I've always thought that a 13-inch (33 centimeters) laptop screen strikes the best balance between portability and productivity. Still, using a 13-incher on the go can make you long for a more portable 11-inch (28 cm) notebook.
Now you don't have to compromise. Dell's new XPS 13 notebook packs a 13-inch display into a laptop that's about the size of the average 11-inch system. It accomplished that feat by nearly eliminating the bezel around the screen, providing a display that practically stretches from one corner to the other. The result is the smallest 13-inch laptop I've ever laid my hands on — and that's a huge plus for commuters and business travelers.
Plus, you get a speedy processor, an excellent keyboard and a large, responsive trackpad. There are a few issues, particularly the terrible webcam placement, which could make video conferencing awkward. But overall, the new XPS 13 is one of the most impressive, and eye-catching, business notebooks on the market.
Anyone who packs their laptop into a crowded bag for their work commute will appreciate the XPS 13's small size. With a footprint of 11.98 x 7.88 inches (30.4 x 20 cm), and a height that tapers from 0.33-0.6 inches (0.84-1.5 cm), Dell's notebook is quite a bit smaller than competing 13-inch systems. For comparison, Apple's 11-inch MacBook Air is just a tad smaller at 11.8 x 7.56 x 0.11-0.68 inches (30 x 19 x 0.28-1.7 cm). According to Dell, the new XPS 13 is 23 percent smaller than the larger 13-inch MacBook Air.
The XPS 13 achieves those dimensions thanks to a razor-thin 0.2-inch (0.5 cm) bezel around the display; the average 13-inch notebook has a bezel measuring a half-inch (1.3 cm) or more. Not only does the thin bezel reduce the overall size of the laptop, but it also gives you a picture that seems ready spill off the edges of the display, making for a futuristic effect. You've never seen a laptop quite like this one.
But while the XPS 13 might be the smallest 13-inch laptop available, it's not quite the lightest. At 2.8 lbs. (1.3 kilograms), it's a bit heavier than the Lenovo Yoga 3 (2.6 lbs., 1.2 kg), though it's lighter than the 3-lb. (1.4 kg) Air. That's something to consider if you want a work machine that's easy to lug around, but these are all lightweight systems.
Laptop displays don't get much better than this. Our review unit sports a super-sharp, 13-inch display with a quad-HD resolution of 3,200 x 1,800 pixels (cheaper configurations are available with lower-res screens, discussed below). Our unit also came with an optional touch screen, which is handy for navigating around Windows 8.1 but not necessary.
Text on the display is crisp, and scales perfectly in pinch-to-zoom applications like Microsoft Office 365 and Internet Explorer. Meanwhile, colors are saturated and blacks are very dark.
But does a 13-inch display offer enough screen space for work? The high resolution helps a lot, but business users who perform screen-intensive tasks like editing spreadsheets might feel a bit crowded. That's the price you pay for a notebook this portable.
Keyboard and touchpad
The XPS 13's keyboard isn't bad, but competing notebooks have better keyboards. That's mostly due to this keyboard's relatively shallow depth — key travel on the XPS 13 is just 1.2 mm — which makes extended typing sessions a bit less comfortable. In comparison, the Yoga 3 Pro's keys have 1.5mm of travel and the Elitebook Folio 1020's have 1.65mm, so they provide a bit more feedback and a more satisfying typing experience. I found myself missing keys more often on the XPS 13 than I did on those systems.
The touchpad on the XPS 13 is excellent, however. For starters, it's quite large for a notebook this small, measuring 4.1 x 2.3 inches (10.4 x 5.8 cm). Mousing around felt very responsive, and gestures like two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom worked flawlessly.
Our review unit came with a generous 128GB of speedy SSD storage, but I was still glad to see a full-size SD card slot on the side of the XPS 13. With the right card, you can more than double the notebook's storage. That's a plus for business users who need to store large files on the go.
Additionally, there are two USB 3.0 ports and a miniDisplayPort. The latter could come in handy for linking the computer to a large monitor, television or projector for presentations.
Also included along the left edge is a series of small LEDs; press a small button beside them, and they'll light up to indicate how much juice your laptop has left. It's a nifty feature that lets you check your battery life even when your notebook is turned off.
The XPS 13's biggest weakness is the placement of its front-facing camera, which could be a problem if you want to use the device for meeting remotely with colleagues or clients. The notebook's super-thin bezel left no room for a webcam at the top of the lid, so Dell stuck it in an awkward spot near the screen's bottom left corner. As a result, the person on the other end of your video calls will become well-acquainted with the underside of your jaw.
And since the camera is placed near the notebook's far left edge, you'll probably be off-center, too. In this image I was sitting right in front of the XPS 13 and looking straight at the screen, so you can see how awkward the angle is.
On the other hand, the XPS 13 captures images that are reasonably bright and colorful, if a bit grainy. Plus, the dual side-mounted speakers deliver loud, clear audio, so you'll have no trouble hearing the person on the other end of the call.
For such a small machine, the XPS 13 is packing some serious firepower. It's one of the first notebooks with Intel's fifth-generation Core processors. Our review unit included a Core i5-5200U chip with 8GB of RAM, which provides blazing-fast performance and snappy multitasking.
In our performance test, the XPS 13 outperformed HP's EliteBook Folio 1020, as well as Lenovo's Yoga 3 Pro. Those notebooks run on Intel's Core M processor, a power-efficient chip that doesn't require a fan for cooling. That helps make them lighter and cooler, but a bit slower, than the XPS 13.
The XPS 13 performed admirably in our OpenOffice spreadsheet test, pairing 20,000 names and addresses in just 5 minutes and 34 seconds. That's faster than both the Yoga 3 Pro (5:46) and the EliteBook Folio (6:36).
The XPS 13 has some heat issues, particularly on the bottom of the machine. The back edge near the vent got very warm, reaching temperatures of up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). That's slightly beyond our comfort threshold of 95 degrees F (35 C). The rest of the notebook remained relatively cool during our stress tests, however. The high temps are something to consider if you plan to frequently work with the XPS 13 on your lap. On the bright side, a ridge on the bottom helps mitigate the issue by lifting the hot spots off your knees.
For a notebook in the ultraportable category, the XPS 13 has pretty good longevity. It ran for 7 hours and 24 minutes in our battery life test, which involves continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi, so it should have no issues lasting through the end of the workday. It actually survived a bit longer than the category average of 7 hours and 18 minutes, as well as the Yoga 3 Pro (6:29) and the EliteBook Folio (6:49). The nontouch version of the XPS 13 should also last a bit longer than our review unit.
The XPS 13 comes with a near-pristine installation of Windows 8.1. In fact, just two third-party apps come pre-loaded: Dropbox and Skype, both of which could come in handy for mobile business users.
Buyers automatically get one year of premium phone support, in case you need Dell to help you troubleshoot any hardware or software issues.
Business users on a budget can opt for the entry-level XPS 13, which is priced at just $799. It includes an Intel Core i3-5010U processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard SSD storage. This version has a lower resolution than our review unit (1020x1080p) and lacks a touch screen.
In comparison, the model we reviewed costs $1,299 with a Core i5-5200U processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, as well as a 3,200 x 1,800-pixel touch display.
The Dell XPS's edge-to-edge display is eye-catching, but it's more than just a pretty face. Thanks to its thin bezel, the notebook is also the most portable business 13-incher on the market, with a smaller footprint than competing systems. If you want a laptop that will fit on an airplane tray table with room to spare during your next business trip, this is it.
It's not perfect, though. If you frequently Skype into meetings, the XPS 13's awkwardly placed webcam might be a deal breaker. The notebook also has some minor heat issues. Otherwise, mobile business users should put this device at the top of their lists.