Forget what you know about Dell’s XPS range: the 13-inch 2-in-1 is a return to the hybrid form factor last seen with the launch of the ill-fated XPS 12 in 2015.
It’s the thinnest Dell XPS laptop you can buy right now, and one of the lightest, but the eye-watering price and some exceptionally strong rivals – such as the Surface Pro 4 and 12-inch MacBook – mean that this 2-in-1 doesn’t have the appeal of the class-leading regular XPS 13.
Much of the disappointment surrounds Dell’s UK pricing strategy. In the US, the cheapest XPS 2-in-1 costs a mere $949 (£916 inc VAT), which is actually a bit of a steal, although that model has a cheaper, slower SATA SSD. Here, the lowest price is £1,349, which means expectations are higher. And, as you’ll see, they aren’t quite met.
Watch: Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 video review
At first glance, you’d be hard-pushed to spot the difference between the regular Dell XPS 13 and this 2-in-1.
The same carbon fibre-composite finish lines the wrist rest, and as in the XPS 13, it looks good. Also present is the same tiny bezel that makes this machine feel more like an 11-inch laptop than a 13-inch one, plus there’s the chiclet, backlit keyboard.
However, there are some significant differences. It weighs 1.24kg, which sits bang in the middle of the lightest XPS 13 (1.2kg) and the heavier touchscreen model (1.29kg). This might initially sound surprising, but it's worth remembering that the structural rigidity required to make a strong 360-degree hinge will always result in a more weighty device.
Still, it does rather make the 2-in-1 feel heavier than you’d expect for a laptop that’s just 13.7mm thick. It’s only 160g lighter than the 14-inch Acer Spin 7, too, which is arguably a better bang-for-buck laptop.
The processor (more on that later) is cooled passively, meaning there’s no need for bulky fans and vents. This means the outer shell feels robust, a feeling that’s reinforced by the screen's Gorilla Glass coating.
Around the edges of this super-svelte device you get two USB Type-C ports. Not all Type-Cs are created equal, however: the port on the left is used for charging and can connect directly to a DisplayPort cable. You’ll still need a multi-adapter dongle for this, though; the laptop won't be of much use hooked up to your favourite monitor if you’re going to run out of battery.
There’s no regular-sized SD card slot here, but a microSD card port is included. I use a microSD card in an SD card adapter for my camera, so this wasn’t an issue for me. But photographers who use ultra-high-capacity SD cards will, again, require a dongle, or need switch to the smaller format.
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The power button is on the right-hand side, but it’s mushy – and difficult to determine whether you’ve actually pressed it when the laptop is switched off without looking at the tiny power light embedded within it. There are no volume keys on the side of the device, which is unusual for a convertible laptop. The final extra feature is the battery status indicator, which tells you the battery's charge status in the form of five small LEDs.
Spinning this machine around into tablet and tent mode is easy, but not so easy that the screen collapses at the first sign of movement. If I pick it up with a little force, it moves slightly, but not like the larger Acer Spin 7 – it collapsed as soon as you looked at it.
What’s slightly irritating is the lack of a groove for your fingers around the front of the laptop when it’s closed; as a result, it's actually surprisingly difficult to open the laptop without using two hands. This wasn't an issue with the original XPS 13, so I don’t quite understand how Dell let that slip through the QA process.
This laptop’s best feature is arguably its support for Windows Ink, which we already know to be very good. Sadly, Dell didn’t provide a stylus with my review unit – you can buy one separately – rather wasting this excellent opportunity for a genuinely interesting use case.
You can read more about Windows Ink in my Windows 10 Anniversary Update review – but if you’re a sketcher, artist or just prefer working with a stylus, it’s a great feature that’s getting better all the time. It’s also probably the most compelling reason to buy an XPS 13 2-in-1
The keyboard is surprisingly good. The chiclet, backlit keys don’t have as much travel as they would on a larger laptop, but they’re generally fine for long periods of typing. They do bottom out pretty severely if you’re a hard typist, so you’ll have to change your style if you tend to hammer the keys.
The only slight oddity (aside from the US key layout on my model) is the positioning of the screen brightness keys. These can be found on the up and down navigation keys; to activate them, they have to be pressed in combination with the Fn button.
The touchpad is Microsoft Precision-certified, which means it can handle all the gestures you can throw at it. However, there are minor physical design flaws.
It’s nice to have a physical click, especially when dragging and dropping items. However, the age-old problem of the cursor jumping has returned. It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does, you might find your cursor jumping a few dozen pixels in one direction when you click with any force.
To the right of the touchpad is a fingerprint scanner, which is now all the rage on high-end laptops. It’s a great addition, although its usefulness is limited to logging into Windows and the very, very occasional website using the Edge browser.
Another XPS, another nose cam. The webcam might have jumped a few inches to the right, dead centre of the bezel at the bottom, but it remains a terrible position.
This time around, it’s a dual setup with an infra-red camera as well as a regular sensor. Right now, the IR sensor doesn’t do anything, but the plan is to have it log you into Windows 10 using Windows Hello, much like the Surface Pro 4. This is expected to arrive in the Creators Update later this year.
Ignoring its weird positioning, the webcam is actually pretty good. It doesn’t fall into the trap of over-compensating backlit subjects and managed a clear and blotch-free interpretation of my face. Sadly, if you’re on a video call and typing notes at the same time, your companions will have an uncomfortably close view of your fingers moving up and down.
The built-in microphone is similarly pretty good, recording clear audio that’s more than Skype-worthy.
The speakers are fine, but nothing out of the ordinary for a laptop. They can go fairly loud but have very little bass presence and struggle to make music sound enjoyable.
In addition, Dell's audio software has become needlessly complicated: every time you plug in an audio device, not only do you have to choose whether it's in or out, but also what kind of headphones they are.