Dell’s new XPS 13 shows the price of getting too thin


Since Steve Jobs pulled the first MacBook Air out of a manila envelope at MacWorld Expo in 2008, the laptop industry went after accolades for the thinnest and lightest designs. And while the MacBook Air continues to be a white whale, a Windows laptop has become almost as recognizable: the Dell XPS 13.

But the new Dell XPS 13 (9315) is a radical departure from its predecessors. While the XPS 13 as an ultrabook dates back to 2012, the XPS 13, as most of us remember, started in 2015 when the company first added its “InfinityEdge” display, shrinking glasses. Thanks to this, a sturdy metal shell and a generally comfortable keyboard, the laptop has become an icon. As other laptop makers have sued the MacBook Air, they have also sued the XPS 13. So when the XPS 13 becomes thin enough to be almost completely irreparable or upgradable by users, I made a note of it. How much would Dell give up to shrink 0.03 inches from the previous model?

The Dell XPS 13 (9315), which was announced Thursday, keeps thin frames. But it ditches the carbon fiber keyboard and most of its ports, in Dell’s quest for a slimmer, more portable design at just 0.55 inches thick. It uses Intel’s 12th generation U-series processors at nine watts (up to 12W depending on the use case), leaving the more powerful P-series parts to the XPS 13 Plus.

But perhaps more importantly, it has the smallest motherboard Dell has ever made (approximately 180.15 x 38.34mm). This allows the company to cram a large, thin battery, keeping the laptop tiny and, presumably, durable. (We haven’t been able to test the XPS 13 yet, but we’re looking forward to it.) It borrows from the world of smartphone engineering for the motherboard and RAM, soldering in the memory that typically goes on processors from smartphones to the motherboard.

(Image credit: Dell)

The SSD, a PCIe Gen 4 NVMe drive, sits in an 11.5 x 13mm enclosure, which Dell calls the smallest in the industry. It’s in a BGA, or Ball Grid Array, which uses solder to permanently attach the components. You won’t replace it if it breaks or you won’t trade in something bigger or faster down the line. And the battery is built-in, so replacing it will be a hassle if you can do anything.

Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of sustainability at iFixit, said there are several XPS 13 laptops with soldered RAM in her organization, which she hopes will change in future revisions.

“We have quite a few XPS 13s deployed at iFixit, and we’ve had reliability issues with XPS 13 machines with failing soldered RAM,” Chamberlain said. “When that happens, we have to replace the entire expensive main board rather than swap out the RAM like we can on the XPS 15. Rather than reverse this design error, Dell seems to be doubling down.”

In terms of smoothness, it’s kind of an engineering marvel. But maybe Dell chased Apple a bit too far.

Now Apple has beaten Dell here. While the original MacBook Air had a replaceable hard drive, its RAM was soldered down (the MacBook Pro would follow in 2013). But with the move to Apple Silicon, storage has also been welded. Sure, you can replace the battery, but other repairs are largely out of the question without going to a Genius Bar. (At least Apple’s RAM situation is because the RAM is part of the SoC.)

But in some ways, Dell has gone further. There’s no technical reason, other than thinness, for the way Dell soldered the RAM, for example. Unlike Apple Silicon, Intel’s Alder Lake chips have no onboard memory. Same goes for this SSD.

“While we strive to make devices that can be taken apart, repaired, refurbished and ultimately recycled, customer desires for smaller, thinner and better performing devices can make this task difficult – and in the case of XPS 13 laptop, streamlined size reduces material usage while increasing efficiency, but limits some repair options,” Dell representatives wrote to Tom’s gear. “Each product is a series of decisions based on what the customer needs, wants, and will enjoy. With our latest XPS 13 laptop, we are addressing consumer needs for portability and functionality.”

But some customers want this mixed with repairability. Chamberlain said that while iFixit will have to do its own teardown to make a final call, “based on the specs, it seems unlikely that we’ll recommend this locked-down computer to our team as we always have.”

Even on the PC side, Dell is not alone here. It’s only recently that Microsoft started adding SSD doors to Surface devices, and even then only some of them. I’ve seen a lot of laptops from almost every OEM move towards soldering RAM down to save a few millimeters in thickness, although storage drives are often accessible. And Dell has gone so far with its new XPS 13 by removing the headphone jack.

Yes, the 3.5mm headphone jack is missing from the Dell XPS 13. I assumed when I asked Dell about it, I would hear how everyone is using wireless headphones these days. But the company’s spokespersons were much more candid than I expected:

“We were unable to fit a headphone jack into the chassis, based on the aggressive design and portability goals we set for XPS 13,” Dell said. Tom’s gear in an email.

(Image credit: Dell)

But even Apple, which makes money on AirPods, has yet to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from its laptops. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone say the MacBook Air isn’t portable enough. Even the 12-inch MacBook had a headphone jack. Raise your hand if you have a pair of USB Type-C headphones in case your wireless headphones run out of charge. Wow, really only a few of you.

That future of super-thin laptops that the average person can’t maintain may be inevitable, however, as companies embrace new form factors and Arm-based chips become more popular.

“I think this is a trend that will continue to grow, especially as we see more and more PCs adopting Arm-based technology,” Anshel Sag, principal analyst for PCs at Moor Insights, told me. & Strategy, in an email. “I think companies like Qualcomm will help drive this trend forward with even smaller PCBs and deeper integration of components into the SoC.”

I haven’t had a chance to test the latest XPS 13 yet. When I do, I’m sure I’ll tell you that I’m impressed with how thin and light it is – everything else we’ll have to test. But there’s a reason we open the laptops we review at Tom’s gear when we can. Things break, needs change, and the ability to at least upgrade storage is nice, especially when most companies charge a lot more for a bigger or faster drive than that drive actually costs. (Dell has an option for those who want a replaceable SSD. According to its maintenance manual (opens in a new tab)you can always upgrade storage on the XPS 13 Plus.)

There are alternatives for those looking for repairability and upgradeability, but not so much from the big brands. The laptop frame is designed to make almost every part serviceable, including removing the motherboard to get a new processor and supporting faster memory. Sure, it’s 0.07 inches thicker than the XPS 13, but I think that kind of access is a worthy compromise for a slightly thicker laptop.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

Many people will buy an XPS 13 because of what Dell has built here: a sleek, lightweight laptop with thin bezels. And I imagine a lot of them care a lot less about repair than I do. They will choose a configuration and keep it until upgrade time. And if they’re happy with it, it’s a worthwhile purchase.

I’ve certainly recommended non-upgradable laptops before. Maybe it will come with the new XPS 13 once I can test it. So why point the XPS 13 among them all? Because it’s arguably the most iconic Windows laptop of the past decade. Because for years reviewers, myself included, have pointed it out as what a portable Windows laptop should be. Apple went in a direction that doesn’t allow for RAM and SSD upgrades, but at least it kept key ports — and on the MacBook Pro, Apple actually increase thickness to bring back some old features.

Model ultrabooks should not only be light and thin. In the ideal world, as durability becomes a major concern, functionality and repairability should also be high priorities. Dell makes tons of upgradable laptops. He has a project, called Luna concept, focused on easy component reuse.

But where leaders lead, followers follow. Of course, gaming laptops will likely remain upgradable, as will workstations. But if the XPS 13 succeeds, we may see a world where even fewer lightweight laptops can be repaired or upgraded. For some, it’s a trade-off worth making. But I hope Dell’s research and design wizards – as well as engineers at other laptop makers – don’t think absolute thinness is the only important feature for high-end ultraportables. The ability to repair and upgrade your laptop is important to many consumers in the short term and to the planet in the long term. And while the quest for thinner and lighter is likely to continue, don’t forget the ports so we can add the things we need that the laptop designers here left out.

Note: As with all of our opinion pieces, the opinions expressed here belong to the author alone and not Tom’s Hardware as a team.


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