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Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 review: bent out of shape

Dell's best laptop tries too hard and loses its charm

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Dell’s XPS 13 has been one of our favorite laptops for the past couple of years because of its sleek, trendsetting design, great keyboard, and solid performance. When it debuted back in the spring of 2015, it was one of the first Windows laptops that really provided a solid alternative to Apple’s MacBook line.

Now there are a lot of great Windows 10 laptops available, many of which have cribbed the ideas first demonstrated on the XPS 13, like its compact size and almost borderless display. So while Dell is still making and selling the original, it announced a new 2-in-1 version of the XPS 13 in January to capitalize on the trend of convertible laptops.

What sets this model apart from its siblings is its ability to transform from a standard laptop to a tablet and everything in between. It’s the same concept as pioneered by Lenovo’s Yoga line and adopted by HP’s x360 line among others.

The XPS 13 2-in-1 (yes, that is the official name of the product, clumsy as it is) carries over many of the same features of the standard model, including the signature InfinityEdge display that pushes the screen to the limits of the laptop’s frame. But it slims down to a slightly thinner profile and its screen rotates a full 360 degrees. It starts at $999, which is a couple hundred dollars more than the fixed-screen version, and can be equipped much higher. I’ve been testing a $1,299 model that includes a fanless Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of SSD storage, and a 1080p touchscreen display.

The question to answer is does the XPS 13 2-in-1 provide enough utility beyond the standard laptop functions to justify choosing it over the less expensive standard model? Based on my time with it, I don’t think there is much justification for its existence, and there are a few other reasons why I’m reticent to recommend this particular laptop.

Let’s start with what’s good here, as there’s a fair amount to like. The XPS 13 2-in-1 maintains the same general look and build quality as the original, which means it’s a gray metallic wedge with a soft-touch black patterned deck. It’s distinct and doesn’t look like it’s trying to be a MacBook or some other computer.

Build quality is solid and the 360-degree hinge is very stable

Build quality across the board is very good, as you’d expect from a computer in this price range. The 360-degree hinge, in particular, is very solid — there’s none of the wobbliness that frequently plagues 2-in-1 convertibles. Dell’s backlit keyboard is a joy to type on, and save for arrow keys which are a tad too small, I have no complaints with it. Same goes for the trackpad: it’s smooth, without being too smooth; supports Microsoft’s Precision gestures; and doesn’t get in the way or register stray clicks when I’m typing. Dell has added a fingerprint scanner to the right of the trackpad that works with Windows Hello to log into the computer. It’s very fast and convenient and perhaps my favorite feature on this computer.

The display on this model is the same 13.3-inch size as the standard XPS 13 and has the same minimal frame that makes it look even larger. The 1080p model on my review unit is sharp and bright with well-saturated colors. You can opt for a higher-resolution Quad-HD panel, but I don’t see the need to when the 1080p version is this good.

The 2-in-1 version of the XPS 13 swaps out the proper Core i processor for one of Intel’s weaker fanless versions, which might lead you to think it’s not particularly powerful. However, my experience with the Core i7 model (the 7Y75 processor, to be exact) has been exactly the opposite. I’ve been able to run dozens of tabs in a browser, multitask between apps with ease, and go about my day-to-day work without skipping a beat. Like the ultrathin Acer Swift 7, this Dell laptop isn’t the machine for gaming or heavy photo and video editing, but for everyday tasks it performs admirably.

Intel’s fanless processor is quiet, yet powerful enough for day-to-day tasks

That fanless processor also means this XPS 13 remains perfectly silent when pushed hard – there’s none of the fan noise we’ve become accustomed to with laptops. (Nor does it have the odd "coil whine" from the processor that has affected a small number of standard XPS 13 models.) It can get warm, though, and the underside gets uncomfortable on my lap when I’m using it for long periods of time.

Battery life is also solid and reliable, with the laptop generally lasting between seven and eight hours under my usual workload before needing to be plugged in. And if I do have to charge to get through the rest of my workday, the 2-in-1’s USB Type-C ports lets me top up through an external battery.

But not all is sunshine and rainbows with the XPS 13 2-in-1. Starting with those ports, the 2-in-1 drops the standard model’s selection of two USB-A, one USB-C, and full-size SD card slot and replaces them with a microSD card slot and two USB-C ports (one of which supports Thunderbolt 3). There is, fortunately, still a 3.5mm headphone jack, and Dell does throw in a USB-C to A adapter in the box to get you started on your dongle life. But I still miss the full-size SD card slot for quickly getting images off my camera and onto my laptop.

Another particularly irksome change is the power button, which is now on the right-hand side of the computer. It’s small, mushy, and difficult to press, which wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the XPS 13 2-in-1 reliably woke up from sleep when I opened the lid, but it doesn’t. In fact, this computer has a lot of issues with sleep and hibernation: it either does not sleep properly when I close the lid, leading to loss of battery in my bag, or it shuts down completely and loses all of my active work and programs when I start it back up. We’ve noticed this behavior with two separate review units, so it appears that Dell has something wrong with the software that manages these functions.

This computer’s issues aren’t solely relegated to its hardware, either. Despite its premium price, the XPS 13 2-in-1 comes loaded with unhelpful programs from Dell and nonsense such as McAfee trial software. You can uninstall them, but you shouldn’t have to when you spend this much on a computer.

Design issues aren’t this computer’s only problem

Opening the 2-in-1 is also an inexplicable chore, as Dell failed to provide any lip to grasp onto when lifting the lid. Just getting the computer open and into a usable state requires two hands and a lot of effort.

The one black mark on the standard XPS 13’s report card is its poorly located webcam and the 2-in-1 doesn’t address the issue. The camera has been moved from the bad lower-left spot to centered under the display, which is nearly as bad. It’s impossible to look at the camera and the display at the same time, and the up-the-nose angle of view is extremely unflattering. Further, should you use the keyboard while on a video call, your fingers will block the camera, which is just dumb.

You could rectify this by flipping the 2-in-1 over into its tent mode, which will put the camera above the display, but then you give up access to the keyboard and trackpad. Dell really just needs to figure out how to put the camera above the screen like every other laptop.

Fixing the webcam’s poor placement is also the best reason I could find to flip the 2-in-1 into one of its tablet modes. Unsurprisingly, this computer is still 90 percent a laptop and maybe 10 percent a tablet. Dell doesn’t provide any software to make compelling use of the increased physical capabilities, and I expect that most people will use it in the laptop mode the vast majority of the time. You might want to flip it around to watch a video while on a plane, but that’s about it.

The XPS 13 2-in-1 unsurprisingly makes for a poor tablet

As a tablet, the XPS 13 is too heavy (2.7 pounds, the same as the normal model) and too thick (between 8mm and 13.7mm) to be comfortable to hold for any stretch of time. The display’s trim borders actually hamper its tablet aspirations, as there is less to hold on to when in tablet mode without errantly touching the display. These aren’t unique complaints to the XPS 13 2-in-1 — they apply to virtually every convertible laptop I’ve used — but the whole reason for the 2-in-1’s existence is its flexibility, which isn’t terribly useful in the real world.

This in turn leads me to question why anyone would choose this particular version of the XPS 13. Sure, it’s a fine laptop, with a great keyboard, nice display, and snappy performance, but so is the standard XPS 13, which doesn’t have the compromises in ports or processor and costs less. And for the same price as the model I reviewed, you can get HP’s stellar Spectre x360, which is about the same weight and thickness, has a more powerful processor, more ports, and can do that whole convertible thing if you want it to without the compromises of the Dell.

Dell still has an excellent laptop line with the XPS models, but the XPS 13 2-in-1 doesn’t make it shine any brighter than it already does.

Photography by James Bareham / The Verge

Video by Phil Esposito and Tyler Pina / The Verge