Dell’s XPS 13 line of laptops have set the standard in recent years for just how thin and light a notebook can be while still offering decent performance and long battery life. But the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 line of convertibles, which should be more versatile than their clamshell siblings, have been hampered by low power processors and high price tags… until now.

The new Dell XPS 13 2-in-1(7390) is a compact convertible notebook that sheds the Intel Y-series processors of yesteryear and instead ships with a 15 watt, 10th-gen Intel Core “Ice Lake-U” processor with support for up to Intel Iris Plus graphics. As one of the first laptops to feature an Ice Lake chip, when Dell offered me a chance to review the 2019 XPS 13-2-in-1, I jumped at the opportunity.

Dell has also updated a few other key features. Unlike last year’s model, the 2019 version of Dell’s 13 inch convertible has a display with a 16:10 aspect ratio, as well as a small webcam placed above the screen rather than below it. The new model also has a brand new MagLev keyboard.

That said, this is an expensive little laptop — prices start at $1000 for a model with rather underwhelming specs. The model featured in this review is a $1600 configuration, which is more than I’d usually recommend paying for a laptop unless it had some killer features.

So is getting your hands on one of the first Ice Lake laptops worth the premium asking price? Maybe. I guess it depends on your priorities.

Overview

On the one hand, this laptop scores higher in most benchmarks than any other laptop with a 15-watt processor that I’ve tested to date. The notebook doesn’t take up much space, features an attractive design, and has an excellent touchpad.

On the other hand, battery life is nothing to write home about, the port selection is rather limited, I’m not convinced the new keyboard is an improvement, and I’m not sure why anyone thought it was a good idea to use white backlighting for a white keyboard — although that last item is only an issue if you happen to buy a model with a white keyboard. Dell also offers select configurations with a platinum silver body exterior and black interior.

The 16:10 aspect ratio is also a bit of a mixed bag. I know some people prefer this type of display, particularly on a computer like the XPS 13 2-in-1 which you can use as either a notebook or tablet. But for the way I work, I prefer my screens to be a little wider.

Okay, enough foreshadowing. You can skip down to the verdict section at the bottom if you’re impatient — but otherwise let’s start digging into the details.

The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 (7390) is a 2.9 pound notebook that measures 11.7″ x 8.2″ x 0.5″. It features CNC machined aluminum chassis with a carbon fiber black palm rest or a glass fiber white palm rest, depending on the model. And the notebook is powered by a 51 Wh battery (and charged via a 45W USB-C adapter).

It features a touchscreen display, digital pen support, and a 360-degree hinge, which means you can use the computer in laptop, tablet, tent, or stand modes.

The laptop has two Thunderbolt 3 ports, a microSD card reader, and a 3.5mm audio jack… and that’s it.

There are no USB-A ports, HDMI ports, or Ethernet jacks. If you need any of those, you’re going to want to buy an adapter or dock.

If you’re going to buy a computer with just two ports though, it’s nice to have Thunderbolt 3 ports. With the proper adapter or docking station you can connect just about anything — the ports support video output, data transfer, and charging, among other things. And you’ll probably want to buy a dock of some sort if you ever think you might want to plug in more than one accessory while charging the laptop, since you’ll need one of those ports for the included USB-C charger.

I was able to charge the laptop using a 45W portable power bank, which is a nice perk of using a relatively low-power laptop which charges via a USB-C connector. A 70Wh battery roughly doubled my run time, which is good… because I’ve found that the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 can’t quite make it through a full workday on its own power.

Other features include 2W stereo speakers, a tiny (2.25mm) webcam that can shoot 720p video, two digital array microphones, and a Windows Hello-compatible fingerprint sensor.

The laptop features Killer AX1650 WiFi 6 (802.11ax) and Bluetooth 5.0.

Unlike some earlier models, the new XPS 13 2-in-1 is not fanless. Instead it has a cooling system that includes a vapor chamber and two fans. But the new model is actually thinner than its predecessors thanks, in part, to the new low-profile MagLev keyboard which is designed to offer tactile feedback despite having just 0.7mm of key travel.

The model Dell loaned me for this review features a 13.4 inch, 1920 x 1200 pixel display, 16GB of LPDDR4x 37333 RAM, and a 512GB PCIe NVMe solid state drive. But Dell offers a number of different configuration options, including:

Processor

  • Intel Core i3-1005G1
  • Intel Core i5-1035G1
  • Intel Core i7-1065G7

Memory

  • 4GB
  • 8GB
  • 16GB
  • 32GB

Storage

  • 256GB
  • 512GB
  • 1TB

Display

  • 1920 x 1080 pixel, 500-nit, 100% sRGB color gamut
  • 3840 x 2400 pixel, 500-nit, HDR 400, 1000% sRGB + DCI-P3 90% color gamut

So that $1000 entry-level model I mentioned? It only includes a Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage.

Thinking you could save some money by picking up that model and then performing some DIY upgrades? Think again. The memory and storage are soldered to the motherboard, and you’d need a Torx screwdriver to open the case anyway. Obviously the processor isn’t upgradeable either… and only the Core i7 configuration includes Intel’s Iris Plug graphics. The cheaper models with Core i3 and Core i5 chips have less powerful Intel UHD graphics.

Design

This is a very thin notebook with very thin bezels around the display that gives the notebook a high screen-to-body ratio. Basically this thing is about as small as a 13.4 inch notebook with a full-sized keyboard could be.

But, weighing nearly 3 pounds, it feels pretty substantial. I wouldn’t call it heavy so much as… sturdy. The aluminum frame gives the notebook a bit of heft, but it also makes the XPS 13 2-in-1 feel like a laptop that can handle day-to-day use without much trouble. It doesn’t feel fragile at all.

The dual hinges that hold the screen to the body of the laptop also feel pretty sturdy. Their rigid enough that the screen doesn’t wobble much while you’re typing (although it will shake a bit if you reach up to tap the screen with a finger while using the PC in laptop mode). But Dell designed the hinges so that there’s variable pressure — lie the closed laptop flat on a table and you can lift the lid with a single finger. But as the screen approaches a 90-degree angle, the hinge gets stiffer and you may need to use two hands to adjust the display before using the computer.

Dell loaned me a model with a platinum silver exterior and a white interior. The glass fiber palm rest has a textured look and it feels comfortable under my hands. But the white bezel surrounding the display makes the tiny black dots for the mic and webcam stand out like… a couple of tiny black dots in a field of white.

There’s a single Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port on each side of the laptop, along with a microSD card reader on the left and a headphone jack on the right.

It’s possible that USB-C ports will become the universal standard in the next few years. But in the present day I have plenty of accessories that require a USB-A port. So I have to keep a USB-C to USB-A adapter handy if I want to plug in a mouse, USB flash drive, or any other accessories. It’s not a huge problem, but it can be a minor annoyance.

That said, this is one of the few laptops I’ve tested that really might be thin enough to justify omitting full-sized USB, HDMI, or other ports — I’m not sure there’s enough room for them.

Dell’s decision to move from a 16:9 display to a 16:10 screen means that the screen is a little taller and narrower than earlier models.

The previous-gen Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 had a 13.3 inch display and a body that measured 11.98″ x 7.81″ x 0.54″ The new model features a 13.4 inch screen and a 11.69″ x 8.15″ x 0.51″ body.

That might not sound like a big difference, but on the FHD version of the laptop, you basically get an extra 120 vertical pixels while keeping the same 1920 horizontal pixels. Dell says this year’s laptop has 7-percnt more screen space than last year’s model.

The only catch is that you lose a little bit of horizontal screen space, so those 1920 pixels are a tiny bit closer together — which can make text and images a a tiny bit smaller unless you adjust the Windows scaling settings.

I know some folks really value having the extra vertical pixels. If you’re looking at a single window app, then you get a little more space at the top and bottom. That could mean a few additional lines of text, for example.

Personally, I prefer the horizontal screen space — I spend most of my workday with two side-by-side browser windows open. I use the one on the left for research and the one on the right for writing. I can do that on the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, but with the Windows scaling settings set to 100-percent I feel like it’s a little harder on my eyes on this notebook than it is on similarly-sized laptops with 13.3 inch, 16:9 displays.

You’ll also see black bars at the top and bottom of the display if you watch videos shot in 16:9, which is pretty much everything made for HDTVs.

That said, the 16:10 display becomes a 10:16 screen if you flip it around and hold the computer as a laptop in portrait mode, and I find that a a little more comfortable aspect ratio than 9:16 for handheld use.

While this laptop isn’t fanless, it does stay relatively quiet during normal use. And the bottom of the computer gets warm, but not particularly hot. Dell says its cooling system includes two fans placed on either side of an “ultra-thin vapor chamber” to help keep the system cool without taking up too much space or generating too much noise. The new fans are made from “dual carbon liquid crystal polymer,” which Dell says allowed it to reduce the thickness of fan blades and include more blades per fan.

Anyway, it seems to work reasonably well.

One last thing I wanted to mention is what I consider the biggest design flaw of this laptop. It has a backlit keyboard, but the illumination does more ham than good in some situations.

Tap the F5 button and a white light will shine up through the keys, casting a white glow through the lettering. If you’re in a dark room, the feature makes the keys visible. If you’re in a bright environment, you might not see the light at all.

But if you’re in a dimly lit room, the light can practically make the key lettering invisible. You might be better off just disabling backlight in those situations.

Input

One way Dell reduced the thickness of the new XPS 13 2-in-1 was to use a new 2nd-gen MagLev keyboard that the company says is 24-percent thinner “than a standard keyboard” while still offering tactile feedback.

When I first tried the keyboard, I did notice a satisfying click every time I pressed a key, despite the fairly shallow 0.7mm key travel. But once I actually started trying to use the laptop to get work done, I noticed that I spent more time correcting typos than usual — often due to missed key presses.

It’s unclear whether that was a result of the shallow key travel or the key placement (it did take me a little while to get used to the location of the Home, End, and Del keys in the top row, for example).

Eventually I must have gotten used to the keyboard, because a few minutes before writing this sentence, I managed to hit 93 words per minute in an online typing test — although I should point out that this was my adjusted speed, after accounting for typos.

Anyway, that’s pretty close to my top speed, so while I wasn’t in love with this keyboard on day one, apparently I’ve learned to live with it… well, except for the backlight issue.

Meanwhile I have no complaints about the touchpad. It’s a large, glass-covered surface that Dell says it 19-percent larger than the previous-gen model.

I’ve had no problem using the touchpad for tapping, swiping, or multitouch gestures. I still prefer using a mouse for operations that require greater precision, but when I don’t feel like fishing around for the USB adapter that lets me connect my wireless mouse dongle, the touchpad will definitely suffice.

Palm rejection also seems to work, because despite the touchpad’s large size, I haven’t found my self accidentally moving the mouse cursor while reaching across the keyboard. In fact, even when I try swiping my palm on the touchpad intentionally, nothing seems to happen.

The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is a convertible notebook, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that not only does it have a touchscreen, but the laptop also comes with a pressure-sensitive digital pen. But my handwriting stinks, so I prefer to take notes by typing… and I’ve spent a lot more time typing on this laptop than I’ve spent flipping the screen around to hold in in tablet mode.

The touchscreen and pen seem to work fine. But if those are your primary concerns, you’re probably going to want to find a review from someone who’s more of an expert on touch and pen input.

One thing I do really like about the pen is that it attaches to the side of the laptop magnetically and once it’s in place, it seems to stay put. I’m sure it would fall away if you dropped the laptop or something, but if you’re just moving from room to room or setting the pen down while you’re not using it, the magnetic connection seems strong enough to keep it from rolling away.

Dell’s XPS 13 laptops have some of the slimmest top bezels of any laptops around — and for years the company didn’t have a camera small enough to fit into the top bezel, so Dell stuck its XPS 13 webcams in the bottom bezel instead.

That led to some awkwardly framed shots (it’s hard to keep your knuckles out of the frame if you’re typing while video chatting). Fortunately Dell now has a 2.25mm camera that fits into the slim top bezel.

It’s not an amazing camera — photos and videos can be a little blocky, especially in poorly lit environments. But at least if the camera’s pointed at your face, it’s likely to pick up your face rather than your hands.

There’s no IR camera, so the laptop does not support Windows Hello face recognition. But there is a fingerprint sensor integrated with the power button in the top right corner of the keyboard.

For the first week or two that I was testing the laptop, I found the fingerprint reader to be a bit hit-or-miss. Sometimes it would fail to detect my fingerprint repeatedly and then ask me to enter my PIN instead, so I started to just jump straight to the PIN to save time.

But then Dell rolled out a drive update for the fingerprint sensor and now it seems to work on the first try most of the time.

Performance

Now we get to the main reason I wanted to review this laptop — it’s one of the first computers to ship with an Intel Ice Lake processor.

That’s Intel’s first line of 10nm chips to be produced in large volumes, and the first set of chips to feature Intel Gen11 Iris Plus graphics that’s said to bring a huge performance boost over the company’s earlier integrated GPUs.

And for the most part it looks like Intel’s new chip delivers on its promise. The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 with a Core i7-1065G7 processor scores higher in graphics benchmarks than any other laptop with Intel graphics that I’ve tested to date. Single-core and multi-core CPU performance also seems to be pretty good for a 15 watt processor.

In fact, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 scored higher than my Dell Vostro 15 7590 laptop in single-core GeekBench 4 performance, even though the Vostro has a 45 watt, hexa-core Core i7-9750H processor.

The Vostro came out ahead in multi-core performance, but the difference wasn’t as great as I would have expected. The Vostro also scored higher in PCMark and PassMark 9.0 tests, but the XPS convertible’s scores were closer to those for the Vostro than they were to my HP SPectre x360 convertible laptop with an 8th-gen Intel Core i5-8250U quad-core 15 watt processor.

Unsurprisingly, the Vostro was in the lead when it came to graphics benchmarks — that laptop has an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 discrete GPU. But the XPS 13 scored much higher in every graphics test I ran than the HP laptop, which featured Intel UHD graphics.

Dell did let me know that there’s a bug which prevents some 3DMark benchmark tests from running on the XPS 13 2-in-1. A driver update is in the works, but it wasn’t available by the time this review was published, so I was only able to run the 3DMark Night Raid and Time Spy tests.

Update 11/29/2019: A driver update allows the rest of the 3DMark tests to run properly. Unsurprisingly, the additional tests confirm that the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 with Intel Iris Plus graphics is far better suited to graphics-related work than a similar PC with an 8th-gen Intel Core processor and Intel UHD graphics… but it still can’t match a system with a discrete GPU.

Of course, these benchmarks aren’t always indicative of real-world performance.

NotebookCheck recently reviewed an Ice Lake-powered version of Razer’s Blade Stealth thin and light gaming laptop and reports that Iris Plus graphics “can range wildly in performance when under real-world gaming conditions.”

While I haven’t extensively tested gaming performance to the test (because I’m pretty bad at most games), I did spend a little time playing turn-based tactical RPG Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and platformer The End is Nigh.

The latter was more my speed, while the former was playable… but required a bit more tactical skill than I had.

I wouldn’t call the XPS 13 2-in-1 7390 a gaming laptop, but it can certainly handle gaming a little more comfortably than notebooks with older 15 watt Intel Core U-series chips.

I also ran a few real-world tests on the same three laptops listed above by seeing how long it took to transcode a video file using Handbrake and running a 67-minute audio interview from the resource-intensive Dialog Isolate tool in Izotope’s RX 7 Advanced Audio Editor.

The XPS 13 was a little faster than the HP Spectre 13 laptop when it came to Handbrake video encoding, and a little slower than the Dell Vostro 15… for the most part. The Dell laptops were both much faster when it came to H.265 encoding.

Surprisingly, the XPS 13 2-in-1 was the champ when it came to the Dialog Isolate process. I don’t know enough about how Izotope’s software functions to speculate on why that would be the case… but it does make me wonder if I should have held out for a 10th-gen Core processor instead of purchasing that Vostro laptop when it was on sale (I bought it primarily so I’d have a higher-performance computer for podcast editing).

Anyway, here are some other benchmarks I ran, which include results for image and video rendering and disk and memory speed.

Dell’s battery life estimates for the XPS 13 2-in-1 are… optimistic.

The company says a model with the same specs as the unit featured in this review got up to nearly 17 hours of battery life in the MobileMark 2014 benchmark (which has a reputation for being very, very generous).

In my experience, 6-8 hours of battery life seems far more realistic.

When using the laptop for work with the screen brightness set to around 50 percent or less, I typically got around 6-7 hours of run time. When I tried streaming a single, very long YouTube video, the computer lasted for 8 hours and 10 minutes before the battery died.

I will say that I’ve noticed in the past that I seem to be pretty hard on batteries — other reviewers regularly get more run time from the same laptops. So I’ll point out that Ars Technica says they managed to get a whopping 18 hours of battery life from a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 when running a web browsing test, and 9.5 hours when running a WebGL graphics test. And Engadget got nearly 14.5 hours of battery life from a video run-down test.

I have no idea why my results were so much lower… but they were. And unless I got a defective unit, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that battery life will likely vary pretty widely depending on the software you’re running, the brightness settings you’re using, the reliability of your wireless network, and other factors that may be beyond your control.

Linux notes

Dell shipped me an XPS 13 2-in-1 demo unit running Windows 10 Home software. But Dell might be the most Linux-friendly of the major PC makers — the company offers Developer Edition versions of many of its recent laptop and desktop computers that ship with Ubuntu Linux rather than Windows.

So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the XPS 13 2-in-1 seems to perform pretty well with Ubuntu.

Press the F12 key during startup and you’ll be taken to the boot options menu, which allows you to adjust BIOS settings or boot from a USB device.

While I didn’t test Linux extensively, I did take Ubuntu 19.10 for a short spin, and found that most of the hardware seemed to work out of the box while running from a LiveUSB session.

WiFi and audio both worked as expected. Dell’s digital pen was detected. Automatic screen rotation works just fine. And the keyboard shortcuts for volume, brightness, and the backlit keyboard all functioned.

The only quirk I noticed was that the on-screen keyboard was stuck in Caps Lock mode by default when I tried typing in tablet mode.

Since I didn’t install Ubuntu to the SSD I can’t really comment on sleep, battery life, or long-term performance. But Phoronix has a series of more in-depth articles looking at out-of-the-box performance and benchmarks. You may need to make some small tweaks when using some Linux distributions, and you’ll need Linux kernel 5.4 or later if you want Thunderbolt 3 support. But otherwise it seems like the laptop is pretty Linux-friendly (as is Intel’s new processor).

Verdict

Dell’s new XPS 13 2-in-1 is an upgrade over previous-gen models in almost every way.

While previous versions were pricey convertible laptops with underperforming 5 watt Core Y-series processors, the new 7390 model not only has a 15-watt U-series chip, it has one of Intel’s highest-performance 15 watt processor to date.

If you really need high-end graphics performance for gaming, video editing, or other GPU-intensive tasks, you’re probably still going to be better off with discrete graphics. But the Core i7-1065G7 really does offer a significant performance boost when it comes to 3D graphics.

And the CPU performance ain’t half bad either.

The new laptop is thinner, has slightly more screen real estate, and the camera is in the proper place.

While the keyboard wasn’t love at first type, it’s grown on me over time. And while I’m disappointed not to have at least one full-sized USB port, the fact that the laptop has two versatile Thunderbolt 3 ports helps soften the blow.

That said, the laptop’s high price tag makes it hard to recommend unless you manage to score a particularly good deal. I’d keep an eye out for Black Friday sales or other price drops in the coming months or years.

Right now you have to pay at least $1500 to get a model with Iris Plus graphics, since any model priced lower than that has a Core i3 or Core i5 chip with Intel UHD graphics. And the fact that the RAM and storage are not user upgradeable means that you’ll never have more of those than you do the day you first buy the laptop.

The battery is another thing that’s not user replaceable. That’s pretty much par for the course with thin and light laptops these days, but given the mediocre results of my battery tests, I’d be wary of spending $1500 or more on a machine that will likely get even less run time after a year or two or regular use.

All of which is to say that Ice Lake is off to a good start. The latest XPS 13 2-in-1 is probably the best iteration of Dell’s thin and light convertible to date. But I’m not sure you should buy it unless you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket… or you manage to hold out for a really good sale.

The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390 is available from Dell.com for $1000 and up.

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