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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Dell XPS 13 Plus buries its hardware upgrades in a contentious new design

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Dell’s XPS series has been a leader in thin-and light laptops for years. These machines were always expensive for their class, but they had exceptional design and build quality. With a radically reimagined design, the new Dell XPS 13 Plus is one of the most eye-catching laptops on the market. The Dell XPS 13 Plus is both stylish and performance-oriented, but it may struggle to attract new users with its bold new design.

“Plus” refers to high-end configurations

The Dell XPS 13 Plus is more expensive than the standard Dell XPS 13 This premium is due to the redesign. The standard XPS 13 remains closer to the previous designs. It also factors in the increased performance from Intel Alder Lake P series CPUs rather than the U-series chips found in the standard model.

The Dell unit we received for review was priced somewhere in the middle. It cost $1,799 for an Intel Core i7-1280P processor running at 5,200Mz, 16GB LPDDR5 RAM, 512GB PCIe 4.0 storage and a 3,456 x 2,160 OLED touchscreen display with a peak brightness at 400 nits.Photo by Mark Knapp/ Gizmodo

This model is customizable by Dell. The base configuration includes an Intel Core i5-1240P processor, 8GB RAM, a 512GB SSD PCIe 4.0 SSD and a 1,920 x 1200 non-touch display. This brings the price down below $1,149. The configuration can be increased to max with the same processor that we are testing, 2TB storage, the same display (or an un-oled model with 500-nit peak brightness, 3840×2400 resolution, 32GB RAM, and Windows 11 Pro (as compared to Windows 11 Home). It costs $2,249. There are also configurations available with the Intel Core i7-1260p.

The standard XPS 13 Dell models have a more traditional design, dropping the price to $849. However, both configurations come with lower-powered U series processors with fewer threads and cores. There is no option for a 4K-oLED display. For those with less demanding processing requirements, this may not be an issue.

A radical redesign with no radical new features

The Dell XPS 13 Plus is so simple that it almost doesn’t grab your attention when you close it. It is a simple slab of aluminum, or dark aluminum for the graphite-colored model. The lid has “Dell” printed, while the underside displays “XPS”. The sides of the laptop don’t look very attractive, with only one USB-C (Thunderbolt 4) port. The ports are also lacking. There is no USB-A port to connect to older peripherals, and there is not even a headphone jack. This is because Windows continues to make Bluetooth devices unreliable. It’s a shame that so few ports are available when the laptop’s 0.6 inch thickness and 2.77 pound weight don’t break any ultrabook records and are actually higher than the standard XPS 13 model’s weight and thickness.

The design language of the laptop changes dramatically when it is opened up. However, the lack of a lip at the display makes opening it more difficult.

Dell has placed emphasis on style, at the expense practicality. The keyboard extends across the entire width of the laptop without any gaps at either end. It is also very close to the edge of the laptop because of their rectangular keycaps. It is visually stunning until you examine the edges and see the uneven spacing between keys. Those who value meticulous design will have a hard time seeing the beauty.

The trackpad is located below the keyboard. Although there isn’t much visual space, it’s still there and seamlessly blends into the glass surface beneath the keys. In place of the traditional function row, Dell has chosen capacitive touch buttons above the keyboard. This creates a neat effect. Holding the function button on your keyboard will cause the row to switch between displaying different functions and displaying F1-12. This has the downside that the row is always backlit. Two levels of white backlighting are available on the keyboard, which can be helpful in the dark or counterproductive during the day.

Two biometric security features are included on the laptop. One is a fingerprint reader, which is located in the upper-right corner of keyboard. The other is an IR camera system that supports Windows Hello.

Displays have extremely thin bezels. They measure 0.1 inches on the sides and 0.18 inches at the top and bottom. The back of the laptop vents heat, which is sent out below the hinge. Two sets of slots are located on each side of the chassis that allow audio pipes to exit. These slots may also be used as air intakes.

The laptop is reminiscent of the scene in American Psycho, where businessmen compare business cards. They are one-upping each other with more intricate designs and details, but ultimately the cards convey the same information. Although this design is more striking than the original Dell XPS 13 design it doesn’t significantly improve the laptop’s capabilities. It’s not as striking as it looks, but it won’t stay appealing for very long. Exterior aluminum is easily blemished, while the interior material feels like it can discolor easily. However, the interior material looks almost identical to PC cases since the late 1990s.

The keyboard isn’t as bad as you think, and the trackpad doesn’t work as well as it seems.

The trackpad and keyboard design initially concerned me. These keys don’t look user-friendly. They don’t offer as much error margin as your standard design. The trackpad’s unclear boundaries make it difficult to know where my inputs will actually be registered.

It seems solid palm rejection, despite being a bit confusing. It’s impossible to type on the trackpad because it is so large and has no borders. My cursor stays still throughout the entire process. It is very difficult to distinguish between normal clicks and right clicks. The latter occurs only when I click on the bottom right of the trackpad. Although it looks huge, it is actually quite small. My biggest problem is that I tend to run off to the side or use it too close towards the edge, and receive no feedback on the screen.

A touchscreen is included in the configuration I am testing. This allows me to bypass having to use my trackpad for everything. It is responsive and feels very smooth to the touch.

It is an innovative design that proves to be surprisingly useful. It is surprising because it eliminates virtually all space between keys, making it seem like a nightmare to use. When I rest my fingers on the keyboard, it is a strange feeling of unpredictability about their placement. However, once I start typing, I feel just as consistent and fast as I am on my daily-driver Asus Zenbook laptop. I average just over 100 words per minute typing with an accuracy of 93-98%. Although I can get over 110 WPM with my regular laptop, the variance is sufficient to put the Dell XPS 13 Plus to blame. It’s a new keyboard that I need to adjust to.

This typing experience is achieved when I am in a typing position, with my fingers perfectly floating over the home row. It’s simple to continue typing once you get there. It takes a moment for the computer to reset after I move away from my home row. It does slow down overall laptop use.

Amazingly crisp and fast display

This display is incredibly sharp and Dell has included a resolution of 3,456×2,160. This gives you a pixel density of just slightly over 300 ppi. That’s as sharp as any person should need.

OLED panels have dark blacks. However, Dell’s antiglare finish isn’t as effective as others. This causes black areas to appear slightly lit by external light reflecting off it. In a darkened room, this would not be a problem. The display’s content plays better when it is on, as the small reflections in black areas are less distracting. Also, the display’s high contrast and poppy peak brightness make the content more interesting, especially when you view HDR content which allows highlights to burst out. The display’s peak brightness was 385 nits by default. HDR allowed for a peak brightness of 621 nits in highlights. The HDR experience also includes Dolby Vision support, which makes for stunning visuals.

Even though I had large, mostly white windows, I didn’t notice any ABL (auto-brightness limiting) action being taken to prolong the OLED panel’s life. It is unclear if Dell thinks the laptop doesn’t need this protection.

This laptop only has a 60Hz refresh rate. It is somewhat disappointing. Many notebooks, both high-end and mid-range, have boosted refresh rates to add a little more smoothness to the user experience. The Asus Zenbook 14 OLED and Microsoft Surface Pro 8 can both run at 90 Hz. While the configurations are not 4K, even the 1080p versions can achieve 60 Hz.

Turn up the volume, but not the music

For its size, the XPS 13 Plus has impressive speakers. Although they can produce a lot of audio, they become more difficult to handle when they start producing louder sounds. At high volumes, loud, busy music can quickly become muddled and uninspiring. The bass is missing from the mix. Yellow Ostrich’s tune whale starts with thumping drums. Even with the speakers turned up, they only have a very limited amount of life. The vocals begin to layer on top and the higher registers soon become irritating. It becomes difficult to listen to the song as it unravels into chaos towards the end. The volume can be reduced to about 50%, but it drains a lot more energy.

These speakers can provide basic entertainment, and can even deliver a podcast or speech-heavy audio. However, separate speakers or headphones are better for more immersive entertainment. The MaxxAudio Pro app from Dell offers some sound tuning options but can’t produce bass. It also offers Waves Nx 3D audio with wireless headsets by using the webcam. This allows the user to position the audio and adjust the audio accordingly. However, this seems to be a very intrusive and ineffective way of offering positional audio.

Expectations met with speed

The Dell XPS 13 Plus has been designed to work in office environments. It never behaved like it was being blindsided by me trying to restart a tab that I had closed for a few hours. It was easy to multitask in browsing, spreadsheet management and word processing.

The performance was almost identical in benchmarks. The Intel Core i7-1280p is capable of single-core workloads, and particularly potent in multicore processes. It easily outperforms its 11th Gen brethren in multi-core workloads. In our Geekbench 5, results, it is also ahead of the Ryzen9 5900HX in Asus ROG Strix G15, Razer Blade 14, and the Ryzen 9 5900HX for multi-core workloads. It scored 1,714 single core and 9,947 multicore scores in Geekbench 5. Those two laptops could not break 1,500 single-core performance, while it stayed around the mid-7,000s multi-core.

The processor might not be as heavy as it should be without some modifications. The weaker Core i7-1260p of the Acer Swift 5 (2022), which scored 1,690 single core and 9,585 multicore in Geekbench 5, the Dell XPS 13 Plus barely edged out the Swift 5. The same was true in Blender, where the XPS took 4 minutes to render its CPU’s code while the Swift 5 took only 4:25. Acer was even faster than Dell in our handbrake test. The Swift 5 took 8:56, while Dell took 9:35.

The Dell XPS 13 Plus is warm and can get hot if it’s charged. The underside can reach temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit during operation. However, the temperature drops to a more comfortable level at 88 degrees on its keyboard. The My Dell app offers a range of tuning tools that can be customized to increase cooling or performance, but at the cost of noise and battery life. The default settings of the XPS 13 Plus might not make the most of its internals.

Apple is also a threat to Dell’s success, as the XPS series seems uniquely positioned to compete with the MacBook family. It’s not an easy fight against the M1 Max-powered MacBook Pro 14. Both are close in single-core performance, with Apple leading with 1,777 in Geekbench 5, and 1,530 Cinebench R23 (where the XPS 13 Plus reached 1498), but Apple is far ahead in multicore benchmarks (hitting 12,663 and Cinebench R23 where the XPS 13 Plus was only 8,129) and Apple gains tons of ground when its GPU can be used, nearly tripling the XPS 13 Plus score of 21,109. The XPS 13 Plus starts at $1100.

This is not your everyday device

The battery life isn’t a major disappointment, but the Dell XPS 13 Plus doesn’t quite keep up with other long-haulers recently introduced to the market. The problem lies in the 4K OLED display. This, according to Dell, reduces the laptop’s battery-life from 13 hours on the FullHD+ model. The laptop lasted 7 hours of daily use in my testing. It also streamed non-stop video at 200nits for 6 hours, 38 minutes before it died. It could last for the entire workday with some power-saving measures but not as well as devices such the Asus Zenbook S13 OLED at eleven hours and 21 minutes, or the M1 MacBook Pro at 18.

Do I need to buy the Dell XPS 13 Plus or not?

The Dell XPS 13 Plus is in a strange spot. Although its design speaks to people who value aesthetics more than or on the same level with functionality, its design choices don’t work well.

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There’s also the question of what it delivers for its price. Although it is not a weak machine, Dell’s Inspiron 14 Plus ($999) has it beat by an Intel Core i7-12700H and 16GB DDR5 memory. Although it is heavier and has a less impressive display, those who are more concerned about performance might not be as concerned. There are many Asus Zenbook models that offer exceptional OLED displays and powerful internals for a fraction of what Dell is charging. Not to mention the Acer Swift 5, which has fought with the XPS 13 Plus on all fronts while being cheaper (and packing more ports). This laptop is almost as good as its MacBook counterparts for those who can use macOS as well as Windows.

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