A noisy machine that will mutate into an expensive paperweight
I’m very sad to report that my Dell XPS 13 9350, with core-i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and 512GB SSD has had to be returned to the manufacturer (at their insistence, I’d rather have had it fixed under the warranty I bought with it). Most of this review was written in the first few days, when the problems I saw I’d put down to other issues such as my external display lead or Windows. After the motherboard was replaced though, it lasted less than 24 hours, before Dell support insisted there was nothing they could do other than collect the machine and issue a refund. Note that I am an IT consultant with well over 20 years in the field – this is a review from a seasoned professional, who understands that computers don’t always work first time!
If you want to take a look at the item on Amazon, and perhaps read a couple of other reviews, it’s available here.
The laptop is a lovely, small package, its size totally belying its screen size of 13.3″. The aluminium shell with carbon fibre palm rest is strong, and really looks quality, the palm rest having a nice soft feel to support long term typing. The screen knows no peers, and is glossy, goes almost right to the edge of the unit, and you can barely see the pixels with a magnifying glass – it’s worth noting that there were no dead / stuck ones that I can see. It’s amazing before you even start using it as a touchscreen (with 10 point multi touch ability). Other nice touches initially are a great keyboard with good feel and typing ability, shift keys in the right place, a proper double height enter key, and a keyboard backlight that supports different brightness levels, which fade to off when you’re not using it, until you move the mouse or touch a key again, to save battery. The key tops have a really soft touch feel to them, and all the labelling is clear and bright. The slick, glass, integrated touchpad just works perfectly, keeping well away from your palms and supports multi-touch, with all the Windows 10 gestures being recognised immediately, and no false starts.
The two USB 3 ports provide really fast data transfer through all your legacy kit, and the USB Type-C port lets you plug in adapters such as mine with HDMI, USB 3 and pass-through USB Type-C. This port also allows charging, and thunderbolt 3. A combined stereo headphone and mic socket is also sat on the side. I love the power button which has the appearance of a traditional power icon, being a circle with a vertical light as a radius at the 12 o’clock point. It’s little touches like this (and the flap underneath hiding the FCC ID and service tag details) that really make this stand out from your bog standard laptop. There’s also a nice built in SD card reader on the side, and a handy little button with lights that shows you the battery’s charge. Unfortunately the battery isn’t removable, but as it will give you almost a full day’s work from a single charge, this is unlikely to hurt most users. There’s a cool little charging light at the front of the unit, under the trackpad, that doubles as a diagnostic light, which I was unfortunate enough to see in action – more of which later…
In a quiet room, you can hear the fans when the unit starts to get hot, but they’re not distracting. The SSD is blisteringly fast, and the 512GB of space along with 16GB of RAM really gives you some headroom to use this laptop as a main computer. I’m not an audio afficionado, but for me the speakers on the sides of the laptop give out an awesome sound – I suspect real audiophiles won’t be as impressed. The case gets quite hot under heavy use, so don’t rest it on bare knees, and make sure the vents are always clear – don’t sit it on a pillow. The nice rubber foot strips give a natural air gap underneath when used on a solid surface like a desk or a book. The screen tilts back a fair way, maybe to around 45 degrees, but certainly won’t fold flat, thanks to the hinge design not being right at the back of the unit. The supplied power lead is a small external block, with a Dell specific circular jack, with power to the block being provided by the usual cloverleaf three pin standard plug. You can charge via the USB type C port, but you’ll need to provide a charger and lead to do that yourself.
There is an integrated webcam on this laptop, but it’s weirdly sited under the screen, way off to the left, so you get some really weird pictures when on video calls etc. Wi-Fi is 802.11AC and gave really high speeds when connected to our 5Ghz network. Bluetooth 4.1 is also included and connected perfectly to various ancillary devices such as speaker units etc.
So far, so good, but then the screen started flickering. Oh, and there was a weird whining and crackling noise from inside the unit. Then it froze. Restarted, used it to play World of Warcraft for a few hours (looking gorgeous on that screen), put it down to Windows, restarted again, for it to freeze again. Not good. More display flickers, more freezes, then it failed to boot up. Powered off for a while, let it cool down, went into Dell diagnostics from the boot menu, froze again. Now it wouldn’t last 20 seconds after the power button being pressed. Occasionally the diagnostic light at the front would give us a hint there was something wrong by flashing orange and white in different patterns – queue a call to Dell’s next day warranty support. After a bit of getting past the language barrier and call handler’s script, we got an engineer arranged for the next day to replace both the motherboard and the SSD (don’t ask me why the SSD was recommended for replacement, nor their engineer who turned up wondering why!).
The engineer turned up during the allotted window, professionally replaced the motherboard and SSD – no boot up… 🙁 Turns out the SSD they sent was faulty. Replaced it with my original one which was fine, and we were away. The engineer left, I didn’t have to rebuild my laptop, and I was happy. For a few hours that was, until I was sure I saw the screen flicker out of the corner of my eye. Then I was in a quiet room and heard the crackling and whining sound coming from inside the unit, underneath. Queue a call to Dell support (again). As everything was working fine, and I couldn’t be certain about the screen flicker, and it hadn’t frozen, I could only report the noise. After much discussions with his colleagues, I was advised that this noise was absolutely normal for the Dell XPS 13, all models, because of the unit’s size, and it was related to the Piezo Electric effect. Erm, I know what coil whine is, and if this is normal, I don’t think the components are going to last too long. He also informed me that they were hoping to fix it with a BIOS update in November. This was confirmed by his manager when I spoke to him, who also said that if the BIOS fix didn’t work, a new motherboard design would be put out, and I would be able to have mine replaced under the warranty. At this point, it was a question of do I return this under the distance selling regulations, or do I wait for the BIOS / motherboard fix, because swapping it out for a replacement model will apparently be no better. We agreed to revisit the call next day to check for freezes, and I would hold fire on the return.
Waiting for the Dell technician to call the next day, the screen started flickering. Badly… 🙁 The flickering wouldn’t stop, and it was clear the machine was dying again. When I eventually got hold of Dell because they didn’t call me back during the promised time window, and I’d sent them video of the flickering (see below), they said that they wouldn’t be able to repair this machine under warranty, and would collect it and give us a full refund. Despite some issues, that happened, and the refund money has been spent on a competitor’s product (a gorgeous OLED screened HP Spectre x360 in Ash Silver / Copper), which I now wish I’d gone for in the first place as I love it!
In summary, this would be a brilliant little laptop, if it worked. I understand that lemons exist, and I probably had one, but Dell support have confirmed that the noises I was hearing were across the board with this model, and they also think a BIOS update is going to fix bad coil whine. As it stands, if a Dell XPS 13 works now, I don’t think it will last 3 years, and it’ll deteriorate into a very expensive and pretty looking paperweight, meaning I cannot give it my recommendation, which makes me very sad…