Wednesday, April 24, 2024
Laptops

Dell XPS 13 review: Dell is coasting (and that’s fine)


The Dell XPS 13 has long been one of the top recommendations for Windows users looking for a MacBook Air alternative. The model I reviewed in 2020 was one of the best gadgets I’ve ever reviewed; everything from the screen to the build to the performance and battery life was exceptionally strong. 

Intel’s 12th Gen and 13th Gen processors have made computers like that a bit of a… fantasy. Sure, Apple and AMD are doing a great job on both the power and efficiency fronts. But the XPS is an Intel line through and through, and many of Intel’s 12th Gen offerings have shown themselves to be one-trick ponies in that regard. You can get power from the H-series, you can get (some degree of) efficiency from the U-series, or you can get… some of both, I guess, from the middle-of-the-road P-series. 

In turn, Dell has split up its XPS 13 line. You can get XPS 13 Plus, a P-series OLED machine that prioritizes power over efficiency. Or you can get the regular XPS 13, a more traditional and slightly cheaper U-series clamshell with a focus on portability and battery life (our model has an MSRP of $1,149, $350 cheaper than similar Plus SKU). If the XPS 13 Plus is for an eclectic and particular power user, the XPS 13 is for, well, everyone else. (The XPS 15 and XPS 17 have 13th Gen options, but 12th Gen is still the word when it comes to the 13-inch clamshell.)

So anyway, I’ve been using the regular XPS 13 for the past few weeks. And, like, it’s fine. It’s just fine. It’s worse than its 2020 predecessor in some ways and better in others. It continues to bring some of the best build quality in the 13-inch space. The display is fine. The speakers are fine. There’s an off-purple color option! It’s certainly one of the best Windows laptops you can buy, and it also doesn’t come close to the performance or efficiency that today’s MacBooks can provide, which says a thing or two about the current state of the Windows laptop space.

Let’s start with the category where the XPS 13 is a far-and-away winner: portability. At 2.59 pounds and 0.55 inches thick, this XPS is a dream for travel. I brought it on a weekend ski trip and was able to squeeze it into the front pocket of a backpack that included my ski boots, helmet, and assorted gear. There are very few other laptops that would’ve been that easy to bring. 

This was taken before I traveled with the unit, so it’s pristine.

Build quality is the other area where the XPS line has long stood out, and this 13-incher continues that trend. It’s made of aluminum (“low-carbon” aluminum, specifically) and glass. The finish got a bit scratched up after being battered around in my backpack for a couple of weeks, but at least it doesn’t pick up fingerprints (which was an issue I had with the darker Plus). 

50 percent of the ports are pictured here.

The XPS 13’s keyboard and touchpad continue to be some of my favorites on the market. The touchpad is certainly an improvement over the invisible haptic one that the Plus sports, with a smooth surface and a satisfying and responsive click. It is a bit small as they go and might not be my top choice if I had especially large fingers. The keyboard is also clicky and comfortable, with respectably sleek backlighting. The arrow keys are half-height, but such is life sometimes. 

And here’s the other 50 percent.

Finally, I find no fault with the display. It looks quite nice, with crisp details and colors that popped. It kicks back little glare and was the perfect panel for the dimmest to the brightest of settings. It reaches 500 nits of brightness, but I never found myself needing to crank it higher than 20-30 percent. 

Now, I have seen some complaints about the lack of choice this XPS 13 affords when it comes to display quality. Specifically, you’re limited to a 1920 x 1200 60Hz IPS panel on this model, and many have called for an OLED option. The spec sheet I was sent does indicate that a 4K option is available, which would be something at least, but that isn’t currently listed on Dell’s website.

I understand where these complaints are coming from — more options are always good — but I will say that I’ve never used an OLED XPS that I really liked. On the XPS 13 Plus, the XPS 15, and the most recent OLED XPS 13, it was clear that the extra pixels were significantly eating away at battery life. Those factors don’t necessarily ruin the machines, but they’re significant enough compromises that I generally find myself recommending other OLED laptops as alternatives. All that said, those seeking a harder-core screen may be better suited to the XPS 13 Plus, which has a wider variety of resolution options. 

I do prefer this power button to the one on the Plus, which is squeezed in next to the backspace.

When it comes to the video calling experience, I am a bit more underwhelmed. I wish the webcam were better — my colleagues on Zoom calls noted that I looked fine, but my backgrounds were quite washed out. The microphones are as decent as you might expect from a device like this; I brought this unit to Times Square for a recent Vergecast episode and found that it did a decent job of filtering out various sirens, shouting people, and general kerfuffle that surrounded me, but my voice still sounded quite processed. 

Audio, however, left a bit to be desired. Everything sounded quite good, but I had the volume between 90 and 100 percent most of the time when I was watching videos in order to catch every word, and the downward-firing speakers (4W of total output) weren’t loud enough to be heard in public spaces. I was putting my ear to the keyboard deck while recording the aforementioned Vergecast segment and still could barely hear the hosts. 

Here, have a closer look.

There is one area in which I really must register my grumpiness, however, and that’s the port selection. This XPS 13 has a grand total of two ports, both of which are USB-C / Thunderbolt 4. One will sometimes be occupied by the charger, so only one is reliably and consistently available. 

Even for people who have fully embraced the USB-C lifestyle (and I recognize that this group is growing every day), I just don’t think two is enough. The unit ships with a USB-C to USB-A adapter and an optional USB-C to 3.5mm adapter, which is nice, but neither of those changes the fact that you can only plug one thing into this device while it’s charging. Literally, one thing. If you want to both charge your phone and use an external webcam for a video call, better hope you brought a dock! 

Look, I know that this is the direction that ultraportable laptops have been heading in recent years. But even among those, the XPS 13, as well as its Plus sibling, is extreme. The M2 MacBook Air has two USB-C ports, but its dedicated MagSafe charging port essentially affords an extra USB-C. (Oh, and it has a headphone jack as well.) 

I love the portability this device affords. But the fact that people might need to carry a host of dongles and docks around with them, to me, is points off in that category.

Where the XPS 13 Plus promised portable power, the XPS 13 promises portable… less power, I guess? Our $1,149 unit includes a Core i5-1230U, 16GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage. This unit, however, appears to be sold out on Dell’s website currently. What you can buy is a Core i7-1250U, which is currently $1,199 for a 16GB / 512GB / touchscreen model. A similarly configured M2 MacBook Air is currently selling for $1,699, which makes Dell’s pricing attractive — though the performance benefits Apple delivers for that extra price aren’t insignificant, as we’ll soon discuss.

The U-series XPS is a significant step down from the P-series XPS 13 Plus (which was already losing badly to the MacBook) when it comes to the raw numbers. Benchmark scores were lower almost across the board. Especially stark was the 30-minute loop of Cinebench, where the XPS 13 got close to 50 percent of the Plus’s score. It’s clear that the XPS 13’s performance changed significantly after the first 10-minute run.

With all that said, I didn’t observe much of a difference between the XPS 13 and the XPS 13 Plus during my daily use. They are both perfectly fast for work in Chrome, watching Succession, chatting on Discord, and such. They are both a bit of a nightmare when you try to use programs like Lightroom and Premiere; expect crashes, lags, and a generally unpleasant time.

93.9 percent screen-to-body ratio.

One thing to note about the XPS 13, though — the fans get going very easily. They were audible with a couple Chrome tabs and Slack open. Throwing on the Silent cooling profile (accessible in the My Dell app) will shut them up if the blowing bothers you, so the noise itself isn’t concerning. This is just to illustrate that my fairly standard office workload was taxing the Core i5 a bit.

On the plus side, this XPS is doing a much better job of not frying itself than previous XPS models have. Throughout intense benchmark testing, the CPU stayed at a consistent temperature well under 70 degrees Celsius. Even better, the chassis and keyboard remained quite cool, even when I was doing fairly taxing work. XPS models I’ve reviewed in the past (the Plus included) have tended to boil after just a few hours of regular use. I’m finally, finally complimenting a Dell computer’s cooling system. I thought I might never live to see this day. Well done. 

Speaking of things that have improved: battery life. I averaged six hours and 42 minutes of consistent use around medium brightness, working with around a dozen-ish Chrome tabs and occasional Spotify streaming overtop. That is a step down from last year’s XPS and is less than half of what I get from the MacBook Air on the same load — but it’s over an hour better than what we saw from the Plus and is still one of the better results I’ve seen from a recent Windows laptop. I still very much wish I didn’t have to charge the device multiple times a day, but that seems to be par for the course in Windows land these days. The 45W AC adapter juiced the device up to 52 percent in an hour with light Chrome use.

In the past, the XPS 13 was a hands-down contender for the best laptop on the market. But the Apple-silicon MacBook has since barrelled onto the scene, and it wipes the floor with most of the ultraportable Windows laptops that cross my desk on a daily basis. This XPS is no exception. Compared to the M2 MacBook Air, battery life is worse. Benchmark performance is worse. Screen, while good, is worse. Port selection is worse. Audio is worse. The XPS is slightly lighter, and I subjectively prefer the feel of its keyboard. But it has two primary advantages now: the lower price (which is not something I’m used to praising about the XPS line) and the fact that it runs Windows, an operating system that many people like an awful lot.

And that has me a bit worried. I’m worried that this might just be the absolute best version of an ultraportable, thousand-dollar-range Windows laptop that you can buy on today’s market. It’s a very fine device — but I don’t feel that I can enthusiastically praise it the way reviewers used to. The XPS is no longer what sells the XPS; Windows is what sells the XPS. And I wonder if Dell, or any OEM, will come up with something truly innovative in the next few months that will break that mold. In the meantime, though, please give us a few more ports.



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