The Dell XPS 13 has been setting the standard for thin and light laptops for years — and the 2020 model is the smallest to date, measuring just 11.6″ x 7.8″ x 0.6″ and weighing just 2.64 pounds.

Dell accomplished that by shrinking the bezel below the display to give the laptop a 91.5 percent screen-to-body ratio, while also moving to a 13.4 inch display with a 16:10 display aspect ratio to give you more vertical screen space (at the cost of a little horizontal space).

The new Dell XPS 13 also has a wider, edge-to-edge keyboard with larger keycaps, a touchpad that’s 17-percent larger than the one on last year’s laptop, and a slightly refined case design featuring aluminum sides. And a new twin-coil hinge allows you to easily open the laptop using just one hand.

First unveiled in January, the Dell XPS 13 9300 is now available from Dell.

Dell loaned me the unit featured in this review, and I’ve been using it for the past few weeks. It’s a pretty great laptop when it comes to price, performance, and design. But there are a few things to consider before you buy this thin and light laptop.

It has two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headset jack — but that’s it. You’ll need dongles or hubs if you want to connect HDMI or Ethernet cables or any accessories with USB Type-A connectors. The 16:10 display has some pros and cons to consider. Battery life is good, but not great.

And then there’s the price — prices start at $1200, but the configuration featured in this review sells for $1750.

So is this thing worth the money? It depends.

Specs (as configured)

Display 13.4 inch, 1920 x 1200 pixel touchscreen (500-nit)
CPU Intel Core i7-1065G7
GPU Intel Iris Plus 940 64EU
TDP 15 watts
RAM 16GB LPDDR4x-3733 dual channel
Storage 512GB PCIe NVMe
Connectivity Killer AX1650 & Bluetooth 5.0
USB Ports 2 x Thunderbolt 3
Other ports 3.5mm audio, microSD card reader
Security Windows Hello fingerprint sensor + face unlock
Webcam 2.25mm 720p (plus IR camera and ambient light sensor)
Keyboard Backlit, maglev with 1mm travel
Audio Stereo 2.5W speakers (4W peak) + dual microphones
Battery 52 Whr
Power supply 45W USB-C power adapter
Cooling 2 x fans and a heat pipe
Dimensions 295.7mm x 198.7mm x 14.8mm (11.6″ x 7.8″ x 0.6″)
Weight 1.27 kg (2.64 pounds)
Price $1750 (as configured, but prices start at $999)stuff

Déjà vu design

If this laptop looks familiar, that’s because it’s a lot like the XPS 13 2-in-1 7390 that Dell introduced late last year (and which I reviewed in November).

Left: Dell XPS 13 7390 2-in-1 / Right: Dell XPS 13 9300 clamshell

After years of crippling the convertible tablet-style versions of its XPS 13 laptops by giving them 7 watt Intel Core Y-series processors, Dell finally introduced a model with a 15 watt Core U-series chip. In fact, the demo unit I reviewed had the same Core i7-1065G7 processor as the XPS 13 9300 featured in this review. So it’s not surprising that the design, performance, and value proposition are pretty similar.

But while the convertible version of this laptop has a 360-degree hinge and pen support, it’s also a little bigger and heavier than the clamshell model, at 11.7″ x 8.2″ x 0.5″ and 2.9 pounds.

So if you want a more compact computer and don’t need the optional tablet, tent or stand mode, the Dell XPS 13 9300 may be the better option. But honestly, the size difference isn’t that different. So a better reason to consider the clamshell model may be that it’s cheaper. Sometimes.

During the first week of May, 2020 you can pick up models of either laptop with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and a touchscreen display for about $1700. But you could save $100 on the clamshell model by opting for a non-touchscreen version. And the 2-in-1 is only comparably priced because it’s on sale at the moment. Dell shows a list price of $2000 for a model with those specs.

Anyway, the point is that sometimes, depending on how you configure the laptop, you can save some money by going with the clamshell model. And you’ll get a lighter-weight laptop as part of the deal.

The laptop Dell loaned me is an “arctic white” version, which has a silver aluminum lid and bottom and a white keyboard, palm rest, and touchpad (as well as a strip of white surrounding the slim black bezels of the display).

Dell uses a glass fiber material for the palm rest. The textured design is both attractive and comfortable to my hands on while typing. I’m less fond of Dell’s decision to offer a laptop with a backlit keyboard that features white keys and a white light.

When the backlight is off, the labels on the keys are black and easy to see. When you’re in a dark environment, the lights make it easier to see the numbers and letters on the keys. But when you’re in a moderately well-lit environment, enabling the backlight can render the labels almost invisible.

Dell also offers the XPS 13 with a black, carbon-fiber palm rest. That keyboard also has a white backlight, but white light shining through black keys looks fine in any lighting conditions. So as much as I like the look of the arctic white laptop, I’m not sure I’d recommend buying it unless you plan to disable the backlit keyboard.

Considering the fact that Dell charges an extra $50 for the arctic white color option, it’s disappointing that it has this downside. The company could have avoided the issue by offering RGB lighting or just choosing a different static color.

For what it’s worth, I had the same complaint about the white-on-white backlit keyboard on the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390.

Another complaint that carries over from that laptop is the limited port selection. While it’s great that Dell included two Thunderbolt 3 (one on each side of the laptop), it would have been nice if the company had also included a dedicated video out port, a USB-A port, or really just about any other ports.

As it stands, you can plug the USB Type-C power adapter into either port, which is nice. But that will leave just one port for anything else you want to plug into the laptop. If you don’t want to carry a USB hub or docking station around, you might need to invest in wireless accessories for this laptop.

Dell does ship a single USB Type-C to Type-A adapter dongle with the XPS 13, but you’ll need to supply your own accessories if you need anything more than that.

While the Dell XPS 13 9300 has some of the slimmest bezels around the display that you’ll find on any laptop, Dell did manage to fit a 720p webcam, a Windows Hello-compatible IR camera, and an ambient light sensor in the top bezel.

Unlocking the laptop with your face is pretty quick and easy. But the camera is nothing to write home about. You can certainly hop on a Zoom or Google Meet call using the camera, but expect a bit of grainy video and mediocre low-light performance. There is HDR support though, if that’s something you’re looking for in a 720p camera.

I guess if there’s a down side to the super-thin top bezel, it’s that there’s not enough room for a camera shutter to block the camera when you’re not using it, and barely enough room for a piece of tape. Fortunately an LED indicator light should glow when the camera is in use to let you know if an app is accessing the camera.

Speaking of bezels, this year’s XPS 13 laptop has the smallest bottom bezel to date. Dell says it shrunk to just 4.6mm, down from 19.5mm in previous versions of the notebook.

Display

Below that camera is a 13.4 inch display covered in edge-to-edge Corning Gorilla Glass 6. With a 16:10 aspect ratio, you get more vertical pixels on this laptop than you would on most older laptops with 16:9 displays.

That means a few extra lines of text when reading web pages or documents, or a little extra space in apps that have menus that take up part of the top or bottom of the display.

But I’d be a little more comfortable with the move to this aspect ratio if the screen was just a little bit larger. That’s because Dell didn’t just make the screen taller. It also made it a little less wide than its previous-gen laptops.

Sure, a 1920 x 1200 pixel display has the same number of horizontal pixels as a 1920 x 1080 pixel one. But those pixels are a little smaller on a screen that’s not quite as wide as the ones on previous-gen laptops.

125 percent scaling

In practical terms, that means that if I set the Windows 10 display scaling to 100-percent, text and graphics are just a little too sharp for me to comfortably read on this laptop. So I end up using 125-percent scaling instead, which makes it a little harder to display two apps or windows side-by-side.

100-percent scaling

This… is probably not going to be an issue for everyone. But as a blogger, I spend 90-percent of my work day using a web browser in split-screen mode so I can have two windows on the screen at all times — one for researching and one for writing. I find that a lot harder to do on a laptop with a 13.4 inch, 1920 x 1200 pixel display than on one with a 13.3 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel display.

But your needs are probably different from mine. As I already mentioned, there are advantages to this design — you get more vertical space, which absolutely comes in handy when viewing applications in full-screen mode.

On the other hand, you’re probably a little more likely to see black bars at the top and bottom of the screen when streaming videos in full-screen mode. There aren’t a lot of movies, TV shows, or YouTube videos filmed in a 16:10 aspect ratio.

Anyway, the screen looks great. It’s an IPS display with wide viewing angles. And it supports up to 500-nits of brightness, which means it’s fairly easy to adjust the lighting so it’s visible indoors or out.

The review unit Dell sent me features a touchscreen, which comes in handy when I want to reach up and scroll, tap, or swipe rather than reaching down to the trackpad for some reason. But you can opt for a non-touch display as well if you don’t need that functionality.

Dell also offers an Ultra HD display option with a 3840 x 2400 pixel display for folks willing to trade battery life for a sharper (and pricier) display.

Keyboard and touchpad

While I’m not a fan of the backlight, the keyboard itself is pretty comfortable to use. Dell says it increased the size of some keys in order to take the keyboard from one edge of the laptop to the other — but really this keyboard looks virtually identical to the one the company used on last year’s XPS 13 2-in-1 7390.

One difference? While the 2-in-1 has a Maglev keyboard, the clamshell model does not… which I think is probably a good thing, because you get 1mm of key travel (rather than 0.7mm with the Maglev version), and I find that I’m a little less prone to making typos on this version of Dell’s keyboard.

Another difference? The 2-in-1 had four small arrow keys plus PgUp and PgDn buttons. The clamshell version has just four keys in that space: large left and right arrows, and small up and down arrows that double up as PgUp/PgDn keys when you hold the Fn button.

That’s fine. I’d prefer to also have the Home and End keys in that area though — Dell instead puts them in the top row of keys, by the Insert, Delete, and Prt Scr buttons. It always takes me a moment to remember where Home and End are, but I suspect that this is something one could get used to eventually.

Overall I didn’t have any deal-breaker problems with the XPS 13 9300 keyboard. I was able to write most of this review by typing away on the laptop.

In the upper right corner of the keyboard area, there’s a power button that also function as a fingerprint sensor.

And below the keyboard is a fairly large Precision touchpad with a glass surface. It’s responsive, comfortable to use, supports multi-touch gestures, and seems to do a decent job with palm rejection, because I rarely notice my cursor skipping around the screen as I typed.

Performance

The Dell XPS 13 9300 packs more than enough horsepower to get me through a typical workday… or at least 6-7 hours worth of the workday. That’s about as long as the battery lasts when I’m using the notebook for my day job, which primarily involves researching and writing articles for the website you’re reading right now.

The laptop can last much longer than that under ideal conditions though. When I set up the notebook to stream a 10-hour YouTube video one day, the XPS 13 still had about 30-percent battery life remaining when the video ended. So I let it keep playing videos until the battery finally died after a total of 15.5 hours.

That’s pretty much in line with Dell’s estimates — the company says you should get up to 15 hours of HD video playback time, up to 12 hours when streaming from Netflix, and up to 19 hours when… doing not much of anything (according to MobileMark 2014, a notoriously generous battery life test).

So battery life will vary greatly depending on what you’re asking the computer to do. Want to stream full-screen videos with the screen set to 50-percent screen brightness? Then you can probably do that from dusk to dawn. But expect substantially less run time if you’re doing a lot of multitasking, web surfing, and image and document editing.

It’s also worth noting that Dell cuts its battery life estimates down substantially if you opt for a version of this laptop with a 4K UHD display — I’d say it’s safe to shave a few hours off each of the numbers above.

Charging the notebook is fairly easy thanks to the relatively compact 45 watt USB-C power adapter that comes with the Dell XPS 13 9300. The charger has a status light that glows white when it’s active, and there’s also an LED light on the front of the laptop that lights up when it’s charging.

For sake of comparison, I ran some benchmarks and plotted the scores in charts comparing the XPS 13 against a few other laptops I’ve used recently including the Intel Core i7-1065G7-powered Dell XPS 13 7390 2-in-1 and two laptops I own, an HP Spectre x360 with an Intel Core i5-8250U processor and Dell Vostro 15 9570 with a 45-watt Intel Core i7-9750H processor and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 graphics.

The XPS 13 9300 came out on top in some CPU-heavy tests, including Cinebench R20 and GeekBench 5. It was one of the fastest when it came to encoding videos using Handbrake. And while the Vostro 15 came out on top in comprehensive tests like Passmark and PCMark, it’s surprising that the Vostro wasn’t further ahead since it has a 45-watt processor and discrete graphics.

While the NVIDIA GPU puts the Vostro 15 way ahead of the pack in 3DMark’s gaming-specific benchmarks, the XPS 13’s Intel Iris Plus 940 integrated graphics are miles ahead of the Intel UHD graphics found in 8th-gen Core chips (as you can see by looking at the low scores for the HP Spectre x360 in the charts below).

 

Note that these scores were all recorded using the XPS 13 9300’s default power plan, which means that Windows 10’s power slider was set to “Better Performance” while plugged in and charging.

Under heavy load, you can definitely hear the laptop’s fan spin up. But it’s fairly quiet compared with the noise generated by some other compact laptops which have fans that could easily be mistaken for jet engines.

A few other performance notes:

Biometric security

The laptop has both a fingerprint sensor and an IR camera for face recognition. I find the latter to be more reliable, allowing me to login to the computer almost instantaneously just by looking at it.

Touching a finger to the sensor in the home button works if you’d rather not register your face — but I have a few more false starts with this method, which means that sometimes I have to tap my finger repeatedly to login… only to eventually have Windows give up and ask me to enter my PIN.

Rather than spend time trying to register and re-register my fingerprint to speed things up and improve reliability, I mostly just chose to rely on the face unlock feature. Alternately, you could just enter as password or PIN if you’d rather not use biometric security at all. It doesn’t really take that much longer.

Touchscreen

This is an optional feature that costs an extra $100 if it’s not included in the version of the Dell XPS 13 9300 you add to your cart. It’s nice to have, but I’d say it’s less important on a clamshell laptop than it is on a 2-in-1 or convertible device that you might actually pick up and use like a tablet.

I did find myself reaching up to the display to tap and scroll from time to time. It’s not a bad way to scroll through web pages or long PDF documents. But it can be trickier to do things like navigate Windows Explorer, app menus, or other smaller content using your fingertips.

Fortunately the laptop’s large, glass-covered Precision touchpad makes it easy to handle more precise actions without touching the screen.

Operating systems

The version of the notebook that Dell sent me to review shipped with Windows 10, but the company also offers XPS 13 9300 Developer Edition models with Ubuntu, making this one of the only thin-and-light notebooks from a major company available with a GNU/Linux distribution pre-installed.

Prices for Developer Edition models start at $1150 for a Core i5 version or $1400 for models with a Core i7-1065G7 processor.

Upgrades

You can also pay extra for RAM and storage upgrades — or you can upgrade the storage on your own. Memory is soldered to the motherboard, so there’s no way to add more. But if you have a Torx screwdriver you can open up the case and replace the M.2 PCIe NVMe solid state drive.

Verdict

Dell’s latest XPS 13 laptop is compact notebook that packs a lot of power. But honestly, it’s so much like last year’s XPS 13 2-in-1 that I kind of wonder why the company even bothers to consider these separate laptops anymore.

The clamshell version is a little smaller, a little lighter, and has a slimmer bottom bezel. But otherwise the only real differences are that the display doesn’t rotate back 360 degrees and there’s no digital pen support.

That said, not everyone needs those features, and you can save a few dollars by picking up the version that doesn’t bend over backward. And saving a few bucks is key — because I don’t think I’d recommend buying this laptop at all if you’re only looking at the entry-level configuration.

$1200 gets you a model with an Intel Core i5-1035G1 processor (with Intel UHD graphics rather than a faster Iris Plus GPU), 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and a non-touch display. Sure,  you get a laptop with a thin and light design, slim bezels, Thunderbolt 3 ports, and biometric security for that price. But you lose a lot of the performance you’d expect from a computer in that price range.\

Upgrading to a Core i7 processor adds $250 to the price. And memory, storage, and display upgrades will set you back even more.

If money is no object and you can live with 6-7 hours of real-world battery life, then I’d say the XPS 13 9300 is a great choice. But more budget-conscious shoppers might want to wait to see if prices come down or the laptop goes on sale in the future.

Thanks again to Dell for loaning us an XPS 13 9300 laptop for this review. The notebook is available for purchase from Dell.com for $1200 and up.

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5 Comments

  1. Hmmm, I wonder what’s the benefit of a thin and light laptop when everyone is in lockdown and can’t travel anywhere? !

  2. Quick question, how far back does the laptop open? Fully flat 180°or less than that?
    I’m asking because some people I advise for laptops don’t care particularly about 2-in-1-ness, but find it useful to be able to fully open the device when sitting on the sofa etc., so they end up having to get a yoga-style device after all because most clamshells (except ThinkPads) just don’t open up fully.

    Thanks for the review!

    (I commented on the GDP Max posting, but somehow my reply never got published? I claimed in there that the little issue with the thick white bar between bottom end of content and the privacy button was gone – turns out I was wrong, the gap still here on my mobile device. Not a big issue, just fyi.)

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