Same Design, More Power

Today we’re taking a look at the brand new Dell XPS 13 9560. You won't be able to tell from the outside, but the latest XPS 13 has received a single important update compared to the model that launched towards the end of 2016: the move to Intel's 8th-gen Kaby Lake-R processors.

Even though it’s a simple CPU swap, it's a big upgrade for the XPS 13 considering the performance difference between the dual-core Kaby used previously, and the new quad-core parts. Initial testing we performed a few months ago showed performance gains nearing 50%, but of course, we’ll explore more of that later.

To start with I wanted to discuss the design of the XPS 13, which has changed very little in nearly three years since the first Broadwell model launched. We've seen some minor additions, like the fingerprint sensor for Windows Hello and a USB-C port, but the basics with its ultra-slim bezels have remained much the same.

Some reviews floating around suggest the design of the XPS 13 is a bit stale and needs to be updated to remain relevant up against other modern ultraportables. While I agree the design is a bit stale, I don’t think it needs to be updated.

When the XPS 13 launched in early 2015, the design was far ahead of the competition, delivering a massive display in a smaller chassis. A couple of years later and the XPS 13 design isn’t the standout it once was, having competitors lifting their game, but it’s still pretty good and holds its own against other manufacturer's offerings. In fact, we’re still not at the point where all other laptops are maximizing screen real estate and minimizing bezels, though we’re slowly getting there.

If you haven’t seen an XPS 13 before, the build uses aluminium on the lid and underside, plus soft touch carbon fiber around the keyboard and trackpad. The two-tone design looks fantastic, and it feels great to hold when shut thanks to the matte metal finish. The keyboard palm rest does accumulate fingerprints rather easily, though it too feels great when typing.

Dell isn’t super concerned with making the slimmest or lightest laptop, which is why the XPS 13 sits at up to 15mm thick, and 1.3 kg (2.8 lbs) for the touchscreen model. This is a good choice anyway, as it allows them to cram in a large 60 Wh battery and keep the overall footprint small. The XPS 13 is still one of the smallest 13-inch notebooks you can buy.

The slim bezel experience with the XPS 13 is great, though you will have to live with some trade-offs like the less-than-ideal webcam placement. You’ll also have to choose between the 1080p non-touch and QHD+ touchscreen display options, which are the same as earlier models: the higher-resolution display comes with a battery life hit, though it’s a fair bit sharper.

The keyboard and trackpad remain unchanged, both of which offer a decent experience. Some of the modifier keys are a little smaller than other keyboards, though this doesn’t hurt usability, and the feel to each key is fairly average these days for a laptop. The trackpad is excellent, and you won’t have any problems using it.

The I/O is also unchanged. Two USB 3.0 ports on either side, a Thunderbolt 3 port with just two PCIe lanes, a 3.5mm headphone jack and an SD card slot. Unfortunately the XPS 13 still charges using a proprietary connector rather than USB-C; I’d rather see an additional USB-C port added to the device for charging, which could double as handy connectivity.

My review unit came with a 13.3-inch 1080p IPS LCD, which is the base option. I prefer this over the QHD+ model even though the higher-res model comes with a touchscreen, mostly because 1080p is perfectly fine for a 13.3-inch display and you can eek out extra battery life at a lower resolution.

Brightness from this display is excellent, exceeding 450 nits at peak when viewing an all-white screen. Viewing angles are also very good, and the use of a matte finish rather than gloss helps to reduce reflections and improve visibility.

While the display does look pretty good from a casual standpoint, it’s not the best for creative professionals that demand color accuracy. The XPS 13 implements dynamic contrast, which adjusts brightness and other display parameters on the fly in an attempt to ‘improve’ the experience. As far as I can tell, it is impossible to disable this setting, which leads to poor color performance.

The display is tinted blue, with an average temperature around 7100K, and greyscale performance is weak. But it gets worse when looking at saturation and ColorChecker results, which push past a deltaE average of 8.0. This is very inaccurate and completely unsuitable for those that want to create accurate images or even view things accurately.

With that said, it’s hard to accurately measure the performance of a display that dynamically adjusts, as the composition of an image can effect how each individual color is displayed. For my tests, I measured steady-state color performance with solid colors, though in practice, performance could be better, or it could be worse. Who really knows?

If Dell wanted to improve how this display performs, they should include a way to disable dynamic contrast. The good news is the feature is reasonably subtle, so it’s hard to spot the changes occurring in real time, though professionals will want to avoid this panel.