Microsoft Surface Book 2015 vs Thinkpad X1 Carbon 3rd Gen 2014 vs Dell XPS 13 9350 2015

A summary of my experiences with the Microsoft Surface Book 2015 vs Thinkpad X1 Carbon (3rd Gen) 2014 vs Dell XPS 13 9350 2016. 


I recently lost my Surface Book, left the damn thing in a cab like an idiot. I still owned my old X1 Carbon (3rd Gen) so I went back to it for a week but decided to try a Dell XPS 13, something that’s always been on my bucket list.  


My ideal laptop:

  1. 13-14” screen, QHD or higher, 90+% sRGB colour gamut, 300+ nits brightness
  2. 6 hours of battery
  3. SD card reader
  4. Discrete graphics
  5. i7 / 16GB RAM / 512GB SSD minimum
  6. Approx weight 3 lb
  7. Excellent keyboard and trackpad or trackpoint


Thinkpad X1 Carbon

  • At the time, there was no 16GB spec available, but there is now.
  • Great keyboard and pointing options
  • No discrete GPU
  • No card reader
  • Decent battery life
  • Good screen, 14” but could be brighter and with better contrast
  • Great form factor
  • Great build quality

I really liked the X1 Carbon. I’m still holding out hope that the X1 Yoga with an OLED display will be my ultimate machine. I’ve been looking at the 2016 options and it doesn’t seem like they’re using a significantly better panel from the 2014/2015 options. My main concern with the X1 series is the brightness of the panel. Having become accustomed to using 300+ and even 350+ nit screens, it’s hard to go back. In certain situations, it’s just nicer to have that extra brightness, especially with a matte panel. The upcoming OLED display option that will hopefully be released in June 2016 may be the ultimate option for me in this current generation of Ultrabooks.


Microsoft Surface Book

  • i7 / 16GB / 512 GB SSD spec available
  • Great battery life
  • One of the best screens I’ve ever used on a sub 15” laptop
  • SD card reader. It’s not full depth but you can use short SD cards that will sit flush with the body as a way to expand storage.
  • Discrete GPU helpful for games and for Lightroom and Photoshop processing
  • Good keyboard
  • Pretty good form factor. It’s reasonably small but the gap did bother me.
  • I never used it as a tablet.
  • Quirky form factor

I want to elaborate on this a little. There are some interesting quirks to the design that I understood the logic for and I feel has implications on traditional clamshell laptop design. There are also some issues with the design that are not well thought through.

Everyone fixates on the hinge design. It’s interesting, it works well and its solid. No issues with it.

The power button is on the top edge of the laptop. This bothered me a LOT. You want to pick up the laptop by its spine, hinge in palm. That means the power button is facing away from your hand. You want to put the laptop into a bag with the spine upwards, but that means the power button is facing down and is easily depressed. I constantly found myself turning the laptop on by accident by putting it into my bag.

Because it’s a tablet hybrid and the tablet portion needs speakers, the speakers are mounted to the left and right of the screen. This was weirdly refreshing. I never felt the audio was muffled because it was coming right at me.

Main guts are in the tablet portion but GPU and extra batteries are in the keyboard dock. I could see this working for traditional clamshell designs as a way to mitigate heat issues. I never felt the machine too warm when under heavy load because the load was mostly behind the screen with only a portion of the heat generated from the part touching my hands and lap. I’d love to see this concept explored further in a regular clamshell design.

Overall, it’s not a bad machine. I never used it as a tablet. I don’t see the appeal of using Windows 10 as a tablet but that’s just me. I would probably buy this machine again if they had it as just a vanilla, high spec laptop with no touch screen or detachable-feature feature.

When it was released, it had SO MANY PROBLEMS. It was pretty disgusting just how many issues it had. In its original form, the machine was simply not usable. I kept my X1 Carbon in service parallel to the Surface Book for nearly a month. They eventually solved most issues with software and firmware updates. Up until when I lost it, I was still having issues with the computer not going to sleep properly.

It’s bizarre that Microsoft can put out amazing hardware and the software cannot keep up. You’d think their flagship would have its shit together.


Dell XPS 13

  • i7 / 16GB / 512 GB SSD spec available
  • Iris 540 graphics available, but supposedly it will throttle itself from excessive heat production. There was a bit of writing about it on My version has the more basic 520 graphics.
  • Good panel, not as good as the Surface Book but definitely ahead of the X1 Carbon, amazingly thin bezel.
  • Great form factor. Flying in economy from time to time, it’s really helpful to have a shorter screen that won’t be hit by the seat in front of you. It really feels like a 12” laptop but with a 13” screen.
  • Keyboard is ok, I wish it was a bit firmer. Nothing beats the Thinkpad keyboard.
  • Trackpad is good.
  • Battery life is a little measly. I sprung for the QHD screen and while it’s sharp and beautiful, it does drain the battery significantly faster.
  • Webcam is bottom left, below the screen. It doesn’t bother me, but surprisingly many people comment on how awkward it is when we video chat. 
  • SD card reader. It’s not full depth but you can use short SD cards that will sit flush with the body as a way to expand storage.
  • It has USB-C! It’s USB-C + Thunderbolt, you should be able to hook up an external graphics card, such as the Razer Core, to it. You can charge it via USB C as well. I’m working on trying to buy a USB C laptop adapter (you need a 20v / 45w adapter minimum). The Macbook one is only 30W, which is insufficient, it has to be 45W minimum. Google’s Chromebook Pixel 2 uses a 60W which works, otherwise there’s a 3rd party 45W one.

I've spent about three weeks using the XPS 13, it's generally been pretty good with two caveats: 

I have noticed at extreme temperatures, like when I am using Skype for long periods of time or trying to record and encode video using PlayOn, the WiFi or the webcam will just stop working until the machine cools down again. In the case of the webcam, the image will go blank though the machine still recognizes the hardware as present. I can actually make the image reappear by applying pressure to the corner of the laptop near the power plug. I think it might be something funky with the wiring but it's not very reassuring! As for the WiFi, when under heavy load and hitting high temperatures, the adapter itself will stop working and become unavailable in Device Manager. I haven't tested this extensively yet but there are a few reports of this online, fixable by physically replacing the WiFi adapter. 


What’s Next?

Other machines I considered:

Another Surface Book since I quite liked it but the little quirks from it being a hybrid design made me think twice.

  1. ASUS laptops but there doesn’t seem to be anything too compelling this current generation.
  2. Thinkpads are great in all ways except the screen, hopefully the X1 Yoga with the OLED screen will be the ultimate form.
  3. Razer Blade and Stealth – pretty good but a little too big and heavy for the blade and the screen is a little too small for the Stealth.
  4. Macbook Pro 13 – I used to use Macbooks with Windows installed and I thought they worked quite well. Power management wasn’t as good as it could be with Mac’s Windows drivers but other than that, they had great screens and keyboards. I’d be curious to see what the next generation brings. 
  5. VAIO Flip – the screen is great but the keyboard is not. I tried one out last time I was in Tokyo.
  6. HP Envy and Spectre ranges – I didn’t see any 16GB RAM options plus the keyboard is not great.


For the time being, I’ll stick to the XPS 13 but I'm definitely going back to Thinkpads. The X1 Yoga with an OLED panel is now available for purchase so I've put one on order for myself. I write a lot, so it'll be great to go back to that quality keyboard. It would be amazing to one day see a Thinkpad X2xx series with Dell’s XPS 13 panel!