Build Quality, Keyboard and Trackpad

The design on the Dell XPS 13 is simple but elegant and that adds style of the laptop as a whole. When closed, the first and most obvious comparison is the Apple MacBook Air; it has an aluminum finish top and bottom with a singular Dell logo in the very center of the lid. It doesn’t light up though – opportunity missed.

The profile of the closed XPS 13 reveals the black plastic internals giving the notebook a very obviously angular design, tapering from the back to the front. This tapered design means the XPS 13 feels thinner while holding it than even the specifications would indicate. Looking at it from the front (where the charge indicator light is placed) you are given the optimal view, giving the XPS 13 its slimmest appearance.

The hinge on the back is black plastic and it stands out from the rest of the body. It was only very recently that Apple has been able to build in an aluminum hinge, which definitely improves appearance without affecting quality and user experience.

Flipping the XPS 13 over you find a very minimal design with a row of exhaust vents and a pair of full-length rubber feet to help keep the notebook in place on a desk, table or your lap. Dell has cleverly hidden the warranty and serial number information under the XPS tag on the bottom, which can be flipped up to reveal the information when you need it. Only 8 pentalobe screws stand between you and the opening of your notebook, although the number of accessible parts is minimal.

Quickly walking around the sides of the laptop to see port selection, the right hand side reveals one of the stereo speakers, a full size SD card reader, a USB 3.0 port and a Kensington lock port.

Over on the left, you’ll find the left channel speaker, a battery life indicator headphone/microphone port, another USB 3.0 port, a mini-DisplayPort connection (not Thunderbolt) and a barrel-shaped power connection.

One quick note about opening the Dell XPS 13 – they still haven’t figured out how to get the hinge tension just right to allow you to open it with one hand. This something that continues to impress me about the MacBook line that no PC maker seems capable of duplicating. When you do open up the lid, you are presented with a completely black, rubber-texture interior that actually looks as classy as the aluminum finish that others have used.

By far the best and most notable feature of the Dell XPS 13 is the ultra-thin bezel around its screen. The 13.3-in screen is surrounded by just 5.7mm of plastic on the top, left and right, giving the impression of the screen going all way to the edge of the lid. Even though Dell is only branding the 3200×1800 screen as the “infinity” display, the bezel is the same on the 1080p model we have and presents the same effect. The IPS quality screen is great, offering a bright screen even with the matte finish applied to it. We’ll have a lot more to say about the screen itself on the next page, but it’s a fantastic implementation.

There is more bezel along the bottom of the screen, giving Dell room to strengthen the hinge, place its logo and also to put a webcam. That’s right, the webcam is in the bottom left hand of the screen and actually will look up at your face when using Skype or Hangouts. That was a requirement to keep the bezel along the top small but the result is a camera that kind of…looks up your nose when sitting on a normal height desk. Also, if you are typing while using it you can expect your hands to be in the shot the whole time as well. It’s a tradeoff but one that I think is worth making for the screen.

Keyboard and Track Pad

The keyboard on the Dell XPS 13 is solid and easy to use for long form creation. Because the device is so thin, key travel is limited, and typing feels very different when compared to something like my Lenovo ThinkPad X240. The amount of pressure needed to input a key press is pretty low, versus most ThinkPads, but it is very typical of other “Chiclet” style keyboards. I wrote the majority of the Dell XPS 13 review on the Dell XPS 13 though; I found that I was able to get used to the typing style change in a couple of hours.

Dell has integrated a two-setting backlight on the keyboard to help with low-light viewing. Key layout is pretty standard though everyone is going to have specific preferences. For example, I’m not a fan of combining the arrow keys and PGUP/PGDN/Home/End but I know that a lot of Ultrabooks do this for spacing concerns.

The touchpad on the Dell XPS 13 is solid as well, offering a definitive click when pressed and a smooth surface to move your fingers across. The pad is able to reduce interference from your palms while typing though it seems at the expensive of one annoying tendency. When using the two-finger scrolling shortcut on the pad there is a perceptible delay between moving your fingers up and down and when the website scrolls up or down. It only happens when using two or more fingers in a gesture; simply moving the cursor with a single finger motion does not result in any delays. This might be something that Dell or its track pad partner could address in software, but that kind of software support post-launch is very rarely seen these days.

UPDATE: It turns out that this delayed scrolling issue does not occur in Internet Explorer, scrolling is quick and responsive outside of Chrome. We'll try to find more.

Areas where your wrist rest have a slightly rubberized feel that helps keep you from slipping around if you have any skin oils on your hands. You always have to worry about wear on these components of a notebook: will they start to discolor over time, will the letter fade off, etc.? It doesn’t appear that will be the case with the Dell XPS 13 but I don’t think anyone in the public has had one long enough to say for sure one way or the other.

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