Review: Dell XPS 13, 2-in 1 (Kaby Lake)

Posted on March 8, 2017 by Brad Sams in Hardware with 14 Comments


As my plane climbs into the sky, sitting anxiously waiting for that bing of hitting 10,000 feet so I can pull out my laptop, that friendly chime can’t come soon enough. Before a trip to Disney World with my family, Dell sent over an XPS 13 2-in 1 to try out on my travels which I believe is the best way to review a device.

Considering that I find myself on a plane frequently, having a machine that works well in the cramped cattle car section of the aircraft is essential. The XPS 13 is a former friend of mine, I had one of these machines the first year the Infinity Edge displays by Dell were announced several years ago. Since then, I have had many machines but primarily shifted to using a Surface Book since retiring the XPS 13.

The XPS 13 is obviously not a new machine and has evolved during its lifetime to add support for Windows Hello and a flexible hinge that will look familiar to Lenovo Yoga fans. As with several modern laptops, you can fold the screen all the way around so that it can be used like a tablet.

The machine I am using has an i7 chip but this is Intel’s Y line (i7-7Y75), formerly known as Core M as well as 8GB of RAM, 250GB SSD, 1920×1080 display, 2 USB Type C ports, mini SD card reader, headphone jack, backlight keyboard, and what is likely my favorite feature, the fingerprint reader.

The laptop is made of metal, carbon fiber for the keyboard/palm rest, and small bits of plastic around the display and webcam. If you have used a previous generation XPS 13, not much has changed from a materials standpoint.

From a usability perspective, the XPS 13 is likely one of my favorite laptops ever. It has small footprint which makes it easy to use on a plane and the keyboard is good. Not the best keyboard on any laptop but it’s firm and punctual strokes give you a high level of confidence while typing. Further, the materials on the keys have enough traction so that your fingers won’t slip off when typing quickly.

This is the first laptop that I have used that incorporates a fingerprint reader for Windows Hello and I must say that I vastly prefer using a fingerprint reader than a facial recognition camera. With the fingerprint reader, it’s easier to login to the laptop as I know right where to put my finger every time and the sensor works quickly.

Using Windows Hello with a facial recognition camera is fine but anyone who has used one before knows the feeling of bobbing your head in front of the screen trying to get it into the correct position to login. While this isn’t a big issue most of the time, it’s easier (and faster) to simply tap your finger on the sensor and be logged in instantly.

With the XPS 13, you have two screen options; 1920×1080 or a 3200×1800, and while on the desktop I prefer a higher resolution display, on the XPS 13 you can likely save a bit of money and go for the lower resolution. On this machine, I have scaling set at 125% as 100% is too small and on 4K, it would be unusable at 100% which means you have to scale up and are not able to extract the full value of that high res screen.

Trackpads on Windows machines have historically been a low point. With Windows 10 and Microsoft forcing OEMs to move to precision touchpads, the experience is much better. All my gestures are picked up accurately the first time and the size of the pad is of an adequate as well.

Performance is good but the Y series does show its face, especially when launching applications and setting up new applications as well. I would keep picture editing to a minimum on this machine and would not attempt to edit video either. But for email, web browsing, music, videos, using the Office suite, this machine has more than enough power for those tasks.

Also, because this device is fanless, there are no annoying hums or any other noises produced by the machine; it’s great. And if you are worried about heat on your legs when using the device, I had no problems at all.

As for the battery? I was getting a solid nine hours of use out of this machine that included streaming music, writing this review, browsing the web, Tweetdeck, and watching a few videos as well.

As with most laptops this generation, it charges via USB type C and there is no going back from this type of a setup. It makes charging easier, power bricks smaller, and finally does away with proprietary charging cables.

The machine is far from perfect, unfortunately; the carbon fiber keyboard area is hard to keep clean. What I mean is that the oil from your hands shows up everywhere you touch and the palm wrests quickly become shiny. It’s also quite apparent that I use my left thumb to hit the spacebar as it is shiny as well.

On earlier models of the XPS 13, because of the thin bezel, the webcam was awkwardly placed along the bottom of the screen. This positioning means that when you attempt a video chat, the other person gets a less-than-flattering view of up your nose.

With this version, Dell has tried to fix the issue with a screen that can be folded backwards so that you can make a tent with the laptop which then positions the webcam in the correct location. This fixes the viewing angle but does make it harder to use the machine while chatting as you can’t see the keyboard or the trackpad.

The power button is also not in the best position and I’d prefer to have it placed up next to the delete or escape key. For most, the button won’t be an issue but I can imagine that some users will accidently bump it.

Lastly, and this is likely Intel’s fault, but is it necessary to put a Core i7 sticker on the palm rest? I know they can be removed but this feels like a hangover requirement from the early 2000s and disrupts the otherwise clean styling of the device.

At the end of the day, I really like this machine. The smaller size compared to the Surface Book makes it a great companion for road warriors who prefer a 13in laptop and considering this machine is about the size of a typical 11in laptop thanks to the Infinity Edge display, it’s ideal for working in cramped quarters (like my flight home from Disney).

As long as the idea of palm rests being shiny while the rest of the keyboard is matte after significant use is not an issue, you will be happy with this machine.

 

 

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