After reviewing Microsoft’s Surface machines, a number of our readers requested us to also review other competing products that sport enough processing power to run photo applications like Lightroom and Photoshop. Since in my past corporate life I spent quite a bit of time with Dell PCs and servers, it was my first natural selection. Having previously owned a Dell XPS 13 (when it was first introduced a while back), I wanted to take a look at the newest-generation version to see how well it would do for photography needs. Although a more direct competitor to Microsoft’s Surface Pro line would be the XPS 12, once I found out that it was maxed out at 8 GB of RAM and only 256 GB of storage, I had to move up in size. And since my goal was to find something light and compact to travel with, I did not consider the Dell XPS 15, which boasts the most power among the three models and comes with a dedicated GPU. When the Dell XPS 13 finally arrived, I got ready to put it through some tests to see how it would do. After a two-week trip to California and four more weeks of heavy work on the XPS 13, I decided to share my thoughts on the machine with our readers in a detailed review.
The specific model that I used for this particular review is the top-end configuration of XPS 13 9350 (2016 model) with maxed-out specs, including Intel 6th Gen Core i7 Processor, 16 GB of RAM, 1 TB of SSD storage and 13.3″ QHD+ InfinityEdge touch display. In short, it is a pretty sweet machine that should be able to handle pretty much anything you throw at it!
1) Dell XPS 13 Overview
Unlike the XPS 12 or the Microsoft Surface Pro / Book, the Dell XPS 13 is not a 2-in-1 machine – it is a traditional laptop. Designed to have a good balance of portability vs performance, the XPS 13 is a very appealing choice for those who want to have a powerful laptop with a travel-friendly form factor. In fact, size-wise, Dell claims the XPS 13 to be the smallest 13″ laptop on the planet and this is due to its impressive 5.2mm thin bezel. Thanks to its lightweight aluminum construction and an innovative carbon-fiber palm rest, the XPS 13 only weighs a total of 1.29 kg. Speaking of the screen, the XPS 13 can be purchased in two different screen configurations – with and without touchscreen support. After using the Surface Pro and Surface Book machines, I honestly can no longer work on a laptop without a touchscreen, because it is so easy and intuitive to use. So if you are wondering which one to get, I would highly recommend to get the touchscreen version.
1.1) 13.3″ QHD+ InfinityEdge Touch Display
Dell packed a lot of pixels on the 13.3″ QHD+ screen, which has a native resolution of 3200×1800 pixels. That’s roughly roughly 280 pixels per inch (ppi), surpassing the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, both of which have 267 ppi. However, considering the aspect ratio of 16:9 on the XPS 13 vs 3:2 on the Surface Pro 4 / Book, one could argue that the latter is more suitable for photography needs. When viewing images from my Nikon and Fuji cameras, there is a visible black border on both sides of the screen, which can be a bit annoying to see. This gets even worse when viewing images with a 4:3 aspect ratio. At the same time, if one uses an application like Lightroom that has side panels, the wider screen can be somewhat advantageous, as the image is not as reduced in width in comparison. A wider screen can also be more useful when using multiple applications side-by-side:
The LCD screen is quite bright for a laptop, which certainly makes it easier to look at when working outdoors. However, the screen finish is glossy, so it certainly does reflect quite a bit, even with brightness turned all the way up. But the same is true for most other laptop screens out there, so I would not necessarily look at it as a disadvantage. In terms of panel technology, the Dell XPS 13 sports a high-quality IPS panel, which provides a viewing angle of up to 170°. As you will see in the “Display Calibration” section of this review, I was able to calibrate the screen with calibration hardware and it did OK overall (for a laptop screen).
1.2) CPU, RAM and SSD Storage
When it comes to processing power and RAM, the XPS 13 comes with the latest 6th Generation Intel CPU and you can choose between Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs depending on your budget and your needs. The Core i3 model is limited to only 4 GB of RAM, so if you are looking for a machine with at least 8 GB of RAM, your choice will be limited to the Core i5 and i7 CPUs. If you want 16 GB of RAM, you will have to go with the Core i7 CPU. Storage-wise, you can choose between 128 GB and 256 GB SSD drives for XPS 13 with 8 GB of RAM and if you want more storage, you will need to get the top configuration, which will give you the option for both 512 GB and 1 TB SSD storage (personally, I would recommend at least 256 GB of storage).
1.3) Video Card
Unfortunately, there is no dedicated GPU on the Dell XPS 13 and you cannot add it as an option either, which means that you are limited to either Intel HD or Intel Iris graphics, depending on what CPU you pick (the Core i5 models come with Intel HD Graphics 520, whereas the Core i7 models have a faster Intel Iris Graphics 540). This is unfortunate, because so many graphics-intensive apps, including Photoshop and Lightroom can benefit from a dedicated GPU, rendering everything faster. This is where the Surface Book certainly has an advantage over the XPS 13. At the same time, given the small form factor and the fact that this is a laptop and not a 2-in-1 like the Surface Book, squeezing a dedicated GPU into the already packed machine would be an impossible task…
1.4) Ports and Connectivity
In terms of ports and connectivity, the Dell XPS 13 has a total of 2x USB 3.0 ports and 1x Thunderbolt 3 port:
- SD card slot
- USB 3.0 with PowerShare
- Noble lock slot
- AC power
- Thunderbolt 3
- USB 3.0
- Headset jack
- Battery gauge button and indicator
The addition of a Thunderbolt port is something I did not expect to see, since it has traditionally been omitted from most PCs. The nice thing about the Thunderbolt port, is that you can not only use it to output to an external monitor, but you can also use it to connect with external devices with insane transfer speeds of up to 40 Gbps! This is clearly an advantage of the XPS 13 over both Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. However, there is one downside to this – there are no regular HDMI or DP ports available to directly connect to a TV or a monitor. The good news is that you can still make HDMI output possible with a Dell Adapter, but the bad news is that it costs extra and it is another device to carry in your bag.
1.5) SD Memory Card Slot
One feature I found to be of great value is an SD memory card slot on the Surface Book. When I saw that the XPS 13 also had an SD memory card slot, I got excited, because it meant that I did not have to carry a memory card reader with me when on the road traveling. However, I immediately wondered about the type of a memory card reader that Dell put into the XPS 13. Since the Surface Book came with a UHS-II compatible reader, I wondered if the XPS 13 would also be able to properly read UHS-II cards. Good news – the SD memory card slot is indeed UHS-II compatible, which is great! I tested out my SanDisk 32 GB Extreme Pro UHS-II memory card (up to 280 MB/sec read speed) and it was nice to see that I was getting very promising read rates from the card, even slightly higher than advertised:
I am glad Dell chose to use the latest and greatest on the XPS 13, since many future cameras will be UHS-II compatible, so you are future-proofing your purchase.
1.6) Front Camera
Similar to most other modern laptops, the Dell XPS 13 also comes with a front 720p camera. Due to the super thin bezel of the screen, Dell could not put the webcam on the top of the screen, so it was moved to the bottom-left side. I was a bit surprised to see the camera placed there, because it is an odd placement and angle. I wondered how it would work out on a video call, so I fired up Skype and gave it a shot. To be honest, I am not a fan of this camera placement! When looking at the center of the screen where the other call was, it appeared as if I was not looking at the person I was talking to – my eyes always appeared looking at the right side, unless I looked directly at the webcam. I wish Dell moved the LCD screen a bit lower and still kept the camera in its normal position, which is the top center of the screen…
2) Initial Setup
The XPS 13 came with Windows 10 pre-installed and configured. Once I set up my credentials and connected to my network, I was pretty much all set. After a few minutes, I was presented by an update notification from Dell, which showed 2 updates ready to install:
Installation went pretty smoothly and I was not asked to restart the computer. I wondered what type of apps (crapware) Dell pre-installed for me, so after the updates were completed, I navigated to “Apps & features” in computer settings. Aside from drivers, I did not find much crapware on the machine, which was great. However, there was one offender – “McAfee LiveSafe – Internet Security” that I had to get rid of:
I can’t remember the last time I had to install anti-virus software – Microsoft’s Windows Defender has been working quite good for the past few years for me, so I wanted to get rid of McAfee. While uninstalling, the software kept giving me warnings about not being protected:
This is one of the warnings I got. Another one was “Your device isn’t fully protected”, which I was happy to ignore. Yeah yeah…whatever. I have always believed that anti-virus companies are the ones who create viruses in the first place. Selling licenses is good business! I have not paid for an anti-virus subscription in years and I am not planning to. If one does not download all kinds of stuff from the Internet, chances of getting a virus are pretty low.
Other than the above and setting up Lightroom, Photoshop and FastRawViewer, I did not do much else…