When you open up the XPS 13 Plus, three things will immediately strike you as… unusual. Those design choices make the XPS 13 Plus stand out so much visually, but they also make for an unconventional experience. Not necessarily a bad one, but certainly one that fights years of laptop design muscle memory.
First is the touchpad, which sits, disguised, along the edge-to-edge palm rest. It’s there, but you can’t actually see it. The touch-sensitive part of that front area is indistinguishable from the part you just rest your hands on.
Apple laptops still have a distinct panel for touch, some laptops from Dell’s own Alienware line have touchpads that literally glow in different colors, but here it’s guesswork. In practice, however, I found the touch-sensitive area relatively easy to use. It runs from the left edge of the spacebar on one side to the right edge of the Alt key on the other. Sure, it would be cool to have the touchpad run the entire length of the body, but that would be a nightmare for palm rejection AI and probably not as useful as you’d think.
- Inventive new design
- Very slim and light
- Excellent performance
- Great OLED display
- Included USB-C dongles
- You might not love the new touchpad, keyboard and function keys
- Underwhelming battery life
- Heat and fan noise
- Low-resolution webcam
- No headphone port
But the larger point remains — people are used to how touchpads work and what they look like, so you mess with that shared experience at your own peril. In this case, the touchpad’s overall feel is good for a Windows laptop, but it could also feel either too sensitive or not sensitive enough, depending on what I was doing. The best word for an overall vibe would be “floaty,” and it suffers in comparison by landing on my desk immediately after the, which is the platonic ideal of touchpad feel and functionality.
Dell makes a big deal of the haptics of the touchpad. It feels like you can click it down, but it’s not actually depressing. MacBook touchpads have worked the same way for years. Personally, I’m a tapper, not a clicker, so it didn’t make a huge difference to me.
Next is the keyboard, which ditches the standard island-style keys — flat with a modest space between each one — for an edge-to-edge design, where each key brushes up against its neighbor. It’s a style that popped up occasionally in the 2010s, but one I haven’t seen in a while. It lets you offer a larger top surface for each key and in some cases, helps make a laptop thinner. I got used to it quickly but, again, my muscle memory fought it. It also lacks the satisfying snap of a good island-style keyboard.
The last big change is to the Function key row. It reminds me of the now-deprecated, as it’s a backlit row of touch-sensitive icons. The media and system commands are lit by default — brightness, volume, keyboard backlight and so on. Hold the Fn key and you see the typical F1 to F12 keys. You can swap the behavior the other way if you prefer.
Why do this? Again, I believe it’s to shave some thickness from the system and allow for its hinge mechanism. I’m not against the idea in principle, but the MacBook Pro’s rough go of it shows that people aren’t itching to swap physical buttons for virtual ones. And this isn’t a full-color user-assignable OLED screen strip like Apple’s version, either. But in the end, the only thing I think you’ll miss is having a physical Esc key, which can be important in your day to day use. I liked how clear the icons were and how they were boldly backlit.
Configuration and performance
Once you put aside those three breaks with laptop design orthodoxy, the rest of the XPS 13 Plus is a conventional and mostly excellent premium 13-inch laptop experience. The XPS 13 line has always been one of my favorite Windows laptops, and this looks and feels like a high-end machine that will be a conversation piece whenever you whip it out.
The XPS 13 Plus starts at $1,299 and the model I tested is currently $1,949. It includes an upgraded CPU, RAM and display. I liked that there are four 13.4-inch screen options, both OLED and LCD, ranging from a 1,920×1,080 non-touch screen to a 3,840×2,400 touchscreen.
Inside, the version here has a 12th Gen Intel Core i7-1280P, and all the engineering to squeeze it into this 15mm thick body is impressive. That said, the fans spin up audibly, sometimes sounding like a little white noise machine in the background, and even then, the system got very warm, especially on the bottom panel.
Performance with that 12th-gen Core i7 is a highlight, and it’s nice to have this much raw horsepower in a high-design, executive-class laptop. I’ve compared it to Apple’s latest mainstream and Pro laptops, as well as comparable Windows systems. It’s part of Intel’s Evo program, which is a designation for premium slim laptop designs with good performance. If you go with the least expensive configuration, you get a Core i5 from the same generation.
In the preloaded My Dell app, you can switch between performance presets (navigate from My Dell > Power > Thermal). The Performance mode was indeed faster, but also cranked the fans up even more, created a lot of heat, and certainly didn’t help the already limp battery life.
Display and webcam
The display is also a highlight. I tested the 3,456×2,160-pixel touchscreen version, which is an impressive-looking OLED panel. Dell calls this 3.5K and you can also get a true 4K version, but that’s no OLED panel. Either one is a $300 upgrade from the base non-touch Full HD 1,920×1,080-pixel model. There’s also a FHD touch panel for $100 more, and if you’re looking to cut costs, it’s probably where I’d go. On a relatively small laptop, you can get away with FHD resolution, but adding touch is going to be valuable.
I’m less pleased with the 720p webcam. Premium laptops have made a major switch to FHD cameras in the past couple of years, even dragging long-time holdout Apple in with the latest MacBook Air Dell says the lower-res camera here benefits from image processing help on the software side, but I found it to be merely ok. Jumping into a Zoom meeting in low light, I had a distinct orange hue. Adding a higher-resolution camera would likely mean a thicker lid, so I get that there’s a size-versus-functionality tradeoff.
The camera is also used for Dell’s presence-detection features, which I find interesting. It can wake from sleep mode when the camera detects your face, or it can lock itself when you walk away. But the feature I liked most was called Look Away Detect, which will dim the screen if it sees you looking away. That’s good for both battery life and privacy, and worked so well that I think more laptops should have a feature like that.
It has just two Thunderbolt USB-C ports, which is frankly fine for most people these days, and it matches the most recent 13-inch MacBook Pro. But, Dell kills the headphone jack, which might be rarely used, but is a notable exclusion nonetheless. A USB-C-to-audio dongle is included in the box, as is a USB-C-to-USB-A one. That’s a nice bonus, and one that some companies (ahem, Apple…) would probably make you pay extra for. The downside is, if you keep it plugged into power and use the headphone adaptor at the same time, you’re out of ports.
Battery life and roadworthiness
Despite focusing on some of the unusual design choices and limitations, there’s a lot I love about the XPS 13 Plus. I love a sharp, original design and am willing to trade a little familiarity to push the edges a bit. This level of performance in a slim, light laptop like this is enviable (as long as we’re sticking on the non-dedicated GPU side of things), and the hidden performance modes offer more flexibility than I’m used to seeing in similar laptops.
But there’s one more wrinkle in the formula. Battery life. In benchmark testing, the XPS 13 Plus ran on the short side, at about 4 hours while streaming online video, which is far from the most strenuous thing you might ask it to do. In hands-on use, it felt a little better depending on what I was doing, but it also dropped from almost 70% to under 30% in less than 2 hours while I was writing this review.
Use the optimized performance preset, turn down the screen brightness, close unused apps and you can likely push the battery life to a better place. But I don’t feel confident that I could pick up this laptop in the morning and work on it all day without charging. It helps that there’s an express charging preset for powering up part of the battery quickly.
The nearly 4K screen doesn’t do the battery any favors, although the fact that it’s an OLED panel should help. That’s one reason I’m cautious about recommending 4K laptops — higher-resolution screens are a battery killer.
The XPS 13 Plus has a lot of innovative ideas — some of which are important, while others seem like change for the sake of change. We may even disagree on which is which. If I were working on the next generation of this laptop, I’d keep the design updates but suggest sacrificing a little thickness for a bigger battery so this could be a more travel-ready companion.
|Dell XPS 13 Plus 9320||Windows 11 Home; 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-1280P; 16GB DDR5 6,400MHz RAM; 128MB Intel Iris Xe Graphics; 512GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, M2, 2022)||MacOS Monterey 12.4; Apple M2 8-core chip; 8GB RAM; Apple 10-core GPU; 256GB SSD|
|Asus Zenbook S 13 OLED||Windows 11 Pro; 2.7 AMD Ryzen 7 6800U; 16GB DDR5 ; 6,400MHz; 512MB AMD Radeon Graphics; 1TB SSD|
|Acer Swift 5 (SF514-56T-797T)||Windows 11 Home; 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-1280P; 16GB DDR5 6,400MHz RAM; 128MB Intel Iris Xe Graphics; 512GB SSD|
|Lenovo Yoga 9i (14-inch, Gen 7)||Windows 11 Home; 2.1GHz Intel Core i7-1260P; 16GB DDR5 5.200GHz RAM; 128MB Intel Iris Xe Graphics; 512GB SSD|
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