The 2020 version of Dell’s venerable ultraportable XPS 13 notebook features a slightly larger display in a redesigned chassis that is carefully more compact than its predecessor. It also has a much more futuristic design. With CNC-milled aluminum and a very thin display frame, the XPS 13 (model 9300) looks striking for its high price. (Starting at $999.99 and review unit at $1,749.99, a few hundred dollars more than competing systems with Intel Core i7 processors and Full HD displays.) Our current highly portable mid-range, the Dell Inspiron 14 7000 is a better value, and part of the latest iteration of the XPS 13 2020 sees a 4.5-star drop – there is now competition both inside and outside the home. In addition to the value equation, the XPS 13 is much cooler than the Inspiron. It’s the best high-end clamshell ultra-laptop money can buy and a clear choice for Windows users who want to make a statement.
- Glossy styling
- Improved touchpad
- Great 16:10 display
- Narrower screen bezels
- Long battery life
- Expensive as configured
- Lack of ports
Design & Display: Thin, Light, Solid
The XPS 13 is thin and light and feels satisfyingly solid. It measures 0.58×11.6×7.8 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.8 pounds in our review unit configuration. They’re pleasantly limited in defining ultraportables, even if they’re not in the foreground. The 1-kilogram (2.2 pounds) mark is the current holy grail for 13 and 14-inch laptops. Relevant systems include HP Elite Dragonfly and Acer Swift 5.
The XPS 13 is a bit heavier, but the extra weight gives it a solid, firm feel and not an awkward one. The density of the frame becomes clear as soon as you take it out of the slim white box and run your fingers over the aluminum lid and edges. According to Dell, the edges are anodized twice to prevent repeated plugging and unplugging of peripheral devices and to avoid scratch damage. I have never encountered this damage on other laptops, but I am concerned that every time I slightly miss the port opening when I try to plug the power cord.
Opening the lid leads to even more. The two color options are Platinum Silver with a Black Carbon Fiber Pen and Frost White with an Alpine White Composite Fiber Tree. Our test device uses this latest system and it’s great. The palm rest is a special ring and has a UV and dirt resistant coating that prevents yellowing and discoloration. The overall picture is almost identical to the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 version, the XPS 13 version with a replaceable 360-degree hinge, which we tested at the end of last year.
The XPS 13 display is available in three versions. Our review device has a 1,920×1,200 pixel touchscreen. With an aspect ratio of 16:10 instead of the usual 16: 9 aspect ratio, the resolution is slightly higher than Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) but considerably smaller than the Retina display of the Apple MacBook Pro or the PixelSense screen of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. However, in addition to these two laptops, XPS 13 can also be configured with a 3840 x 2400 pixel panel that also surpasses the dimensions of standard 4K widescreen displays (3840 x 2160 pixels).
I admire the Retina Display’s awesome image quality, and I am generally disappointed when I use the Full HD laptop because I often see the visible pixels that result in a slightly grainy text. With the XPS 13, however, they are not as noticeable and the images look particularly vivid. In my opinion, this is due in part to the higher aspect ratio, leading to slightly more pixels than on a 1080p screen, and partly to Dell’s 100% sRGB and 90% DCI-P3 gamut support. I also appreciate the exceptional brightness of up to 500 nits, which means the XPS 13 can even be seen comfortably outdoors (if not exposed to direct sunlight) by increasing the brightness. Therefore, I am inclined to recommend this more expensive option test, 3,840 x 2,400.
The entry-level version of the XPS 13 has a perfect 1,920 x 1,200-panel version. It’s a shame because most of the other direct competitors (many of which are 2-in-1 convertibles like the HP Specter x360 13) offers touch support at a normal price.
Camera: Slightly Improved
In the center of the screen is a camera with IR sensors. It provides the laptop with average video quality, which means that the indoor images are quite grainy. Dell said the camera’s quality has been improved with a new four-piece lens and temporary noise reduction. However, if you want to have a Skype session in your room at night, you will probably want to continue using your phone. The main innovation of the camera is its small size: Until recently, no laptop could use infrared sensors for face detection and the camera in a narrow display bezel like the one on the XPS 13.
How closely do we talk? The new XPS 13 is suitable for a screen that is 6.8 percent larger than the old one (due to a change from 16:9 to 16:10), a laptop that is 2 percent smaller than its predecessor. This means that the screen now occupies 91.5 percent of the laptop’s body surface area.
Ports: Limited Ports
The XPS 13 was already small, and making it even smaller for this generation certainly won’t help much when choosing input/output ports. There are only two USB Type-C ports, a headphone jack, and a microSD card reader. This means that you need a special adapter or cable to connect an external monitor or a Type-A USB peripheral. On the plus side, both USB ports support Thunderbolt 3 data transfer speeds. XPS 13 is not alone in the lack of ports. As laptops shrink, there is simply no room for larger ports such as HDMI video outputs.
Keyboard & Network: Good as Always
Another positive aspect is that the XPS 13 offers the latest standards for Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Bluetooth 5 wireless, which are suitable for stable Internet connections as well as wireless keyboards and mice.
If you especially want to use the XPS 13’s integrated keyboard and touchpad, you’ll be happy to know that these have also gained attention during the redesign. The buttons are larger and the share of the touchpad has increased by an impressive 17 percent. Larger touchpads are always a good idea: Overall, I don’t like the XPS 13’s touchpad as good as the giant MacBook Pro, but its keyboard is much more comfortable than Apple’s surprisingly flat keyboard.
New Addition: Welcome Ice Lake
The new XPS 13 ditched Intel’s “Comet Lake” processors in favor of “Ice Lake” processors. Both are members of chip giant’s latest 10th gen family of processors, but Ice Lake processors are best suited for thinner and lighter ultraportables due to their slightly lower clock speeds, power consumption, and heat generation.
Our review device is equipped with an Intel Core i7-1065G7 processor, a Hyper-Threaded quad-core chip, which runs on a 1.3 GHz base clock. The Core i7-1065G7 has integrated Intel Iris Plus graphics. The laptop also has 16GB of storage and a 512GB solid-state drive. This specification is at the minimum level we expect from a laptop that costs more than $1,500. The basic configuration includes an Intel Core i3, 8 GB of memory and a 256 GB SSD. It is similar to launch configurations and pricing from some other nearby competitors, including the Apple MacBook Air.
Performance: Great results
To evaluate the computing power of the XPS 13, I compared the results of its benchmark tests with those of some other competitors, such as the Asus ZenBook 13 and Lenovo Yoga C940, as well as the Surface Laptop 3 and MacBook Pro 13. Overall, the XPS 13 cuts very well and takes first or second place in almost all intensive multimedia and graphics tests.
We measure total computing power with PCMark 10 and 8, holistic performance programs developed by UL PC experts (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run, simulates different workflows to create productivity and content in the real world. We use it to evaluate the overall performance of the system for office-oriented tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, Internet surfing, and video conferencing. The test gives a numerical grade according to ownership. Larger numbers are better. PCMark 8 has a memory section that allows us to estimate the speed of the system boot drive. This also creates a numerical classification under ownership; Here, too, large numbers are better.
The PCMark results of the XPS 13 have small shortcomings compared to other systems but are not applied to actual use. I have never noticed stutters or lags in installing applications or performing the tasks described above.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-melting Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to take advantage of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench emphasizes the CPU instead of the GPU to produce a complex image. The XPS 13 is quite competitive here and shows that it is slightly better than its competitors when it sometimes has to do light multimedia work.
Cinebench’s results are very similar to our Handbrake video editing test, another hard and threaded exercise that is heavily dependent on the CPU and copes well with cores and threads. We put a stopwatch in this test on the test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip from 4K video to a 1080p MP4 file.
It’s a timed test, and lower scores are better, but everything is relative: if you have to do these conversions often, there are more powerful (and much larger and more expensive) laptops that can do the job in about half of the 15-minute period that XPS 13 took.
We also perform a custom Adobe Photoshop benchmark for image editing. With the early 2018 version of Photoshop in Creative Cloud, 10 complex filters and effects were applied to a standard JPEG test image. We calculate each operation and sum the total execution time. As with the Handbrake, lower times are better here. The Photoshop CC stress the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM. However, you can also use most GPUs to speed up filtering so that systems with powerful chips or graphics cards can see an improvement.
Here, the ZenBook 13 with Nvidia GeForce was at the top in this group but was only 4 percent faster than the XPS 13.
Casual Gaming: No Problemo!
The XPS 13 is not a gaming laptop, but it should be able to perform less demanding game titles correctly, especially if you drop the graphics quality setting. Graphics performance is highly dependent on these settings, as well as the game or application you are using, as shown by our 3DMark and Superposition game simulations.
3DMark measures relative graphic flesh by creating highly detailed, game-style 3D graphics that highlight particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suitable for different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is better suited for mid-range laptops and notebooks, while Fire Strike is more sophisticated and designed for high-end PCs.
In the Sky Diver test, the XPS 13 won with a small but clear lead and even beat the ZenBook 13 with a discrete Nvidia graphics card.
But the ZenBook 13 changed the situation in the 720p low superposition bench. Like 3DMark, the overlay test displays and runs a detailed 3D view and measures the survival of the system. In this case, it is rendered in the Unigine engine, which offers a 3D workload scenario other than 3DMark, to make a second statement about the graphics performance of the machine.
The XPS 13 has excellent battery life, and the laptop lasts over 17 hours in a video test that is a locally recorded video file with 50 percent screen brightness is played when airplane mode is activated. Battery life has been greatly improved. A few generations ago, the XPS 13 (9380) introduced in early 2019 lasted 11 hours in our test. While no battery test method can reflect the experience of individual users, it’s still nice to see such a dramatic improvement.
The XPS 13 is Dell’s flagship, ultraportable and will have to face stiff competition from Apple, HP, Lenovo, and others. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that Dell has invested heavily in physical design, making it smaller and lighter while improving many (but not all) features.
But the Texas tech giant has also invested heavily in its other products, including the Inspiron 14 7000, which offers many of the same features as the slightly larger and heavier XPS 13 chassis, and slightly less stylish, but also solid build and much cheaper. Dell’s prices change frequently, but currently, the Inspiron 14 7000, configured to be almost identical to the XPS 13 tested here, is $1,149, you can save $600. That makes the XPS 13 more difficult to justify.
Perhaps it is better to think of the XPS 13 as a status symbol, a machine that pushes the limits of the laptop, despite the fact that its benefits extend to other models that are further down Dell’s food chain. You have to pay a premium for it, as well as you have to pay the infamous Apple tax on the MacBook Pro, but in return, you get a great laptop designed with great features.