Can a Lightweight Laptop Double as Your Main Desktop?

The Internet has afforded me the ability to work from home for more than 15 years. What’s more, I can work from virtually anywhere so long as I have an Internet connection. As glamorous as it all sounds, working from home can also be stressful due to the amount of self-discipline it requires. Above all else, I’ve found that investing in efficiency pays off which in turn frees up time, the one asset that is both free and priceless.

Throughout the years one of the best productivity boosters I found was adding monitors to my workstation. By doubling my desktop real estate, I could get a lot more done by not having to constantly resize and shift windows around. A few years later, I added a third display to the equation which meant I could keep even more information in front of me at once.

With two 22-inch monitors and a 24-incher, I barely had enough room for my keyboard and mouse, but it was a trade I was willing to make. I’ve stuck with this arrangement for a few years now, sitting patiently on the sidelines as the display industry slowly transitioned from full HD displays (1,920 x 1,080) to Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440) and most recently 4K (3,840 x 2,160) and above.

As resolution climbed and prices slid, I toyed with replacing the smaller units with monitors packing more pixels but there was this one lingering question that kept me from pulling the trigger: Could I replace my trio of displays with a single, large 4K monitor?

It seemed plausible on paper considering a 4K monitor has four times as many pixels as a Full HD display, but I had a long list of concerns and questions. Chief among them was, how large of a screen would I need to view everything comfortably without having to rely on scaling?

Dell recently came knocking with one of the most highly regarded 4K monitors on the market, the UltraSharp UP3216Q. Measuring 31.5 inches diagonally with a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 @ 60Hz, this display was already high on my list of potential candidates so the timing couldn’t have been better.

We are giving away this Dell bundle (XPS 13 laptop + Ultrasharp 4K monitor).

Dell’s proposition wasn’t simply to review the UltraSharp UP3216Q (although a standalone review is in the works) but rather, evaluate its performance and value as part of a larger package that just so happened to address the one area on my path to optimal productivity that I hadn’t yet mastered: portability.

I’ve owned a few notebooks over the years but they never really complemented my daily workflow and always played second fiddle to my desktop. Along with the monitor, Dell sent over their excellent XPS 13 ultraportable notebook – the same one we reviewed earlier this year albeit with a larger 1TB solid state drive. It was one of our favorite laptops when it debuted in 2015 and this year’s refresh with Intel’s Skylake onboard kept it at the top of our deserving list, awarding it a near-perfect score of 95 out of a possible 100 on both occasions.

With some hands-on time now under my belt, I can certainly see why Tim and other members of our staff like it so much. Pictures don’t do it justice as the high-resolution (3,200 x 1,800) 13.3-inch touchscreen display is stunning in person. It has made me a firm believer that ultra-thin bezels should be adopted industry-wide.

The system is plenty powerful and battery life is respectable given the QHD+ display. Most importantly, this system packs Thunderbolt 3 via USB Type-C (more on this in a bit). I could easily get carried away here but will instead direct you to Tim’s review for the full scoop on what to expect from the XPS 13.

To go along with the XPS laptop, Dell also sent over a 512GB Sonnet Fusion Thunderbolt 3 PCIe flash drive as well as its own 12,000mAh power companion (an external battery pack), a USB 3.0 to HDMI / VGA / Ethernet / USB 2.0 adapter, USB Type-C-to-HDMI adapter, and even a backpack to carry everything in. That’s quite the bundle if I do say so myself and at this point, you’re probably wondering, what’s the point of all this?

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Goal #1 of this experiment was to determine whether this setup could replace someone’s desktop (or in my case, one with a triple-monitor configuration). That may sound like an open-and-shut case for some, but if you’re anything like me, it’s the type of proposition that can take your breath away.

Goal #2: Dell said we could do as we wished with the hardware post-experiment. Usually, we have to return review units back to the manufacturer once the evaluation period is over. But in this case, we'll be giving away the XPS 13 laptop and the 32-inch UltraSharp UP3216Q to one lucky reader.

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Despite my passion for technology, I have deeply rooted “old man” tendencies, meaning I don’t like change. I’m the guy that rides out an OS long after it becomes obsolete and hangs on to electronics and hardware well past their prime. Again, I must say that this experiment couldn’t have come at a better time as I have been seriously contemplating gutting my Cooler Master Cosmos II case and rebuilding it from the ground up with new hardware. Now I’m second-guessing that plan.

The phrase “desktop replacement” typically elicits images of massive 2.5-inch-thick beasts that weigh more than the average mid-tower. While such systems still exist, it’s usually only gaming systems that are oversized. With a Core i7-6500U, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, the XPS 13 is the prime example of a powerful system that’s incredibly lightweight and thus, portable.

While not as much of a concern as it used to be thanks to cloud services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive, regularly transferring data between a laptop and desktop can be a drag. That’s not a concern if your notebook is your desktop. And with the adapter Dell sent over, I don’t need a full complement of I/O ports as said adapter adds an Ethernet jack, VGA connector, a USB port (so you don’t lose one) and HDMI port which complements the integrated card reader, headphone jack, and USB 3.0 ports.

Remember the USB Type-C port with Thunderbolt 3 I mentioned a bit ago? That’s the linchpin of this entire deal. If it didn’t exist, I wouldn’t even consider replacing my desktop with a laptop over ease-of-use concerns. Allow me to elaborate.

Having a fast and lightweight computer that affords the flexibility to work anywhere is great, but when it comes to marathon work sessions, nothing can beat the comfort of a full-size keyboard, a good mouse, and lots of screen real estate.

Business types have relied on their notebooks both on the go and in the office for years through the use of docking stations. The USB Type-C Thunderbolt 3 port removes the need for a proprietary connector. For those not up to speed, Thunderbolt 3 offers 40Gbps of bandwidth and can accomplish many tasks at once. A single reversible cable can simultaneously drive two 4K displays, transfer data and supply power to a system. Only a handful of notebooks thus far include the port and the XPS 13 is one of them.

Dell sells a Thunderbolt 3 dock although suspiciously it wasn’t available in time for our evaluation. In theory, using the dock I could connect the 4K monitor as well as my mouse, keyboard, wireless headphones and Ethernet cable to the tiny box, so when it came to working in the office, I’d only need to connect a single cable to shift everything to my “desktop” workstation. That sounds incredibly desirable and virtually eliminates all the shortcomings I’ve previously had with notebooks serving as a workhorse.

However, the dock is apparently not without its flaws so in the interim Dell preferred to send a less tidy alternative. I connected the XPS 13 directly to the 4K monitor using a USB Type-C-to-HDMI adapter and then all accessories to a USB 3.0 adapter. It’s not all that bad, but it's not as ideal as leveraging the Thunderbolt port for doing everything.

Working with the XPS 13 has been nothing short of enjoyable although that’s to be expected. It’s one of the most aesthetically pleasing notebooks currently on the market, the system has a nice keyboard given its compact form-factor and the touchpad presented no issues.

I have a standalone review of the UP3216Q 4K monitor in the works but let me tell you this: I’m not sure how (or if) I’ll be able to go back to my previous configuration. You have to get incredibly nitpicky to find any faults with this massive, gorgeous display.

Although I haven’t had as many organic opportunities to use the system away from the office, the time I have spent with the setup leaves no question in my mind that it could easily stand in for my desktop. On more than one occasion I've found it convenient to do some writing in bed or get some work done outdoors. There’s something energizing about going outside and getting some fresh air, then when it’s time to come back in, I’d simply need to connect a couple of cables (one would have been ideal) to pick up work on the big screen with my trusty peripherals.

Covering trade shows in the future would be a much more pleasant experience. With previous trips, I easily spent a few hours prepping my notebook to mirror my main workstation. Those headaches would be a distant memory with a desktop-replacing notebook. With the XPS 13 in “desktop” mode connected to the 4K monitor, you’ll have tons of real estate – especially if you run it at the native resolution (which may or may not involve moving the monitor a little closer to your face).

What worked best for me was sectioning the display off into six equal-sized segments (creating a custom wallpaper with small markings surely helps). That way, I can comfortably have six windows visible at once. And if that’s not enough, I can always use the XPS 13’s display to showcase some more information on the side. What’s more, because Thunderbolt 3 can drive two 4K monitors, you could even add another standalone display to the mix -- talk about extremes.

There are, of course, downsides. Notebooks aren’t nearly as upgradeable as custom-built desktops. Sure, you can add RAM and swap in a faster drive with more storage, but once the processor in your notebook becomes obsolete and no longer meets your needs, it’s time to shop for a whole new machine.

You can’t make an apples-to-apples performance comparison between the desktop and laptop platforms, especially because we're dealing with a U-series (ultra-low power) processor. The i7-6500U in the XPS 13 is no slouch, but it’s no match for a desktop-class Core i7 CPU if you need that kind of grunt. It’s kind of like the car guys say, there’s no replacement for displacement.

Don’t expect to get much serious gaming done with the XPS 13. The integrated Intel HD graphics can handle browser-based games (here’s looking at you, Cookie Clicker) with ease and even some modern titles at lower graphics settings, but if you’re a hardcore gamer, you’re going to need some help.

The XPS 13 will hopefully receive Nvidia Pascal-level graphics eventually. In the meantime, Razer recently launched its Core external graphics card enclosure which is compatible with non-Razer Thunderbolt 3-equipped systems. It’s not the most economical option, but if you’re determined to do some hardcore gaming on a system like the XPS 13, options do exist to make it happen.

Coming into this, I had my doubts that a notebook could serve as a true workstation, but here I sit a changed man. It’s been a real eye-opening experience and one that I won’t soon forget. You’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of your individual situation to determine if moving away from a desktop and relying solely on a notebook is the right move for you. If you’re leaning towards the latter, do note that you’ll have to make a few concessions in exchange for flexibility.

Giveaway is now live!

Want to get a chance to win this Dell hardware bundle? Enter here for the giveaway rules and contest. We'll be completing our review of the UltraSharp UP3216Q soon and then pack everything up to go to a lucky reader in late September.