Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 review – Digital Trends

Once bulky and awkward, 2-in-1 devices matured with grace in 2016. Awesome new options from Acer, HP, and Lenovo suddenly made the 2-in-1 a reasonable alternative to a traditional clamshell laptop. Unlike their predecessors, these devices didn’t sacrifice laptop usability to gain tablet convenience.

There was one company notably missing from their ranks – Dell. But that changed at CES 2017, as the company proudly launched its XPS 13 2-in-1. The late arrival of this system puts all the more pressure on it. In mid-2016 it would’ve had little competition. Today, that’s no longer true.

You’ll need at least $999 to buy the XPS 13 2-in-1. That only snags you a Core i5-7Y54 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB hard drive. Since the Dell’s competitors tend to offer 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD in base models, this new XPS faces an uphill battle. Can it emerge victorious, or does it disappoint?

Staying true to its heritage

The original Dell XPS 13 is now two years old, so you might expect the company to go a new direction with the design of its 2-in-1. Instead, the company has stuck to the formula. The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 we received, with its matte silver display lid, is hard to distinguish from the original XPS 13 we reviewed in 2015. Only an indentation near the display hinge – and the fact this model has two small hinges, rather than one broad hinge – gives it away.

Luckily for Dell, the original’s formula is still rather unique. The combination of a professional metal exterior with soft-touch, faux-carbon-fiber weave interior, is unlike anything else sold today. We still think it’s a great design. It’s subtle enough to fit in at a meeting, but luxurious enough to justify the XPS line’s pricing. And the soft-touch interior feels more inviting that the cold aluminum or magnesium used by rivals.

Of course, the XPS 13 2-in-1 does make an important tweak to the formula. The display hinge allows 360-degree rotation, making it possible to enjoy a tablet experience. Dell’s hinge design works as well as its rivals, such as Lenovo’s Yoga line, or HP’s Spectre x360 laptops. Swinging it up is a breeze, and stay in place once adjusted where you’d like. The XPS 13 2-in-1 is also slightly smaller and lighter than both the HP Spectre x360 and Lenovo Yoga 910, which means it’s easier to use as a tablet.

More: Dell XPS 13 review (Kaby Lake)

Make no mistake; this device still isn’t thin enough, or light enough, to entirely work as a stand-alone tablet. An iPad Air is still far lighter, so if you want a tablet specifically, the XPS 13 2-in-1 won’t do. But the XPS 13 2-in-1 comes as close to that experience as any 2-in-1 with a 360 degree hinge, and it’s perfectly fine for half-hour bouts of web surfing from a couch.

Limited ports, webcam woes, and a stylus joins the party

Unlike the normal XPS 13, which tries to support legacy connections, the XPS 13 2-in-1 goes all-in on USB Type-C. There’s only two such  connections available, one of which also handles Thunderbolt 3. Either USB Type-C port can be used to charge the system. There’s also a microSD card reader, a headset jack, and a lock slot.

Dynamic Power Mode isn’t a gimmick – it boosts performance noticeably.

The slim connection options aren’t strange in this category, but users should keep them in mind. You’re probably going to need a dongle. At least Dell includes one USB Type-C to USB Type-A adapter in the box.

Several wireless connection options are available including 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, and Miracast. This is about the best you’ll find on a modern PC.

Unfortunately, Dell hasn’t resolved the awkward location of the XPS 13’s 720p webcam. It remains below the display in laptop mode, which leads to an unflattering angle. However, Dell say the webcam’s orientation will rotate if the 2-in-1 is switched to tent mode, or tablet mode, which puts a band-aid on the problem. The webcam will support Windows Hello after a planned Windows update, according to Dell. A fingerprint reader with Windows Hello support is also included.

Finally, the touchscreen is compatible with Dell’s Active Pen, an active stylus that supports 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity. This is not included, but sold for $49. Dell didn’t send one for use with our XPS 13 2-in-1 review unit, so we can’t comment on its quality.

A class-leading keyboard, with a mediocre touchpad

It’s great the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 makes a passable tablet. Frankly, though, that’s a secondary concern. We think every 2-in-1 needs to be built on a great laptop. That means it needs a great keyboard.

And the Dell XPS 13 has a great keyboard. Though slightly smaller than some competitors –- a design decision that translates to small backspace key –- the keyboard is otherwise near perfect. Each key provides smooth, long travel, and an enjoyable bottoming action that’s firm without feeling harsh. The overall experience is essentially identical to the regular XPS 13.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 review

Keyboard backlighting is standard, though only two brightness settings are available. Both are dim enough that they’re usable in a dark room. Some light leaks around the keys, and particularly from a few function keys, but the overall look is like other high-end laptops.

More: The best laptop you can buy

The touchpad has also changed little from the original XPS 13, and it’s one trait that’s starting to feel outdated.  There’s nothing wrong with it, as it feels perfectly responsive, and it’s large for the XPS 13 2-in-1’s footprint. But competitors have new tricks. Acer and HP now use ultrawide touchpads that offer almost twice the usable space, and Apple has moved to a gigantic touch surface that absolutely dwarfs this Dell.

A beautiful display with a few quirks

Dell has long used its expertise in displays to enhance the XPS series, and the XPS 13 was a standout at time of its introduction, not only because of solid test results, but also because of an optional 3,200 x 1,800 touchscreen. Times have changed since then. Most competitors now offer similar options. Some, like the Lenovo Yoga 910, even serve up 4K resolution.

On paper, Dell doesn’t move the display forward. The base XPS 13 2-in-1 has a 1080p touchscreen, which our review unit equipped, and the most expensive models improve that to 3,200 x 1,800 resolution. The usual IPS panel technology is offered, behind Gorilla Glass NBT. That’s great. It’s also nothing new.

Let’s start with the bad. We measured a maximum brightness of just 251 lux. That’s bright enough for most situations, but noticeably dimmer than competitors. The HP Spectre x360 and Lenovo Yoga 910 hit 355 and 340 lux, respectively. Another oddity is the gamma curve, which came in at a measurement of 2.6. That indicates a display that skews way darker than it should. And indeed, blacks do appear overly dark on the XPS 13 2-in-1.

These oddities are balanced by solid results elsewhere. The color gamut spans 97 percent of sRGB and 75 percent of AdobeRGB –- both numbers are a point or two behind the Dell’s main competitors. However, the XPS 13 2-in-1 produced an excellent contrast ratio of 1120:1. That’s on par with contrast standouts like the MacBook Pro 13, and the Microsoft Surface Book. As mentioned, the XPS 13 2-in-1’s display is not bright, so strong contrast comes from excellent black level performance.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Compared To

It’s clear this 2-in-1’s display makes some sacrifices, and those sacrifices won’t work for everyone. We’re not sure why the backlight is so dim, or why the gamma skews so dark. Still, in subjective viewing, we were impressed by the screen. It delivers vibrant color and inky blacks, traits that help high-quality videos and games pop. A professional photographer won’t be pleased with this screen, but a more casual user will come away impressed.

The speakers don’t stand out

The XPS 13 2-in-1 has speakers, and they produce sound. Moving on…

Seriously. Sound quality is not a priority for this system, and it shows. The speakers don’t sound bad, and they provide clear sound in most situations, at most volumes. But they’re not loud, and they don’t sound crisp – good enough for a meeting, or a podcast, but inadequate for watching a movie. You’ll want to pair it with headphones, or external speakers.

Dell’s Dynamic Power Mode isn’t a gimmick

The XPS 13 2-in-1 is thinner and lighter than the normal XPS 13, yet retains an equally excellent keyboard, and bundles in touchscreen. Something had to give, and that something is the processor.

Dell has opted for Intel’s low-powered “Y-Series” processors, formerly known as the Core M line. These chips are designed to draw less power, but suffer a performance penalty for it. Our review unit came with the Core i7-7Y75, while base models of the XPS 13 come with the Core i5-7Y54.

To eek every ounce of performance from the Y-Series, Dell has introduced a feature called Dynamic Power Mode. Normally, the Intel processor works with a maximum thermal design power (TDP) of seven watts. With Dynamic Power Mode, Dell can temporarily increase that to nine watts. It’s like bumping up the rev limiter on a high-performance sports car — without the risk of blowing the engine.

Does it work?

Geekbench 4’s single-core test gives Dynamic Power Mode a chance to strut its stuff. The XPS 13 2-in-1 actually beat the HP Spectre x360, which is powered by a 15-watt Core i7-7500U. It also left the Acer Spin 7 in the dust, despite the fact Acer’s system was reviewed with the exact same processor.

The benefit becomes harder to see in the Geekbench 4 multi-core test. There, the XPS 13 2-in-1 does fall behind the HP Spectre x360 and Lenovo Yoga 910, but it also continues to run rings around the Acer Spin 7. The XPS 13 2-in-1 is over 25 percent quicker than the Spin 7.

So far, so good, but there is some bad news. Handbrake held back the XPS 13 2-in-1, which required over thirty minutes to transcode our 4K test clip to x.265. That’s actually a bit longer than the Spin 7, and twice as long as the HP and Lenovo.

That result is not unusual. Handbrake is the worst enemy of the Y-Series, because it forces the chip to run flat-out for a long time. Eventually the processor, which is passively cooled, hits its power peak. It simply can’t sustain maximum performance long enough to complete the test.

The question, then, is how you plan to use your system. In most situations, the XPS 13 2-in-1 performs surprisingly well, giving little ground to competitors with chips that draw more power. If you plan to run a processor-demanding task for a half-hour, though, the XPS 13 2-in-1 will fall behind.

More: CES 2017 proves 2-in-1s are becoming the new normal

We think Dynamic Power Mode does its job. Just be aware of its limits. We doubt many readers are considering the XPS 13 2-in-1 for video editing or similar processor-heavy work, but if you are, think again – you’ll need a larger laptop for that.

The SSD is no slouch

A variety of hard drive options are available with the XPS 13 2-in-1, ranging from 128GB to 1TB. Our review unit came with a 256GB solid state drive connected over PCI Express. The drive was a Toshiba XG4, which is common in laptops.

There’s nothing to complain about here. While the drive isn’t the fastest we’ve tested, it performs well across the board, and its write speeds are better than average. This certainly isn’t going to hold you back.

Not cut out for gaming

Gaming is not this system’s goal, as is true with most 2-in-1 laptops. Intel HD graphics powers games and, because it’s on a chip with a lower power draw than typical, performance suffers. Dynamic Power Mode does not apply here.

3DMark’s Fire Strike test drives the point home. There, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 scores just 608, which is about 30 percent less than the HP Spectre x360. The Lenovo Yoga 910 does even better, scoring 933.

To be clear, none of these laptops are great for games, but the XPS 13 2-in-1 is notably worse. Running Civilization VI at 1080p resolution is unenjoyable no matter the settings, unless you have a thing for slideshows. Players will have to reduce the settings of most new 3D games to the lowest preset to have any hope of acceptable performance.

Smaller battery doesn’t cut endurance

At just 2.7 pounds, and no greater than .54 inches thick, the XPS 13 is easy to tuck into a bag. It’s not as slim as competitors like the Acer Spin 7, but a tapered chassis helps it feel small enough.

To keep it small, Dell has reduced the battery’s capacity from 60 watt-hours (in the most recent XPS 13) to a more mundane 46 watt-hours. That’s not bad; it’s barely less than the Apple MacBook Pro 13, which is a fair bit heavier, and larger. But any reduction will make frequent fliers feel skeptical.

Thankfully, the reduction in battery size doesn’t have much impact on endurance. The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 lasted four hours and fifty-four minutes in our demanding Peacekeeper test. That’s exactly the same as HP’s Spectre x360, and more than either the Lenovo Yoga 910 or the Acer Spin 7. The Dell XPS 13 with Core i7-7500U processor does last slightly longer, hitting five hours and seven minutes.

The XPS 13’s design remains unique.

Our 1080p video loop extended the battery to 10 hours, 37 minutes, which exceed the Core i7-equipped Dell XPS 13, and also beats the Lenovo Yoga 910. The HP Spectre x360 lasted just six additional minutes.

It’s clear that Dell’s reduction in battery size hasn’t compromised endurance. The XPS 13 2-in-1 lasts longer than average. Do note, however, that versions with the 3,200 x 1,800 display will not last quite as long, due to higher power draw from the screen.

A bit too much bloat

The XPS line has always forgone the bloatware, and there’s little to be found on the XPS 13 2-in-1. McAfee Antivirus does make an appearance, complete with an upgrade nag-screen, and there’s also a Dell warranty sign-up.

Warranty information

Dell ships the XPS 13 2-in-1 with a one year warranty. That’s typical for a notebook, no matter its price. However, Dell does offer a unique support plan called “Premium Support.” The company says this plan, which starts at $89 per year. This plan activates on-board diagnostics that can advise you of a problem, such as hard drive failure, before it happens, and schedule a fix before the failure occurs. It’s an interesting option, but it’s hard to say if it’s worth the price.

Our Take

We gave the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 our Best of Computing at CES 2017. Handing out such an award is always a risk. Sometimes, a device doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny. But Dell’s latest is rock solid. It posted great scores in our benchmarks and, just as importantly, is a joy to use every day. Just be prepared to pay for quality. Starting at $999, or $1,299 as-tested, this is not an affordable machine.

Is there a better alternative?

Plenty of excellent competitors exist including the Acer Swift 7, Asus Transformer Book 3, HP Spectre x360, Lenovo Yoga 910, and Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga X1. Many of these systems are quite good, but the HP Spectre x360 is the 2-in-1 to beat.

Choosing between the Dell and the HP is difficult. They offer similar performance by most metrics, including battery life and display quality. However, Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1 starts at $999, while the HP Spectre x360 starts at $899. HP also bundles twice the RAM and hard drive space in its base model, both of which are upgrades you’ll notice every day. Dell’s advantage lies in its size. It’s noticeably smaller than the HP in every dimension, and that makes it easier to use as a tablet.

How long will it last?

The XPS 13 2-in-1 has the latest, 7th-generation Intel processor technology, and most models equip a solid-state drive that connects over PCI Express. Bluetooth 4.2 is supported, though Wireless AD is not. Still, this laptop is as future-proof as any sold today.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1’s strength lies in how well it melds the productivity of a laptop with the convenience of a tablet. Like the HP Spectre x360 and Lenovo Yoga 910, it’s a great laptop, and it’s more usable as a tablet than either. We recommend shoppers go for the step-up models, rather than the baseline entry – and if you do, you’ll end up with one of the best 2-in-1s ever made.

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