Laptops are laptops. In 2018, you know what to expect, and you know what you’re going to do with one — at least on the tech side, there aren’t many surprises good or bad. Sounds boring! You won’t hear any complaints from us, though, because the technical parity among laptops has prodded hardware makers into creating machines that are as much fashion statements as gadgets.
As we learned when smartwatches first came out, tech companies getting into design doesn’t always go smoothly. But hey, they’re trying! At least in the world of laptops, we’ve seen a greater variety of materials and colors in recent years, along with increasingly thin and sleek designs. The Dell XPS 13 has been a great example of that for years now, and that continues into this year. They’ve announced their 2018 model ahead of CES, and it’s coming in a rose gold-and-white colorway that looks super clean. Almost too clean! But don’t worry, they’ve planned for that.
We’re not at the show this year, but we’ve been able to look over the details of Dell’s latest — here’s what we like and what we don’t!
White is a double-edged sword. Done right it can look beautiful, but it’s hard to keep clean. In the case of the XPS 13, it’s an even bigger worry — the palmrest is white, and we all know how filthy that can get. It looks like Dell saw this issue coming. While the rose gold on the lid of the laptop is aluminum, the palmrest is made of a glass fiber weave that Dell is introducing on this version of the XPS 13. Not only does it get less hot than metal (less palm sweat!), Dell is saying the material is stain resistant. You should be able to wipe anything off, even permanent marker. If the white is indeed easy to keep clean, that’s great! Dell had a rose gold XPS 13 in 2016, but it was paired with black, which we don’t think is as good of a look. This year’s model also comes in a more traditional silver-and-black colorway.
The XPS 13 has always been one of thinner and lighter high-end Windows 10 laptops, and there’s no change there this year. It’s 11.6 mm thick at its thickest and weighs 2.7 pounds, so if you’re a mobile worker who needs a decent amount of processing power, the XPS 13 looks like it’ll once again be a strong choice.
Usually, a drawback to packing a lot of power into something this thin is that the laptop tends to get very hot. In this year’s model, Dell is trying out a new cooling system called Gore Thermal Insulation, which uses silica aerogels (kinda like what you find in those gel packets they slip into new backpacks, and also in the Mars rover) to draw heat away from the processor. Don’t know how well it works yet, but here’s hoping! Seriously, anything that cuts down on palm sweat is A+.
So far, we’ve got a high-end 13″ Windows 10 laptop packed into as small and light a body as possible, and coming in a gorgeous colorway. What’s the downside? We spotted a couple.
One way Dell makes the XPS 13 so small is by making the bezels around the display as thin as possible. That’s fine by us, up to the point where the pursuit of thin and light starts to affect the quality of the experience. What we’re saying is they put the webcam below the display again. Again. Dell has a unique tendency to do this, and we’ve never been fans. It’s an awkward placement that puts your face at a weird angle — something that is not preferable if you’re doing any video chatting or streaming. The ultra-thin top bezel just isn’t worth it.
Our other gripe is one we all kinda have to come to grips with. The 12″ MacBook started the forced march to USB Type-C — the smaller, reversible connector you see now in most new Android phones and on PCs and Macs. If you’ve got a camera that came with a larger Type-A connector, you need an adapter to keep using it with an all-Type-C laptop. The XPS 13 has fully made the move to USB Type-C this year — it has three Type-C ports (one a super-fast Thunderbolt port) and no Type-A ports at all. Type-C is going to be the industry standard for the foreseeable future, so while it’s an inconvenience in the present, it’s one we’ll have to deal with sooner or later.
Much more annoying for photographers is that the XPS 13 will have a microSD card slot instead of a full-sized SD card slot. That’s not ideal if you’ve invested in one of the faster full-sized SD cards made for recording 4K video, but for everyone else it’s not too big of a deal.
The XPS 13 has for years been Dell’s high-end consumer laptop. They have more powerful laptops for professionals, but for the everyday consumer who wants high-end performance, the XPS 13 is where it’s at. Unsurprisingly, that means it has Intel’s latest 8th generation CPUs, which for laptops now have four cores (better for multitasking!). Granted, Intel’s latest and greatest might be less great because of the recently discovered Meltdown vulnerability, but until we start seeing more high-end laptops with AMD chips, this is still as good as it gets. You can get up to 16 GB of RAM and up to a 1 TB PCIe SSD for storage, and Dell says the 52 Whr battery should provide 20 hours of battery life if you get the 1080p display and 11 hours if you get the 4K display.
Speaking of which! Dell has had some great displays on past models of the XPS 13, and we don’t expect these to be any different. But, with displays really improving a lot these days, it’s worth mentioning that neither the 4K nor the 1080p option has HDR compatibility. However, we’re not expecting that on many laptops in general — HDR needs a brightness of at least 1,000 nits to really take advantage of the enhanced color contrast, and 1,000 nits of brightness on a laptop would kill the battery crazy fast and would probably constitute criminal assault on your eyes at laptop distance. We’re sure gaming laptops that don’t care about battery life will use it, but for everyday laptops, I wouldn’t expect it.
On the audio side, Dell is using dual 1-watt stereo speakers tuned with Waves MaxxAudio, their usual audio partner. That pairing usually turns out well enough, although we wouldn’t expect anything mindblowing like the audio we got from the Dolby-Huawei collaboration on the MateBook X.
One last thing worth noting — while we’re slowly starting to see a move to Bluetooth 5.0, the Dell XPS 13 still uses 4.1. Bluetooth 5.0 adds better battery efficiency and the ability to stream Bluetooth audio to multiple products. Ultimately, that’s a lot more important for phones and Bluetooth speakers, so it’s no big deal if we don’t see it on laptops this year.