XPS 13 2019 review: One small move made Dell’s best laptop even better

XPS 13 2019 review: One small move made Dell’s best laptop even better
quickbit

Key fixes in this year's model mean the $899 XPS 13 has few things holding it back.

Dell gave its XPS laptop an overhaul last year, but 2019 is all about refinement. Announced at CES, this year's XPS 13 laptop looks largely the same as the 2018 model, but it has a few new and improved features that attempt to right some of the wrongs of the previous generation.

The "wrong" that we've harped on the most since the XPS line arrived was its up-nose webcam. That strange webcam placement became a mainstay on the XPS 13 for years—even when other Dell laptops didn't have it. Finally, Dell has done away with that and managed to stick a custom-made, minuscule webcam inside the top, thread-thin bezel of the XPS 13's display.

Those who don't use laptop webcams may roll their eyes at this change, but it's an important one to call out especially when discussing Dell's newest edition of its flagship laptop. With that change and others, Dell is hoping it has created a near-perfect Ultrabook. But how close has the company actually gotten to achieving that goal?

Look and feel

We'll discuss the new webcam and its location in a bit—but first, let's take a look at the mostly unchanged exterior of the XPS 13. We reviewed the new alpine-white model with a frost-colored lid, which features the same woven fiberglass palm rest like last year's model. The device also comes in a black carbon-fiber model and a new white model with a rose-gold lid.

However, all models have the same general design. Most striking is the palm-rest area that has an almost basket-weave pattern to it. The texture of it is most pronounced on the white models, giving it a pleasant tactile feel that's just smooth enough to not interrupt your daily use of the machine.

SPECS AT A GLANCE: DELL XPS 13 LAPTOP (2019)
  Worst Best As reviewed
Screen 13.3-inch FHD (1920 x 1080) Infinity Edge non-touch display 13.3-inch 4K UHD (3840 x 2160) Infinity Edge touchscreen 13.3-inch 4K UHD (3840 x 2160) Infinity Edge touchscreen
OS Windows 10 Home, 64 bit
CPU Intel Core i3-8145U Intel Core i7-8565U Intel Core i7-8565U
RAM 4GB LPDDR3 16GB LPDDR3 16GB LPDDR3
HDD 128GB PCIe SSD 2TB PCIe SSD 512GB PCIe SSD
GPU Intel UHD Graphics 620
Networking Killer 1435 802.11ac 2x2, Bluetooth 4.1
Ports 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports (PowerShares DC-In, DisplayPort, 4 lanes of PCI Express Gen 3), 1 USB Type C 3.1 port (PowerShares DC-In, DisplayPort), headset jack, Noble lock slot, microSD card slot
Size 11.9 x 7.8 x 0.46 in (302 x 199 x 11.6 mm)
Weight 2.7 pounds
Battery 52Whr
Warranty 1 year
Price $899 $2,309 $1,709
Other perks The fingerprint sensor on the power button, four mics (Cortana use), Dell Cinema (Color, Sound, Stream), Dolby Vision support

Dell may use satin metallic finishes on the lid of the XPS 13 (like so many OEMs are doing now), but I appreciate the understated flair that the woven fiberglass gives the XPS 13. It's unique to Dell's premium line, and it prevents the machine from looking like just another metal slab. I'm still a bit cautious about the alpine-white models because they could be susceptible to dirt and grime over time. But Dell still outfitted these versions with stain-resistant coatings that should prevent increasing dinginess.

The XPS 13 shines with its display, mostly thanks to the Infinity Edge bezels that surround it. Dell shrank the side bezels to 4mm each, making them 23 percent smaller than those on last year's laptop. The 16:9 aspect ratio will bother those who hate scrolling, and even I have to admit it seems narrow (that feeling comes after recently testing numerous Ultrabooks with 3:2 aspect-ratio screens). That panel decision may even be a dealbreaker for some, but it will suit others who use their laptop as an entertainment device (Dolby Vision support will make watching some movies and TV shows better, too).

The 13.3-inch display comes in FHD non-touch, FHD touch, and 4K touch-panel options, providing users some variety. Since this is the regular XPS laptop rather than the XPS 13 two-in-one, a touchscreen isn't necessary for some users. I rarely think to use a touchscreen when I'm working on a regular laptop, and some like me will prefer to save a few bucks and opt for the non-touch option. Others, though, can choose from a standard FHD touchscreen or a 4K panel with 100 percent sRGB color gamut. Our review unit had the 4K touchscreen option, and it looks just as lovely as you'd expect.

The panels also have a 65 percent anti-reflective coating on them, increasing visibility at different angles. While it's not as good as the etched-glass anti-glare panels on HP's new Elitebook, it lets you view most of the screen at different angles and even when it's exposed to some sunlight. I wouldn't take the XPS 13 outside on a brightly lit day to work, though, as staring at the screen for hours would probably hurt your eyes.

That webcam, and connectivity

The display still has a wide chin at its bottom, but at least the webcam no longer blemishes that area. Only the Dell logo sits in the middle of the bottom bezel, while an impressively small HD webcam sits atop the screen, embedded into the top bezel.

Dell created its own 2.25mm webcam for the new XPS 13: It has a four-element lens for increased sharpness, active alignment for better focus, and temporal noise reduction for improved video quality even in low-light environments. I noticed all of these effects when using the webcam, and I was particularly impressed with the overall sharpness of my feed during video chats. While it won't replace an optional, attached webcam of higher quality, it will serve those who need it for conference calls and video chats better than most laptop webcams.

Many users wouldn't bat an eye if Dell had decided to remove the webcam entirely from the XPS 13. But doing so wouldn't have been in the company's best interest. Our laptops pull double-duty now more than ever, acting as personal and professional devices all day, every day. Removing the webcam would have alienated a big group of users who need a webcam for conference calls in their primary portable PC.

That's why we continuously mentioned the up-nose cam as a feature that held the XPS 13 back. That ill placement was almost as bad as removing the webcam entirely because it made the webcam effectively useless for those who needed it most. While those who only use a webcam on occasion to video chat with their faraway relatives, the up-nose angle wouldn't mean much (it may have even been a humorous talking point). But for professionals who need to put their best face forward (literally) in video conferences, they couldn't do so on earlier versions of this laptop.

The new webcam alone elevates the new XPS 13, but Dell's other small design changes do as well. At 2.7 pounds, the device is lighter overall, and it essentially provides a 13.3-inch display in a laptop with an 11-inch footprint. It feels smaller and lighter than most Ultrabooks I've used, and its unique aesthetic will appeal to many.

But with its slim frame, the XPS 13 is also slim on connectivity (as many flagship Ultrabooks are today). Its right side holds one USB-C 3.1 port, one microSD card slot, and one headphone jack. The left side holds two Thunderbolt 3 ports, a lock slot, and a handy battery gauge. I still wish Dell included one USB-A port, but the dimensions of the laptop make that simply impossible.

Keyboard and trackpad

Dell didn't change anything about the XPS 13's keyboard—it's still comfortable to type on, and it seems even quieter than before (but that may just be my impression). The page-navigation keys are still a little cramped at the bottom-right corner of the key area, but I'd rather have them there than in an additional row on the side or elsewhere. The Backspace key is a bit small as well but not small enough that my fingers missed it while typing at my normal speed.

Diagonal from that Backspace key is the combination fingerprint reader and power button. It provides the only form of Windows Hello biometric authentication because the screen's top bezel is far too small to support an IR camera. Thankfully, the fingerprint reader works well and will log you in within milliseconds of touching it. I just wish it had a one-press power-up and login feature like Huawei's Notebook 13 has.

The Precision trackpad, while on the narrow side, is also similar to that of last year's model: smooth and supportive of multi-finger gestures. However, some may not rely on it as much if they opt for one of the XPS's touchscreen panels.

Performance

We tested a higher-end XPS 13 model, which contains a quad-core Intel Core i7-8565U CPU, Intel UHD Graphics 620, 16GB of RAM, and 512GB of PCIe NVMe storage. Our benchmarks show modest gains over last year's XPS 13 laptop in nearly every way. Last year's laptop served me well as my primary work device for the few days I tested it, and this year's device was no different. I experienced little to no slowdown, and the machine had no problem running multiple programs and browser tabs at once.

It also stayed relatively cool throughout. The bottom part of the chassis almost always felt slightly warm but not enough to bother me when I propped it up on my lap. I also didn't feel any concentrated hotspots. In addition to Gore Thermal Insulation, the XPS 13 has dual fans and dual heat pipes to push out warm air and circulate cool air. The fiberglass filaments that make up much of the rose-gold and frost-white chassis options also provide better thermal management than metal and should cool the device faster.

The noise was my only performance-related complaint. The XPS 13's fans aren't as loud as those on the Notebook 13 (few fans are), but they made themselves known during intense benchmark testing and periods of laborious work. The noise wouldn't be a dealbreaker for me, but those sensitive to unwanted computer sounds may be perturbed by it

Battery life

Since you have a lot of choice in terms of specs for the XPS 13, its battery life will differ depending on how powerful you make it. Dell estimates that a laptop with a Core i5 processor and an FHD display will get a whopping 21 hours of battery life, while the higher-end models with Core i7 CPUs and 4K displays will get just 12 hours. Our review unit fell into the latter category, and Dell delivered on its promise. Our review unit achieved an average battery life of 763 minutes, or 12.7 hours, on our Wi-Fi test, and it got an average of 326 minutes, or about 5.5 hours, on our WebGL test. The XPS 13 doesn't have the best battery life of any Ultrabook out there, but it's better than most 13-inch competitors like the HP Spectre 13 and the Huawei Notebook 13.

Just new enough to reconsider

This is a relatively small update for the XPS 13. Every few years, OEMs like to completely revamp their flagship laptops and convertibles, and Dell did so last year with the XPS 13. While there aren't many dramatically different things to highlight, Dell didn't want to mess with an already-good thing. The XPS 13 remains one of the best premium Ultrabooks on the market.

Users will be most appreciative of the performance and battery life boost in this year's model. The gains may be modest, but they may be enough to convince hold-outs to take the plunge this year. I predict there will be many of these customers, and many who finally pick up the XPS 13 may do so thanks to its new webcam placement. Not only does it complement the predictable performance and battery-life updates, but it corrects arguably the biggest problem that previous XPS 13 models had. Now that the webcam doesn't put the inside of your nose center stage, some customers will reconsider the XPS 13, because they can use it for both personal and professional ends.

The biggest drawbacks to the XPS 13 are common among Ultrabooks available today: limited USB-A ports (or in this case, none) and noisy fans. Dell would have had to make the notebook thicker to fix the former and sacrifice power and thermal management to fix the latter. Those tradeoffs would have resulted in a very different notebook—I think Dell made the right choices with the new XPS 13 laptop.

The Good

  • Compact, attractive design with a large screen area.
  • Dolby Vision support.
  • A practically placed, FHD webcam.
  • Fingerprint sensor embedded into the power button.
  • Stays fairly cool.
  • Solid performance.
  • Good battery life.

The Bad

  • 16:9 aspect ratio will bother some.
  • No one-touch power or login feature.
  • Fans can be noisy.
  • No LTE option.

The Ugly

  • No USB-A ports.