Dell XPS 13 Review: A Slim, Sturdy Performer for Anyone with MacBook Envy
One of my long-time laptop favorites evolves just enough to keep up with the times.
Updated Oct. 14, 2022 4:00 a.m. PT
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Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
"Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
ExpertiseI've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever.Credentials
Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
All-aluminum design gives it a polished, modern look
Excellent battery life
Good configurations are reasonably priced
Bye-bye audio jack
Lower-power chips hold back performance
Don't love the clicky touchpad
Dell's XPS 13 line does one big thing really well -- it's a slim, well-made Windows laptop that kinda gives you the look and feel of a MacBook Air, but running Windows rather than MacOS.
And for the past several years, it's filled exactly that niche. That's why it remains one of my favorite Windows laptops. Even better, it starts at $829, well less than even the older M1 MacBook Air, which is still a great laptop but is also two years old at this point. The newer M2 MacBook Air starts at $1,199 and goes up from there.
MacBook comparisons aside (although they are inevitable), the latest XPS 13 stands on its own as a great minimalist Windows laptop. It's reasonably thin (around 14mm), light (2.6 pounds) and has a good 13.4-inch full HD display. My spouse, no stranger to these things, saw the new XPS 13 and said, unsolicited, "That's very Apple-y. Good job, Dell."
Having covered this particular product line since its launch, I've seen it evolve away flaws like poor or poorly placed webcams. I went back to my review of the first XPS 13, from 2012, to refresh my memory, and found that the high points back then were a sharp design and a footprint slightly smaller than other 13-inch laptops (yes, like the MacBook Air). One of the big concerns was a lack of ports. That original $999 model had two USB-A ports (one USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0), plus DisplayPort and an audio output.
The 2022 version is even more minimalist, with only two USB-C ports, and not even an audio jack. That mimics the recent XPS 13 Plus, which is a higher-end version that tried some ambitious design tweaks, including a seamless touchpad and capacitive touch buttons for Function keys. While the Plus is visually arresting, powerful and very thin, I did knock it for losing the headphone jack, something that very few laptops have done to date, even though it's standard operating procedure for phones right now.
And even though it's a disappointment to see the standard XPS 13 follow suit in ditching a built-in audio connection, I still prefer it to the fancier Plus model. It's less expensive, certainly powerful enough for everyday tasks, and the touchpad and Function keys are just easier to use in their traditional format, even if the Plus versions look cooler. Comparably spec'd, an XPS 13 with a Core i5, 16GB RAM, 512GB storage and a standard FHD touchscreen is currently $1,399 for the XPS 13 Plus and $1,149 for this standard XPS 13. The biggest difference, besides the design, is that the Plus runs faster P-series Intel CPUs, versus the ultrabook-ish U series here.
At least both the XPS 13 and XPS 13 Plus pack a couple of adapters in the box -- one USB-C to USB-A and one USB-C to audio. Both also have a 720-resolution webcam plus an IR camera for Windows Hello facial recognition login. Many newer laptops, including the latest MacBook Air, have upgraded to higher-resolution 1080 cameras, which are important in our age of Zoom meetings. In the slimmer XPS Plus model, I can buy that there's not room for a better camera, but in the more mainstream version, it's time to hook that up. You can, however, use the included camera and IR sensor for Windows Hello facial recognition login.
Touchpad, keyboard and display
Some XPS models have had carbon fiber wrist rests that offered some visual contrast with the rest of the aluminum body, but now it's one uniform color across the entire chassis. I'm fine either way, but the new look is definitely a bit more streamlined and modern.
I've always thought the XPS 13 had a very good touchpad... for a Windows laptop. That caveat is important, because it's one of those areas where Macs still feel more responsive and easier to use. It's fine, but the pad physically depresses, rather than giving you a little haptic kick like some other touchpads do. I found it clicked down a little too easily, which felt clumsy to me.
The keyboard, however, is excellent, with a logical layout, wide key faces and a satisfying clack when tapped. One pet peeve -- the backlit keyboard shines a light through translucent white letters on a silver-colored keyboard, which means in many not-quite-dark-enough situations, turning the backlight on actually makes the keys harder to see. At least you can turn it off with a tap of a function key.
The 1,920x1,200 display has a 16:10 aspect ratio (you hardly ever see a 16:9 laptop anymore), and it can reach 500 nits of brightness. It's pretty sharp and bright, but remember, this isn't an OLED panel, which is one of four different screen options on the XPS 13 Plus. Here you can choose touch or non-touch, that's it.
The screen is emphasized by the very thin bezel around it. That's fairly common now, but the XPS 13 was a real pioneer in shaving down the border around laptop screens.
Performance and battery life
The XPS 13 comes with either a Core i5 or Core i7 12th-gen Intel CPU. We tested the Core i5 version. The more-expensive XPS 13 Plus we tested was a good deal faster, but our test unit of the Plus had a Core i7 CPU (and one from a more powerful chip line)
In our benchmark tests, the XPS 13 was slower than a lot of other 13-inch laptops we've tested recently, but many of those were more expensive models with Core i7 CPUs (or in the MacBook Air's case, an M2). Slightly more head-to-head, the XPS 15 was faster than the Surface Laptop Go 2, which also has a Core i5 U-series chip, but an 11th-gen one, versus the newer 12th-gen one here.
But in everyday use, which for me included streaming video, working on documents and even doing some moderate Photoshopping, the performance here is perfectly fine. The faster i7 chip is available if you think you need it, but doubling the base RAM to 16GB is really the first upgrade to consider when configuring a system.
That U-series CPU really pays off when it comes to battery life, topping 10 hours in our online video playback test. That's compared to the XPS 13 Plus, which was painfully short, closer to 4 hours. No, I can't end this review without one more MacBook reference: The newer M2 version of the MacBook Air ran for just over 16 hours on the same test.
As Windows laptops are generally made of the same small handful of CPU, GPU, screen, storage and memory options, the choice comes down to design, ergonomics and price, once you factor in the desired specs. If I'm looking to grab a slim 13-inch laptop that'll last pretty much all day and also look and feel good while doing it, I've usually reached for an XPS 13. This year's refreshed model hasn't changed my mind about that.