Dell XPS 13 Gold Edition (2016) Review – Worlds Best Ultra Puts MBA In Its Place

SSD PERFORMANCE AND REPLACEMENT

Today’s quality ultrabooks will ship with an NVME SSD for storage; never accept anything less.  NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) is a protocol built specifically for SSDs, whereas AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) was created by Intel many years back and intended for hard drives.  SSDs are digital whereas hard drives are mechanical.  With an NVMe SSD, your system will run faster, cooler, can have much higher storage capacity and will last much longer.  Our Dell XPS 13 Gold Edition shipped with this Samsung  PM951 NVMe SSD:

Dell XPS 13 9350 Samsung 256GB NVMe SSD

We are going to replace this SSD with the Toshiba XG3 SSD we reviewed a short while back and it is easily done by removing the 8 torx screws, plus one more beneath the center hatch, and carefully pulling on the base plate.  This is a picture of the base plate removed; it is of a much higher resolution than our other pictures if you want to click on it:

Dell XPS 13 9350 Base Removed Full Res

This gives us a great shot of the 56wHR 4 cell battery, fan, SSD, and Dell XPS 1820 Intel WiFi 7260 WLAN and BT4.0 card.  RAM cannot be replaced as it is integrated.  The SSD swap is pretty easy with a single screw securing the SSD but we wanted to show this Crystal DiskMark result that depicts initial system storage performance:

Dell Max Power CDM

This is the result one sees when they purchase this system.  We were a bit disappointed as these match the listed specs of the PM951 SSD included with the system.  This SSD is an earlier iteration of NVMe and uses Samsungs 19nm TLC memory, void of many features of the newer memory.  In testing other SSDs, we found that similar results were obtained but improved drastically with a fresh install and a few minor adjustments described below.

The concern we have is the fact that NOBODY reviewed this system and thought this extremely low SSD write a bit odd.  It should be.  For many media professionals, this should be a huge red flag as it limits their ability to work on this laptop significantly.

Performance like this keeps people buying Apple products as even our MBA displays over 700MB/s write data transfers as shown in our report of the newest OWC 1TB Aura  SSD.  Our goal with the Dell XPS 13 was to do a fresh installation with the Toshiba 1TB XG3 NVMe SSD and to try to double that performance yet again, creating the world’s smallest and most powerful ultrabook.  Could we do it?

Dell XPS 13 9350 Toshiba 1TB XG3 SSD

WINDOWS WRITE CACHE BUFFER FLUSHING

New owners of the XPS 13 do not have to switch off the SSD as we did; we just wanted 1TB of storage in this ultra. There is not a person in the world that would be able to differentiate between the stock SSD or the Toshiba XG3 we are testing today, in typical everyday use.  The only time one might concern themselves with increasing speeds as we are doing here, is when they have specific media professional tasks in mind, such as media manipulation.

We also don’t recommend and/or take responsibility for anything that may happen in the event that you follow our lead, however knowledge is power and that is what we are helping you with.  In any case, the SSD write performance is very slow because Window’s write-cache buffer is enabled for this SSD and not checked as we see in this picture (second box):

Write cache Buffer Flushing

What this means is that, should a sudden power down occur, information will be flushed from the buffer before any is lost.  If you check ‘Turn off Windows write-cache buffer flushing on this device’, your performance will increase significantly. The next page will display our full performance results.  This option can be found in Control Panel/Device Manager/Disk Drives/ right-click on the Drive and select properties/Policies.

20 comments

  1. My decision to purchase the XPS 13 has not yet been finalized–I want a matte touch screen!

    • I don’t think we will ever see the matte screen with that Gorilla Glass. Personally, this was well worth the trade off in knowing that, short of a drop and break, there will not eventually be marks from the keyboard. This glass will likely look brand new for years to come.

      • Just a suggestion, but what about going with one of those matte-ish screen protector overlays? A couple of faculty have them on really reflective touch screen laptops at the University I work at and they really help a lot..

    • It’s a choice between the two and will likely remain that way. Unless you can come up with a way to make Gorilla Glass matte. I’d go touch screen on this because the matte screen option isn’t as good. I have the glossy-screen XPS 15 and it’s not a problem except in direct sunlight.

  2. Bought one then returned it and bought an MBP. While on paper it looks nice, somehow the performance is not up to par with the MBP. Further, it had this issue where the screen would suddenly turn black and only a hard restart could fix this. Obviously, all work would be lost. This made the computer unusable, and after 12 hours and 4 sessions with Dell customer support I was done. This issue is a known issue and common enough that Reddit has a page on it.

    • Thanks for jumping in and sorry for your experience. I personally love this laptop and, of course, will adjust that view in the report should anything change that view in the future. I haven’t experience ANY BSOD or black screen issues, but then again, I always install my own fresh OS and choose not to rely on manufacturer configurations.

      • Les, I appreciate your work. I use OS X at home and Windows at work. I will say that that the OS X 8GB and Windows 16GB (Memory) are comparable. Otherwise, I am settling w/ Windows 8GB. If you are going to dispute this, I’ll label you a fanboy who has lost objectivity. I’m not a Windoze hater, just a knowelegeable user trying to get work done.

  3. Very interesting article.

    “New owners of the XPS 13 do not have to switch off the SSD as we did; we just wanted 1TB of storage in this ultra.”

    Does this mean, that even the stock SSD would deliver similarly fast (or at least much faster) benchmark results if software settings would be been set as you did with with the Toshiba XG3?

    How would the stock SSD compare to the XG3 with the same optimized settings in the OS/bios?

    At the moment you can get the Samsung PM951 1tb version for less than half the price of the retail (=available version) OCZ RD400 1tb.

    I’m thinking of getting the bigger Dell XPS 15 either with a smaller drive setup and directly upgrading to the OCZ 1tb —— or the original Dell version with a 1tb NVMe and just optimizing settings.

    –> 769 Euros at the Moment for the 1tb OCZ is a lot of Money

    I’m open for any thoughts/suggestions.

    • I apologize for the misrepresentation as what was written did not read as we intended. We have added this to that para:

      “There is not a person in the world that would be able to differentiate
      between the stock SSD or the Toshiba XG3 we are testing today, in
      typical everyday use.”

      We were able to push the stock SSD only slightly with a fresh install but not come anywhere near the others. The PM951 uses Samsung’s older 19nm TLC NAND flash memory which is slower than the other SSDs we are seeing today. We dug up this PM951 spec sheet that valiodates the performance displayed on notebook purchase: https://www.samsung.com/semiconductor/products/flash-storage/client-ssd/MZVLV256HCHP?ia=831

  4. Les, if you ended up complaining about the “slow” Samsung 951 SSD in this ultrabook, then something’s really wrong. With you, not with the laptop or the SSD.
    This is an ultrabook, not a desktop replacement. I’d understand if you’d complain about SM951 being chosen instead of the new OCZ (or the SM961 that just went on sale) in a powerful machine that’s designed to take advantage of such fast storage.
    But this Dell, with its “U” processor, its soldered, slow and small RAM, its lame graphics and such, this is not a workstation but an average laptop in a nice, light, metalic case.
    And that’s OK cause that’s what ultrabooks are: lightweight machines that try to not compromise much on performance.

    Any PCIe SSD in this ultrabook would perform exactly the same. Nobody is buying this to do video editing with 18 tracks of 4K video on Vegas, no, the regular user of such machine has Chrome, Skype, Outlook and 2 instances of Excel. OK, and maybe a lame photo open in Photoshop.

    Complaining about Dell picking the “slow” Samsung SM951 for this ultrabook is like complaining that Honda Civic only comes with a 450hp engine instead of a 465hp one.

    • My first impression reading this is that you have misunderstood what I wrote, but more importantly, failed to even gain an understanding of the hardware in this laptop. This ‘U” processor is the Intel 6650U which runs at a base frequency of 2.2GHz with a Turbo max of 3.4GHz. The memory attached to this is 8GB DDR3-1866MHz and, together, they are paired with Intel’s newest Iris 540 HD Graphics which most definityely can be used for gaming. Look around because there are very current examples. This is more power than many have in their desktop.

      Next up, I never complained about the slow Samsung SSD whatsoever ‘yet’, but rather, provided an understanding that the configuration of the system was responsible and performance upgrades can be made. Let’s get back to the graphics first real quick though:

      GFXBench Windows OpenGL – 1080p Manhattan 3.1 Offscreen (Top Scores)
      Iris™ Graphics 540 (15W Skylake-U GT3e): 63.5 FPS
      HD Graphics 520 (15W Skylake-U GT2): 39.6 FPS
      Iris™ Pro Graphics 5200 (47W Haswell-H GT3e): 61.2 FPS
      HD Graphics 5000 (15W Haswell-U GT3): 36.7 FPS
      Geforce GT940M: 52.3 FPS
      Surface Book’s Geforce dGPU: 61.1 FPS

      Now that we have cleared up the fact that this is, by no means, slow, with lame graphics, and it doesn’t qualify as an average laptop, let’s question why anyone would settle for SSD performance in a system that takes us back years in performance. You’re view is exactly why media professionals choose Mac. The write performance of an MBA is twice that of this laptop, yet the hardware is less than half that. Does this make sense at all with your theory that, just because it is small we should accept poor performance?

      So… let’s see how we got here. My interest in this laptop actually came from more than one media professional questioning the slow SSD speed because, when on the move, they need a system capable of manipulating photos, music and even video up to 4k right then and there. They like the small form factor. They love the fact that it is the most powerful ultra in the world right now…but they cannot work with SSD write speeds that are half that of the Mac. So we looked into it. We solved the problem. This ultrabook right now is the most powerful and compact in the world, where it wasn’t only a few days back. Not bad eh?

      • “failed to even gain an understanding of the hardware in this laptop” – No, sorry, you failed to understand what this whole laptop is. It’s an ultrabook, not a desktop replacement. You are very picky about its storage not being the fastest ever but only the world’s 3rd or 4th.
        I know very well that this is an ultrabook, and a very fast one, but you expect workstation-like performance from it.
        As it doesn’t have workstation-like CPU, cooling, memory and anything else, of course it doesn’t have workstation-like storage.

        – “with a Turbo max of 3.4GHz” – a “U” proc can hold that speef for only half of a second before it will hit its 15W TDP. Combined with lack of cooling in an ultrabook chassis, it will slow down to 25%, maybe more. But again, it’s more than OK for an ultrabook, actually that’s why “U” processors exist, they’re specifically designed for ultrabooks.
        – “8GB DDR3-1866MHz” – that’s small and slow. And soldered. OK for an ultrabook but not OK for the workstation-class machine you expect this laptop to be (by criticizing its PCIe storage).
        – “Iris 540 HD Graphics which most definityely can be used for gaming” – good luck gaming on the 540HD in an “U” proc. In 3 seconds after the game starts, it slows down to a quarter cause of limited cooling and the max 15W TDP of the “U” proc.

        “This is more power than many have in their desktop” – I bet readers interested in PCIe SSD reviews have 3 times more resources in their desktop machines, nobody interested in PCIe SSDs run on 8GB and 15w processors. Of course my daughter has a lower-specced laptop, but she’s not comparing PCIe SSDs (but happy with whatever SATA drive daddy throw in).

        Your benchmark numbers for the Iris graphics are best-case scenario with plenty of cooling, like in one of those big-and-cheap 17″ laptop with an “U” proc. In an ultrabook chassis, those numbers will be less than half because of minimal cooling and the 15W TDP. There’s a reason OEMs put discrete cards in gaming laptops.
        (btw, on my GTX970M I can barely play the new Doom in a 17″ chassis with i6700HQ and 32GB, there are times when I’m under 50fps at FHD. And at 4K there’s no way I can move through the game. I said about 4K cause, you know, this ultrabook has the same screen resolution as my workstation).

        “just because it is small we should accept poor performance” – this is not performing bad at all. Not with its original SSD nor with any PCIe one. Hell, even a fast SATA SSD would give almost the same performance given the use of this ultrabook isn’t that taxing on long-running sequential writes (the only part where the 951 scored lower). I’m saying long-running cause all short-running will be cached by W10 and you won’t see how slow the drive is.

        “Now that we have cleared up the fact that this is, by no means, slow” – This ultrabook is not slow by any means. it’s quite the opposite, I consider it very fast and powerful for what it is, an ultrabook. But, if you complained about a very-very small thing in its storage performance, you automatically placed it in a category it’s not part of, workstations. And, for a workstation, is damn slow.
        And again: as an ultrabook, it’s bloody fast.

        And about those media professionals questioning the storage in this ultrabook… Sorry but those media professionals are sick if they are considering using an ultrabook (with an “U” proc, almost no cooling, and very limited memory) for their computationally-intensive tasks. If they are looking to blur an image in Photoshop, yes, this ultrabook (as any) will do it, but then any SSD would be perfect. If they complain about the storage speed, then I presume they’re editing 12 tracks of 4K video, all of them with heavy GPGPU-bound effects. But then, again, they are not doing that on the correct laptop. This is an ultrabook which should be used for ultrabook-kind of tasks, not desktop replacement, workstation-type.

        “The write performance of an MBA is twice that of this laptop” – Indeed, and very true. But I really doubt that, in the big context, that’s of any relevance for the regular user of an ultrabook. Again, not for those mad media professionals who’ve wrongly chosen this small machine as their desktop replacement monster. No, for those would be important to write at 1.5GBps, but for the average user is random I/O at low queue depths that counts. The low writing sequential speed of a drive is completely hidden by the caching in W10 if the size of the transfer is not huge, it’s random read/write at low QD that counts for normal users.
        But yes, this PM951 is slower than the drive in the MBA in this respect. Only.
        (on the other hand, you get this Dell XPS 13 on way less $ and you may put a different drive, stuff you can’t do with the MBA. I just ordered my 1TB SM961)

      • I am going to guess you sit behind a workstation extensively as that is your comparable. The problem with that is you cannot fold up and throw that workstation into your bag when you travel. Comparing an ultra to a workstation doesn’t make much sense. As for editing all media and publishing it on the road, I see it all the time when people attend tech events and must get stuff up fast, and by companies much larger than our small website. They manipulate all types of media right then and there….and typically on their Mac. This was the comparison I was making, as well as the suggestion that there now is a Mac alternative.

        ” This ultra is not slow. By any means, it’s quite the opposite” You seem to be jumping back and forth because I simply quoted your statement that clearly indicated your belief of how slow this system is. As well, your assumption that 8 GB memory isn’t sufficient doesn’t apply since the system can be ordered with 16GB.

        Appreciate your input nonetheless. What is your portable btw?

      • Well, my bad then. If editing an SLR-captured video (a single track) and uploading it to an FTP from an expo is what media professionals usually do, then sorry but I had a very wrong impression of that profession. Or maybe your impression is based on the people you see at tech events…

        A workstation can’t be folded, of course, but an ultrabook is not exactly the answer to an unfoldable workstation. No matter what, an ultrabook can’t hold a candle to a solid workstation.

        As you asked what portable I’m using… Yeah, it’s a workstation but not a very powerful one cause I wanted it to not be very heavy. I carry it from my hotel to the client every day so I chose the lightest ever one. I’m using an MSI GS72 (17″ 4K, i6700HQ, 32GB of DDR4, 950PRO 512GB SSD, 2TB HDD, GTX970M). It’s light for an average workstation but heavy comparing to any decent laptop.
        But when I only need to take some requirements for a new software or show the progress on a website, I take my old but very light Lenovo ThinkPad S430 (i5u, 14″, 8GB, uSATA SSD but with plenty of battery). I know I have to replace it at some time cause it starts to look antiquated but I’ll exploit the last bit of battery out of it.

        (and no, I can’t use a powerful ultrabook cause, no matter how nice it is, I have no solid use for it. To jot down some notes or to show a software at a client, I can use any light laptop, no matter the processor or resources. Then, if I need some power, I need a lot so I have to get my workstation with me anyway. So that’s why I’m looking at these new 2-in-1s, to still use it as a generic tablet outside of those few times I need it at a client)

  5. For the record, my XPS 13 (Gold edition) shipped with a Toshiba XG3 (THNSN5256GPU7 NV) from the factory. I received it on June 15th. Typical write speeds are over 1000 MB/s when benchmarked. The XPS is a fantastic machine!!

  6. As Apple continues to play cat and mouse with a MBA replacement, I have looked at PC alternatives. Every one is too much of a compromise, this one included. Windows performance with 8GB is less than OS X with 8GB, even with a more powerful processor in the Windows machine. If I am going back to Windows (or preferably Linux) I am going to have 16GB RAM and a fast 512GB SSD. Not sure why that is so hard. I’ll pay for it, but I won’t buy your crap if you don’t offer the option.

  7. In regard to your Windows 10 installation issues:
    1) Disregard that Rufus nonsense and all that tosh. It is a great little program in its own right, but not necessary here.

    2) Do it the ‘proper’ Microsoft way; create a somewhat custom Windows 10 (bootable) installation image.

    3) Use Microsoft DISM / DISM GUI (<— for the fainthearted amongst you when it comes to CLI-geekery)

    What you need to do here is build a custom-ish boot.wim & install.wim (or install.esd if you wish to save some space) that has the required drivers included within the installation image itself. It is the so-called 'slipstreaming' method of days long gone by, from the circa Windows 2000 / XP era. Vintage stuff 🙂

    I nearly ran into the exact same issue when I swapped the SSD out for a faster/higher capacity unit in my XPS 13.

    The Windows 10 installation image you are using to write to your USB stick, using the official Windows USB/DVD Download Tool, needs to include (at the bare minimum) the USB3 & Intel-NVMe/Intel-RST/Intel-RAID drivers integrated. Grab those drivers from Dell's product support site for the XPS 13 model you have.

    Next, get familiar with Microsoft's Windows DISM: https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/hardware/commercialize/manufacture/desktop/dism—deployment-image-servicing-and-management-technical-reference-for-windows
    While at it, get familiar with the DISM GUI as well: https://dismgui.codeplex.com/

    Once you've got the boot.wim & install.wim files (or install.esd for the jive turkeys who have a worrying fetish for file compression) with the integrated drivers on your Windows 10 install USB stick, your formerly missing RST/RAID will reappear….by means of the black arts & witchcraft. I've got the same XPS 13 93xx series ultra book, just that it is not the gold colored one… The method outlined up ^^^ there, worked like a charm on the first try. You can choose to integrate/slipstream *ALL* the drivers specific to your particular model XPS 13 in one go if you like as well.

    Cheers!

    • Thank you for including this. The concern I have with it is that it is so difficult, or at least seems to be, for the average guy just looking to do the upgrade.

      • No problem! We’re all the same human beings & should help each other out where we can.
        The learning curve for the DISM procedure, slipstreaming drivers etc is really not that steep. I’m little more than a mildly domesticated chimpanzee (or perhaps more of a Muppet?) and even was able to figure it out within the 30 or so minutes it would take to write a bog-standard MS official ISO to USB.
        Granted it is a bit more involved than the days of yore, where using NLite to slipstream & customize WinXP CD images…but even so, easy enough.
        A good skill to learn & remember for the future Win10 roadmap.
        Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *