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Dell XPS 13 (2019) review: the right stuff, refined

Dell XPS 13 (2019) review: the right stuff, refined


Goodbye, nosecam

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The camera is in the right place on the new Dell XPS 13. That may seem like a small thing, but to people who have used this laptop in the past it’s the main thing. It’s the main thing because that seemingly minor complaint was the only real knock on an otherwise excellent laptop. Now that the webcam is above the screen instead of below it, I don’t have to talk about the XPS 13 as an “otherwise excellent” laptop.

I can just call it an excellent laptop.

The 2019 version of Dell’s nearly iconic XPS 13 has another update compared to the previous version, an updated 8th Gen Intel Whiskey Lake processor. Though that’s a nice thing to have, it’s not as important as the fact that Dell has nailed most of the fundamentals that make a good laptop.

Even though the XPS 13 has a strong pedigree, it’s worth talking about again. It was one of the first mainstream laptops with a nearly edge-to-edge screen. It doesn’t go in for 360-degree hinge tricks — there’s the XPS 13 2-in-1 for that — it was just always a good, well-built laptop. It has become something of a default alternative to the MacBook Air for Windows users — something thin, light, stylish, and also reliable. Windows has many more such laptops available now (the Surface Laptop 2 is a good choice), but the XPS 13 is still at or near the front of that pack.

I really like the white version of this laptop. The top has a sort of silvery depth to its finish and the keyboard deck consists of woven carbon fiber. That extra touch makes it feel much more comfortable and I prefer it to the Surface Laptop’s fabric finish. Based on what people have said about the last XPS model, it should also hold up well over time. It’s a very nice-looking laptop.

The 2019 version of the XPS 13 starts at $899, but I think most people will want to step up to the $1,199 (as of this writing) version. That will get you a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and the 1080p screen. Unfortunately, the only way to get a touchscreen is to jump all the way up to the $1,799 (as of this writing) model, which has a 4K screen, more RAM, and a faster processor. That’s the model I’ve tested here.

Most people probably won’t miss the touchscreen, especially since this is a traditional laptop form factor, but I find it super convenient to have. Because the touchpad is smaller than on a lot of other modern laptops, I often find myself quickly reaching up to dismiss a notification or tap an icon on the taskbar. I wish Dell offered a touchscreen option on the 1080p screen — which costs less, has better battery life, and is available on most of its competitors.

But if you’re willing to spend the extra money (and take the battery life hit) to get the 4K screen, you’ll find it to be excellent. The 13.3-inch screen does go nearly edge-to-edge on the top, left, and right, but there’s a large-ish bezel on the bottom. Along with a lot of other people, I prefer a 3:2 aspect ratio for productivity work on laptops, which the XPS 13 does not have; it makes do with a traditional 16:9 screen. Dell has also put an anti-reflective coating on the screen which really helps with using it in a bright room.

The keyboard on this machine is excellent, with a very good balance of key travel, firmness, and thinness. I don’t love that the page up and page down buttons are crammed in next to the arrow keys and I generally find that white keyboards make finding the right backlighting in a dim room a hassle. Those are minor complaints, though, and if you opt for the black and silver color, the keys come in black.

As an aside, it’s weirdly hard to judge laptop keyboards in a world where the butterfly keys on MacBooks are so untrustworthy. Everything feels great and reliable by comparison. I don’t think I’m grading on a skewed curve here, though: it’s a good keyboard.

You can log in with the fingerprint sensor on the power button — it’s fast and accurate, but you have to wake the computer first and then tap it instead of just pressing down on it in a single step. It’s not as seamless as a camera-based Windows Hello system, but it’s still a lot more convenient than typing in a password every time you open the lid.

And as I said, Dell moved the webcam to up above the screen so that it’s not looking up your nose. That apparently took a lot more work than you might guess. Dell even had to make its own custom 2.25mm camera module to make this work. It’s genuinely tiny, but just as good as larger laptop cameras I’ve used — at least for the purposes of video conferencing. Here’s a shot I took in a situation where there’s a ton of backlighting and my face is clear and visible.

Performance is great — as it should be, with a quad-core Core i7 processor. I haven’t had to limit myself when it comes to opening apps and tabs at all. Don’t expect that you’ll be doing much gaming, though, as it still uses an integrated graphics card. If there’s a downside, though, it’s the fans. They’ve settled down a bit, but in the first couple of days they were spinning up way louder than I want. It has meant that the machine never gets too hot (Dell did some extra work on the internal thermals), at least.

Dell quotes up to 21 hours of battery life with the 1080p screen and around 12 for the 4K. As usual, I think those estimates are super optimistic, but that doesn’t mean I think the battery life on this laptop is bad. In active use with battery-hogging apps like Chrome, Slack, and Tweetdeck I’m getting over eight hours — that’s really solid considering I’m using the 4K display and haven’t been too shy about cranking the brightness up.

I am mostly pleased with the port choices: there are two Thunderbolt ports on the left, one USB-C port on the left, a headphone jack, and a microSD card slot. It would have been nicer if Dell had found a way to bring back a USB-A port, but it at least includes a dongle in the box.

There are just a dozen little things that this Dell XPS 13 does right. There’s a little set of LED lights and a button on the side that serve as a battery meter. And the USB-C power brick is just plain thoughtful in its design: it’s easy to wrap the cord around it cleanly and compactly.

The Dell XPS 13 is designed for actual user needs, thoughtfully addressing the practical things you worry about when using a laptop. It seems a little weird to gush about the placement of the webcam or the power brick or even glare on a screen, but those are real hassles and it feels nice to have a laptop quietly solve them.

The 2019 edition of the Dell XPS 13 is great all around, and it’s sort of a relief to have my biggest complaints be about configuration choices or page down buttons instead of nosecams, build quality, or unreliable keyboards. Dell took an iconic laptop design and refined it, powered it up, and made it better.

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