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Dell XPS 13 (late-2020) review: greatness, refined

A 2020 standout, a 2021 question mark

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Best Laptop 2023: Dell XPS 13
The Dell XPS 13 is the best laptop you can buy (for now).

This is an easy review. Today, we’re looking at the XPS 13 9310, Dell’s best-in-class 13-inch ultraportable laptop. It’s identical to the Dell XPS 13 9300, which I reviewed back in April, in every way, except one: it has Intel’s new 11th Gen Tiger Lake processors. 

The new XPS 13 starts at $999.99. The base model includes a Core i3-1115G4, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, Intel’s UHD integrated graphics, and a 1920 x 1200 non-touch display. But the most exciting feature of the Tiger Lake line is Intel’s new Iris Xe integrated graphics. Models with those graphics start at $1,099.99 ($1,077.99 as currently listed) and include a quad-core Core i5 1135G7 or i7-1165G7. You can go up to a $2,499.99 model with 32GB of RAM, 2TB of storage, and a 3840 x 2400 touchscreen. I tested a $1,649.99 configuration (listed at $1,616.99 as of this writing), which includes 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.   

Best Laptops 2020: Dell XPS 13 (late 2020)
A familiar XPS 13 with a brand-new chip.

If you haven’t read my review of the XPS 13 9300 from earlier this year, go ahead and do that now because everything I said about the exterior of that machine also applies here. TL;DR: it’s really good. The chassis is made of CNC-machined aluminum, the logo is stainless steel, the screen is Corning Gorilla Glass 6; the palm rests are a woven-glass fiber with a unique texture. It’s lustrous, sturdy, and just about the best build quality you’ll find in a laptop. It’s also portable (2.8 pounds and 0.58 inches thick). The speakers are adequate, the keyboard is snappy and comfortable, and the touchpad is smooth and effortless to click. Another highlight is the 16:10 display with a 91.5 percent screen-to-body ratio, which gives you more vertical space than most consumer laptops (which are 16:9). You’ll notice the difference.

Two main downsides: the port selection is meh (two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 4, a headphone jack, and a microSD reader), and the 2.25mm 720p webcam isn’t great, delivering a blurry and washed-out picture. It also doesn’t include a privacy shutter or kill switch.

Like I said, check out the 9300 review if you want to read about the laptop’s exterior in more detail. What we’re focusing on here is the new processor’s performance and whether the 1165G7 (and its Xe graphics) are an improvement over the Ice Lake generation. The answer is yes. But it’s not an emphatic or particularly excited yes. 

The left back corner of the Dell XPS 13.
It ships with a USB-C to USB-A adapter.

It’s also one of the first systems to be verified through Intel’s new Evo program. By giving a laptop an Evo badge, Intel claims to be certifying that it offers a number of benchmarks for “premium” thin-and-light laptops — Tiger Lake processors, Thunderbolt 4, Wi-Fi 6, all-day battery life, fast charging, quick boot time, and, perhaps most importantly, solid real-world performance.

In day-to-day tasks, the 1165G7 certainly measured up. It was never overwhelmed by my legions of Chrome tabs, apps, and occasional Spotify, YouTubing, and Zoom calls overtop — no slowdowns or delays. I never once heard the fans spin up during daily use and never felt any heat either. If you’re using this configuration for work or school, you shouldn’t experience any performance issues. 

I saw a slight improvement in content creation as well. The 9310 took 10 minutes and 43 seconds to complete our real-world media test, which involves exporting a 5-minute, 33-second 4K video in Adobe Premiere Pro. That’s a bit faster than any laptop with Ice Lake CPUs and integrated graphics completed the task. The MacBook Pro 13 with Iris Plus graphics took 11 minutes and 26 seconds, and the Surface Laptop 3 took just over 15. It’s also better than we’ve seen from other 1165G7 systems. Asus’ ZenBook 14 was about a minute slower. 

The Dell XPS 13 tilted back, angled to the left.
Have your pick of a Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7.

Here’s the thing: when it comes to productivity, this XPS is good. It’s an uptick over its predecessor (and I’d be very worried if it wasn’t). On the other hand, the 9300 (and other Ice Lake systems) were already quite good. The difference in Chrome tab loading speed and Premiere Pro export time isn’t earth-shattering enough that I can see it making a difference in the lives of the average XPS 13 user. If you already own a comparable Ice Lake system or are considering buying one to cut costs, I won’t urge you to upgrade.    

Best Laptops 2020: Dell XPS 13 2-in-1
Content and media creators can opt for a 4K 3840 x 2400 display.

Folks for whom it may be worth upgrading are those who want to play some light games. On titles with lighter textures (the only ones you’d want to run on a laptop like this), the XPS 13 did a noticeably better job than its predecessor. It averaged 111fps on Rocket League’s maximum settings without dipping below 100; the 9300 put up 70fps with a minimum of 41. The 9310 also won out on League of Legends, averaging 205fps while its predecessor averaged low 160s. (Of course, the XPS 13’s screen is only 60Hz, so your experience in these games won’t change. You’ll see 60fps on either machine.) And it beat its predecessor on Overwatch, averaging 48fps on Ultra settings to the 9300’s low-40s average — a 10-ish percent increase. 

More good news for Intel: those results also put Tiger Lake slightly ahead of AMD competitors when it comes to gaming. The IdeaPad Slim 7, with AMD’s eight-core Ryzen 7 4800U, averaged 46fps on the same Overwatch settings. (You won’t notice a difference that small while you’re actually playing.)

Demanding games are still out of reach for this machine

Unfortunately, demanding games in 1080p are still out of reach for this machine. The 9310 chugged through Shadow of the Tomb Raider at an average of 22fps. That’s a respectable increase from the Ice Lake XPS, which averaged 17fps on the same title, but you can’t really play the game (at native resolution) on either machine. So while Tiger Lake will give you a better experience with some of your titles, it probably won’t expand the range of games you can play. (We do expect gaming performance to get better over time.)

I think this form factor is also close to the limits of what it can cool. Throughout my gaming session, the CPU hit 100 degrees Celsius at a few points and spent a lot of time in the high 90s. (The keyboard was toasty throughout but not quite uncomfortable.) That’s hotter than I’d like to see, and I worry that if Dell continues with this design and Intel’s chips don’t make substantial gains in efficiency, the XPS 13 is going to hit a wall when it comes to performance.

The Dell XPS 13 from the back, angled to the left.
The 52Whr battery is integrated and not replaceable. RAM is also soldered.

Finally, battery life was a pleasant surprise. I got nine hours and 15 minutes using this XPS as my primary work driver at around 200 nits of brightness. That time doesn’t top the category, but it does mean this should comfortably last you a full work or school day. The caveat is that I had all the various battery-saving things on — the Windows Battery Saver profile, Dell’s Battery Extender, Intel’s Display Power Savings, etc. When I ran a trial on the Windows Better Performance profile with Battery Extender off, I could expect closer to six hours. I didn’t notice a performance difference between those two scenarios when I was just doing office work and streaming, so I recommend that you do the battery-saving stuff if you want all-day juice.

This XPS has a performance edge over what we’ve seen so far in 2020. The Tiger Lake processor is a respectable step forward, particularly in graphics performance. People who work with graphics and video will probably find the increase most useful. For everyone else who’s mostly using the XPS 13 for school and office tasks, both Ice Lake and Tiger Lake systems should be fine — upgrading isn’t essential. Gaming performance clearly varies widely by title — gamers may see a substantial difference or may see very little. But if you mostly play lighter fare that Ice Lake was already tearing through (which is probably the case for a good chunk of folks who are gaming on the XPS 13), you won’t see the improvement on this screen.

So overall, the XPS 13 is still an excellent laptop. It’s still one of the best you can buy. But I’m not as starstruck as I was at the beginning of this year, because the competition is creeping up. Zenbooks, Swifts, Yogas, Envys, and Spectres have all made strides in design, build, nifty features, and performance this year — and there are ARM-based Macbooks on the way. There are quite a few releases on the horizon that are looking more and more like the XPS 13. 

This is the best laptop of 2020 with the fewest compromises and the fewest risks. But Dell will need to stay creative if it wants to keep XPS at the top of the stack in 2021.

Photography by Monica Chin / The Verge