The global director of laptop design wants a word. USBs are out, keyboards need to be shallower than a reality TV star and if the thing can’t fit in that gap under your bedroom door, it’s not getting past the committee.
How top laptops have changed over the last year or so could almost make you believe in a great big worldwide laptop conspiracy. I mean, no-one we know was crying out for these changes. But really it’s just a lesson that progress sometimes comes with a cost.
The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is one of these new-breed laptops, but it has less of that sense of taking away bits of older laptops we really quite liked.
Because let’s be honest: not all of us are ready for the laptop equivalent of a skin-tight silver foil spacesuit of the future. Not with all these wobbly bits.
XPS 13 2-in-1 design & build: Welterweight
The XPS 13 2-in-1 is the friendly face of change, but it’s still very thin and light. Despite being a hybrid and looking a dead ringer for the slightly chunkier ‘normal’ XPS 13, it’s just 1.24kg and 13mm thick.
It didn’t cause the same “cor, did they forget to put the insides in” reaction as when I first picked up the Asus ZenBook 3 and 12in MacBook, but that’s only because of a few very deliberate design choices made by Dell.
The XPS 13 2-in-1’s sides are squared off rather than tapering into a fine point, which always tricks your fingers into thinking a laptop/phone/tablet is that bit thinner than it really is. There are also stick-out rubber feet on the bottom, and this is a 13.3in screen laptop rather than a 12-incher.
You get the sense that while Dell wanted to make this laptop thin, it wasn’t really interested in aggressively shaving the thing down to achieve a figure that’d just look great on a spec list. Dell is, as ever, pragmatic, and less of a show-off than most.
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 features & connectivity: Show us your carbon fibre
The XPS 13 2-in-1 has an aluminium lid and underside, and the inside is a carbon-fibre-strengthened plate that feels like very, very expensive plastic. It has a stroke-able soft-touch finish and is more rigid than some all-metal laptops, making it feel just as well-made as the standard XPS 13.
The hinge is what separates the 2-in-1 and that more conventional laptop. It’s a 360-degree hinge just like the one on the Lenovo Yoga 910. But where the Yoga has one designed to look like it’s made of a series of fancy watch strap off-cuts, this one is totally plain. I told you Dell wasn’t a show-off.
Day-to-day there’s so little compromise for the hybrid style it’s hard not to think of this as a direct rival to the HP Spectre 13, 12in MacBook and Asus ZenBook 3. For all their flashy bits, they’re ‘just’ laptops.
And like these laptops, the XPS 13 2-in-1’s connections have been stripped to the bone. There are two USB-C ports, a headphone jack and a microSD slot. As a consolation to all the people with USB mice, USB hard drives and USB desk fans, there is a converter cable in the box. And perhaps we should be happy there’s a memory card slot, as a lot of these new-breed laptops don’t have one at all.
If the idea of no full-fat USBs has made you cringe, take a look at the normal XPS 13.
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 usability: Hello, is it me you’re looking for?
The XPS 13 2-in-1 also has a neat little 5-LED battery indicator on the side, and a fingerprint scanner by the keyboard. Laptop scanners used to be the sort of think you’d see in boxy business laptops, but they’re back and ready for normal folk this time around.
You use it with Windows 10’s Hello feature, which lets you login using your finger. I find it far less useful than a phone scanner — I take a laptop out of standby a few times a day, not dozens — but this is the best laptop pad I’ve used in a while. It actually works first time, 95 per cent of the time. A lot of rivals don’t.
For a laptop with a slim frame and minimal connections, the keyboard is very nice too. It didn’t make me miss the old-gen MacBook Pro 13 and mechanical keyboard I variously use day-to-day because it has a good level of resistance, and some proper travel to the keys.
I’ve typed thousands of words on the little guy. The size of the XPS 13 has a hand in making the laptop so good to use for the daily grind too. 12in laptops are great, but I wouldn’t say no to that extra inch of screen if I’m going to have to work for hours at a time. Some recent top-end laptops feel like they’re only really made for watching cat videos and noodling about in marketing meetings.
The trackpad is great too. While not that tall, it’s wide and has a flawless soft textured glass finish. It’s like the pad on the other XPS models.
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 display: Poking infinity
Its screen is typical XPS too, using Dell’s InfinityEdge design. This is where there’s hardly any space around the actual display, meaning the footprint of the XPS 13 2-in-1 isn’t all that much bigger than a 12.5in laptop.
There are Full HD and QHD+ versions of the display, and Dell sent us the lower-res one. At 13.3in you can see the pixels if you try, but it still looks pretty sharp.
Contrast is great and colour is decent, if not perfect, in the 1080p version. The 12in MacBook and, for example, Razer Blade Stealth, have much deeper colour. Those obsessed with screen quality can always fork out for the QHD+ upgrade, though.
As this is a hybrid, you get a touchscreen. Thanks to the great trackpad I haven’t really used it that much, but there are plenty of ways it can insinuate its way into your life without entirely mimicking a tablet.
Put it in ‘tent’ mode and you can watch a bit of Netflix while cooking sans risk of getting couscous all over your keyboard, for example. It’s going to look better than an iPad mini flat on your worktop.
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 performance: Y, why?
The XPS 13 2-in-1 straddles the fun and serious ways to use a hybrid very well but, along with the connections, the CPU is one reason to pause. This laptop has a top-quality CPU, but it’s one designed to use as little power, and create as little heat, as possible.
It’s an Intel Core i7-7Y75, a dual-core chip. It’ll do the job for most people’s productivity jobs, and doesn’t seem any slower than a normal U-series one most of the time. Tasks like converting videos and applying mad filters to massive images in Photoshop will take a little longer, but where I really notice the difference is gaming.
The XPS 13 2-in-1 is a poor gaming laptop, worse than some £500-600 slim and light alternatives. It’s not really Dell’s fault, though, as the Intel HD 615 graphics chip is a part of the processor, and you couldn’t really fit a separate bonus one in this machine.
Where the normal XPS 13 can play games that are maybe 4-5 years old if you really cut back on the fancy graphics and chop the resolution down a bit, a lot aren’t really playable here even after all those compromises. The message is clear: don’t buy the XPS 13 2-in-1 if raw power matters a lot.
However, it does run silently without ever getting that warm.
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 battery life: All-day juice
Given that the Y-series CPU is so easy on the juice, you might expect it to last an age between charges. You’ll squeeze a good day’s work out, but the XPS 13 2-in-1 actually doesn’t last as long as the normal XPS 13.
With the screen on the sort of low-mid level brightness you might use indoors and the stress level no more than some browsing and writing some docs, which is what I do most of the time, the XPS 13 2-in-1 will last around 10 hours. Max out the brightness while working outdoors and that figure drops to around eight hours.
That’s rock-solid, but isn’t standard-setting like the stamina of the XPS 13 and XPS 15. The 2-in-1 also has much less powerful-sounding speakers than the 12in MacBook. They’re not ugly, not truly weedy, but don’t have the volume or low-end power of the best tiny laptops.
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Verdict
This review started with a primer about how the XPS 13 2-in-1 avoids some of the annoying parts of today’s trendiest laptops. The keyboard isn’t too shallow, the screen not too small and there’s a memory card slot, even if it is a tiny microSD one.
It’s great that the hybrid hinge doesn’t take anything away from its status as a laptop either.
However, we wouldn’t blame you for gravitating towards the normal XPS 13. It’s £200 cheaper, more powerful and only 2mm thicker. Oh, and it has a proper USB port.