Dell XPS 13 (Broadwell) - first impressons

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Johnmcl7
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Dell XPS 13 (Broadwell) - first impressons

Postby Johnmcl7 » 09 Feb 2015, 02:28

Despite sharing the same name as its predecessor, the 'new' XPS 13 is a brand new Ultrabook taking advantage of Intel's new Broadwell U processors. In most ways it's a standard Ultrabook with little to differentiate it from others apart from its 'infinity' screen which is a new technology from Sharp that minimises the screen bezel. It's also the first laptop to use Microsoft's new touchpad precision technology which means control of the touchpad is handled directly by the operating system instead of a manufacturer supplied driver to try and address criticism of touchpads on windows laptops.

Dell offer the XPS 13 in a variety of configurations with the usual i3. i5 and i7 processors, 4GB or 8GB ram 128GB, 256GB or 512GB SSD's and either a 1920x1080 (1080p) non-touch screen or a 3200x1800 (QHD+) touch screen. As is the norm it now seems, European Dell customers get a far more restricted choice which initially consisted of an i7/8GB/256GB/QHD+ (£1100), i7/8GB/512GB/QHD+(£1250) or an alternate 256GB model with a slightly higher i7 which features vPro and an Intel rather than Dell wireless card which I assume is aimed at business use(£1180). Dell have since added a fourth machine the same as the base i7 but with an i5 processor and a £50 drop in cost (£1050). The pricing is in line with other Ultrabooks which is not bad given the fancy screen although the XPS 13 doesn't have any clever tricks like the XPS 12 or Lenovo Yoga to make the system work better as a tablet. Surprisingly the pricing is also in line with the US prices which is unusual, if that is the case with the lower spec models then an i5 with 128GB SSD, 4GB memory and the 1080p screen for around £650 would be a real sweet spot for the machine particularly as the SSD is accessible and can be upgraded.

Dell have a couple of nifty accessories, one is a handy little dongle which plugs into the USB3 socket to give Ethernet and VGA while a clever power pack has its own builtin battery. It functions as a normal power pack when connected to the mains but can provide power to the laptop on its own from the internal battery to the laptop as well as being able to power a couple of USB devices. Unfortunately they're both rather pricey with the USB3 dongle just shy of £70 and the power pack £105 which was too much for me.

I opted for the i7/8GB/512GB/QHD+ model as the SSD upgrade was a reasonable price and there were claims the higher capacity drive is also much quicker than the others.

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The main focus of the XPS 13 has clearly gone into the styling, the top and underside of the laptop feel like a solid piece of metal with an XPS flap on the underside that lifts to reveal the required regulatory information and serial numbers so they don't spoil the look of the laptop. In contrast to the bright silver on the outside, the inside is dark with a soft feeling carbon fibre palm rest surrounding the keyboard.

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Going round the laptop there's not much to see as you'd expect from an Ultrabook, on the left it has a USB port, charging port, headphone port, mini displayport and battery tester (five leds which light up to show much charge the battery has). There's nothing on the back as the battery isn't removable and the vents are on the underside, the right hand side has the second USB port and an SD card slot. The front only has a power light which flashes orange on low power and shows white when charging and there's nothing on the underside bar the vent for the fan and the aforementioned flap.

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The screen is obviously the highlight of the laptop and it's more incredible in the flesh than it looks in pictures, it reminds me of dodgy editing when companies replace the laptop screen image in an advert/episode/film but it's clearly fake as it's too large and clear. I was initially not that impressed with the size/weight as it's not that different to the likes of the Vaio Duo 11 but of course when you open it up you're greeted by the oversized display. It's not just the minimal bezel that is impressive either as the screen is rich and detailed, even the Netflix starting screen looks amazing with the sharp red on the very black background.

Windows 8 finally supports ultra high resolutions with proper scaling so the XPS 13's super high 3200x1800 works well in the Windows 8 touch/Modern interface, the size of the interface is good but everything is very sharp and detailed. In the desktop/Windows 7 mode there's more of a problem as it doesn't handle the scaling well at all which is set to the maximum setting (largest interface, most scaling) out of the box which makes for a variety of odd effects. Some components particularly the core Windows ones are the right size but look very soft, some look the wrong size as if they've been stretched incorrectly (the wireless signal, the battery icon on the overlay) and some elements are too small. Better yet some software has a mix of all three and looks particularly bad, it doesn't affect functionality but it's irritating.

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The XPS 13 launches with Intel's brand new Broadwell U processors which are a die shrink of the Haswell processors going from 22nm down to 14nm. As this is just a die shrink there isn't much of a change in features (that will come with Skylake) and there's no huge improvements in power efficiency either. Broadwell's roll out has been unusual as it started several months ago with the release of the Core-m which is a 5W part intended to bridge the gap between Atom and the ULV parts and allow for fanless laptops which is what Lenovo opted for with their new Yoga 3 Pro. The Broadwell U processors are the next phase with the usual i7, i5 (both dual core, hyperthreaded with turbo boost, the i5 slightly slower and less cache), the i3 (dual core, hyperthreaded but no turbo boost) and Pentium models (dual core, no hyperthreading or turbo boost). For now that's it though as the rest of the range will be fulfilled by Haswell including the quad core i7 models used in higher performance laptops and desktop processors.

Batterylife should be the biggest improvement from a die shrink although it's difficult to compare as laptop manufacturers can choose to fit a smaller battery and keep similar batterylife to previous models. Dell boast 15 hours from the 1080p XPS 13 and 12 hours from the more power hungry QHD+ screen, I've not run through enough cycles to get an exact idea on batterylife but in normal use it seems to be managing around 7-8 hours which is nothing exceptional but decent enough for this type of machine.

The touchpad is a certified precision model which means that it's directly driven by Windows to improve performance and responsiveness with multi-touch gestures. I'm not keen on this type of touchpads and prefer the older type where you scroll on the side but I'm old fashioned in that regard and realise that's not what most people want these days. It's a good size touchpad with a very smooth surface and the gesture control works well in the touch interface but can be a bit iffy. As it uses the Microsoft driver there is no control over its behaviour in terms of scrolling speed and similar.

Despite the small size of the chassis the keyboard is very good as the keys are full sized aside from the enter key and the backspace which are a bit squeezed on the right hand side. I found myself catching the edge of the laptop when going for the return key but quickly got used to it. The home/end/pgup/pgdown key are mapped as functions on the cursor keys, Lenovo fit Pgup/pgdown keys into the gaps above the left/right keys while Sony fit a Fn key making it easier to use the PgUp/PgDn/Home/End functions one handed although it's far from a deal breaker on the Dell. The key travel is very short, not quite the shortest I've used (the Vaio Z11 and desktop Apple keyboards are shallower) but it feels a bit too short again until I was used to it and it feels very good, just enough action to get a positive response to a key press but not too much to hinder speed. As you'd expect the keyboard is backlit which works fine. On the whole it's a great keyboard to use and definitely one of the main positives of the laptop.

The SSD is a new M2 type which Arstechnica have just written a handy article about for those not familiar with the standard:

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2015/02/ ... -next-ssd/

The SSD is reasonably easy to access once the bottom cover has been removed which is held on my Torx head screws. The 512GB SSD model uses a Samsung SSD which is meant to be quicker than the smaller models although I've yet to benchmarked it and admittedly I find the speed of SSD's in general to be good enough.

The heat and noise unfortunately is not a strength of the XPS 13 although there's a lot of debating over how much of it is fixable. With the whole underside of the laptop being solid metal it gets quite warm when used on a lap, the surface doesn't feel that hot to touch but it's noticeable when on my lap. More of an issue is the fan which makes quite an intrusive noise when it spins up and its behaviour can be irritating as it will rev up and down repeatedly. At times it will run completely silent for a while but even an AV scan or windows updates are enough to kick the fan to life and it never seems to be quiet, the only speed it runs at is noticeable and intrusive. Some people are claiming their XPS 13's run almost entirely silent and the fan doesn't spin up as quickly as other people are claiming but it's a bit early at the moment to establish a pattern.

Am I keeping it?

I'm very much leaning towards sending the machine back at the moment mainly due to the screen, the cost and the heat/noise. The XPS 13 is reasonably priced but I can't see me using it as a productivity machine so the i7, 8GB and 512GB SSD isn't much benefit and while the QHD+ screen is very pretty the scaling issues it causes are a real problem and with the laptop not being a hybrid design, the touch screen isn't as useful as it could be. I don't like the touchpad much either but I don't think there's any escaping that on any current similar machine. On the other hand when I fire it up and I love the keyboard and the screen (apart from the scaling issues) and think why not just keep it...I just wish the Vaio was still on the go, its keyboard was poor and its optical trackpointer didn't work that well either but with its hybrid touchscreen that helped work around the trackpoint issue. If I still had the vaio there wouldn't be any rush to get another laptop, I didn't actually use it that much but I've missed it more than I thought I would. I have tried running the XPS 13 at 3200x1800 natively which isn't completely unusable although some parts are tiny such as the taskbar, icons and right click menus so I don't think it's going to be that usable.
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Re: Dell XPS 13 (Broadwell) - first impressons

Postby robbo » 09 Feb 2015, 12:32

Good stuff, John. Would like the i5 1080p version to come out over here and be at the American price. That could be tempting for me.

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