Friday, July 19, 2024

Dell XPS 14 2024 review: better but not amazing

The 2022 Dell XPS 13 Plus showed up with a bold new design: a trackpad that blends seamlessly into the chassis, a perfectly flush “zero-lattice” chiclet keyboard, and a “capacitive touch function row.” Unfortunately, the new look was overshadowed by the fact that it ran too warm and had too short a battery life. Now, Dell has given the whole XPS lineup that same futuristic design, from the Intel or Qualcomm-powered XPS 13 models to new 14- and 16-inch sizes that seem aimed directly at the MacBook Pro. The XPS 14 ($2,500 as reviewed) doesn’t suffer from the same issues as the 13 Plus or even the XPS 15 — yet it’s still underwhelming.

The XPS 14 can be configured with a discrete graphics card, like the XPS 15, but even with a smaller chassis and a more powerful GPU, it stays much cooler than the last XPS 15 we reviewed — or even the 13 Plus. The Meteor Lake Intel Core Ultra 7 155H is 21 percent faster than the Core i7-1280P in the XPS 13 Plus, and if it had been around two years ago, it would have fixed other issues we had with the 13 and 15 besides heat and battery life, like performance. Even with an OLED display, the XPS 14’s battery lasts twice as long — 12 hours compared to the 13 Plus’ six — with a battery that’s only 23 percent larger. That’s fantastic.

An open and powered on laptop sitting on top of a wood table with plants and furniture in the background.An open and powered on laptop sitting on top of a wood table with plants and furniture in the background.

The all-new Dell XPS 14 has up to 12 hours of battery life, a 400-nit OLED touch display, and sports the same design as the 2022 Dell XPS 13 with an “invisible” trackpad and touch function row.

The list of improvements continues: the 14-inch model has three Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports instead of just two, plus a combo audio jack and microSD slot, and it’s configurable up to 64GB of memory and 4TB of storage space. The XPS 14 is also 1.1 pounds heavier than the 13, though only a 10th of an inch thicker, and the display is lower resolution but physically larger. It’s a more reasonable price — $1,500 for the base model and $2,500 for the specific configuration reviewed here — but still expensive compared to similar laptops. 

Yet, I’m underwhelmed by all these objectively good improvements because I do not like how it feels to type on the XPS 14. The key travel is fine even though it’s shallow, but the switches feel too springy, like the warped part of a metal Slinky that pops up every time you try to push it back down. The plastic key caps also feel too thin for an elegant and sturdy laptop, and I’m not a fan of how close together they are placed for their size.

There’s a microSDXC and headphone / mic combo jack, too.

The lack of a traditional function row throws off my muscle memory. I keep mistaking the tilde key for the escape key and caps lock for the tab key, and I can’t get used to hitting the esc button — or any button on the touch bar — because there is no tactile feedback. It’s blended into the chassis just like the trackpad, but the trackpad has haptics, so why doesn’t the function row? Yes, I can look at the screen to see if I hit the right button, but it’s more satisfying to see and feel the result of a button press.

I don’t mind the undefined trackpad space since it spans such a wide area below the keyboard. If I tap or press far enough to the left or right, it’s like using a regular trackpad. I don’t always get it right, so there are times I use the OLED touchscreen to navigate just for the sake of efficiency, but not often. 

The tilde key, my archnemesis.

But I spent longer than I should have looking for the power button. I eventually found it to the right of the backspace key. There’s no icon to signal it’s a power button. It’s just a dark gray key that blends quietly into the keyboard, yet I still felt obtuse for missing it at first.

While the optional RTX 4050 GPU is great for injecting more speed into graphics or video work, the Dell XPS 14 is not a gaming-first laptop. It is possible to run a game like Baldur’s Gate 3 on the XPS 14 with the right settings, but there are gaming laptops like the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 that come with more powerful hardware for less money and include gaming-specific features like adaptive sync and software for fine-tuning things like fan speed and GPU clock speed.

The invisible trackpad is my favorite feature.

From price to performance, the XPS 14 is not as good of an alternative to the MacBook Pro as the XPS 15 once was. The base M3 chip kicks its butt in almost all of our benchmarks, and while Apple removed its divisive touch bar, Dell put a less useful one in. The invisible haptic trackpad looks better than the MacBook Pro’s traditional one, but it’s slightly harder to use — and the MacBook’s keyboard is much nicer (and so was the one on the XPS 15).

The XPS 14 is more competitive with some Windows laptops, like the Asus Zenbook 14X OLED, but it’s still too expensive, and if you don’t need a new laptop for 3D modeling or video work, it makes more sense to stick with integrated graphics and save $400. Yet, with the looming release of the $1,300 Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered XPS 13, it’s a good idea to hold off on buying any Dell XPS until the reviews are in.

In her review of the XPS 13 Plus, Monica Chin, The Verge’s former laptop reviewer, said the new design felt like it made the same mistakes Apple did with the 2016 MacBook Pro redesign, with too many sacrifices in the name of thinness. With the XPS 14, Dell addressed the 13 Plus’ performance and battery life, but the shallow, springy keyboard, ambiguously labeled power button, and touch function row inherited from the 13 Plus keep the XPS 14 feeling underwhelming. It looks nice, but it isn’t as nice to use.

Photography by Joanna Nelius / The Verge


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