Dell is no stranger to peaks and troughs when it comes to being in fashion. Luckily, it is a brand that is in the ascension once more, helped by a subtle rebranding and excellent products to match.
This rise has been greatly helped by the excellent XPS 13, one of the best if not the best Windows laptop in the world. At CES 2017, the company lifted the lid on an impressive update to the line in the XPS 13 2-in-1, a convertible touchscreen version. With tablet functionality and the option to use the Dell Active Pen, it continues to help Dell blur the lines of its target market.
We’ve had extensive time with it after our hands-on at CES, so here’s our review.
UK price and availability
The XPS 2-in-1 9365 is available from Dell starting at £1,349, though our review unit retails for £1,449.
At the time of writing, Dell offers four standard configurations of the laptop, maxing out at £1,669 for 512GB SSD with a Core i7 and 8GB RAM.
Design and build
The XPS 2-in-1 is simply one of those tech products that begs to be touched, mauled and used. The design is stunningly thin yet the right side of substantial, with metallic frame and plastic detailing in all the right places.
The 13.3in display is Dell’s InfinityEdge variety, which basically means incredibly thin bezels. It might take you a while to get used to not seeing thick black bezels surrounding the screen, but Dell has done it right. It claims the unit is actually when closed the size of an 11in laptop. This is a bit of a stretch but it’s certainly one of the most compact 13in models outs there, measuring 199 x 304 x 13.7mm.
The chassis also houses a micro SD slot, 2 USB-C ports that share charging, data transfer and display port duties, a lock slot and a headphone jack. The whole thing when closed has an elegant taper to it, with a professional blend of silver and black colours. The presence of the soft finish of the body when opened also helps to add to the premium look and feel of the laptop.
Unlike the 13in MacBook Pro, the Dell keeps traditional scissor mechanism buttons on its full size keyboard. Yet you need not use the keyboard under some circumstances, with two hinges that allow you to spin the screen around and use the unit as a tablet. As the dimensions of the screen are laptop-size, you probably won’t find yourself using it portrait way up, but in landscape mode you can take advantage of the touchscreen and Dell Active Pen (sold separately for around £80).
You may not use it as a full on tablet, but the fact the option is there along with pen input is all the more attractive when Dell has achieved it without compromising the usability of the device as a traditional laptop.
We’ve been using the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 as our everyday work PC, and it’s a great size for the purpose. As the laptop has one of Dell’s InfinityEdge screens, with only a few millimetres of surround, it’s also very petite for its screen size. As we often end up working with a laptop perched on our knees when travelling, we frankly wouldn’t want it to be that much smaller anyway.
Like the other XPS models, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 build quality is great. The screen doesn’t bend easily under pressure, there’s almost no flex to the keyboard and even when you pick the laptop up by one edge, it doesn’t feel like you’re mistreating the little thing.
If you’re going to spend as much time using a laptop in airports, on trains or out in the park as in the office or at home, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is a perfect fit.
Features and specs
As mentioned, Dell’s laptops are extremely flexible when it comes to specs and customisation, but the base, cheapest model of the XPS 13 2-in-1 ships with a 7th gen Kaby Lake Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM and 128GB solid state storage. It’s good to see the latest gen of Intel’s chips inside, but remember these are the low-voltage versions that mean the XPS runs silently and without a fan. It’s also less powerful than one of the ‘proper’ Core i5 or i7 chips you’ll find in the XPS 13 9360.
This can be upgraded up to Core i7 (again, the low power version – Core i7-7Y75), 16GB RAM and 256GB storage if required, but all models have the same excellent Full HD display that packs incredible detail into the 1920 x 1080 resolution.
Also on board is an Intel HD graphics card, a widescreen HD (720p) webcam with dual mics, 802.11ac 2×2 Wi-Fi connectivity and powerful stereo speakers. There are in fact two cameras that sit oddly at the base of the screen (due to the InfinityEdge display) that are Windows Hello-ready (the tech that allows for retinal security identification).
Bar the still debatably annoying lack of a USB-A port or full size SD slot, this laptop won’t disappoint with the functionality on show compared with other barer ultrabooks on the market.
There are two screen options when you buy a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1: a 1080p display or a more pixel-dense QHD+ one with 3200 x 1800 pixels. This is the ‘step below’ 4K, and there’s an argument to be made that 4K in a 13in laptop is overkill anyway.
Dell sent us the 1080p version and, consistent with it being the cheaper option, its performance is very good if not quite world-beating. To the naked eye colours look well-saturated and fairly deep, but our colorimeter tells us it actually only covers 85.6% or sRGB, 61.6% of Adobe RGB and 64.2% or DCI P3.
Graphics pros who need wide colour gamut coverage should check out the QHD+ version or something like the 4K Razer Blade Stealth, which has incredibly rich display colours. We don’t think anyone else needs to worry, though, particularly as the good 1100:1 contrast keeps the screen looking punchy.
The backlight maxes-out at 305cd/m, which again isn’t a class-leading stat, but was enough to let us use the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 out in the park to write some of this review. It does use some potentially annoying auto brightness management you can’t switch off, but that’s probably more an annoyance to laptop testers than real people.
Perhaps the most serious reason to consider not buying the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 outside of its price is the kind of processor it uses. All versions have Core i-series processors, but they are Intel’s Y-series ones.
These are the most power-frugal of Intel’s premium laptop chips, with less raw power on tap than the corresponding U-series Core i5 or i7. U-series chips are what you’ll find in the majority of thin laptops, as only ultra-ultra skinny ones tend to use the kind seen here. You may have bumped into them before when they were called “Core M”, in previous generations.
The good news is that for everyday use and general productivity tasks, one of these Y-series chips won’t feel obviously slower than a quad-core desktop-grade CPU. They’re fast, Windows feels responsive and they even perform well in most benchmarks.
Our review model has a Core i7-7y75, and it scores 6906 in Geekbench 4 and 2558 in PC Mark 8. This is the sort of score you might get out of a ‘normal’ Core i5 laptop CPU, but efficiency and small size are the real aims of this kind of processor.
For our sort of day-to-day usage, which at its most taxing involves Photoshop editing of large image and a bit of light video editing, it’s absolutely fine. But if you’re regularly going to be maxing-out the CPU, you might want to find something with a bit more power.
The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is also poor for gaming, as the Core i7-7y75 has a much worse graphics chipset than the Core U-series ones seen in the normal XPS 13. Where we can normally make our standard test games, Thief and Alien:Isolation just about playable at 720p with graphics settings chopped down, we struggled here.
At minimum settings, 720p, Thief runs at 15.6fps, dropping to a painful 4.9fps when we switched up to 1080p, high settings: how you’d want to play the game ideally. Alien: Isolation runs at 20.8fps at 720p, and 9.3fps with the res at 1080p and the graphical quality increased. None of these results are playable unless you have very low standards.
If you care about laptop gaming at all, you probably shouldn’t buy the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. However, we could have told you that from a quick look at the spec list.
One benefit of the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1’s high-efficiency brain is that it doesn’t need fans, so is silent 24/7. After a few hours of testing, the rear of the underside had become a bit warm, but not worryingly so. There appear to be no issues with heat management here.
The main benefit of the CPU style is battery life. While the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 has a much smaller battery than the normal Dell XPS 13, with 46Wh to the non-hybrid’s 60Wh, stamina is still very good.
Playing a video on loop, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 lasts 10 hours 13 minutes, at 120 cd/m brightness. It’s enough for all-day use, and all but the longest of flights. But, yes, the Dell XPS 13 does last longer with light use still, but it comfortably outlasts the HP Spectre 13 and Asus ZenBook 3.
The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 gets a lot right, although its speakers are not close to those of the 12in MacBook in terms of volume and power. They sound rather quiet and small.
The XPS 13 2-in-1 will ship with Windows 10 Home, and this is an operating system that works pretty well in tablet mode but is exceptional in laptop mode. Windows has refined it in the latest Anniversary Update. Paired with the XPS 13 2-in-1, we found it to be an easy match for the MacBook/macOS Sierra combination as well as any other PC out there running Windows 10.
With Windows Ink, you can use the Active Pen to take notes, annotate documents and explore the newer creative features of Windows 10. We must admit that if you are keen to fully embrace digital note taking or illustration then this isn’t the machine for you (try the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or the Lenovo Miix 720) but the ability to be able to use those functions while still investing in a fully-fledged laptop will make the XPS a tempting choice for some.