Dell XPS 13 (late 2020) review: size, refined

This is a simple review. Today we’re looking at the XPS 13 9310, the best 13-inch ultraportable notebook from Dell in the industry. It’s identical in every way to the Dell XPS 13 9300 I tested back in April, with one exception: It features Intel’s new 11th generation Tiger Lake processors.

The new XPS 13 starts at $ 999.99. The base model includes a Core i3-1115G4, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB storage, Intel’s integrated UHD graphics and a 1920 x 1200 non-touch display. However, the most exciting feature of the Tiger Lake line is the new integrated Iris Xe graphics from Intel. Models with these graphics start at $ 1,099.99 (currently $ 1,077.99) and include a quad-core Core i5 1135G7 or i7-1165G7. You can go up to a $ 2,499.99 model with 32GB of RAM, 2TB of storage, and a 3840 x 2400 touchscreen. I tested a configuration for $ 1,649.99 (listed at $ 1,616.99 at the time of this writing) that includes 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.

A well-known XPS 13 with a brand new chip.

If you haven’t read my review of the XPS 13 9300 earlier this year, do so now because everything I’ve said about the exterior of this machine applies here, too. TL; DR: It’s really good. The chassis is made of CNC-milled aluminum, the logo is made of stainless steel, the screen is Corning Gorilla Glass 6; The palm rests are woven glass fiber with a unique texture. It’s shiny, sturdy, and almost the best build quality you can find in a laptop. It’s also portable (2.8 pounds and 0.58 inches thick). The speakers are sufficient, the keyboard is snappy and comfortable, and the touchpad is fluid and easy to click. Another highlight is the 16:10 display with a screen-to-body ratio of 91.5 percent, which gives you more vertical space than most consumer laptops (16: 9). You will notice the difference.

Two main drawbacks: the port selection is multiple (two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 4, a headphone jack, and a microSD reader), and the 2.25mm 720p webcam is not particularly good and provides a blurry and washed-out image. It also doesn’t include a privacy screen or kill switch.

As I said, check out the 9030 review if you want to learn more about the laptop’s exterior. We’re focusing here on the performance of the new processor and whether the 1165G7 (and its Xe graphics) are an improvement over the Ice Lake generation. The answer is yes. But it’s not an emphatic or particularly excited yes.

The rear left corner of the Dell XPS 13.
It comes with a USB-C to USB-A adapter.

It is also one of the first systems to be verified using Intel’s new Evo program. Intel gives a laptop an Evo badge, confirming that it offers a range of benchmarks for “premium” thin and light laptops – Tiger Lake processors, Thunderbolt 4, Wi-Fi 6, all-day battery life, fast charging, fast start-up time and, perhaps most importantly, solid real-world performance.

The 1165G7 could definitely compete in everyday tasks. It’s never been overwhelmed by my legions of Chrome tabs, apps, and the occasional Spotify, YouTubing, and Zoom calls – no slowdowns or delays. I have never heard the fans spin in everyday use, nor have I ever felt any heat. Using this configuration for work or school should not have any performance issues.

I also noticed a slight improvement in content creation. It took the 9310 10 minutes and 43 seconds to complete our real-world media test, which exported a 5-minute, 33-second 4K video to Adobe Premiere Pro. That’s a bit faster than any laptop with Ice Lake CPUs and integrated graphics. The MacBook Pro 13 with Iris Plus graphics took 11 minutes and 26 seconds, and the Surface Laptop 3 took just over 15. It’s also better than we’ve seen from other 1165G7 systems. Asus’ ZenBook 14 was about a minute slower.

The Dell XPS 13 is tilted backwards to the left.
Choose a Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7.

Here’s the thing: when it comes to productivity, this XPS is good. It’s an upward trend over its predecessor (and I would be very concerned if it weren’t). On the other hand, the 9300 (and other Ice Lake systems) were pretty good already. The difference in Chrome tab loading speed and Premiere Pro export time isn’t earth-shattering enough that I see it affect the life of the average XPS 13 user. If you already own a comparable Ice Lake system or are considering buying one to cut costs, I will not be asking you to upgrade.

The Dell XPS 13 is open when viewed from the front.
Content and media creators can opt for a 4K 3840 x 2400 display.

People who are worth upgrading for are those who want to play some easy games. For titles with lighter textures (the only ones you’ll want to run on a laptop like this), the XPS 13 did a significantly better job than its predecessor. It averaged 111 fps Rocket League maximum settings without immersion below 100; The 9300 achieved 70 fps with a minimum of 41. The 9310 also won League of Legends, an average of 205 fps, while its predecessor averaged a low 160s. (Of course, the XPS 13’s screen is only 60 Hz, so your experience in these games won’t change. Both computers show 60 fps.) And it outperformed its predecessor Overwatch, Average of 48 fps at ultra settings to the low 40s average of the 9300 – an increase of 10 percent.

More good news for Intel: With these results, Tiger Lake is slightly ahead of its AMD competitors in terms of games as well. The IdeaPad Slim 7 with AMD’s Ryzen 7 4800U with eight cores achieved an average of 46 fps Overwatch the settings. (You won’t notice that little difference while actually playing.)

Unfortunately, demanding 1080p games are still out of reach for this computer. The 9310 chugged through Shadow of the Tomb Raider at an average of 22fps. That’s a considerable increase over the Ice Lake XPS, which averaged 17 fps on the same title, but you can’t actually play the game (at native resolution) on either computer. While Tiger Lake gives you a better experience with some of your titles, it probably won’t add to the range of games you can play. (We expect game performance to get better over time.)

I think this form factor is also close to the limits of what it can cool down. During my gaming session, the CPU hit 100 degrees Celsius in some places and spent a lot of time in the high 90’s. (The keyboard was consistently toasted, but not entirely uncomfortable.) This is hotter than I’d like to see, and I’m worried the XPS 13 will if Dell continues with that design and Intel’s chips don’t make significant efficiency gains when it comes to performance, you hit a wall.

The Dell XPS 13 angled from the back to the left.
The 52Whr battery is integrated and cannot be replaced. RAM is also soldered.

Finally, the battery life was a pleasant surprise. I have nine hours and 15 minutes to use this XPS as my primary work driver at around 200 nits of brightness. This time isn’t high on the category, but it does mean it should get you through a full day of work or school comfortably. The caveat is that I had all the different energy saving things enabled – the Windows Battery Saver Profile, the Dell Battery Extender, the Intel Display Power Savings, etc. When I ran a trial of the Windows Better Performance Profile with the Battery Extender turned off, could I expect closer to six hours. I didn’t notice any performance difference between these two scenarios while just working in the office and streaming. So if you want juice all day, I recommend that you save battery.

This XPS has a performance advantage over what we’ve seen so far in 2020. The Tiger Lake processor is a significant step forward, especially when it comes to graphics performance. People who work with graphics and video will likely find the elevation the most useful. For anyone else who primarily uses the XPS 13 for school and office work, both Ice Lake and Tiger Lake systems should be fine – an upgrade is not required. Game performance varies greatly by title – players may see a substantial difference or see very little. However, if you’re mostly playing lighter dishes that Ice Lake has already broken through (which is likely the case with a good chunk of people who play on the XPS 13), you won’t see the improvement on this screen.

So overall, the XPS 13 is still an excellent laptop. It’s still one of the best you can buy. But I’m not as impressed as I was at the beginning of this year because the competition is intensifying. Zenbooks, Swifts, Yogas, Envys, and Specters have made advances in design, build quality, nifty features, and performance this year – and ARM-based Macbooks are on the move. There are some releases on the horizon that are becoming more and more similar to the XPS 13.

This is the best laptop of 2020 with the fewest compromises and the fewest risks. However, Dell will have to stay creative to keep XPS at the top of the stack in 2021.

Photography by Monica Chin / The Verge

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