For the past few years, Dell’s XPS 13 has widely been considered one of, if not the best Windows laptop for most people.
It looks good, its keyboard is comfortable, its battery life is superb, and, most notably, its bezels are super thin, which effectively lets it pack a 13-inch display into the body of an 11-inch machine.
We liked the most recent model enough to include it in our roundup of last year’s top laptops.
The knock on it, though, is that it’s barely changed since Dell revamped the series in early 2015. Windows 10’s touch-friendly schtick has quietly gotten smoother since then, and the Lenovo Yogas and HP Spectre x360s of the world have adapted in kind, deploying displays that can fully rotate backwards and serve as makeshift tablets. They’re nice for laying around and streaming TV. The XPS 13, meanwhile, has stuck with a more traditional clamshell design.
That’s changing on Monday, though, as Dell is introducing the XPS 13 2-in-1 at CES 2017 in Las Vegas.
The 2-in-1 will live alongside the original model, and it's more or less exactly what it sounds like: an XPS 13, but with a convertible display. The lid is still aluminum, the bezels are still tiny, and the interior still uses a soft carbon fiber, but the back now has two steel hinges that let the screen rotate all the way around, much like a Yoga or Spectre x360.
There are no latches here, and the screen doesn’t pop off a la Microsoft’s Surface Book; you just push the display back if you want to put it in tablet or “tent” mode, then pull it forward when you want to use it like a standard laptop. While the keyboard doesn’t recede into the machine as it does with some Yoga laptops, Dell says it’ll automatically turn off once you push the display around the 180-degree point.
There are a few other changes from the standard XPS 13 — some of them good, some of them a little iffier. The most immediately noticeable one is with the webcam: It’s larger and more centralized, though it’s still located underneath the display. That keeps the surrounding bezels good and thin — and makes the bottom bezel contrasting shades of black — but it'll still make for some awkward chin shots during video calls.
Dell consumer services director Randall Heaton says the company is aware the complaints that've been levied at this setup over the years, and that it's looking at future technologies that'd allow it to integrate the webcam behind the display. Today, though, Heaton says Dell still feels this is the right trade-off to make. That's debatable, but if nothing else, it’s at least easier to flip the laptop around and put the camera on top now.
Besides that, the new XPS has a smaller footprint than before. It measures just over a half-inch thick, and weighs 2.7 pounds. That's compact. To compare, it’s a bit smaller than the Spectre x360, but slightly bigger than Apple’s MacBook. (Though we’re talking fine margins either way.) The whole thing sits lower to the ground than the old XPS, too, partly because it’s fanless. That means it should stay relatively quiet when it’s up and running.
Achieving that small size, though, requires a few trade-offs. The big drawback is power: Though the 2-in-1 comes with Intel’s latest 7th-gen (or “Kaby Lake”) processors, it uses Y-series chips instead of the more powerful U series. You might remember these as the “Core M” chips found in past ultra-thin laptops like the MacBook — they’ve improved over the years, but they’re still built for “everyday” tasks and power savings more than intense work. You probably won’t be able to push it too hard, in other words.
That said, Heaton says that the 2-in-1 has a “dynamic power mode” that allows it to apply more power when needed in certain situations. He likens the 7th-gen Y chips here to the U chips in last year’s 6th-gen (or “Skylake”) family. As always, though, we’ll have to put the device through its paces before determining how much it can handle. Just don’t expect something as strong as most flagship laptops today.
Battery life will take a hit, too. Heaton says the 2-in-1’s 46wH battery is about 75% as strong as the standard XPS 13, which isn’t the worst given how long-lasting the original already is, but is still a step back in the name of being thinner and more flexible. Dell’s benchmarks say you’ll get anywhere from 8.5 to 15 hours of life depending on your configuration, but again, we’ll have to test to be sure.
Either way, you’ll have to make do with fewer ports. The new XPS has two USB-C ports, a microSD reader, a lock slot, and a headphone jack. Both of those USB-C ports work as a charger, but only one uses with the stronger, more versatile Thunderbolt 3 standard, so that’s the one you’ll likely want to utilize.
The rest of the machine is largely familiar. Heaton says the display, trackpad, and keyboard are all virtually identical to before, which is great, though I’ll note that the keys felt a bit clackier than those of the clamshell model in my brief hands-on time. Dell has added a fingerprint reader, though, and says its webcam will also comply with Microsoft’s Windows Hello fast login feature in a future update.
Per usual, the convertible design comes with a bit of a price premium. The 2-in-1 starts at $999 for a 1080p display, Core i5-7Y54 chip, and a paltry 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The sweet spot for most will likely be the next step up, which doubles that RAM and storage for $1,199. You can mix and match other configurations with a sharper 3200 x 1800 resolution display, a Core i7-7Y75 chip, and up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage.
Dell says the whole thing will be available starting January 5, first in silver, and later in black. My first impressions were mostly positive, but given that the Spectre x360 packs stronger processors in a design that’s only somewhat bigger, it’s hard to see the XPS 13 2-in-1 winning out as the better convertible. We’ll let you know if it’s worth buying once we get some more time with it.