Dell XPS 13 9350 review – Core i7-6560U configuration with Intel Iris 540 graphics

Summary: Truth is, you’re not going to find a laptop with a 13.3” screen and such a small footprint anywhere else, and it’s just as light and compact as it is powerful and attractive. This particular version tested here handles games better than most other ultraportables, but if that’s not something you’re interested in, there are other configurations that sell for less and offer increased battery life.
Rating: 4 / 5
Price range: $1599 – $2199

THE GOOD

Superb build quality; Great screen with ultra small bezels; Small footprint; Powerful CPU and graphics in a small package

THE BAD

Trackpad a little jumpy; Unusual screen brightness fluctuations; Throttles due to TDP under heavy loads; Dell’s size and battery specs misleading; Odd webcam placement

About a year ago, I got the opportunity to try out Dell’s Broadwell XPS 13. In fact, Andrei also got it and still uses it today. I really liked it, but the unit I received had a few bugs in it, including a sluggish trackpad and poor screen brightness. I ended up returning it and getting something else at the time.

Fast forward to today and I noticed Dell now offer a unit with Intel Iris graphics. After reading that some of the bugs that plagues the previous XPS 13 versions were potentially fixed, I just couldn’t resist trying out this new model with the new Intel CPU.

After a good week of use I think I formed a pretty good opinion of the machine. Read on to see what I found out.

The specs sheet

Dell XPS 13 9350
Screen 13.3 inch, 3200 x 1800 px resolution, Infinity Edge touchscreen, IGZO
Processor Intel Skylake Core i7-6560U CPU, dual-core 2.2 GHz(3.2Ghz boost)
Video Integrated Intel Iris HD Graphics 540
Memory 8 GB LPDDR3 1866Mhz
Storage 256 GB M.2 PCIe NVMe
Connectivity Wireless AC, Intel Bluetooth 4.1
Ports 2x USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 3(USB Type-C), mic/earphone combo
Battery 56 Wh
Operating system Windows 10
Size 304mm or 11.98” (w) x 200mm or 7.88” (d) x 17mm or .68” (h)
Weight 1.3kg or 2.9 lb
Extras Backlit keyboard, trackpad, 720p webcam, 3 in 1 memory card reader, Noble lock

Design and exterior

Since Andrei already wrote about the Broadwell version, I’ll try to stick to the things that have changed. Really, the design is pretty much the same as last year. It’s the same aluminum body with a carbon fiber palm rest. The build quality is solid and well constructed.

The only thing that’s slightly different on the 9350 version is the connectivity on the sides.

On the right side, there is a single USB 3.0 port, a 3-in-1 card reader and a Noble lock. On the left side, you have a power connector, Thunderbolt 3 USB type-C, USB 3.0 and a headphone/mic combo. There is also the same battery indicator button and lights, like on the last model.

design-exterior
design-interior
design-back

Speaking of the USB-C, this port is also Thunderbolt 3 capable. What’s nice about this is you’ll be able achieve 40Gbps transfer speeds, allowing the potential for an external GPU to be used, if desired. There are currently none on the open market as of yet, but the Razer Core is coming out soon, and they have mentioned that it will be openly compatible with laptops that are Thunderbolt 3 capable. I’ve preordered a Razer Core already, so if the timing is right, I might be able to get a hands on test of this. Stay tuned.

Dell did good to keep the design the same. Why change something that’s already great, right? I so need to point out some discrepancies with Dell’s specs though. They report a weight of 2.7 lbs but mine actually weighs 2.9 lbs. Also, the thickness is VERY deceiving, reported at .33-.6″. In actuality it measures .68″ in the middle backside (.8″ if you include the rubber foot). All that said, it’s a great design to have a 13″ screen in a laptop that has the footprint of an 11″ model.

Also like last year, the intake vents are on the bottom and the exhaust comes up at the screen. The webcam is still oddly placed at the lower left hand side of the screen, since there’s no room with such a small bezel. And there’s also the same annoying indicator lights as last year: the always on power button light, the always on power cord light and the long charging light smack in the middle of the front lip.

side-front
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Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the laptop’s design. Other than the lights that won’t turn off, there’s little I would change about it. A future improvement I’d like to see would be to tweak the hinge to it can be opened one-handed. But definitely not at the expense of screen wobble from touching the touchscreen.

Andrei’s update: After using the XPS 13 for more than a year, I can say this laptop ages very well. My unit still looks like new, with no scratches on the metallic surfaces. That’s if I wipe clean the soft interior and the keyboard, which both show off fingerprints and smudges. But overall Dell did a really good job here with their choice in materials, finishing and overall build quality.

Keyboard and trackpad

The keyboard on the XPS 13 is pretty good. The travel is pretty much what you would expect from an Ultrabook this size. I’m able to type on it pretty decently and quickly got used to the key placement and spacing. Again, this is the same keyboard as last year, so nothing new here.

On a typing test I scored a 50 right off the bat, which is pretty much my average typing speed. The feedback on the keys is pretty decent, measuring at about 60 grams to depress a key. I think the spacing initially caused me to make more typos at first, but I notice I’m doing a lot better while typing this review.

The keyboard is backlit with a white color. There are three levels of backlighting and an off setting, controlled with the F10 key. The lighting is pretty uniform and you can only see the light bleed when looking at the extreme angles. No complaints there.

As for the trackpad, it’s also the same as last year. It’s a glass trackpad with a nice smooth finish. For the most part, the mouse pointer tracked properly and it felt very natural to use.

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Multi-touch gestures registered properly but I did struggle a bit with two finger scrolling. Occasionally it would get jumpy and scroll up a little after scrolling down. It also accidentally registered pinch to zoom on a couple scrolls. It’s probably a sensitivity setting but unfortunately the drivers don’t include one.

The trackpad is neither Elan or Synaptics in this one. It’s actually a “Microsoft Precision Touchpad” so the settings are located within Windows settings and they are pretty limited and lack the customization that Synaptics and Elan typically offer.

A HUGE improvement from last year, though, is the trackpad’s ability to scroll in Chrome. In fact, this was pretty much the deciding factor for my return last year. Before it was very choppy and you had to disable pinch to zoom in order to scroll smoothly. But now it’s much better right from the start. I’m not sure if it was Chrome or a driver update that solved it, but I’m much happier with it now.

Screen

This laptop comes with a stellar screen. The 13.3″ Sharp InfinityEdge panel in this model has a max resolution of 3200 x 1800 px. Viewing angles look really sharp from any angle and there is zero backlight bleed on the edges, plus, you just gotta love that small bezel!

I measured the color accuracy of the panel with a Spyder4Pro. The results were very good, with sRGB – 99%, NTSC – 72% and aRGB – 77%. This is pretty much the norm now for IPS-like screens, with the exception of the wide gamut versions which Dell doesn’t offer for this model unfortunately.

The maximum brightness I measured was a whopping 420 nits. I also measured the brightness distribution, which can be seen in the table below. Don’t get too excited though because those levels only come when measuring a completely white screen. The truth is, Dell utilizes a technology that makes the brightness fluctuate depending on the content of the screen. So if the screen is half black, and/or the whites shift from black, the brightness is sluggish and is usually lower.

screen-brightness-distriI’ve seen this feature in some laptop screens before but it’s usually only while on battery and it can be turned off in Intel’s settings by going to the power settings and clicking the battery tab. Unfortunately, that setting doesn’t exist on this one and it’s always on. There is a fix available to disable this but it involves flashing your bios and will reduce your battery life. I’m also under the impression it’s unofficial, so take caution.

So yes, there it is – a screen with 400 nits of brightness, but in all actuality it’s pretty dim unless the screen is mostly white. Outdoors, the brightness is nowhere near high enough to fight the glare, but if you don’t spend a lot of time outside with your laptop, you should be perfectly fine with it though.

The contrast ratio was measured at roughly 650:1 in most brightness levels, also a pretty typical measurement for laptops these days. As you can see in my chart, the maximum white was only 250 nits because of the issue above.

brightness-contrastIf you want to look up more details on the panel itself, the panel model I have is Sharp LQ133Z1.

The screen is also a touchscreen for my model, so obviously it’s glossy. I really didn’t notice reflections a whole lot since the panel is pretty close to the glass. Like I said before, the hinge is pretty good so the screen stays in place pretty nicely when touching the screen. There is also has a matte 1080p display option, but I don’t think they offer it with the Iris models.

screen-indoors
screen-bright-light
screen-hinge

Overall I’m happy with the screen, even with the variable brightness it has. There is that bios fix out there if it really bothers you.

Hardware and performance

This model of the XPS 13 comes with an Intel Core i7-6560U processor and 8GB of LPDDR3 ram. This is overall one of the best processors you can get for an Ultrabook without crushing your dreams of having decent battery life. As stated before, this processor includes Intel Iris 540 graphics, which is a significant jump from the HD 520 graphics in the “normal” Skylake-U processors.

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The SSD in this laptop is PCI-e NVMe based. It’s a Samsung PM951 stick, which is pretty much the same model SSD I’ve been seeing in so many other laptops lately. The speeds are superior to M.2 SATA drives in some ways, but the write speeds are lacking in the smaller sized drives such as this one (they are much better on the 512 GB version). Still, I’d hardly call this drive slow.

I was able to capture a number of benchmarks, to measure the potential of the CPU and the Iris graphics. I was very pleased with what I saw, although I did notice some throttling due to hitting the TDP limit. I actually expected this since I barely hit the limit on the Core i7-6500U on the Razer Blade Stealth. Still, the results ended up being better and there is definitely a clear advantage to having Iris graphics. Here’s what I got:

  • 3Dmark 13: Ice Storm – 64897 , Cloud Gate – 6861 , Sky Diver – 4683 , Fire Strike – 1173 ; Mac CPU temp 92C
  • 3Dmark 11: P2072
  • PCMark 08: Home Conventional – 2470, Accelerated – 2917 with 90 C max temp
  • CineBench 11.5: OpenGL 43.57 fps, CPU 3.48 pts, CPU Single Core 1.51 pts;
  • CineBench R15: OpenGL 46.06 fps, CPU 301 pts, CPU Single Core 125 pts.

Important: You should also read Doug’s article on how you can actually improve graphics performance by a fair amount and lower temperatures on this laptop.

perf-temps-gaming
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perf-temps-gaming-battery
perf-temps-heavy-browsing
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perf-temps-mkv-movie
perf-temps-pcmark-benchmark
perf-temps-youtube

These aside, Furmark throttled due to the TDP limit within seconds and stabilizes with the CPU clock at 1Ghz and the GPU clock at 600Mhz. Temps stabilize at 78C.

With Prime95, on a large FTF, the CPU throttles due to TDP after about 15 seconds and stabilized at 2.3GHz and CPU temps averaged 84C, although there was a 96C spike at the beginning before the fans caught up. On a small FTF I noticed pretty much the same behavior as with large FTF except the CPU stabilized at 2.4 GHz and the temps averaged around 87C. The temperature spike was 99C in this case – yikes!

stress-test-cpu-prime95-large-ftf
stress-test-cpu-prime95-small-ftf
stress-test-gpu-furmark

I also got a chance to try some games. Here’s what I got:

Title/Graphics settings fps 720p fps 1080p
Tomb Raider – high 50-55 25-32
Tomb Raider – normal 60 34-40
Tomb Raider – low 60 52-58
Borderlands 2 – medium 48-55 25-35
Borderlands 2 – low 55-60 35-40
Portal 2 – high 60 60
Dragon Age Inquisition – low 25-35 15-20
Starcraft 2 – high 45-55 34-38
StarCraft 2 – medium 55-60 52-60
StarCraft 2 – low 130+ 120-130

The CPU reached temperatures as high as 92C while gaming with an average of 82C.

Throttling aside, this laptop does pretty darn good at low to medium gaming. Certainly much better than the Core i7-6500U variants. If you’re looking for a laptop that can handle some light gaming, but don’t want to add thickness and have a dedicated CPU, this might be the logical choice for you.

Noise, Heat, Connectivity, speakers and others

The fan on this laptop is mostly quiet. I really only noticed it at all when I was in a completely silent room with the air conditioning off. Overall the fan does a pretty decent job at removing the heat, although I think it could be a little more aggressive to avoid those 90+C spikes I recorded.

I took noise readings at my ear and at the fan itself while playing a game. The ambient reading was 25dB. With the fan on as high as I’ve witnessed, the sound reading was around 30dB. At the fan itself, I got a reading of 40dB. Pretty quiet if you ask me.

On battery, I had some pretty irritating coil whine, unfortunately. It only happened with certain graphics intensive programs with the laptop under load, but it was definitely there and reproducible. I actually had this with my unit last year but I chalked it off to fan noise. Little did I know this is a wide spread problem with many complaints. I wish I could say that replacing it would help, but most online say it hasn’t from them. Like the fan noise, the coil whine is quiet and won’t be noticed if there is any background noise at all.

Moving on to heat, I hate to say it but this thing gets hot. Under normal loads, it’s a little warmer than normal. But this is probably to be expected considering it’s an i7 in such a thin, metallic chassis. Without more aggressive cooling, the heat will build up, and Dell chose to go with less noise over an overall cooler unit. This is OK with me, but some might find it a little much.

Where things get bad though is with the gaming loads. I recorded a hotspot of 50C on the upper center section of the underbelly. Being in the middle, it wasn’t in direct contact with my leg but I certainly felt it on the sides. What this means is you probably won’t be too comfortable gaming in shorts for long periods – not something you probably do anyways. A cooling pad or even a dinner tray would solve that problem.

Another potential improvement would be to repaste the CPU. Doug actually bought the same model as I did and wrote an article about repasting the CPU. Not only did it help his temps but also improved his benchmark scores. Definitely worth the read!

temperatures-daily-usetemperatures-load*Daily Use – 1080p Youtube video in Edge for 30 minutes;
*Load – playing Tomb Raider for approximately 30 minutes on medium FHD settings

The WiFi card on this laptop is not great, but not bad either. The model is Dell Wireless 1820a, which I’ve honestly never used before. The good news is the connection is very stable, unlike the wireless card in the XPS 15, which has been known to drop connection. The range of the antenna, though, is just OK. From 25 feet and 1 wall from my router, I got 44Mbps. From 50 ft and 2 walls that connection got as low as 23Mbps.

There’s not much to complain about the sound on this laptop. The speakers point out towards the sides, so there’s no muffling of the sound on your lap. It’s not the greatest sound quality, but it’s pretty darned good for such a thin laptop. Audiophiles won’t be impressed, but it’s certainly good enough for the average person to watch movies and listen to music.

At default settings, the max sound level reaches 70dB. Switching it over to gaming mode, the sound reaches 80dB. I detected no distortion at max volume either. As for the bass, it’s obviously not very loud, but I was able to distinguish frequencies as low as 35 Hz.

The webcam in the XPS 13 is the exact same one as last year and probably one of the most ridiculous parts of the machine. It works but it’s nothing you should expect to love. First of all, it’s a 720p sensor so the shots are low res and grainy unless in an extremely bright room. It’s also in the corner of the screen, since there’s no room at the top bezel. So you get a great look up your nostrils when using the screen at normal angles. Believe it or not, the picture I took is me looking directly at the center of the screen while typing this and my left hand on the home keys. Brutal!

The webcam is pretty crap and odly positioned, due to the screen having such a thin bezel

The webcam is pretty crappy and oddly positioned, due to the screen having such a thin bezel

Battery life

My battery test consists of using the stock “Power Saver” power profile, 30% brightness (75 nits), WiFi off, Bluetooth off, and running a 720p movie in a continuous loop at full screen with the volume muted. I start the clock when it’s unplugged and stop it when the unit performs a self- shutdown. The Dell XPS 13 lasted 8 hours and 15 minutes before shutting down.

In the following tests we’ve set the screen’s brightness at 50%, which is about 130 nits. Also the keyboard backlighting was set to minimal.

  • 4.9 W (~ 11h 25 min of use) – idle, Power Saving Mode, screen at 0%, Wi-Fi OFF;
  • 8.4 W (~ 6 h 40 min of use) – light browsing and text editing in Microsoft Word, Balanced Mode, screen at 50%, Wi-Fi ON;
  • 11.1 W (~ 5 h 3 min of use) – 1440p full screen video on YouTube in EDGE, Balanced Mode, screen at 50%, Wi-Fi ON;
  • 7.1 W (~7 h 53 min of use) – 1080p full screen .mkv video in Movie App, Balanced Mode, screen at 50%, Wi-Fi ON;
  • 18.4 W (~3 h 3 min of use) – heavy browsing in EDGE, Balanced Mode, screen at 80%, Wi-Fi ON;
  • 24 W (~2 h 20 min of use) – gaming in 1080p, Balanced Mode, screen at 80%, Wi-Fi ON.

These results are pretty typical considering the 56 Wh battery Dell decided to use. Dell embellishes just a tiny bit saying there is 18 hour battery life (seriously Dell?). Considering there’s a bright QHD+ screen and a powerful CPU, this is about what you can expect from such a small package.

Also included in the box is a pretty small 45W charger. It’s a little bigger than the one on the Razer Blade Stealth but it’s perfectly compact enough. I don’t quite understand why they didn’t just use the USB-C strickly for charging, because that port is perfectly capable. In fact, my Razer Blade Stealth charger worked perfectly with the XPS 13.

Price and availability

The unit I received is pretty much the top model available currently. The list price is $1599, but I’ve been seeing sales as low as $1350 at the time of this post. It’s going to vary in the future, so just check out the links for up-to-date prices at the time you’re reading this article. The version I have is available on both Amazon and Newegg.There is also a gold version in the wild now, if that’s something of interest to you.

If you like what you see and want to save a little, you can also opt for a standard i5 or i7 processor. Some of these models have less RAM and some even have a FHD non-touch screen. There are even the Broadwell models still available. You can find all of these by following this link.

Final thoughts

I have to say, my second go at the XPS 13 was a lot better than the first time around. Last year, the drivers were so buggy that my screen was very dim and my trackpad could not even scroll properly in Chrome at all. I still think there is some improvement to be made with the trackpad, but this laptop has come a long way in the past year, and I’m a lot more pleased now.

Some of its strongest points are the build quality, portability and the screen quality. Honestly, I’d be willing to overlook some of the weak points, such as the trackpad, weird brightness fluctuations and the indicator lights, but they are there nonetheless.

Truth is, you’re not going to find a laptop with a 13.3” screen and such a small footprint anywhere else. This is the type of laptop you’ll want to have on the airplane, where space is limited. It’s just as light and compact as it is powerful and attractive. If you’re in need of something this compact and also want to do some light gaming, this is the model for you.

Dell's XPS 13 9350 is compact and fast like no other device out there, but it's not without flaws

Dell’s XPS 13 9350 is compact and fast like no other device out there, but it’s not without flaws

If you don’t care about games and would rather get longer battery life, than get the Core i7-6500U configuration, or better yet, the Core i5-6200U models with the FHD matte screen. Just make sure to pick at least 8 GB of RAM on your unit, since the memory cannot be upgraded.

That wraps up my review. I should have the laptop in my hands for about another week, so if you have any immediate questions or suggestions of things I should look at, please feel free to reply in the comments section below.

In addition to being a tech enthusiast, Derek has a career as a biomedical engineer. He enjoys taking things apart, figuring out how they work and finding ways to make them better. His other hobbies include spending time with his family, “Do it yourself” projects such as home automation and running.

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