Re-introducing the Dell XPS 13

Around this time last year, we had a chance to take a look at Dell's first ultrabook, the XPS 13. This was an ultrabook I was for the most part fond of, but one that was clearly suffering from being first generation ultrabook hardware. Ultra low-voltage Sandy Bridge chips were perfectly serviceable, but they could still generate a tremendous amount of heat in a chassis the size of the XPS 13. That meant noise and heat were both serious issues. Compounding that was a routine, run-of-the-mill, utterly dismal 1366x768 TN panel display.

Dell gave me the opportunity to retest the XPS 13, though, specifically the current generation model. I was looking forward to the 1080p display, optimistic about Ivy Bridge, and utterly skeptical about the rest of the chassis. Don't get me wrong, the XPS 13 is a beautiful ultrabook and I appreciate that Dell went their own way with the design rather than producing another silver sliver, but there are what I consider to be flaws in the design that needed to be addressed. Hopefully they will be in the future, but in the meantime a lot has apparently happened under the hood.

Dell XPS 13 (Q1 2013) Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-3337U
(2x1.8GHz + HTT, Turbo to 2.7GHz, 22nm, 3MB L3, 17W)
Chipset Intel QS77
Memory 2x4GB integrated DDR3L-1600
Graphics Intel HD 4000 Graphics
(16 EUs, up to 1.1GHz)
Display 13.3" LED Glossy 16:9 1080p IPS
Hard Drive(s) 256GB Samsung mSATA PM830 6Gbps SSD
Optical Drive -
Networking Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth 3.0
Audio Realtek ALC275 HD Audio
Stereo speakers
Single combination mic/headphone jack
Battery 6-Cell, 11.1V, 47Wh (integrated)
Front Side -
Right Side Battery test button
USB 3.0
Left Side AC adaptor
USB 3.0
Mic/headphone combo jack
Back Side -
Operating System Windows 8 64-bit
Dimensions 12.4" x 0.24-0.71" x 8.1" (WxHxD)
316mm x 6-18mm x 205mm
Weight 2.99 lbs
Extras Webcam
Ambient light sensor
Backlit keyboard
1080p IPS display
Warranty 1-year limited
Pricing Starts at $999
As configured: $1,399

In the intervening period between the first XPS 13 review and this one, a couple of things have been changed, but most updates have been fairly incremental. For my thoughts on the chassis design itself, you'll want to check my prior review, as for better and worse, absolutely nothing has changed there. If you were part of the way sold on the XPS 13 before, though, the refinement that's gone on under the hood may yet change your mind.

Footprint compared to the 11.6" Acer Aspire V5-171.

Dell advertises the XPS 13 as being a 13.3" notebook that has a similar footprint to an 11.6" one. "Similar" is a nice way of saying "we're fudging the numbers," though; comparison reveals that the XPS 13's footprint, while svelte for a 13.3" notebook, is more in line with a 12.1" chassis. That's still excellent, though, as it means more desktop real estate (even before getting to the panel quality) in a smaller area.

As far as the CPU goes, the jump from Sandy Bridge to Ivy for ultrabooks has been a phenomenally positive one. The more hands on time I get with it, the more I'm convinced that the all-star mobile CPU for this generation of notebooks is the Intel Core i5 ULV. ULV i3 is tremendously crippled by the lack of turbo core, while ULV i7 offers virtually nothing but an extra 1MB of L3 cache and slightly higher clocks; the i5-3337U here is essentially the sweet spot. The nominal clock of 1.8GHz and turbo core of 2.5GHz on both cores and 2.7GHz on a single makes the CPU a very capable performer, and the HD 4000 graphics (with a top turbo of 1.1GHz) have proven to be largely acceptable for casual gaming.

In the meantime, Dell bumped up the RAM to 8GB, bumped the RAM speed up to 1.6GHz, and then opted for DDR3L instead of standard voltage DDR3. The wireless card has gotten an incremental update to the Centrino 6235, and the single USB 2.0 port has been replaced by a 3.0 port. Still missing is an integrated card reader. The Samsung mSATA PM830 was an excellent SSD before, so there's no real reason to replace it.

The biggest upgrade to the XPS 13 is the 1080p display, which I'm fairly convinced is either an IPS panel or Samsung's SuperPLS; it exhibits none of the viewing angle anomalies of *VA, and it doesn't wash out the way TN does. Meanwhile Dell's store page for the XPS 13 remains fairly mum about the panel type itself outside of espousing how fantastic it is, which is actually strange given that consumer awareness of IPS and alternate panels is increasing.

As a sidenote, I was able to actually remove the bottom casing of this XPS 13. To get inside the XPS 13, you'll need a T-5 Torx screwdriver. It should surprise no one that the  RAM is soldered to the board; there's also a black sticker layer that sits between the mSATA SSD and the inside of the bottom panel. It's good to know that you can replace the mSATA drive and wireless card, though, should you need to/desire to.

System Performance
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  • jeffkro - Monday, March 25, 2013 - link

    To my eyes 1080p looks great, even on my 22" monitor. My 1366x768 laptop doesn't even bother me that much but I could see 1080p as being a huge improvement.
  • wicketr - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    I don't have a problem with the pixel density here. But i am annoyed by the trend of 16x9 displays. People who do work on computers are scrolling up and down. Vertical Resolution is king, and the wide screen doesn't help there. I would much prefer 16x10 displays with the pixel density of this Dell laptop.
  • robvas - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    Google did it with the Pixel.
  • beginner99 - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    IMHO 1080p on a 13" laptop isn't that great because windows is still utter crap in term of font size vs resolution. Works for Touch Screen UIs like on iOS or Android or Modern UI but not normal desktop windows. Increasing font dpi in windows is entering a world of hurt.
  • JDG1980 - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    It's a chicken-and-egg problem. Too many app developers don't bother supporting high-DPI settings because not many people currently have the necessary display technology installed, and manufacturers then use the poor state of software support as a justification for not offering the displays. It's sort of like the state of Windows security before Microsoft finally got around to putting UAC in place: everyone knew that requiring programs to run as admin was bad practice, but software developers didn't care because it was easier not to bother with security and everyone else was doing the same thing.

    Windows 7 has good support for DPI scaling. But there are some things that no third-party system is going to be able to do. If the app developer only provides fixed-size bitmap resources, the OS can't magically make those scale perfectly and create information that isn't there. Apple got around this by making each block of 4 real pixels equivalent to 1 old-size pixel, so that if scaling wasn't properly supported, simple pixel doubling could be used and it would look exactly the same to the end user as on an older system. It's harder to do this kind of transparency with non-integral scaling factors. Once we get reasonably sized, affordable quad-HD monitors (3840x2160) perhaps a similar feature can be added to Windows.
  • nerd1 - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    That's actually NOT true. OSX got rid of UI scaling AFAIK (It didn't work very well anyway) and the only scaling they provide is 2X (for retina MBPs).
  • yllanos - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    Cool Starfleet logo
  • Zeratul56 - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    The intel 6235 is a wifi/Bluetooth card with BT 4.0 not 3.0. I know cause its the same one I put into my laptop. It's a good card and much better than what usually gets put into into laptops.
    You can see BT 4 low energy on the website
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    "Despite operating at roughly the same clocks, the Ivy Bridge i5-3337U runs absolutely roughshod on last generation's high end i7-2637M."

    That's where the real benefits of Intel 22 nm process show up: at low to medium voltages much higher frequencies are possible now, which means the Ivy ULV can hit considerably higher Turbo bins than Sandy ULV, despite featuring comparable clock speeds on paper.
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    "Dell XPS 13 (Q1 2013) Ultrabook Review: What a Difference 1080p Makes"

    You make it sound as if it's "1080p" making the difference, whereas each and every positive aspect you quote is caused by the display being (supposedly) IPS. What about that ultra-high pixel density, now with Win 8 being a few months old? I know fonts will look crisp and everyone is crying for it now.. but what about the drawbacks? Still there? Any other answer than "well, it depends on your software, obviously"?

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