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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  • DanNeely - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    "t 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."

    Is there anyone who's more interested in swapping the wifi card than they would have been in upgrading the ram in a few years? The former's something that IMO should have been at the top of the list when looking for ways to shave a few cubic mm.
  • moep - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    Dell is more interested in selling you a new laptop than letting you swap the RAM, so that’s that.
  • baldun - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    The problem is not integrating the WiFi card to the motherboard. The problem is with regulatory for each country. If the WiFi card is with antenna connectors, then the regulatory certification is handled by the card vendor, in this case Intel, paying millions of dollars to every country where they want to sell the card. If the WiFi is integrated in the motherboard, then the regulatory will be handled by Dell. Regulatory certification is all about where the antenna connectors are.
  • nportelli - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    Agreed. That goes for ANY manufacturer. 8GB ram should be the minimal anymore. Same for 1080p.
  • Silma - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    Absolutely. If RAM is soldered then it should be 8GB RAM at the very least.
    There may be some cons to 1080p in a few situations (touchscreens with items too small to accurately touch) but I'm betting on Microsoft improving Windows pixel scaling soon.
    Ideally I would vote for 1200p, which I have had for many years on my Dell Laptops but unfortunately it's out of fashion.
  • jeffkro - Monday, March 25, 2013 - link

    You should be able to increase the size of icons and text without lowering the screen resolution, this is bad design.
  • jeffkro - Monday, March 25, 2013 - link

    Nope, lower spec is fine for a low price point. Windows 7 and 8 both run great on 4 gigs of ram, so only people who run ram intensive programs require 8gigs. But yeah if I'm spending over $700 I want core i5, 1080p, and 8 gigs of ram, and I don't care about touch.

    PS win7 even runs fine on 2 gigs of ram.
  • GNUminex - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    I may just be sheltered from the reality of windows use as a result of using Linux, but I find it hard to see why any one would need more than 8GB of ram when using a current generation ULV processor. I don't see how you could run the sort of work load to eat up 8GB of ram with out being CPU limited first. If you try to just have lots of applications open and idling I guess you could run into ram limitations but is anyone going to do such a thing on a 13" laptop.
  • DanNeely - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    Needing >8GB is probably not a common today anymore than >4 was a few years ago; but for power users using a laptop as their primary computer it probably will be in a few more years.

    With IVBs improved boost levels the gap between ULV and standard mobile/desktop processors has gotten much narrower. On the road thermal throttling will limit sustained peak boost times somewhat; but when it's on a desk an external cooling pad can mitigate the heating.
  • bkiserx7 - Thursday, March 21, 2013 - link

    I do on my 13.3" 3830TG with 2630qm, but I have much more cpu

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