XPS 13 2018 review: Dell’s improvements propel this laptop forward

The XPS 13 laptop needed an overhaul and Dell needed to make a statement. The XPS family has produced some of the best and most-loved consumer ultrabooks, but this particular laptop has been stifled in recent years. Since 2016, it has seen incremental improvements that helped it keep up with the competition in terms of performance, but not in design, hardware perks, and general innovation.

Performance is key, sure, but it's not the only factor that contributes to why customers choose some laptops over others. The new XPS 13, announced at CES in January, has plenty of new characteristics that Dell hopes will push the device back to the front of the pack: a fresh rose gold and alpine white color option, a refreshed design with a new thermal management system, new biometric security features, and 8th-gen Intel CPUs.

But not everything has changed, and the XPS 13's biggest challenge is proving that it has matured well by balancing necessary new features with reliable existing features that users have grown to expect.

Look and feel

The XPS 13 debuted with a sleek design, and it hasn't necessarily become offensive in recent years (please hold your impassioned comments about webcam placement, we'll get to it). But it had become unremarkably inoffensive next to similar laptops made by competitors—in short, it was boring. The new XPS 13 tries to remedy this with the biggest overhaul we've seen in the laptop's design in a long time.

Most noticeable is the new white and rose gold color-way that's sold alongside the traditional black-and-silver option. Dell offered a similar pink color-way for previous XPS 13 models, but the "alpine white" hue on the keyboard and surrounding the display pushes Dell into the modern era that treats the metallic rose and milky white combo as a standard option.

The area around the keyboard and the palm rests have new texture as well. On the rose-and-white model, woven fiber glass creates the makeshift basket weave pattern that's subtly detectable under your fingertips. The woven construction makes for a "high-strength, low-weight" chassis and its titanium oxide coating makes the palm rests more stain-resistant than other lightly colored laptops. I don't make a habit of dirtying my laptops, so I can't say I noticed its stain-resistant properties in action during my personal use. However, at a pre-CES briefing, Dell did make a slash with permanent marker on one of the white palm rests of the XPS 13 and it nearly disappeared after a bit of elbow-greased cleaning.

Nevertheless, the new texture gives the area around the XPS 13's keyboard the look and feel of a sophisticated placemat—and I mean no shade to Dell in saying that. It's a pleasant change to see an OEM play with texture in a subtle yet sleek way. I welcome the change from the soft-touch palm rests the previous XPS 13 models had, but that material certainly has its fans and they will be sad to see it eliminated from this laptop.

The texture also gives the XPS 13 more personality, at least in its keyboard area, than a competitor like the HP Spectre 13. However, HP's device has more personality in its C-shaped hinge than the XPS 13 has in the same area. The black-and-silver XPS 13 model also has the woven pattern on the palm rests but it's less noticeable and less tactile than that on the white model since it's made of carbon fiber, not glass.

In typical laptop-update fashion, Dell slimmed down the XPS 13's frame by 3.4mm and the new model weighs just 2.68 pounds. The top and side bezels surrounding the Infinity Edge display are also smaller, measuring a mere 4mm, giving the device a 80.7 percent screen-to-body ratio. The relationship between screen real estate and the size and weight of a laptop's body has always shaped the way I see a laptop's overall design efficiency. Dell touts that the XPS 13 is a 13-inch laptop in a 11-inch laptop's frame, and the large display in relation to the overall look and feel of the laptop's chassis makes this sentiment ring true.


Screen, ports, and that webcam

The Infinity Edge display on the XPS 13 comes as either a 4K, 3840 x 2160 touchscreen or an FHD non-touch option. I tested the 4K touchscreen configuration and my thoughts on touchscreen laptops haven't changed much since reviewing the Spectre 13: it's a useful input mechanism to have, especially when most devices in our lives now feature touchscreens, but it's most useful on a device that can flex from its hinge upwards of 180 degrees.

FURTHER READING

Review: Dell’s Kaby Lake XPS 13 isn’t quite good enough to keep its crown

However, I'm more frustrated that Dell considers a touch panel a premium feature when OEMs including HP, Lenovo, and others are throwing touchscreens on base laptop models. While I may not use a touchscreen on a regular laptop often, there are plenty of consumers who do and that feature is quickly becoming a necessity. It's likely that Dell kept the touchscreen out of the base model to maximize thinness and battery life, and to keep its price tag at $999.

While barely-there bezels hug the top and sides of the XPS 13's display, a larger bezel sits at its bottom holding the webcam and IR camera. Yes, Dell still insists on having the front-facing cameras at the base of the display, turning them both into up-nose cams. I rarely video chat on my laptops, but you won't be able to escape the less-than-flattering angle that the webcam forces upon you if you do. It's silly that we're still talking about this in 2018, but alas, we are.

That also means Windows Hello facial recognition also subjects you to the webcam's uncomfortable upward glance. But the good news is that Windows Hello works as promised even with this camera placement—it took milliseconds for the camera to recognize my face and unlock the screen, and only once was I poorly positioned enough that the camera couldn't recognize my face. The bad news is minimal—you'll have to see your face chin-first for a few seconds as you set up the biometric feature.

The circular power button at the top-right corner of the keyboard also incorporates a fingerprint sensor, letting you use your touch to turn on and unlock the device at once. I prefer more biometric authenticator options than not, so I was happy to see Dell including both on the XPS 13 laptop.

The new XPS 13 shuns USB Type A ports for more modern connections. It has one USB Type C port and two Thunderbolt 3 ports, as well as a microSD card reader, headset jack, and Noble lock slot. There's also a nifty new battery gauge on the left side that shows the level of battery remaining in the device with a press of a tiny button.

As an ultrabook, the XPS 13 is meant to be an multi-purpose laptop and but most devices like these aren't mistaken for gaming devices. But Dell made the new XPS 13 a bit better for gamers by making the Thunderbolt 3 ports support four-lane PCI connections, allowing users to connect external graphics cards to the device for a better gaming experience.

So, hurry up and sell your old laptop in order to buy this new beauty :-)