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Laptops

The Dell XPS 13 finally solves its nose-cam problem

This evolved XPS gets nearly everything right and starts at a reasonable $899.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

I had to look long and hard to find anything I didn't like about the 2019 Dell XPS 13. Pressed to come up with a list, I'd say the woven glass fiber palm rest doesn't look or feel as high-end as it should. The white backlight shining through white keys (on the white and rose gold versions) sometimes makes it harder to see the keys, not easier. And in order to get a touchscreen model, you have to trade up to a 4K display, which is more expensive and not as battery-friendly.

Other than that, with this latest version of the XPS 13, Dell has done nearly the impossible -- it's made a laptop I can find almost no fault with. Since Dell introduced ultrathin screen borders in its 2015 model (the XPS 13 has been around since 2012), the company has steadily been chipping away at my laundry list of complaints, making the XPS 13 smaller, lighter, more powerful. And now, the most critical remaining issue has been taken care of. 

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The nose job

The system's biggest knock has long been its webcam. Because of the very thin screen border (also called a bezel), the webcam had been relegated to a spot below the screen, rather than above it. That led to an unflattering up-the-nose angle that made the XPS 13 less useful for Skype calls, YouTube videos or any other video-recording or streaming needs.

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A view from the nosecam on the older 2018 Dell XPS 13. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

After years of saying it was a problem impossible to solve while maintaining the thin bezel look, Dell has gone ahead and solved it. The new webcam somehow fits into that very slim top border, thanks to a new lens design that's only 2.5mm high. That adds a hair to the width of the top screen border, but it's a fair trade-off.

We have not extensively tested the webcam yet, but a few test shots show that the angle is much more natural, and the image is clear and noise-free. Both video and photo top out at 720p resolution, I'd like to see at least full 1,920x1,080 HD. But compared with a photo snapped from the previous generation XPS 13, the difference is clear.

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A view from the webcam of the 2019 Dell XPS 13. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

C times three

If you're one of those people bothered by the rapid shift to USB-C in laptops at the expense of nearly every other type of port, well, the tide doesn't look like it's turning back anytime soon. Three USB-C ports here handle all the heavy lifting, including power, but two of them are also Thunderbolt ports for hooking up high-speed peripherals

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Sarah Tew/CNET

There's still a microSD card slot, which is something of a rarity these days. That's especially useful because the less-expensive configurations include only 128GB of SSD storage, so at least you can shoehorn in some more. 

The price is (mostly) right

If you were going to bid on this slim design with a high-end aluminum/carbon fiber body, multiple Thunderbolt ports, and nearly edge-to-edge screen in a Showcase Showdown, you could easily overbid. The new XPS 13 starts at $899, or $300 less than the base model MacBook Air. UK prices start at £939, and the new model doesn't appear to be available in Australia yet. 

But keep in mind the entry-level model loses some important features. The FHD (full HD, or 1,920x1,080) display is nontouch. The processor is a lower-end U-series Intel Core i3, and the 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD don't feel especially future-proof, or even today-proof for some users.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Kicking in an extra $100 gets you up to a current-gen Core i5, which is perfectly fine, but getting to even 8GB of RAM and a 256GB hard drive is currently $1,209, making it a closer match to the latest MacBook Air.

Our higher-end review unit has the touchscreen 4K display, a Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, which is currently $1,850. Yes, the white or rose gold color options are an extra $50. Seems a bit nitpicky for an $1,800 laptop; they should throw the color option in at that price.

Colorful combos

Even talking about laptop color options can be a minefield. No matter how much consumer design advances elsewhere, most laptops are still somewhere on the gray-to-silver spectrum, and nothing seems to change that. You'll occasionally find black, or a couple of candy-colored red, blue or what-have-you options, usually on plasticky budget laptops for students. It's only in the past few years that we've seen more high-end laptop color options, led by color additions to MacBooks (in silver, gray and rose gold) and systems like the HP Spectre and Surface Laptop.

The white and rose-gold versions of the XPS 13 will definitely turn a few heads at your local coffee shop. The look is clean and minimalist, and the back of the lid has a matte, almost ceramic-like finish. My one aesthetic issue is the woven glass fiber/carbon fiber palm rest. It's strong, light and made of premium materials, but it also looks and feels like plastic (at least according to the initial impressions of a few people who have seen the system without knowing its backstory).

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Sarah Tew/CNET

It's not a deal-breaker, and one of only a small handful of complaints I could muster about this otherwise fantastic laptop, but for these prices, you should be absolutely happy with the design.

Pixels vs. battery

The display is really a standout feature on the XPS 13. Of course, it's designed to literally stand out, with screen bezels only a few millimeters wide on three sides, allowing the very bright, rich 4K display to go nearly edge-to-edge. It's a laptop for video watchers, designers or anyone else wanting to get a really bold visual experience. With an Intel Core i7 CPU (in this higher-end model), running powerful software like Photoshop or Illustrator is no problem.

But there's a potential price to pay -- in our testing, we've historically found that 4K displays result in much shorter battery life than similar configurations with only a standard full HD display. The difference can sometimes be measured in hours. For a laptop this thin and light, and clearly intended for travel, that can be a big deal.

When in doubt, I generally suggest picking a 1080 screen over a 4K one, although I'm also in favor of touch as an option where available. The FHD battery gains are usually worth it, as 4K on a 13-inch laptop screen is overkill for mainstream users.

We are currently benchmark testing the 2019 version of the Dell XPS 13, including battery life, and will report our findings in our upcoming full review.