The phrase “embarrassment of riches” was made for ultraportable laptops—not only because the lightest, most compact notebooks cost more than their bulkier cousins, but because you’ll see so many excellent ones to choose among. Continually, new models top one another for our Editors’ Choice honors in the category. But Dell thinks it has a tiebreaker: The latest XPS 13 (starts at $949.99; $1,699.99 as tested) is the only one to offer an ultra-colorful, ultra-high-contrast OLED screen. The panel subtracts some battery life, but it makes an already gorgeous ultraportable even more pleasing to the eye. It deserves top marks for those who value a vibrant display above all else.
A Winning Ratio
Except for the OLED instead of IPS display and a fractionally faster processor, the Dell XPS 13 seen here copies the one we reviewed in November 2020 when the Intel “Tiger Lake” version (model 9310) debuted. Like the Razer Book 13’s, its screen measures 13.4 inches diagonally to the 13.3 inches of the Apple MacBook Air M1 and 13 inches of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano. All these displays have a slightly taller 16:10 rather than the more common 16:9 aspect ratio, as does the not-yet-reviewed Gen 9 version of the 14-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.
The $949.99 base model of the XPS 13 has a Core i3 CPU, 8GB of memory, a 256GB solid-state drive, and a 1,920-by-1,200-pixel non-touch screen. It’s silver with a black interior and carbon-fiber palm rest, versus the striking all white with woven-glass-fiber palm rest ($50 extra) of our test unit.
Two IPS touch screens are available, one with the base resolution and one with 3,840 by 2,400 pixels; the latter and what Dell calls the 3.5K (3,456-by-2,160-pixel) OLED touch screen carry the same price.
Apple MacBook Air (M1, Late 2020)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 8 (2020)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano
Razer Book 13
Our $1,699.99 tester combines the OLED panel with a quad-core, 3.0GHz (4.8GHz turbo) Core i7-1185G7 processor with Iris Xe integrated graphics, plus 16GB of RAM and a 512GB NVMe SSD. Its machined aluminum chassis measures 0.58 by 11.6 by 7.8 inches, matching the Razer. The MacBook Air is slightly larger (0.63 by 12 by 8.4 inches) but weighs the same 2.8 pounds, coming in under the Razer Book 13 (3.09 pounds) but no match for the featherweight X1 Nano (1.99 pounds).
Like the Air and Nano, the XPS 13 is short on ports, with just two USB4 Type-C ports with Thunderbolt 4 capability, one on each side. Either one works for the AC adapter. You’ll also find a microSD card slot on the left and an audio jack on the right. If you want to connect an external monitor, you’ll need a DisplayPort dongle. The Razer Book and X1 Carbon one-up their rivals with HDMI and USB Type-A ports, though Dell does include a USB-A adapter in the box.
That’s One Sensational Screen
Dell’s XPS laptops helped pioneer the trend toward stylishly thin bezels and near-borderless displays (the company says the 9310 has a 91.5% screen-to-body ratio), even going too far with earlier units by placing the webcam below instead of above the screen, where it gave videoconference callers an unfortunate view up your nose. Happily, the current XPS 13 has a tiny 720p webcam (but, alas, no privacy shutter) in the correct location.
The camera captures relatively well-lit and colorful images with minimal visual noise and offers face recognition for Windows Hello logins. That’s one of two ways to skip typing passwords, since there’s a fingerprint reader built into the power button—which you may never use, since opening the lid conveniently turns the system on if it was shut down. The display wobbles slightly when tapped, but the Dell feels impressively solid with no flex if you grasp the screen corners or press the keyboard deck.
For battery life’s sake, the XPS 13 OLED comes with Windows 10 Home set to a dark theme (black instead of white dialog boxes and File Explorer windows); the 3,456-by-2,160 display also comes set to a 300% zoom, which I felt made icons and screen elements a bit too big so I dialed it back. It’s rated at 400 nits of brightness compared to 500 for the IPS panels, but that’s more than enough due to its sky-high 100,000:1 contrast ratio. OLED displays by nature show true black, with black pixels turned completely off.
And the screen is just stunning, with rich, vivid colors (Dell claims 100% coverage of the DCI-P3 gamut) and razor-sharp details. Photos and videos looked superb—even browser and Notepad windows did—and viewing angles were wide, though the Gorilla Glass 6 touch overlay shows reflections at extreme angles. I’m not sure if I’d call the 3.5K OLED panel better than the flagship HP DreamColor workstation screens I’ve always thought of as laptops’ finest, but I certainly wouldn’t call it any worse. It makes using the XPS 13 a great pleasure.
The backlit keyboard takes all available space, but it isn’t squashed—the A through apostrophe keys span the regulation 8 inches, and keys are plenty big enough (even the Escape and Delete keys that are puny on some ultraportables). The keyboard has a somewhat shallow but snappy typing feel and dedicated Home and End keys on the top row, though Page Up and Page Down require you to team the Fn key and cursor arrows.
My only gripe is that the arrow keys are arranged in an awkward, HP-style row, with half-size up and down arrows stacked between full-size left and right, instead of the correct inverted T. The buttonless touchpad glides and taps neatly and has a gentle click.
Bottom-mounted speakers produce impressively loud and full sound without tinny or hollow overtones. There’s more bass than I expected (or at least punchier drums in rock tracks) and you can make out overlapping tracks. Dell avoids bloatware but installs half a dozen house-brand utilities ranging from CinemaColor (movie, animation, sports, and yellowish “comfort view” palettes) to Mobile Connect (smartphone control and file transfer) and driver updates.
Outstanding Productivity Performance
I compared the benchmark performance of the XPS 13 OLED to that of its ThinkPad X1 Nano and Razer Book 13 competitors, plus the ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 8, which makes do with a 10th Gen Core i5 rather than 11th Gen Core i7 CPU. The joker in the pack (and the bargain at $999) is the latest MacBook Air, which naturally didn’t run our Windows-specific tests and had to run the others in Rosetta emulation mode in the absence of native software for its Apple M1 processor. You can see the contenders’ basic specs in the table below.
Productivity and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, web browsing, and videoconferencing. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s boot drive. Both yield a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better. (See more about how we test laptops.)
The Dell and Razer led the way, with all four Windows ultraportables breaking the 4,000-point barrier that means excellent productivity in PCMark 10. Today’s speedy SSDs usually ace PCMark 8’s storage test.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video editing benchmark, in which we put a stopwatch on systems as they transcode a brief movie from 4K resolution down to 1080p. It, too, is a tough test for multi-core, multi-threaded CPUs; lower times are better.
The XPS 13 OLED was competitive but not a standout in our CPU tests, with the MacBook Air performing well despite the Rosetta handicap. These aren’t content-creation workstations, but they have more than enough power for everyday office apps.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and add up the total (lower times are better). The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters.
The XPS 13 and Razer Book tied for the win again. Between its speed, stellar screen, and handy microSD slot (which the ThinkPads omit), the Dell is a great choice for managing a photo collection.
We test Windows systems’ relative graphics muscle with two gaming simulations, 3DMark and Superposition. The first has two DirectX 11 subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, suitable for mainstream PCs with integrated graphics and higher-end gaming rigs respectively. The second uses the Unigine engine to render and pan through a detailed 3D scene at two resolution and image quality settings with results measured in frames per second (fps); 30fps is usually considered a fair target for smooth animation while avid gamers prefer 60fps or higher.
Integrated graphics never surprise. These solutions are not designed for high-powered gaming, and though Intel’s Iris Xe silicon outruns the older UHD Graphics of the X1 Carbon, Xe doesn’t create a whole new class of gaming pep. Don’t expect to play the latest AAA titles on the XPS 13 or any ultraportable, though casual and browser-based games should be OK.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film —with screen brightness set at 50% and volume at 100% until the system quits.
Its 1,920-by-1,200-pixel IPS screen helped November’s XPS 13 manage 15 hours and 2 minutes of video playback. The higher-resolution OLED display costs almost four hours of runtime, yielding a last-place finish here. But while it’s not a patch on the incredible stamina of the MacBook Air, 11 hours certainly isn’t bad—it’ll get you through a full day of work or school plus some after-dinner Netflix. Beauty has its cost.
Verdict: Resistance Is Futile
If it had an HDMI port, the Dell XPS 13 OLED would score a perfect five-star review. Even without one, it’s a cinch to earn an Editors’ Choice award among OLED laptops, and among ultraportables that simply sing when you look at them.
We’ve said before that the extra ports, slightly nicer keyboard, and slightly lighter weight of its archrival the ThinkPad X1 Carbon make us lean toward the Lenovo for productivity work, but the Dell’s spectacular new screen tips the scale if dazzling panel quality is what matters most. There are now two best laptops in the world.
Dell XPS 13 OLED (9310)
The Bottom Line
Dell’s multiple-award-winning XPS 13 ultraportable approaches perfection with a high-resolution OLED touch screen. It’s not cheap, but it’s irresistible once you lay eyes on it.
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