aka “Should I Get The 2017 or the 2018 XPS 13”
So I’ve had the 2017 version of the Dell XPS13 (model 9360) as my daily driver for quite a while now, mainly for programming and procrastinating…well, mostly procrastinating.
So far, I can say with 99% certainty that if you want the best, in terms of balance, Windows ultra-portable laptop in 2017 and 2018, Dell XPS 13 is it. Based on my good experience, I’m getting the 2018 XPS 13 (model 9370) later this year even though my 2017 is still working great. Mostly for the rose gold. I’m a dumb consumer like that.
However, I have to say that it doesn’t just work out-of-the-box like, say, Macbooks — you’d need to do a little tinkering, which is no big deal for me personally but for some people, it might be frustrating.
Now, I’m going to try to approach this review from a layperson’s perspective. That means more of an anecdotal, “I-feel-like” style with low priority given to technical specs and benchmarks. You can look those up elsewhere.
Oh right, specs. Mine is the non-touch Full HD+ Skylake i5 + 256GB SSD + 8GB RAM version. I dual-boot Windows 10 and Ubuntu, but I’m going to talk from a Windows user’s perspective.
Honesty policy: I put Amazon Associates links at the bottom as an experiment, hope that’s okay.
Let’s get started, yeah?
The Way It Looks, The Way It Feels
The XPS 13 is still a delight to look at even after almost a year. This is really great as, in my opinion, beauty is a feature. The exterior has a matte grey, minimalist, all-aluminium design which just looks…well…expensive. Even the underside — which is usually littered with ugly stickers and whatnot — gets the minimalist treatment. Below are pictures of the underside with some flowers and leaves for some reason (I’m artistic like that):
Two vents, two rubber feet and a magnetic hatch that hides all the serial numbers and stuff. That’s it. The build feels good, noticeably less flexing compared to the competition. The exterior is surprisingly not as scratch-prone as I expected. There wasn’t a single scratch after I put it on stones for the picture at the top of this article. Just don’t expect it to be scratch-proof, because it will scratch if you abuse it.
The chassis is built from a single chunk of aluminium so it’s relatively light and strong. Minimal flexing if you force it. The lid and the hinge feel sturdy. Minor annoyance: unlike Macbooks, I have to open the lid with two hands. Being resourceful, I just put my right thumb between the lid gap and and give it a violent flick downwards and ta-dah lid is open. I abuse it like that daily along with carrying it by the screen, and the hinge still holds up just fine.
The interior is black, contrasting the exterior. Personally, I’d prefer it to be the same matte-grey aluminium as the exterior. However, it is still good-looking, nothing to sneeze at. That saying suddenly made sense when I literally sneezed at it and panicked.
It’s essentially a 13-inch laptop fitted inside a normal 12-inch footprint which makes it ultra-portable without sacrificing screen size. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but an extra inch makes a world of difference when you regularly lug your primary laptop around (I am what I like to call a “messenger bag programmer”). For your reference, let’s do a Dunder Mifflin and take a piece of the standard A4 paper to use as a measuring tool.
Dell achieved this small footprint by having thin bezels and a floating-screen design (“Infinity Edge”) which I personally love. However, a compromise had to made: the webcam is placed on the lower-left side — that gives a pretty weird angle. Webcam dates would probably leave you feeling self-conscious.
The 2018 version kind of fixed it by placing the webcam at the bottom center (with microphones holes on each side), which still gives a weird angle but…well, it’s better I guess. Plus it should have Windows Hello built-in, so I can just sign in using my face. Speaking of Windows hello, the power button now has a thumbprint reader in it, which is a very welcome addition.
Anyway, on to the inner-bottom part. The surface has some sort of a rubberized/silicone layer with carbon fiber pattern. I love the feel of it and it still feels great now on my palms as the day I got it. However, I dropped my iPhone a few times on the surface and the damage is permanent, albeit not really noticeable.
It seems that the 2018 retains this surface, which is both great and not-so-great. I still wish it’s just bare matte aluminium — I have sweaty/oily palms so there are some noticeable sweat and oil stains (gross). Then again, it’s quite comfortable and cleaning is easy so no big deal. Another slight irritation — dust is also highly visible due to the black colour scheme. It’s one of the reasons why I’m getting the rose gold/white 2018 XPS 13 later.
Long-Term Real-World Usage
The best thing about the XPS 13 is the battery life. In the beginning, after removing the bundled McAffee antivirus, I regularly got between 12 to 14 hours of mixed normal usage, which is so-called “all-day battery life”. Now, after about a year, I still get 10 to 12 hours.
The 2018 seems to use a smaller battery, but I doubt battery life is reduced by much. Dell claimed that the 2018 model actually achieved longer battery life during tests, but I don’t believe them.
Continuous programming using Jetbrains IDE’s which are admittedly pretty CPU-hungry reduces that to about 6 to 7 hours. Still pretty good. Continuous video-watching in HD reduces battery life further down to about 5 hours.
I do notice a decreasing of battery life over a short time and a quick battery test confirms it, most probably due to heat which I admit is my fault because I frequently block the vents (putting it on soft mattresses, for example) and also frequently leaving it on, playing videos until 0%. Learn from my mistakes.
After about 3 months, the stock adapter broke and had to be replaced. After about 5 months, the power jack broke. Not the adapter. The jack, the hole. Dell sent a new adapter and I also tried updating the driver and it seemed that jack was definitely broken. I could send it to be repaired or just order a replacement part and re-solder it myself, but…man, what a hassle.
Fortunately there’s a USB-C port that you can use for charging. Innergie PowerGear USB-C 45 is the best third-party USB-C power adapter for Dell XPS 13. It’s virtually identical to the stock adapter except it’s white and USB-C. I highly recommend getting one as soon as possible as a spare adapter.
Keyboard? Keyboard is great. Personally (I believe I am in the majority) the keyboard feels much better than the butterfly keyboards found on Macbooks. Satisfactory key travel, optimal spacing between keys. This is a personal preference though, so make sure you try all of them at the stores even if you plan to order online. I know I’m glad I tested the keyboards beforehand.
The keyboard has back-lighting with 3 default options: off (0%), too bright (100%), less bright but still too bright (50%). You should be able to lower the intensity using Dell Feature Enhancement Pack but I never tried it because as a touch typist I rarely turn on the back-lighting.
Touchpad is also great. It is slightly inferior to the Macbook touchpads though. Don’t get me wrong though as it is still a great, responsive touchpad. Lately when coding, I don’t even reach for my mouse because the touchpad is already good enough. However, there are some slight annoyances:
- I have to turn off the zoom gesture as it usually misinterprets my two-finger scrolling as pinching, as I usually two-finger scroll at 45 degrees.
- To a much lesser frequency, the four-finger gestures are sometimes misinterpreted as three-finger gestures.
The screen is also great. I opted for the matte, non-touch Full HD (1920×1080) version as it saves hours of battery life (and touchscreen on laptop just feels weird…) and I’m glad I did. QHD is beautiful but I don’t need it on a 13-inch, plus the glare off the glossy screen would give me headaches.
Anyway, the screen is IPS with matte coating. I regularly watch videos on the laptop while eating. Sometimes on the couch, sometimes in bed, sometimes on my dining table, sometimes on my living room floor, sometimes on my balcony, sometimes in my bath tub while I have my weekly emotional breakdowns, sometimes while picnicking outside.
There are no viewing angle problems and vibrant colours are evenly distributed throughout, which are to be expected from IPS panels. Colour reproduction is great, but not top-notch accurate. Non-issue, as I assume photography/design professionals will use expensive, professional monitors anyway.
I usually use it around half brightness indoors, daytime and nighttime. In the dark, I have to turn it to minimum, which is not dim enough in my opinion (I fall asleep to Futurama, if you’re wondering why). In sunny outdoors, I have to crank the brightness up to full. In that scenario, honestly, it’s just satisfactory, not great. I wish it could go brighter. Maybe it’s due to the matte coating but I’d take that than have an annoyingly reflective screen outdoors.
Now, the ports. Two traditional USB ports, one on each side. Other than that, a USB-C port, a (broken) power jack (yes, I’m pissed), headphone jack on the left side. Kensington lock and memory card reader on the right. Memory card sticks out. I’m guessing that’s one of the reasons Dell switched to a microSD port for the 2018 XPS 13 9370.
Do note that the 2018 is exclusively USB-C. No old-school USB here. I’m indifferent as I rarely use USB ports, preferring Bluetooth for mouse and external audio. In fact, I got a Razer Atheris (not recommended) and a Logitech MX Anywhere 2S (very recommended) just because the wireless dongle of my old wireless mouse annoyed me.
Honestly, the speakers suck. Tinny, virtually no bass, distorts even on medium-high volume and sound like a pair of cheap Bluetooth-speaker fidget spinners. However, they are still good enough of casual viewing. I am still disappointed, but it’s not a deal-breaker. I use Sony wireless Bluetooth in-ears and speakers most of the time anyway.
I have heard complaints about the Killer wireless card which I have found to be true in the beginning. But thankfully that all went away after updating the BIOS and installing drivers from Killer’s website — no need to switch to an Intel card. I haven’t had a single problem. Updating the BIOS sounds much more intimidating than it really is — Dell Updater handles that for you. Just click “Install” and go make tea or something.
It’s important to note that unlike the 2017 model, the 2018 XPS 13 does NOT allow you to replace the wireless card. That’s fine for me personally, but there’s a subset of users who would probably get problems with the Killer card and would want to switch to, say, an Intel card.
The storage is SSD so boot up is very fast. I am a bit confused because it takes around 15 seconds to boot. My desktop PC which uses a SATA SSD does it faster by about 5 seconds — isn’t SATA supposed to be slower than the PCI Express interface that XPS 13 has? I suspect they are using entry-level SSD’s.
However, this is still quite fast compared to normal one-minute boot time you get with normal laptop drives and I am still satisfied. I don’t even boot that often, usually just close the lid to put it to Sleep mode and open the lid to instantly be greeted by the login screen.
Even after filling up the storage irresponsibly, installing this and that, having a few background apps running, dozens of Chrome tabs, a couple of Vagrant virtual machines, etc etc…everything still runs like the day I got it — very few hiccups. The start menu and apps fire up quickly, browsing folders and opening files feel fast. There is a noticeable half-a-second lag, but that’s just nitpicking…and it’s probably a Windows problem, not the XPS.
Gaming? Well, you can’t really game on this, which is why I got it in the first place (less distraction as I have terrible self-control). Nevertheless, Rocket League still manages to get 30–40 frames per second at 720p with most of the graphics options turned on. It gets pretty hot and loud compared to gaming PCs. It is not built for gaming, this is a productivity laptop. If you can afford to get an XPS 13, it’s likely you can afford to build a decent gaming rig.
The following has been rectified during a recent BIOS update, but I want to write it here anyway: the wake function. Closing the lid puts it to sleep without fail, which is great…but opening up the lid sometimes doesn’t trigger the wake function. I would have to close the lid and open it up again. Pretty annoying. Fixed now, but…just a heads up. The 2018 probably has the latest BIOS already installed, so it’s probably not going to be an issue.
Portability aka The Messenger Bag Test
Like mentioned somewhere above, I am a “messenger bag programmer”. Hence the messenger bag test.
It’s small. It’s light. But it’s also powerful. Therefore it’s suitable as a portable work machine. To again give you an easy point of reference, here’s a picture of it next to a common household spoon.
I am one of those people who can’t work in one place for too long. Desktops are out of the question for me. I will go to the library, do work there for about an hour and move to another location. Maybe a coffee place for 30 minutes, then off to the park. Then go back home, work on my desk for an hour, then go out again.
The thing is, I dislike laptop bags because I am a nerd in denial — they look so tacky and clunky and nerdy. Plus a laptop bag makes it obvious that you’re carrying some gear that can be stolen and pawned off. I prefer cheap, unassuming messenger bags (no Timbuk2 for me) to carry my electronics. My favourite is a generic River Island bag. Before this, the maximum screen size I could take was 12 inches (which was why I had a 12″ Macbook). Dell fitting a 13-inch screen into a 12-inch chassis is a Godsend.
Some owners say they don’t even feel like the laptop is in their bags, but well, I beg to differ. Its ~1.21kg (2.67 lbs) weight is certainly noticeable (in a neutral way, not negative). I walk a lot and while it is very light, it is not forgettable like the iPad or 12″ Macbook, for instance. But then it’s a powerful, desktop-replacement 13-inch machine that fits in my normie bag and doesn’t give me back/shoulder pains. As far as I’m concerned, Dell XPS 13 passed the messenger bag test with flying colors.
I love it and recommend it. Despite a few shortcomings, I have no regrets. If you’re in a market for a ultra-portable productivity laptop in 2018, I wholeheartedly recommend a Dell XPS 13.
Dell is actually selling the 2017 XPS 13 alongside the 2018 XPS 13 instead of retiring the former. I’m guessing it’s to protect their market share due to their decisions regarding the ports and battery, among others.
…so which model to get? That depends, but for most people I recommend the XPS 13 2017 (model 9360) with 256GB storage and matte HD screen.
The 9360 still has old-school USB ports and a slightly better battery life…plus, it should be cheaper. The 2018 XPS 13 seems like an upgrade for those who are already fans of the XPS line. Those who are switching from another brand and/or are still reserved should probably just start with the 2017 model.
Later this year, I’m getting the 2018 as I have already moved on to USB-C (plus Bluetooth), plus:
- Exclusive USB-C charging. I hate the power jack. Good riddance.
- Windows Hello thumbprint reader in the power button comes as the standard — no more typing PIN to sign in.
- Dual microphones, which can be useful for me to record better-quality music ideas on the go.
- I have the USB-C power bank so the reduced battery life is a minor issue.
- eGPU support (!) — while this is still in the bleeding-edge spectrum, I like being a tech lab rat.
- The Rose Gold/Alpine White option is just so irrationally irresistible.
Once I get my greasy fingers on a 2018 Dell XPS 13, I will probably make a comparison review…probably.
P.S Below are Amazon links — if you buy something, I get commissions (*).
2017 Dell XPS 9360 (Silver) — recommended for most people
(*) This is just an experiment to see if it’s viable for me to start a tech/lifestyle website — no need to use those links if you don’t want to.