Ok, I know I’m late… but I’ve been busy and since I fund all these reviews out of my own pocket, on a government wage, give me a damn chance.
So the bottom line for these next couple of reviews will be based around the rather transitory shape my life is. A government job with a lot of travel and living in some pretty cramped conditions means I’ve kind of developed an obsession with gaining anything that will make my life easier on the frequent travelling miles I conduct.
Part of this includes a good laptop. But dear reader, remember that I’m also fickle, with almost impossible requirements for the state of technology (although things are finally beginning to look up). The first “proper” laptop that wasn’t bought for me for university was my trusty MacBook Pro 13” I bought in 2009, and that I sold to my brother in 2012, and is still doing sterling service for him; I can rant about Apple losing their edge all I want but in those days the bloody well made things to last! Would that they still did…
That lasted a long time, and I got my PC gaming fixes from a PC tower unit. But I slowly began to realise that I was barely using the tower PC, and I couldn’t take the thing with me away anyway, so I sold it. That left me unable to fulfil the Total War (various) shaped hole in my life, and so I began to cast around for a true gaming laptop replacement that didn’t weight 8 tons and was actually portable. I settled, in early 2013 on an ASUS 15.6 inch UZ500… slim metal chassis, discrete GPU good screen and all the rest. It also preformed decent service, despite it being windows 8, for the next few years until it’s ageing C/GPU combo began to show it’s limitations. My answer was the Razer Blade (2015) which, although brilliant was the wrong colour. It also got bloody loud under load (something the new one also suffers from) and barely qualified as a laptop due to the 5 hour battery life. So I got rid of that too.
That left me in a bit of a bad place. I can’t game currently, but a phone and tablet combo isn’t enough for my everyday use still. I’ve come to terms that until someone (Dell, Razer, I’m looking at you here) properly sorts themselves out and really makes external GPU’s in an external housing fed into the USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port on an ultra-book feasible in something that doesn’t look like a 14 year olds wet dream – Razer, still looking at you here; just because it’s a ‘gaming’ machine, it doesn’t mean it has to be stealth matte black and vomit green. Stop perpetuating the stereotype!
So, I decided to get the modern version of the laptop I was happiest with, the one that actually did a good job of being a laptop without the compromises inherent in trying to make it a ‘gaming’ machine too. Now I remained in a difficult place…
The modern Apple Macbook pro is even more eye-wateringly expensive and now comes with a bloody stupid keyboard (try it, it’s just awful, it’s yet another example of Apple being ‘courageous’ and ‘leading the way’ but in reality just being different for the sake of it and ending up a bit shit). ASUS machines look a bit like Macbooks, only with decent keyboards, but battery life is woeful. The HP Spectre trackpad is weird (like the keyboard is a bit fat and heavy and has squashed it down and oddly wide) for all that the machine is beautiful. Samsung haven’t made an Ultrabook worth considering for quite a while. That led me to Dell.
Specifically the XPS13 line (the 15 is good by all accounts but too big and that GPU issue again…). So this little 13” laptop has been gaining plaudits from everyone in the tech writing world so I thought I’d check it out. After a mis-spent afternoon wandering about London I found one in the carbonfibre and spent a happy 5 minutes or so battering at the keyboard and swiping the trackpad and mentally pronounced myself content with the use of the thing. So I bought it.
Now, here’s a salient lesson for all, and it’s valid for anyone buying any laptop. Don’t be lured into the specs. Power and clarity is a compromise. What I’m referring to is the current trend for 4K screens and i7 over other ‘lesser’ processors. Dells 4K screens, Apples Retina etc etc – yes they all look bloody beautiful. But do you really need them? Because they are a chunk of cash more and they really do suck the battery down – the difference between a 4K version of this laptop and the 1080p HD version is about 2 hours, give or take, which is a lot. Same for going for the more power hungry i7 processors over the i5’s or i3’s – yes, they will give you more power but is that power wasted? No matter how much better they are at regulating their battery usage compared to older generations they still do use more. So before you throw down the cash, consider do you really need that extra power and clarity at the expense of what could be as much as 3 hours of battery life?
I decided that I didn’t, and kept my £700 (Dell are currently taking pricing lessons from Apple…) and went for an 7th Generation Kaby Lake i5 and the ‘lesser’ screen and can happily run it for 11 hours of use on 20% brightness or Messenger, Opera web browser with VPN (which I’d commend to anyone, you can stick your Edge or Chrome), YouTube and Word processing. This is one long lived little thing and that is essential in any Ultrabook; be you a traveller writing on a plane journey or a wannabe writer who takes their laptop to a Starbucks so people can see them, well, being a writer… it’ll cover you the entire distance.
It’s also worth noting that for general use without gaming (beyond theme hospital!) or graphical design it’s not given a single hitch or stutter. The Dell BIOS has an extremely light touch on this laptop as it should be, and Windows 10 is as ever exceptional and easily remains the best laptop or desktop OS currently (another reason to go with the XPS over a Macbook).
It’s all very nicely packaged too, aesthetically pleasing to look at with a nice warm to touch carbon fibre finish to the inside and a silver aluminium shell. It’s light, and due to my favourite feature it’s actually very small, a 13” screen slipped into the footprint of a 10” machine due to the bezels. I really love them (something I never thought I’d say to be frank but there we go). They’re tiny, only 3 mm and give the effect that the screen is hovering above the base. It also looks nicely packaged and as we witness other manufacturers fall overs themselves to copy the look, we can take a shrewd guess that consumers think so too. Long that may continue, and into phones as well.
So thus far we have an attractive, small, powerful, very long lived little laptop with the best version of the current OS on it. So how is it to use I hear you ask, because let’s face it a beautifully crafted laptop that is a nightmare to type on or has the trackpad from hell is like Paris Hilton or Peter Andre; pretty, but essentially useless. But I’m pleased to report it’s more like a Jennifer Lawrence or Brad Pitt of a machine; pretty, but also capable as hell.
The keyboard has remained as great as when I first tried it in the shop. After coming from that damn Lenovo Yoga Book to this is was a breath of fresh air. In fact to not miss the chance to take another swipe at Apple, I am typing this on a plane having just tried the Apple keyboards again in Heathrow’s Dixons. The difference is stark for comfort, typing speed, accuracy and general feel. Proper key travel and a not to overly clicky sound means that this IS something that you could write the Illiad on. The carbon fibre palm-rest is actually an overlooked but important distinction in the world of all aluminium design, as you don’t get that sharp edge digging into the heels of your hand when you rest them on the base. The trackpad is a little small, but manageable. It’s not Microsoft Precision touchpad, but it’s good enough and accurate. It suffers a little from the fact the chassis is so small though, as it feels a little compressed.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s damn near perfect. Well it is, but there some oversights and compromises that have given me pause. The lack of bezel on the top of the screen means that the webcam is based in the bottom left corner of the screen, and that is weird. It’s not a flattering view regardless of how you look, nobody looks good making a Messenger or Skype call on this laptop.
Black mark one.
Secondly it still has a distinct charging cable despite the fact there is a Thunderbolt 3 port. I mean, this is verging on inexcusable for an Ultrabook released in the tail end of 2016 – having to lug around a massive distinct charging cable when you could have replaced it with a small, multi-use USB-C port that could double as something else was a total no brainer. Say what you like but 4x USB-C in an Apple machine is the way forwards; luddites stop complaining and get on board, that port is the way forwards. For what it’s worth this little Dell has 2x USB-A and usefully a full sized SD card reader plus the Thunderbolt 3 USB-C. Still, it’s very annoying.
Black Mark 2, that I’m going to count as two full black marks due to sheer irritation.
But in all fairness, that’s about it. But in this current world, I’m afraid it’s not good enough to win out – I can’t help gazing towards HP’s superb x360. It has a comparable keyboard, screen, size, tiny bezels but has the webcam in the right place, can folder 360 for tent view to watch Netflix on, a much bigger trackpad, and USB-C charging… all for only £200 more for the 6th Gen i7 version.
So the bottom line is that this XPS 13 is genuinely a brilliant laptop. It really is, and general use it excels and beats the non-GPU Macbook Pro, Macbook, HP Spectre, Samsung whatever into the shade. But it’s been on top for too long now, and I get the feeling that Dell got scared of innovation; the lack of change beyond incremental processor and software versions between this laptop and the intimal one from years ago is actually pretty disappointing. Yet even with that it would still have been enough to win out… if not for HP and their Spectre. It had played second place to the Dell in the last version but the new additions that improves and also breaks new ground is enough to knock my laptop into second place at least for now.
Which considering I’ve already bought this, is exasperating in the extreme…