Did I Buy the Wrong Laptop? A Review of the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

It started with a purchase of an iPod Mini in 2004. Bit by bit, I got sucked into the Apple Unreality Zone to the point where now almost all of my gear has a Cupertino logo on it. Of the half dozen computers in the house and home studio, only my main desktop–the one I use for writing, accounting and other office (Office?) work–is a Windows-based PC.

When it comes to laptops, I’ve long favoured using Apple machines because of their toughness, reliability, and ease of use. Every three years or so, I trade in my battered, well-traveled road warrior unit for something fresh. Just this past October, I said goodbye to my faithful 12-inch MacBook and shelled out for a 13-inch MacBook Pro, complete with its fancy TouchBar. (Gimmicky, by the way. Stay with the models with the old-fashioned function keys.)

I was behaving out of habit, too, once again convincing myself that I didn’t need an old-school USB port. Or an ethernet port. Or an SD card reader. Dongles? Got ’em all and then some. And although I hate dongles, I’d already paid for them, right? And although I’m not a fan of the MacBook’s keyboards (I had to replace the top case on the old MacBook THREE TIMES because those stupid butterfly keys have a definite short lifespan), I spent the money, anyway. Maddening, but Apple Care, you know?

In fact, I didn’t even look at another machine. I was a good lemming and upgraded to whatever I was told. But then Dell sent me a 13-inch XPS 2-in-1 laptop.

The 2-in-1 is a unit with a decent chip (an Intel i7 Y Series Kaby Lake Processor, which is roughly the same as the Core M that I had in my old 12-inch MacBook), the same size SSD (256 GB) as my Pro and the same amount of RAM (8 GB). Size- and weight-wise, they’re about the same, although the screen on the MacBook may be a few square centimetres larger.

Construction seems Mac-like, with the XPS made of machined aluminium. The touchpad is about 25% smaller, but that didn’t seem to be much of a hindrance when it came to gestures. Its design also fanless, so you can stream all the Rick and Morty you want without something buzzing in the background.

The XPS features Dell’s InfinityEdge almost bezel-less display, which is very bright, very colourful and viewable from off-axis. But unlike the Mac, the screen folds over flat against the bottom of the unit, effectively turning a laptop into a tablet. A thick one, but a tablet nonetheless.

Dell even sent me an “Active Pen,” which allowed me to draw on the screen with the appropriate apps like Windows Ink. (I have an iPad Pro, but I don’t have a pen, so I can’t tell you how the Dell pen compares.)

And although I frown on listening to music through laptop speakers–C’mon, people! Invest in something better! Laptop speakers are NOT “good enough”–the audio through the XPS was pretty good. For a laptop.

Ports? A USB 3.1. A MicroSD slot. The ability to plug in AC power on either side. One Thunderbolt port. A headphone jack. Hardly not enough to live life dongle-free. And my MacBook has four USB-C connections.

I did like the keyboard, though. There’s just enough travel to let you know that you’re giving the key a good press. I realize that keyboards are a highly subjective thing, but MacBook Pro fans are nearly unanimous in their hatred for the short-travel butterfly keys that Cupertino has foisted upon users.

The Dell’s keyboard isn’t as good as my old IBM ThinkPad–Best. Laptop. Keyboard. EVER.– but it certainly felt better than the MacBook Pro. I also like the soft-feel carbon fibre surface where you rest your palms as you type. And did I mention the keyboard is backlit? Score one for the XPS over my Pro.

Dell deserves some thanks for not loading up the XPS with unwanted crapware. That was long my biggest gripe about Windows laptops.

Hauling the XPS around the house and on the road felt normal once I got past the fact that I was using WIndows 10 in an environment other than on my desktop. Hardware-wise, the Dell felt enough like the Mac the transition was smooth. And Windows has come a long way in the last few years. I haven’t had a Blue Screen of Death in years and my one-year-old PC–built by a guy over at the runs with fewer crashes, burps and quirks than any of my Macs.

Battery life? Could be better. In fact, that’s the biggest complaint I had when I compared it to what I was used to from my old MacBook. Still, it ran about eight hours, which is enough for a coast-to-coast flight and maybe enough for a Toronto-London trip. And why does Dell insist on putting the camera at the bottom of the display? If you’re not careful, the person on the other end of your Skype chat will have a few up your nose.

But here’s the real rub: The Dell retails for half the price of the MacBook Pro that I just bought.

Er. Oh. Hmm.

Is it better than my MacBook Pro? Or even better than a 13.3 gaming laptop from Razer? It comes down to how much power you need. That Kaby Lake isn’t a match for my Pro’s i5 running at 3.2 GHz, and I need that extra power for running things like Pro Tools and doing video processing when I’m on the road. But for surfing, email, watching movies and regular office (Office?) work, the XPS is just fine.

Here’s the real question: If had been in the market for a new MacBook 12-inch which is similarly priced, would have I gone with that or the XPS? Tough call, really, but given the track record of the MacBook’s keyboard, it would be advantage XPS. And if you’re already a Windows person living in a Windows-only world, it’s a no-brainer. The XPS wins in a walk.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38321 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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