device through a standard work-day, which requires keeping the wireless and Bluetooth radios turned on, while engaging in light multi-tabbed browsing and running an odd-assortment of software, primarily Microsoft Office.
My battery life exceeded 17 hours of use.
To gauge the relative quality of the XPS’s keyboard, I used TypingTest. The test involves retyping a wall of text. I tested each keyboard three times and recorded the highest score. My results were somewhat surprising:
- Logitech K350: 80 WPM
- Dell XPS 13 2015: 88 WPM
- HP 17 Pavilion: 80 WPM
- CM Crossfire Storm TX (mechanical): 84 WPM
Laptop keyboards use membrane combined with scissor-switches. They pail in comparison to mechanical keyboards. However, users will notice that they require less pressure to activate than a standard desktop keyboard and the distance each key travels in order to actuate a key-press is lighter and shorter.
I found that these factors increased my typing speed. While not as comfortable as typing on the Logitech K350 or mechanical keyboard, the XPS’s well-laid out keys don’t require unnatural typing positions. I can’t say the same for the Pavilion’s keyboard.
I measured the keyboard of the 17″ HP Pavilion, minus the 10-key pad. It measured 10.5″ across. The Dell XPS’s keyboard falls about an eighth of an inch shorter across compared to the HP. It also feels less tactile and clicky than the HP, which might be due to shorter key-travel. The XPS feels more comfortable, compared to the HP, because it uses slightly shorter shift and capslock keys, which allows for the keyboard to feel just as roomy as a full-sized laptop.
Compared to the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro however, the keys don’t feel as good. The Yoga 2 Pro employs concave keycaps and has deeper key travel, at 1.4mm, compared to the 1.3mm of the XPS. Neither keyboard compares in quality to older Thinkpads, but that might be a false comparison. Compared to its own class, Dell’s keyboard ranks toward the top. For those curious, Apple’s Macbook Air 13 offers approximately the same typing experience, with a greater tactile sensation and more keyboard rattle.
The keyboard also includes a two-level brightness LED backlighting. I don’t enjoy white-LED backlighting, but it does the job and with a minimum amount of power consumption; the lights automatically shut off when not in use.
Overall, those wanting a full-sized laptop keyboard on an Ultrabook will not find much to complain about. Those with large hands might find the typing experience difficult compared to a desktop keyboard, but for most users the 10.5″ keyboard width allows for both comfort and good typing speed.
The touchpad of the XPS feels comparable to laptops using Microsoft’s Precision touchpads. While I prefer textured surfaces, it’s difficult complaining about the unit used in the XPS. It offers excellent sensitivity, with some faults.
The trackpad includes both a tactile left and right click, which inhabit the left and right bottom corners. Pushing on either corner allows the user to activate the buttons. Like most clicky touchpads, simultaneously using both the touchpad and mouse buttons causes the cursor to move out of position. This will certainly irritate some users. Also, the smooth surface makes it difficult to tell whether your fingers are on the touchpad or bezel. I found myself sometimes moving my fingers around on the carbon-fiber palm rest, cursing at the screen, before realizing my stupidity.
The XPS’s trackpad by no means equals the Thinkpad’s TrackPoint. But relative to anything else in its price-range, it’s good.
On the Downside
Despite the many virtues of the XPS 13, a few rough edges and shortcomings exist.
Screen burn-in: This is a minor issue. If the images become permanent, however, that’s another matter. There’s a possibility that because of the untested nature of IGZO technology, the burn-in might prove more than temporary. IGZO backplane screens operate under the same principles as LCD screens – meaning any burn-in should eventually fade. I recommend using a screen saver or setting the screen to shut off while not in use.
Customization price increase: Going from the Core i3 model to the Core i5 model costs $150, which is absurd considering that Intel charges Dell the same price for both models. Furthermore, going from the non-touch to the touchscreen model comes with a $500 price increase.
Bloatware: Most of Dell’s software offers users a great deal of utility. For example, Dell’s Backup and Recovery service beats the built-in disk imaging option available in Windows 8.1. Windows 8.1 will not backup to removable drives, such as flash memory. Dell’s service will copy to removable drives. Copying the XPS’s hard drive requires around 30GB of storage space after installing all my apps.
Webcam positioning: The positioning of the webcam in the lower-left side of the screen’s bezel might disturb some users during video calls. My overall impression was not negative. While the perspective is different, it still gets the job done. Typing while Skyping can prove distracting but this does not take away from the overall value offered by the XPS.
Noise-cancelling: While the XPS sports dual front-facing microphones, the quality during calls proved sub-par. The person on the other end of the call could hear echo.
In truth, none of the problems take away from the XPS’s virtues, unless the screen burn-in proves permanent. Overall, the XPS offers excellent specs for the money.
- Matte screen on non-touch version
- User replaceable M.2 SSD
- Excellent battery life
- Excellent build quality
- Excellent component value
- Excellent portability
- Good keyboard and trackpad despite diminutive size
- Good system imaging software
- Ubuntu certified
- Wonky noise-cancelling
- Strange positioning of webcam
- Customization comes with a steep price-premium
- Security backdoor inserted (but Dell provided removal instructions)
- The PM851 SSD on the Dell suffers from degenerating performance
November 2015 Update
After using the XPS for almost a year, I have some additional observations regarding the XPS’s performance, security, and its Linux compatibility:
Slowing SSD: The Solid State Drive in the Dell XPS slowly loses performance over time. The Solid State Drive (SSD) on the XPS is the Samsung PM851. It uses something called Triple Layer Cell (TLC) memory, which is susceptible to a bug endemic to Samsung’s TLC technology.
Security vulnerability: Dell also includes a firmware backdoor (a serious security vulnerability) in second generation Dell XPS 13 2015 editions. Dell now provides removal instructions, claiming that the backdoor is for Dell technicians.
Ubuntu 15.10 compatibility: I installed Ubuntu — it runs great, but if you use Bluetooth Low Energy devices, they will not function properly. Additionally, the battery life under Ubuntu 15.10 isn’t great compared to Windows. It’s not terrible by any means, though. It’s just impossible to get 17 hours of battery life. Keep in mind that Linux is the best defense against Dell’s firmware backdoor.
Burn-in issue: After almost a year of ownership, the IGZO backplane in the Dell hasn’t shown any signs of long-term burn-in.
The gap: There’s a small (.5mm) gap between the bezel of the XPS and its display, if you own a non-touchscreen model. This area attracts lint and dust like you won’t believe.
The XPS represents the pinnacle of laptop design in 2015. It’s also the best bang for your buck out of any laptop I’ve ever seen in the $800 price range. However, if users purchase a higher spec’d model, the XPS’s price advantage begins to erode, relative to the upcoming Lenovo LaVie Z $1,299 model. Even so, it’s still a better buy for the majority of users in the Ultrabook market. Of the minor complaints, only the pricing issue separating the Core i3 and Core i5 bears mentioning.
A potential major issue worth mentioning: Its cutting-edge screen technology suffers from burn-in (or ghosting). Burn-in on IGZO panels on the iPad Mini sometimes caused permanent damage on roughly a quarter of tablets. If the same burn-in problem plagues the XPS, it’s a deal breaker if repairs aren’t properly handled by Dell. On the other hand, burn-in on LCD screens should fade within minutes.
Overall, the XPS 13 is the best Ultrabook both for the money and within its class.
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