Dell XPS 13 2016 Review: An Ultrabook Improvement

by Reads (41,774)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Software & Support
      • 8
      • Upgrade Capabilities
      • 5
      • Usability
      • 8
      • Design
      • 9
      • Performance
      • 7
      • Features
      • 9
      • Price/Value Rating
      • 7
      • Total Score:
      • 7.57
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Beautiful display
    • Thinner and lighter than most Ultrabooks
    • Good battery life
  • Cons

    • Overall performance is good but not great
    • Unusual webcam placement
    • Premium configurations offer questionable value per dollar

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook might have been the best thin and light laptop in Dell’s lineup, but the new XPS 13-9350 shows that there’s always room for improvement. Starting at $799 and topping out just below $2000, the XPS 13 is available with your choice of Intel Core series processors, blazing fast solid state drives, and genuinely impressive battery life. Is this the best alternative to Apple’s MacBook or Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4? Keep reading this Dell XPS 13 2016 review to find out.

2016 Dell XPS 13  (XPS 13 9350)

Dell XPS 13 2016 edition
(XPS 13 9350)

Build and Design

Dell made significant changes to the design of the latest XPS 13 in order to deliver the company’s best 13-inch Ultrabook yet. While the first XPS 13 was designed to compete with Apple’s MacBook Air, Dell clearly intended the 2016 model of the XPS 13 to be the king of its own hill. This Ultrabook is noticeably smaller than most 13-inch notebooks thanks to the fact that Dell engineers managed to squeeze a 13-inch screen into the same amount of space typically used for 11-inch or 12-inch notebooks. The XPS 13 accomplishes this feat thanks to the new Quad HD “InfinityEdge” display which is surrounded by minimal bezels above and on either side of the screen. Not only does the screen seem larger than it is but the display offers higher resolution and a significantly brighter screen than the previous generation XPS 13.

Of course there is more to making a solid notebook than a nice display. The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook protects that beautiful screen with a screen lid and bottom plate made of aluminum and a carbon-fiber chassis. The combination of aluminum and carbon fiber go a long way to giving the XPS line a distinct visual identity and the blending of two standard USB 3.0 ports along with the newer USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 support makes this one of the more versatile thin and light designs for 2016. While these things aren’t too impressive on a 15-inch notebook, those features are notable when a laptop measures just 11.9 x 7.9 x 0.33-0.6-inches and the starting weight is 2.7 pounds (2.9 pounds as tested).

Dell XPS 13 2016 edition top viewDell XPS 13 2016 edition bottom view

Most notebook manufacturers have abandoned the practice of placing easy-access panels on the bottom of Ultrabooks for upgrades or service. The XPS 13 is no exception. Dell needed to make the most of every millimeter of vertical space in order to keep the XPS 13 as thin and light as possible. That said, Dell made the unique decision to add a small aluminum flap to the center of the bottom panel. If you flip that panel up you’ll find the Dell service sticker for the XPS 13 as well as the other FCC labels.

Ports and Features

The lack of ports on the previous generations of XPS 13 notebooks was a common criticism that Dell apparently heard loud and clear. Dell’s engineers eliminated the mini-DisplayPort found in the last XPS 13 and used that space to add a USB-C 3.1 port that doubles as a Thunderbolt 3 port providing a bi-directional data transfer rate of up to 40 Gbps. The beauty of the combo USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port is that you can use adapters (sold separately) to convert that one port into HDMI, VGA, Ethernet or standard USB.

Dell XPS 13 2016 model ports and jacksDell XPS 13 2016 model ports and jacks

The left side of the notebook features the power jack, the previously mentioned USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 combo port, a full-size USB 3.0 port, combo headphone/microphone/headset audio jack, and a battery capacity indicator. The Right side of XPS 13 features a full-size SD card slot and USB 3.0 port as well as a Kensington lock slot.

Screen and Speakers

Gone are the days when 720p resolution was acceptable for a 13-inch laptop. There are two varieties of 13.3-inch InfinityEdge displays available for the Dell XPS 13 2016 model: a 13.3-inch FHD (1920 x 1080) standard panel or a QHD+ (3200 x 1800) IPS touch panel. The latter of the two screen options is a $350 premium over the 1080p display.

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook displayDell XPS 13 Ultrabook display
Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook displayDell XPS 13 Ultrabook display

While the glossy QHD+ IPS touch screen InfinityEdge display in our review unit it quite impressive with excellent color accuracy and saturation the contrast appears to be noticeably lower than the contrast on the standard 1920 x 1080 matte IPS display panel. Whether the lower contrast is due to the combination of the glossy screen surface and touch screen layer or whether its simply inherent to the QHD+ panel in our review unit remains to be seen. In any case, the 276 PPI resolution of the QHD+ display is a significant step up from the 166 PPI of the entry-level FHD screen.

Dell XPS 13 2016 model webcam

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook has an oddly placed webcam.

We feel compelled to mention that Dell was forced to move the webcam on the new XPS 13 because of the InfinityEdge design and the narrow 5mm bezel on the top and sides of the screen. The webcam is now located to the bottom left of the display and creates some odd visual distortion as a result of the unusual placement. We had to tilt the screen back slightly to center ourselves in the webcam during video conferencing and the low angle means that your nostrils are more visible than normal if you aren’t careful. Other than that, the 720p webcam is perfectly normal … that is to say the video quality is average.

While the screen is impressive and the webcam placement is a bit odd, the built-in speakers on the XPS 13 are barely serviceable. The diminutive stereo speakers are embedded within the chassis with no obvious output vents. The result is incredibly muffled sound coming from a nebulous space inside this Ultrabook. The audio quality sounds marginally better if you rest the XPS 13 on a hard surface and the sound can “bounce” off a desk. Nevertheless, we recommend quality earphones or external speakers if you care about sound quality while using this notebook.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The full-size Chiclet-style keyboard is quiet with a soft and short throw to each press of the keys. Despite the shallow key movement the feedback is good and you won’t be left wondering whether or not you pressed a key.

Dell XPS 13 2016 model keyboard and touchpadThe Dell XPS 13 2016 edition features a bright LED-backlit keyboard which is helpful if you want to see what you’re typing in a dark room or on a dimly-lit airplane. The keyboard blacklighting has three settings (off, low, and high) and the LEDs are well centered behind the keys with minimal light “bleed” around the keyboard.

The large multi-touch “clickpad” (a touchpad surface which lets you press down anywhere to produce a left click) uses generic Microsoft drivers and proved to be exceptionally accurate with smooth movement and minimal errors recognizing gestures or distinguishing between left and right clicks. The use of generic touchpad drivers is worth mentioning because manufacturers often use custom touchpad drivers with varying degrees of success. If the latest generic drivers from Microsoft work this well then Dell might be able to stop investing in custom touchpad software going forward.

Performance

The 6th generation Intel Core i5-6200U in our Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook review unit delivers impressive performance for a 15W processor. While we can’t quite call this best-in-class performance among 13-inch Ultrabooks at the time of this writing, the Core i5-6200U does an impressive job overall and is equally impressive when it comes to power management. The Intel HD 520 integrated graphics are enough to handle playing 1080p video and up-scaled QHD+ video on the QHD+ display, but if you really want to make the most of the QHD+ resolution for 3D rendering or editing 4K video content then you probably want to spend the extra cash to upgrade to the optional Core i7-6560U processor with Intel Iris 540 graphics.

While the Intel Core i5 processor and integrated graphics in our review sample are partially responsible for the overall performance, the speediest component inside the XPS 13 is actually the 256GB NVMe solid state drive. Our review unit uses a Samsung PM951 NVMe and although it’s not the fastest SSD we’ve ever seen it is fast enough to make things like start up, shut down, and launching apps almost instantaneous.

DSC02229Our Dell XPS 13 2016 review unit has the following specifications:

  • 13.3-inch Ultrasharp QHD+ (3200 x 1800) InfinityEdge touch display
  • Windows 10 Home 64-bit
  • Intel Core i5-6200U (2.3 GHz, up to 2.8GHz Turbo Boost, 3MB cache)
  • Intel HD Graphics 520
  • 8GB LPDDR3-1866MHz (max supported)
  • 256GB NVMe Solid State Drive
  • Wireless: DW1820A 2×2 802.11ac 2.4/5GHz + Bluetooth4.1
  • Built-in 720p webcam
  • 4-cell battery (56Wh)
  • 1-year limited warranty
  • Starting Price: $799.99
  • Price as configured: $1,499.99

While the starting price of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook comes in at roughly $800, our review sample includes the higher-resolution touchscreen display and a 256GB solid state drive (SSD). These upgrades certainly improve both the overall performance and the overall appeal of the XPS 13, but $1,500 is a lot to pay when you’re talking about a PC running on a Core i5-6200U and just 8GB of DDR3 system memory.

Benchmarks

wPrime processor comparison results (listed in seconds – lower scores mean better performance):
xps13wprimechart

PCMark8 Home (Accelerated) measures overall system performance in Windows 8 for general activities from web browsing and video streaming to typing documents and playing games (higher scores mean better performance):
xps13pc8homechart

PCMark8 Work (Accelerated) measures overall system performance in Windows 8 for work-related productivity tasks (higher scores mean better performance):
xps13pc8workchart

3DMark 11 measures the overall gaming performance of the GPU (higher scores mean better performance):
xps133d11chart

3DMark Fire Strike is a newer DirectX 11 benchmark that measures overall graphics card performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
xps133dfirestrikechart

CrystalDiskMark storage drive performance test:
xps132016cdm

Heat and Noise

The single cooling fan inside the Dell XPS 13 2016 model keeps running most of the time with a quiet, almost inaudible hum that never exceeded 30 decibels during our tests. The lower noise output from running a fan at low RPMs is one additional benefit of using the latest generation of low-voltage processors.

On the other hand, running the hardware with a weaker fan means that the XPS 13 has less air moving over components to cool them down. As a result, the external temperatures of this notebook are roughly the same as other notebooks with higher voltage processors running with louder fans. After extensive benchmark testing the hottest spot on the bottom of the XPS 13 reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 C) and the keyboard temperature peaked around 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 C). 

The exterior of the notebook won’t get anywhere near that hot if you’re just browsing the internet or typing up a Word document, but if you stress the CPU and integrated graphics for an hour or more then expect to feel the heat.

Battery Life

The latest generation Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook features a 56Wh battery which is slightly more capacity than the previous generation (52Wh). The extra battery capacity combined with the superior energy efficiency of the Intel Core i5-6200U helped the XPS 13 deliver longer battery life despite the QHD+ display. Notebooks with Ultra-HD screens typically have worse battery life because all those extra pixels require extra power, but the XPS 13-9350 managed to last for almost 4 hours in Futuremark’s demanding Powermark benchmark. If you set the screen brightness to 70 percent or lower and just browse the web a fully charged XPS 13 should last for around 8 hours even with the QHD+ resolution display.

Powermark battery life test results (higher scores mean better battery life):
xps13powermarkchart

Conclusion

The Dell XPS 13 2016 edition is a solid update to the XPS 13 with several desirable improvements over older XPS notebooks. The chassis design is attractive and well thought out. The available hardware configurations make perfect sense for a premium 13-inch Ultrabook. The battery life is more than good enough for most road warriors and once you get used to the atypical placement of the webcam and the weak speakers this turns out to be a fantastic notebook for web conferencing while on the go.

While the overall performance of the 2016 XPS 13 is quite good compared to other 13-inch Ultrabooks we can’t ignore the fact that the 2015 model of the HP Spectre x360 delivers almost identical performance in all areas except for 3D rendering and the previous generation Spectre x360 still delivers significantly better battery life than our review unit of the XPS 13.

Dell won’t have any problems selling the XPS 13 to customers at the starting price of $799. Unfortunately, the competition gets significantly more intense as premium configurations exceed $1,000. Average consumers looking for a premium thin-and-light 13-inch laptop will likely pick up an Apple MacBook once the asking price reaches four digits. Similarly, most businesses will demand better warranty support and IT-friendly features like those found in the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

DSC02225Pros:

  • Beautiful display
  • Thinner and lighter than most Ultrabooks
  • Good battery life

Cons:

  • Overall performance is good but not great
  • Unusual webcam placement
  • Premium configurations offer questionable value per dollar



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5 Comments

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  1. craptalker

    I have the QHD top of the line version since before Christmas (which makes me wonder how new it really is..).

    A couple of real world observations.

    1. I get no more than 4 hours of battery life since new (and with updated drivers). And that with normal office apps running.

    2. I never touch the screen. No need and the icons are too small anyway.

    3. Windows 10 is very buggy on high resolution screens. Unless you are using the absolute latest software you will have massive scaling issues. Particularily if using an external screen simultaneously.

    There are several major bugs in Windows 10 which drive me to distraction. I would go back to windows 7 except for the fact that there are drivers missing for this laptop.

    Conclusion: if you really have to have windows 10 this is possibly the best laptop out there. Get the regular non touch version. If you need more SSD space add it yourself rather than getting the High Resolution QHD version.. Honestly.

  2. j23araluce

    Dear writer, while your fair and balanced review is detailed and generally does a good job in breaking down the pros and cons of said laptop, your over all conclusion of this laptop, 4/5 puzzles me.

    You openly admit, this model is better than last years model, which it itself was revolutionary. So Surly this Laptop has to earn a 5/5 star rating? Especially considering its unique design and excellent qualities.

  3. jpearson79

    The SSD that Dell is using (Samsung PM951) is laughable. The write speed is the same as SATA 2.

  4. starflex

    “The large multi-touch “clickpad” (a touchpad surface which lets you press down anywhere to produce a left click) uses generic Microsoft drivers and proved to be exceptionally accurate with smooth movement and minimal errors recognizing gestures or distinguishing between left and right clicks. The use of generic touchpad drivers is worth mentioning because manufacturers often use custom touchpad drivers with varying degrees of success. If the latest generic drivers from Microsoft work this well then Dell might be able to stop investing in custom touchpad software going forward.”

    People are still screaming at the XPS9343 Touchpad, one of the worst experience we (users) have ever had, no matter the OS used (from Win7 to Win10).

    Hard , VERY HARD to believe on the statement “proved to be exceptionally accurate with smooth movement and minimal errors”.