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A little less than a year ago ZDNet found the Dell XPS 13 to be a 'stylish slimline business workhorse with all-day battery life'. Dell has upped the ante with the 2016 model, bringing Intel's 7th Generation Core (Kaby Lake) processors into a mix of specifications that gives buyers plenty of choice.
The XPS 13 is an ultraportable laptop that packs a 13.3-inch screen into a chassis that seems, on paper, to be too small for the job. The secret here is what Dell calls InfinityEdge which results in 5.2mm of bezel on the top and sides, and around 20mm along the bottom of the screen.
Compare this to the bezel on HP's EliteBook 1030 G1, which is referred to as 'near edge-to-edge', where we find a bezel measuring 5mm on the sides, 13mm at the top and 18mm along the bottom.
Overall, the XPS 13's chassis measures 304mm wide by 200mm deep by 9-15mm thick. Compared to a sheet of A4 paper, the XPS 13 is 7mm wider and 10mm shallower.
As well as being small,the XPS 13 is also lightweight: non-touch versions start at 1.2kg, while a touchscreen brings the starting weight up to 1.29kg.
This is a very tough laptop. The aluminium chassis is solid and I found it difficult to flex the screen between my hands. The Corning Gorilla Glass NBT touchscreen provides added strength and scratch resistance, and Dell emphasises the palm rest's carbon fibre construction, saying it has the strength of aluminium but is lighter, and feels cooler. I can attest to the cooler finish, and would add that its slightly soft, rubberised finish is also welcome.
The screen is superb, although it's reflective, which is a bit of an annoyance. However, the tiny bezel somehow makes it feel more pleasant to work on than screens that sit inside a wide, dark frame. My review unit had a resolution of 3,200 by 1,800 pixels (276ppi) and delivered fantastic detailing. Lower-resolution FHD (1,920 x 1,080, 166ppi) screens are also available.
The narrow upper bezel means the webcam has been relocated from the middle of the upper bezel to the bottom left corner of the screen, which has some usability consequences.
When positioned in my normal typing position, in the middle of the laptop, I found my head sat slightly right of centre in the webcam image. It didn't take much manoeuvring to get my head central -- I just had to learn to sit off-centre when using the camera.
Eyes were more of a problem. When the webcam is in its usual position, you seem to be looking ahead at your interlocutor. In this case looking ahead delivers the effect of staring off into the middle distance. Additionally, the camera's view is not head-on to full face, but angles upwards from the chin. If you're a regular video conferencing user you might want to check this out and make sure you're happy with it.
The keyboard has a slender Enter key and somewhat cramped cursor keys. The Fn keys are slightly narrower and somewhat shorter than the main keys, which those with stubby fingers might find a little tricky to use. To be fair, these compromises are down to the relatively small keyboard area, and the main keys are all well spaced and large enough to hit accurately.
The overall feel of the keys is slightly less robust than I like, but that's a matter of personal preference, and I was able to touch type at my normal speed. There's a keyboard backlight, which can be toggled through two brightness levels and turned off via a Fn key.
The trackpad is wide enough to take the cursor right across the width of the screen in one sweep, and was nicely responsive.
One of the star attractions of the 2016 Dell XPS 13 is Intel's 7th generation (Kaby Lake) processor, which should contribute towards battery life (see below). But don't expect to use this laptop for intensive graphics work: the GPU is upgraded to Intel HD Graphics 620, but, like other CPU-integrated graphics, it's no substitute for a dedicated graphics chipset.
Our review sample ran a 2.7-3.5GHz Core i7-7500U with 8GB of RAM, and there are also Core i5 options in the lineup. Indeed, there are no fewer than 11 different configurations of the new XPS 13 available on Dell's UK website. One of the reasons for this is the option for a rose gold chassis.
For example, my review unit most closely matched the model retailing for £1,329 (inc. VAT, or £1,107 ex. VAT). That model is identical to the £1,299 (inc. VAT, or £1,082 ex. VAT) version apart from its rose gold chassis colour -- it looks great, but does add a fair bit to the price.
Compared to the £1,329 model, our review unit had the benefit of an upgrade from the Windows 10 Home to Windows 10 Pro. In fact, there are no Windows 10 Pro versions available off the page, although you can opt for Ubuntu Linux.
SSD storage capacity across the 11 off-the-page configurations ranges from 128GB to 1TB; our review sample had 256GB.
Ports and slots are the same as on last year's model, in the same places (on the left and right edges). There are two USB 3.0 ports, one on each edge and one with PowerShare. There's also a USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port, an SD card reader, and a 3.5mm headset jack.
Depress a small button on the left edge and up to five tiny white LEDs illuminate to indicate the remaining battery charge. This is very useful for determining whether a recharge is required before leaving the home or office, without having to boot up the laptop. I don't understand why this feature isn't more common.
So, what about battery life? Last year we found that the XPS 13 would manage an 8-hour working day on battery power, which was fine, except that Dell claimed up to 18 hours for the 2015 model.
For the 2016 model, Dell claims up to 22 hours of use if you're working with the lower-resolution FHD display. The main product page is unforthcoming concerning the 3,200-by-1,800 display, but elsewhere I found a quote of up to 13 hours for the high-res screen and a Core i5 processor. With a Core i7 and the high-res screen, we can assume that the theoretical battery life is closer to 13 hours than 22.
During testing I worked pretty much non-stop for five hours using a range of online services, depleting the battery to 70 percent in the process. On that basis, a full 8-hour day plus an evening's work should be achievable, which is what business users probably want to know. Still, Dell should be much more explicit about battery life expectations across different configurations at its primary public-facing point of contact -- the product web page.
The 2016 Dell XPS 13 is a superb ultraportable laptop. Powerful, light and well-made, it's available in a range of standard configurations, each of which can be further customised. The rose gold finish seems an expensive luxury, but the choice is yours.
Dell should be more up front at its main web page about the differences in battery life expectation between configurations. Still, we found that a full working day and more is achievable from our high-end review unit, which combined the highest screen resolution and most powerful processor.
If you're in the market for an ultraportable, Dell's new XPS 13 is a good choice. You might also want to check out HP's EliteBook 1030 G1.