Recently it was time to buy a new laptop, and this time around I wanted something that was powerful, but ultraportable. I ended up settling on a Dell XPS 13 and have been very happy with it so far.
Weighing in at just 3 pounds and just 0.71 inches thick, it certainly has the ultraportable criteria covered. Dell makes a ton of different versions of the XPS 13. The version I bought has a 1920 x 1080 touch screen, 8gb of RAM, a 128gb SSD and a core i7 processor.
The Dell XPS 13 ships with Windows 8. The first thing I did was wipe that and replace it with Linux Mint 16. Dell makes an Ubuntu developer version of the XPS 13, and a lot of the work Dell has done there carried over to the consumer version of the XPS 13. The laptop worked perfectly out of the box with Linux Mint. Everything from the WiFi to the keyboard backlight to the touchscreen just worked without any effort on my part. In fact, the geekiest configuration change I had to make was figuring out how to completely disable the trackpad (I simply despise trackpads on all laptops).
The screen is a glossy touchscreen coated in Gorilla Glass. This is not the worst glossy screen I’ve used, but I’m not a fan of non-matte screens in general. A matte version would have been nice. I also think touchscreens on laptops are a gimmick and turned that feature off immediately.
Keyboard and Trackpad
I’m used to the awesome keyboard on my Lenovo T420. The XPS 13 keyboard isn’t that good, but it is surprisingly nice to type on. It is much better than most non-Lenovo laptops I’ve used, including other Dell models. As I mentioned above, I despise trackpads and the first thing I do on any laptop I own is completely disable them. If you’re into trackpads, I’d say the XPS 13 trackpad was about as crappy as every other trackpad on every other laptop I’ve used.
Performance and Battery Life
The laptop’s performance under Linux Mint is very good. You’re not going to be able to do any serious gaming on this, but I get more than acceptable frame rates from Minecraft.
Obviously with ultraportables, the battery life is one of the major tradeoffs. I turn up the brightness on the screen as far as it will go, and I tend to get 4-5 hours of battery life doing normal browsing and text editing. More intensive applications, such as video encoding, are going to reduce that significantly.
The XPS 13 seems to manage heat fairly well. After extended use, the machine does get a little warm, but much less so than other laptops I’ve used. Occasionally the internal fan kicks on, and the noise is noticeable but typical for what I’d expect in a laptop.
One of the major compromises Dell made in creating the XPS 13 was reducing and eliminating the port options.
For USB, there are only two USB 3.0 ports–one on each side of the laptop. Two on each side would have been ideal, as this is really too few USB ports for a contemporary laptop.
For connecting to an external display, the only option is a Mini-Display port. The laptop’s small size probably precluded an HDMI port or VGA port.
Finally, there is no Ethernet port on the XPS 13 at all. The laptop is WiFi only unless you have a USB-to-Ethernet adapter.
One Minor Annoyance
There is one other minor annoyance I have with the XPS 13. I prefer laptops that have hardware latches that lock and unlock to allow the laptop to be opened up. The XPS 13 does not have such a latch, relying on the hinge to keep the laptop closed.
This creates two problems. First, opening up the laptop is a bit awkward as the user has to wedge a finger underneath the LCD and then pull the panel upward in order to open the laptop. Second, I’m extremely skeptical as to how well the hinge will hold up over a couple years of opening and closing.
Overall, this is a very good laptop for the price. I had some concerns when buying it and planned to gift it to one of my kids if it didn’t work out for me, but the Dell XPS 13 has become the PC I use for all of my non-gaming PC needs.