Dell's new model of its XPS 13 Ultrabook is undeniably a gem. It was named the best consumer notebook at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and has received rave reviews everywhere. As a consumer notebook.
So why are we talking about it in a business context?
Simple – not only is virtually anything a business product in a BYOD world, but according to Dell's VP and general manager of commercial client products, Kirk Schell, the XPS line is a design brand, built through collaboration of commercial and consumer engineers to test the newest materials, processes and features. The commercial teams contributed enterprise-friendly features such as Intel VPro, making the XPS 13 not only attractive to users in search of gorgeousness, but to IT staff in search of manageability and security.
It's a killer combination.
Dell calls the XPS 13 a 13 inch laptop in an 11 inch form factor, and it's not lying. Thanks to having virtually no bezel (only 5.2 mm), the machine measures 11.98 x 7.88 x .6 inches and still manages to house a 13.3 inch display. With touch screen, it weighs 2.8 lb; it's a smidge less for non-touch.
And what a display! The review unit had the high-end Corning Gorilla Glass Quad HD+ capacitive touch screen, with resolution of 3200 x 1800 and 10 finger touch support (there's also a non-touch FHD 1920 x 1080 option). It was as impressive as it sounds. Combined with 400 nits brightness and 1000:1 contrast ratio, it made images pop out. But, like most of today's touchscreens, the display is glossy and reflective, making use in some lighting conditions difficult at best.
There is another slight downside to the Quad HD+ screen, however, and it's nothing to do with the machine itself. Some software can't cope with the ultra-high resolution, resulting in either virtually invisible text, or a wildly unpredictable display. This is likely to be a transient problem, since other manufacturers are now incorporating high resolution displays in their systems and software developers will be forced to fix their code or risk losing customers, but it's something to think about. Test anything important before committing to the display.
Processing power runs the gamut from a basic Intel Core i3 through the Core i7. The review unit ran a Core i5, which is more than adequate for most business use. You can get up to 8 GB of memory, and up to 512 GB of SSD storage; the review configuration was 8 GB RAM and 256 GB SSD, and costs about $1700 CAD according to the Dell site. A loaded i7, with Quad HD+ touch screen, a 512 GB SSD and 8 GB RAM, goes for $2150. Both come with one year on-site warranties; you can increase that to up to 4 years for an additional fee. Each system also comes with a one year subscription to McAfee LiveSafe security software.
Cosmetically, the XPS 13 is silver on the outside, and black on the inside. The palm rest has a nice matte patterned deck that doesn't show fingerprints and smudges. I found the generously-sized touchpad a bit too sensitive; it sometimes selected items without a click, probably due to dry air and accompanying static. It supports multi-touch, so you can use gestures normally performed on the touchscreen to control Windows 8.1. You can also get the system with Windows 8.1 Pro, which grants downgrade rights to Windows 7, if necessary.
A march around the edges of the machine reveals a pair of USB 3.0 ports with PowerShare, a mini DisplayPort, a headset jack, a 3-in-1 Card Reader (SD, SDHC, SDXC), and a lock slot. Unfortunately, the lock slot is for Noble locks, not the more common Kensington cables, so you may need to purchase a new cable to nail the XPS 13 down. There's also a 720p webcam, positioned rather oddly at the bottom left of the screen; there's not enough bezel room in the traditional top centre spot. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it works.
You'll notice that, like many slim and light laptops, the XPS 13 does not have an Ethernet port or a VGA port. To take care of those connections, and others, Dell offers an adapter that combines HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, and USB 2.0 ports. Much as I dislike having to carry dongles around, this compact device does do the job, allowing you to hook up multiple items through a single USB 3.0 port.
The included connectivity consists of either 802.11ac or 802.11a/g/n dual band wireless, plus Bluetooth 4.0, all Miracast capable. I had the basic Dell 802.11ac version, which performed well.
The keyboard is a decent size, with backlit chiclet-style keys with 1.3 mm travel. I found the touch a bit heavy for my taste, but keyboard preference is intensely personal, so try it and make up your own mind. The Enter key is a bit smaller than usual; aside from that, it worked fine for touch typists. There's a Caps Lock indicator light, as well as a light on the front edge of the system that shows when it needs charging, and the state of its charging when it's plugged in.
The bottom got warmish, but not uncomfortably so, during operation, especially near the power connector; the fan was sometimes quite active. The A/C adapter is cleverly set up, with a removable head with folding prongs for travel, and a standard cord for when you're in the office.
Battery life depends heavily on the display, the biggest power sucker on any laptop. Dell rates the XPS 13 with Quad HD+ at up to 11 hours, and the FHD version at up to 15 hours, for wireless web usage; your mileage may vary, based on usage. My experience was not as good, but was more on par with Dell's cited Mobile Mark 12 benchmark of just over 7 hours. The battery is not removable, unfortunately, so you can't just pop in a spare, although Dell offers a 12,000 mAh external battery, like those you can get to juice up a cell phone, which will work with the laptop.
For in-office, there's a docking station that will let you hook the XPS 13 to up to three external displays (including one 4K monitor), and up to five other peripherals.
The XPS 13 is, on the whole, a machine that most users, both business and consumer, would be happy with. It's gorgeous, and it's fast, and Dell's on-site warranty deals with any issues quickly, without forcing you to ship the machine to a depot. My only complaint that Dell could do anything about is the battery life; I wish it were longer. I want a machine that will serve me through a long day without needing a quest for a power socket. And software developers need to get their collective act together and accommodate increasingly higher resolutions, something Microsoft tells me just requires some attention while coding.