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Dell’s New XPS 13 Shows the Price of Going Too Thin

Dell XPS 13
(Image credit: Dell)

Ever since Steve Jobs pulled the first MacBook Air out of a manilla envelope at the MacWorld Expo in 2008, the laptop industry has been chasing accolades for the thinnest and lightest designs. And while the MacBook Air has continued to be a white whale, one Windows laptop has become almost as recognizable: the Dell XPS 13.

But the new Dell XPS 13 (9315) is a drastic change from its predecessors. While the XPS 13 as an ultrabook dates back to 2012, the XPS 13 as most of us remember it started in 2015, the first time the company added its "InfinityEdge" display, reducing the bezels. Thanks to that and a sturdy metal shell and mostly comfortable keyboard, the laptop became an icon. As other laptop manufacturers chased the MacBook Air, so did they chase the XPS 13. So when the XPS 13 goes thin enough as to be almost totally unrepairable or upgradable by users, I took notice. How much would Dell give up to shave 0.03 inches off the prior model?

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

But perhaps most importantly, it has Dell's smallest ever motherboard (approximately 180.15 x 38.34 mm). This allows the company to cram a large, thin battery in, keeping the laptop tiny and, presumably, long-lasting. (We haven't gotten to test the XPS 13 yet, but we look forward to it.) It's borrowing from the smartphone engineering world for both the motherboard and the RAM, soldering memory that typically goes over smartphone processors to the motherboard.

(Image credit: Dell)

The SSD, a PCIe Gen 4 NVMe drive, is in an 11.5 x 13 mm package, which Dell calls the smallest in the industry. It's in a BGA, or Ball Grid Array, which uses solder to permanently attach components. You won’t be replacing it if it fails or swapping in something bigger or faster down the line. And the battery is integrated, so replacing it will be a chore if you can do it all.

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

"We have quite a few XPS 13s deployed at iFixit, and we have had reliability problems with XPS 13 machines with soldered-in RAM failing," Chamberlain said. "When that happens, we have to replace the entire expensive main board rather than swapping out RAM like we can on the XPS 15. Rather than reversing that design mistake, Dell appears to be doubling down."

In terms of thinness, this is somewhat of an engineering marvel. But perhaps Dell has chased Apple a bit too far. 

Now, Apple has beaten Dell to the punch 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, the storage has all been soldered down, too. 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 due to the fact that 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 down, for instance. Unlike Apple Silicon, Intel's Alder Lake chips don't have integrated memory. The same goes for that SSD.

"While we strive to make devices that can be disassembled, repaired, refurbished, and ultimately recycled, customer desires for smaller, thinner, more capable devices can make this a difficult task - and in the case of the XPS 13 laptop, the streamlined size reduces material use while increasing efficiency, but limits some repairability," Dell representatives wrote to Tom's Hardware. "Each product is a series of decisions based on what the customer needs, wants and will value. With our latest XPS 13 laptop, we are being responsive to consumers’ needs for portability and functionality."

But some customers  want that mixed with repairability. Chamberlain said that while iFixit will have to do its own teardown to make a definitive call, that "from the specs it seems unlikely that we’ll be recommending this locked-down computer to our team as we have historically."

Even on the PC side, Dell isn't alone here. Only recently has Microsoft started adding SSD doors to Surface devices, and even then only some of them. I've seen plenty of laptops from almost every OEM moving towards soldering RAM to save a few millimeters of thickness, though storage drives have often been accessible. And Dell went so far with its new XPS 13 to remove the headphone jack.

Yes, the 3.5 mm headphone jack is gone from the Dell XPS 13. I  assumed that when I asked Dell about it, I would hear about how everyone uses wireless headphones these days. But spokespeople for the company were far more frank than I expected:

"We were unable to fit a headphone jack within the chassis, based off the aggressive design and portability goals we chartered for XPS 13," Dell told Tom's Hardware in an email. 

(Image credit: Dell)

But even Apple, which makes money on AirPods, hasn't removed the 3.5 mm headphone jack from its laptops yet. I don't think I've ever seen someone 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 around in case your wireless buds run out of a charge. Wow, really only a few of you. 

This future with super-thin laptops that the average person can't service may be inevitable, however, as companies move into new form factors and Arm-based chips get more popular.

"I think this is a trend that will continue to move forward, especially as we see more PCs adopting Arm-based technology," Anshel Sag, the principal analyst for PCs at Moor Insights  & Strategy, told me in an email. "I believe that 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 the chance to test out the latest XPS 13 yet. When I do, I'm sure I'll tell you that I'm in awe of how thin and light it is – everything else, we'll need to test. But there's a reason why we open up laptops we’re reviewing at Tom's Hardware when we can. Things break, needs change and the ability to upgrade at least the storage is nice, especially when most companies charge much more for a bigger or faster drive than that drive actually costs. (Dell does have an option for those who want a replaceable SSD. According to its maintenance manual (opens in new tab), you can still upgrade the storage on the XPS 13 Plus.)

There are alternatives out there for those who crave reparability and the ability to upgrade, though not so much from the big brands. The Framework Laptop is designed to make almost every part repairable, including taking out the mainboard to get a new processor and support for faster memory. Sure, it's 0.07 inches thicker than the XPS 13, but I think that kind of access is a worthwhile tradeoff for a somewhat thicker laptop.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

There are many people who will buy an XPS 13 because of what Dell built here: a sleek, light laptop with thin bezels. And I imagine that many of them care far less about repair than I do. They'll pick a configuration and keep it until it's time to upgrade. And if they're happy with it, it's a worthwhile purchase for them.

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

The model ultrabooks shouldn't just be light and thin. In the ideal world, as sustainability becomes a bigger focus, functionality and repairability should also be high priorities. Dell makes tons of upgradeable laptops. It has a project, called Concept Luna, focused on easy re-use of components.

But where leaders lead, followers follow. Sure, gaming laptops are likely to stay upgradeable, as will workstations. But if the XPS 13 succeeds, we may see a world where even fewer thin notebooks can be repaired or upgraded at all. For some, that's a tradeoff worth making. But I hope Dell’s research and design wizards – and the engineers at other laptop makers as well – 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 the planet in the long run. And while it’s likely the quest for the thinnest and lightest will continue, please 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 op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom's Hardware as a team. 

Andrew E. Freedman is a senior editor at Tom's Hardware focusing on laptops, desktops and gaming. He also keeps up with the latest news. A lover of all things gaming and tech, his previous work has shown up in Tom's Guide, Laptop Mag, Kotaku, PCMag and Complex, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @FreedmanAE

  • Alvar "Miles" Udell
    So much for the right to repair, eh?
    Reply
  • MGipsy101
    Admin said:
    The latest Dell XPS 13 (9315) is thinner than ever, but it foretells a future where engineering focused on thickness, rather than upgradeability, comes to the world of Windows laptops.

    Dell’s New XPS 13 Shows the Price of Going Too Thin : Read more
    This is really disappointing to see from Dell. I picked up an XPS 17 last year specifically because it had good upgradability options while maintaining a thin and light design (for a 17 inch laptop, at least). Upgradability is the one thing I always put as my #1 requirement for any laptop or PC I own. Dell (and other Windows Laptop manufacturers) should take notes from projects like the Framework laptop.
    Reply
  • Brian D Smith
    The overwhelming majority of end users simply would never 'upgrade' or 'fix' a laptop these days....so the argument 'too thin' is a bit of a non-starter. Most Tom's readers are interested in upgrades (and repairs because they botch their upgrade or repair...) of course, so this argument is going to get traction here. But...it is not an argument for your average consumer..
    This IS an attractive 'non-Apple' think laptop!
    Reply
  • waltc3
    If you want user repairable, user-upgradable, user component-replaceable...you need an "x86" desktop. One that you assemble yourself from hand-picked components. Nothing "mobile" comes close to a desktop in those categories. Wishful thinking will unfortunately not make a silk purse out of a sow's ear...;) It's just laptop territory, that's all. Most people don't expect laptops to be user-serviceable to any degree, anyway. And especially when dealing with Dell--I recommend a desktop--just not a Dell desktop. Dell desktops love a lot of proprietary connectors and other components that are only replaceable by--you guessed it--Dell replacements. Self-assembled desktop's come with "the right to repair" and have done so for at least the last 30 years.
    Reply
  • rwalle
    waltc3 said:
    If you want user repairable, user-upgradable, user component-replaceable...you need an "x86" desktop. One that you assemble yourself from hand-picked components. Nothing "mobile" comes close to a desktop in those categories. Wishful thinking will unfortunately not make a silk purse out of a sow's ear...;) It's just laptop territory, that's all. Most people don't expect laptops to be user-serviceable to any degree, anyway. And especially when dealing with Dell--I recommend a desktop--just not a Dell desktop. Dell desktops love a lot of proprietary connectors and other components that are only replaceable by--you guessed it--Dell replacements. Self-assembled desktop's come with "the right to repair" and have done so for at least the last 30 years.
    Sorry this is nonsense. Going back a decade, almost every laptop on the market had replaceable RAM and storage (which is also mentioned in the article -- if you have actually read the article). Manufacturers went as far as labeling RAM and hard drive slots on the back of laptops and you did not even need to read a manual or anything in order to replace them. It was the norm until it was not.
    Reply
  • rwalle
    Brian D Smith said:
    The overwhelming majority of end users simply would never 'upgrade' or 'fix' a laptop these days....so the argument 'too thin' is a bit of a non-starter. Most Tom's readers are interested in upgrades (and repairs because they botch their upgrade or repair...) of course, so this argument is going to get traction here. But...it is not an argument for your average consumer..
    This IS an attractive 'non-Apple' think laptop!
    Users are not as dumb as you might think. They understand whether 4GB RAM is too low, or whether 256GB storage is enough for all the applications and documents.
    Reply
  • CrEdge
    I'd think dongles would be the bigger issue.
    Reply
  • wr3zzz
    The last time I upgraded a laptop was more than 10 years ago when 5lb devices were considered light. I will take 3lb hard to repair over 7lb ease to upgrade laptop anyday IF I were still a road warrior where those extra lb makes a huge difference. For desktop replacements no one will be using XPS 13.
    Reply
  • Findecanor
    There are many things more important for me when choosing a laptop than thinness.
    For instance, it must have a good keyboard, and it must have a good selection of ports — both properties in conflict with thinness.

    I want the option to use wired headphones!
    Because I wear headphones 10+ hours a day, I don't compromise on comfort, isolation and audio quality.
    Reply
  • shady28
    I don't particularly like thin and light laptops due to their lack of upgradeability.

    That said, out in the world of 90% of laptop users, what @Brian D Smith said is correct. And of course, it was easy to predict the reaction of the users on a place like tomshardware, because none of us much care for things we can't upgrade. If we did, we wouldn't be here on this site.

    The best selling laptops in the world are Macs and of those the Air is easily #1, all of them pretty much not upgradeable - especially now with the Apple Silicon chips having memory embedded on the SoC.

    I know very few people who buy laptops of any kind thinking they are going to upgrade internal components later. The ones that do are mostly gamers, and a smattering of professionals, both groups tending to buy a laptop more like a workstation class desktop replacement.

    I fit in that category too, but to ignore the other 90% or so of people is disingenuous. To most people a laptop is like an automobile, they want to buy it and use it for 3-5 years and replace it, and they want to be fashionable about it. Dell has plenty of other laptops for people like myself and the folks that read tomshardware, this one just isn't it.
    Reply