It’s been a long time coming but laptops are starting to get sexy again. Without naming names, there are some notebook computers which already have plenty of style and thoughtful design, leaving Microsoft hardware partners to do the best they can to catch up.
In the XPS 13 9343 – where the added 9343 is the way to differentiate this new model from every XPS 13 that’s gone before it – Dell has truly stolen a march on the competition. It is the first to market with a near-borderless display. Nattily dubbed the Infinity screen, it follows the idea of those millionaires’ hillside mansion pools, which appear like limitless lakes that stretch infinitely to the horizon.
The 13.3-inch high-resolution display here doesn’t quite go off into the sunset, but at around 5 mm thick the bezel around the new XPS 13’s screen is a refreshing change from the clunky fat borders that waste so much usable viewing area on every modern laptop.
Besides the great display idea, the XPS 13 9343 is also one of the very first laptops to land with one of Intel’s new-season processors, the 5th-generation Intel Core i7: codename Broadwell. This could be a significant upgrade in silicon, as it sees the first process shrink in four years, from the 22 nm first seen in 2011’s Ivy Bridge series, to a new low size of 14 nm. This should enable reduced power consumption at the same clock speed. See all laptop reviews.
Dell XPS 9343 review: Build and design
The new Dell XPS 13 follows a long line of similarly named laptops. The last time this reviewer tested the XPS 13 was in 2009, when the Dell Studio XPS 13 was a surprisingly well executed 13-inch notebook with an SSD. This was at least two years before solid-state drives were a popular option to specify in consumer laptops.
Over the intervening six years, the Apple ultraportable Air became the template for 13-inch notebooks, while the new XPS has shed its 2.2 kg puppy fat to become a 1.3 kg ultrabook. And the once 34 mm-thick brick is now little more than 17 mm, tapering slightly to 15 mm at the front.
Dell has finally raised its game in construction technology, and the XPS 13 now takes precision-machined alloy for both top and bottom sections. Carbon-fibre composite is not new for a Dell notebook, but here we see it applied right across the middle section, making up a top deck area in nicely figured woven material, finished with a smooth rubbery coat that feels more organic to the touch.
With the clamshell closed, the sandwiching effect means you’re toting nothing less than a silver ‘n’ black Bassett’s liquorice allsort. Only smarter than your usual confectionery, powered as it is by a 14 nm Intel Core i7 processor.
Special mention goes to the XPS 13’s bottom, which is entirely bereft of all the usual Windows laptop nonsense – here you’ll find no seedy Genuine Microsoft stickers, Intel Inside warnings, strings of alphabet part numbers, dry regulatory notices, nor the oddly place trapdoors to the innards.
Instead, dead central is a small metallic plaque laser-engraved simply ‘XPS’. A tiny sliver is cut from one edge to allow your fingernail to lift it, thereby revealing all your essential part numbers and service codes. This door is magnetically secured, so it snaps shut cleanly when you’ve finished stocktaking.
Another neat design point is the use of two long rubber strips as bumper feet on the underside. These give a sturdy platform on the desk, with no wobble or likelihood of tiny feet falling off. Also see: Best ultraportable laptops.
Ports and physical connectivity options are minimal, as we now find with most such ultraportables. There’s a USB 3.0 port on each flank; then DC charge inlet, Mini DisplayPort and headset jack on the left. An SDXC card slot, and what looks like a Kensington lock slot (but Dell calls a Noble lock slot) lie to the right. We understand the proprietary terms are now interchangeable.
Prising open the lid to get going could be easier, since there’s no sufficiently sized cutout in the body to push in your thumb or finger to separate lid from lower. Once you have successfully broken in, you find an all-black deck and screen – the former the carbon-fibre component, and the display an inky but glossy black expanse from edge to edge. Then, with the screen switched on, only a very small edge remains black. It’s almost unsettling, to be given so much gorgeously rich screen and so little frame; but then one wonders why all laptops aren’t made this way.
In fact the bezel is 5.0 mm from pixel’s end to lid edge along the top, and 5.4 mm wide on the sides. Compare this to the 2014 XPS 13, which was 10 mm wide on top and sides.
If you think Dell’s done well to halve the unnecessary edging since last year, check out the competition. The 13-inch MacBook Air has 19 mm of fat bezel surrounding its screen, while even the more specialised MacBook Pro (13-inch, Retina, Mid-2014) has a bezel of 17 mm across the top, and 14 mm along the sides.
And yet the ability to make thinner bezels has been in place for 14 years, judged by the sub-10 mm thick frame on our PowerBook G4.
Where the Dell XPS 13’s screen does still disappoint is in its reliance on an overly narrow 16:9 aspect ratio. This entails unnecessary and constant scrolling up and down, just to read documents and web pages throough a needless letterbox cutout. There may be only around 5 mm edge at sides and top, but Dell’s missed a trick with its 21 mm of wasted bezel running right along the bottom of this screen, which could have been fruitfully filled by the simple expediency of using a 16:10 panel comprising 3200 x 2000 pixels.
One use Dell did find for the no-man’s-land strip was as home for a webcam, since the designers couldn’t find a way to slip a camera into the usual top-central bezel position. And unsurprisingly, this low-slung spyeye will mean that Skype chats involve people looking up your nose rather more than you may prefer.
There seem to be two display types possible for the new XPS 13. There is the insanely high-res 3200 x 1800-pixel touchscreen, an IPS panel made by Sharp, fitted to the model we tested. Also available in some territories is a model with 1920 x 1080-pixel display, and without the added touch-sensitive digitiser. This non-touch version is not yet available in the UK, but with potentially longer battery life, lower weight, better balance, reduced price and a more consistent Windows interface, this could well be the model to watch.
Next: Dell XPS 9343 review – Options