At first glance you could definitely be forgiven for thinking that the new XPS 13 Developer Edition, carrying the ‘9730’ moniker, is actually the last generation XPS 13. Or the one before. Or the one before that even.
This is because Dell has consistently chosen evolution and not revolution for its top-of-the-range small laptop, focusing mostly on keeping the internals bang up to date while sticking with a tried and tested design.
When the original XPS 13 debuted in early 2015, it broke new ground with its tiny bezels (squeezing a 13.3-inch screen into the body of a much smaller device), but three years on, the competition hasn’t stood still. So is the XPS 13 still the best laptop of this size?
Despite the design continuity with its predecessor, avid Dell watchers will be able to spot changes in the 9370 compared to the 9360 range. The new laptop actually brings in a number of design elements from the 9365 2-in-1, shrinking in size and eschewing USB-A ports in favor of USB-C (Thunderbolt).
The finish and shade of silver on the lid are tweaked, but overall the design remains one that successfully combines both an understated business attitude and a ‘look at me’ wow factor courtesy of those now even thinner screen bezels.
Should you choose the top spec Windows model you also have the option of a rose gold lid with ‘alpine white’ internals, but this isn’t available for the Linux-based Developer Edition notebook. We have tried the white laptop and although it certainly looks different, we found the lighter colored screen bezels a little distracting and the new deck surface (designed to prevent discoloring) less comfortable when resting our hands on it.
The drop in size and weight for the latest laptop represents a 24% reduction in volume and it’s certainly a noticeable improvement (not that the 9360 was large to begin with). This is partly achievable due to a reduction in the size of the battery, which drops from 60WHr to 52WHr, although due to increased efficiencies elsewhere this doesn’t necessarily equate to a drop in battery life. Aside from the loss of the USB-A ports, the other significant space-saving change is the inclusion of a microSD rather than full SD slot.
When laptops thin down one of the first things to suffer is often the keyboard. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. The keyboard mechanism is new, and if you’ve used a previous generation XPS 13 extensively you will spot the change, but thankfully it is just ‘different’ – it’s neither better nor worse, and still remains a great keyboard to type on.
It’s infinitely better than what you’ll find on a MacBook for example. We were somewhat disappointed that the Windows key remains on the Linux edition – come on Dell, can it be that difficult to print a different key cap? Might I suggest a penguin?
The layout of the XPS 13 has remained fairly consistent throughout its life and we’re pleased to see that there are only a couple of changes this time round. The love it or likely hate it camera remains below the screen, but now it’s in the center, for slightly better aligned up-nose shots. The camera has IR support for Windows Hello login, but this, of course, isn’t an awful lot of use in Linux.
The power button remains in the same position rather than being on the side like the 2-in-1 which is a relief. On Windows models the power button is also a fingerprint reader, but this functionality is dropped with the Ubuntu-based models.
Charging on the laptop is now available only via USB-C – there’s no conventional barrel port. A compact charger is included in the box, and given there are three ports the charger can be used with, we think this is a positive step. As an added bonus, if you’re using other USB-C equipped devices such as your mobile phone, the laptop charger will work just great for that too, with support for the USB-PD power delivery specification.
Here is the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition 9370 configuration sent to TechRadar Pro for review:
CPU: Intel Core i7-8550U quad-core, up to 4GHz
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 620
RAM: 16GB LPDDR3 2133MHz
Screen: 13.3-inch 3840 x 2160 resolution touchscreen
Storage: 512GB PCIe SSD
Ports: 2 x Thunderbolt 3, 1 x USB-C 3.1, microSD slot, audio jack
Connectivity: Killer 1435 802.11ac 2×2 Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Camera: 720p IR front webcam
Size: 302 x 199 x 11.6mm (W x D x H)
The 9360 generation of XPS was slightly confusing as it received a mid-life refresh without a model number increment. Earlier devices featured Intel’s 7th-generation processors while later devices received the 8th-generation Kaby Lake R CPUs. The Developer Edition also features the 8th-gen i7-8550U chip, which brings quad-core power to the U chips for the first time.
The already excellent display also gets a bump from QHD+ to 4K resolution (a Full HD option remains). The top spec screen is simply stunning – as well as the higher resolution it has a better contrast ratio, is brighter and has better viewing angles. It’s simply the best screen you’ll find on a laptop of this size. Touch support is included, which does mean a glossy finish, albeit with a glare reduction coating – we’d love to see a matte, non-touch 4K option to further minimize glare without reducing the resolution.
The Developer Edition spec gets you 8GB or 16GB RAM, a 256GB, 512GB or 1TB PCIe SSD, ‘Killer 1435’ 802.11ac 2×2 Wi-Fi, along with a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports with PowerShare, DC-In and DisplayPort. You also get one USB-C 3.1 port with PowerShare, the aforementioned microSD slot and a good old 3.5mm headphone jack.
You can opt for a Full HD non-touchscreen or 4K touchscreen display. You’re not likely to be wanting for anything, although it should be noted that graphics are integrated and provided by the Intel UHD 620 chipset – powerful though the XPS is, it won’t make a good gaming machine.
As for the price, our review model commands an asking price of £1,599 (around $2,250).
Usage and performance
The XPS 13 Developer Edition, which ships with Ubuntu 16.04 LTS out of the box, is a very powerful laptop. We threw some of our most demanding development tasks at it – compiling Android from scratch is one of our favorites – and the extra horsepower provided by the quad-core CPU meant a considerable performance improvement over its predecessor.
Even better, Dell appears to have equipped the 9370 with vastly improved thermals, with the fan much less likely to kick in than on its predecessor, a common complaint. Another gripe of XPS users is coil whine which was absent on our test unit (although it was notoriously patchy on earlier devices too).
On a daily basis, the 9370 is a very easy device to live with. It offers fantastic portability, blistering performance, and is great to use with its incredible screen and comfortable keyboard, along with good Wi-Fi connectivity. Aside from an occasional grumble when needing to connect a USB-A device, there’s really not a lot to dislike about this machine – provided you don’t plan on using the webcam too often.
The laptop is a product of Project Sputnik, Dell’s own well established Ubuntu effort, so as you would expect, we encountered no issues with software at all either on the supplied LTS distro, or by updating to the latest non-LTS release. We also installed a number of alternative distros and again we didn’t see any issues.
Here’s how the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition 9370 performed in the Phoronix Test Suite complex system test:
Apache: Static web page serving:27120.47
C-Ray: Total time: 37.80
Ramspeed fp: 16104.05
Ramspeed int: 16463.21
Postmark: Disk transaction performance: 2186
We mentioned above that the battery capacity has been reduced slightly for this revision, but in our testing we saw little to no appreciable change in longevity. A full work day is easy meat for the machine and you can likely even get a decent length of commute in away from the charger, too. Given the dimensions and the horsepower inside of this notebook, we think this is a mightily impressive feat.
What we found particularly impressive when benchmarking was the low deviation from the best scores across multiple tests. This supports our findings that thermals are much improved on the 9370, leading to reducing throttling at high loads.
If you want to buy a laptop with Linux out of the box, and get the level of manufacturer support that comes with that, then there is literally nothing that’s comparable to the XPS 13 Developer Edition. System76 does have some options, but none that pack the same wow factor as the 9370.
From a purely hardware perspective, the latest Lenovo Yoga 920 is a solid contender, the Surface Laptop is comparable, and the HP Spectre x360 is often mentioned alongside the Dell.
Dell has done a great job with the 9370. Aside from the ongoing issue with the oddly placed webcam (which we really hope is changed in the next generation), the XPS 13 Developer Edition is as close to the perfect notebook as exists today.
If we were to be picky we’d note that the touchscreen is largely wasted on Linux users and LTE support would be a nice option (particularly with Microsoft adding it to the Surface range), but when it comes to laptops with Linux pre-installed, there’s simply nothing that compares.
Buyers do need to embrace the brave new USB-C world thanks to the deletion of the USB-A ports, and you’re likely to end up carrying an adaptor with you – perhaps one for Ethernet and HDMI, too. The real selling point of the 13-inch XPS is its size and weight, but if this is less of a concern then Dell also offers Linux laptops based on the 15-inch XPS chassis, although not with the 8th-generation Intel processors as yet.
One final thought as to whether the Developer Edition itself is the model to go for: if you want white or a 1TB drive installed, you can easily buy the Windows notebook, install Ubuntu and add the Dell repos yourself. In this case, you effectively end up shelling out £50 ($70) for the Windows licence, but still, at least you have the choice. You also get a fingerprint reader that while not supported in Linux, will work if you are a user who dual-boots – and it may be supported at some point in the future.