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Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 review: The best laptop around learns a new trick

Daniel Howley
·Technology Editor

Dell’s XPS 13 is one of the best laptops on the market. We like it so much, we even made it one of our top picks for both 2016 and 2015. This year, though, Dell is changing things up a bit with an all-new model: The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1.

Yes, Dell has turned the XPS 13 into a hybrid laptop-tablet thanks to a new 360-degree-hinged display. The PC maker also lopped off some of the XPS 13’s already slim chassis and added a new webcam to the mix.

The XPS 13 2-in-1 does have a few quirks, namely the odd placement of the aforementioned webcam and a slower processor than the standard XPS 13. But overall, the XPS 13 2-in-1 ($1,299 as tested) is a solid offering that’s nearly as good as its stablemate.

The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 keyboard.
The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 has a stylish palm rest and wonderful keyboard.

Cutting the fat

Dell’s original XPS 13 is an attractive, well-built machine. So it’s nice to see that the PC maker didn’t alter much of that system’s DNA when it came time to build the XPS 13 2-in-1. The laptop’s aluminum lid features an understated Dell logo, while its carbon fiber palm rest gives the system a unique look and feel that’s durable, but smooth to the touch. At 12 x 7.8 x 0.54 inches, the XPS 13 2-in-1 is slightly slimmer than the standard XPS 13, which measures 12 x 9.3 x 0.6 inches. Both laptops weigh 2.7 pounds.

The XPS 13 2-in-1 360-degree touchscreen folds smoothly, but is sturdy enough to prevent any unnecessary play when in laptop mode. Like its predecessor, XPS 13 2-in-1’s gorgeous InfinityEdge display sports ultra-thin bezels that makes it feel like you’re holding nothing more than a screen when using the system in tablet mode.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 side view.
Dell made a thin laptop even thinner with the XPS 13 2-in-1.

I use a MacBook Air 13-inch (starting at $999) as my daily driver and the size difference between it and the XPS 13 2-in-1 is quite noticeable. The XPS isn’t just shorter and slimmer than Apple’s (AAPL) offering; it weighs less, too. It’s not as if the Air weighs a ton, either. But every ounce counts when you’ve got a bag that’s already overflowing with pens, unopened bills and random deodorant sticks — don’t ask — like mine.

That said, the MacBook comes with a more powerful processor, so if you’re looking for a system with more oomph, you’ll probably go with the Air.

The closest competitor Apple offers to the XPS 13 2-in-1 is the standard 12-inch MacBook (starting at $1,299), which is narrower, thinner and lighter than the Dell. However, the XPS can also be used as a tablet, which is more useful than saving a few extra tenths of an inch.

A tablet with no edges

The XPS 2-in-1’s 13-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 display is absolutely gorgeous, though not as sharp as the optional 3,200 x 1,800 panel. Still, movies looked clear and colors were radiant. The notebook’s screen is also exceptionally bright, making it easy to view if you ever happen to use it out in the midday sun.

Using the XPS 13 2-in-1 as a tablet is a bit odd at first, though. The slate is pretty wide in portrait mode, which makes holding it feel a bit uncomfortable when you’re not resting it on your lap or a table. I did, however, like flipping the display over and using the keyboard as a stand to watch movies while making dinner.

The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 in tablet mode.
The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is a bit large for a tablet, but its screen certainly is gorgeous.

There’s one annoying thing about XPS 13 2-in-1’s design: its webcam placement. See, like the original XPS 13, the 2-in-1’s webcam is situated along the laptop’s bottom bezel, just below the screen. But rather than placing it off-center as Dell did with the regular XPS, the company centered the camera. That’s great and all, but you still end up giving the person you’re video chatting with a nice view of your chin and nostrils. You can certainly fix that by using the 2-in-1 in tent mode, but you shouldn’t have to do that at all.

So-so power

Here’s the thing about the XPS 13 2-in-1. In order to make it slim and lightweight enough to use as a tablet, Dell eliminated the laptop’s internal fans. And to ensure that the system didn’t have a meltdown without its fans, the company swapped out the standard XPS 13’s Intel processor for a power-sipping Intel chip that produces less heat. The problem? That CPU is also less powerful than the one found in the regular XPS.

While Dell markets the XPS 13 2-in-1 as running on an Intel Core i7 chip, it’s not the beefy Core i7 you’re probably hoping it is. Instead, it’s a Core i7 7Y75, which is an updated and rebranded version of Intel’s old Core M chips.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 processor.
The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 doesn’t have as powerful a processor as the standard XPS 13.

Why does that matter? Because the XPS 13 2-in-1’s processor isn’t nearly as powerful as the CPU found in the standard 13. That doesn’t mean the 2-in-1 is underpowered in any way. On the contrary; with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive, the XPS 13 2-in-1 is more than powerful enough for your average someone who simply wants to surf the web with 20 browser tabs open, stream Spotify and talk to coworkers on Slack. But if you want to do things like photo editing and gaming, the XPS 13 2-in-1 will have trouble keeping up.

Should you get it?

Dell already won me over with the original XPS 13, so I was hesitant when I originally fired up the XPS 2-in-1. But being able to use the system as a slate is certainly welcome.

Still, I’d gladly sacrifice that 360-degree hinge for a more capable processor. If you’re the kind of person who wants to do basic web browsing and doesn’t expect to do any kind of heavy photo editing or the like, the XPS 13 2-in-1 is an excellent choice.

If you’re looking for more power, though, stick with the standard XPS 13.

More from Dan:

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.