The latest update to the Dell XPS 13 brings Intel’s cutting-edge 10th Generation processors to this venerable ultraportable laptop. (It’s in the form of the chips dubbed “Comet Lake,” distinct from the 10th Gen “Ice Lake” processors in the also-new Dell XPS 13 2-in-1.) The rest of the machine, from its exterior styling to its crisp 4K display, is so good that Dell decided to leave it mostly untouched from its previous incarnations. In fact, its predecessor achieved a rare five-star rating when we reviewed it in January. This one, which starts at $1,176 and is $1,764 as tested (fitted out with a six-core Comet Lake chip), now co-stars with the Razer Blade Stealth 13 as one of the two best ultraportable laptops you can buy.
XPS Laptops vs. XPS 2-in-1s
Dell’s flagship XPS ultraportable PCs come in either conventional clamshell form factors or 2-in-1 convertible designs, which feature rotating hinges that let them transform into tablets or allow them to be propped up as tents or easels on a table for easier video watching. You used to have to pay a significant weight and size penalty if you chose a 2-in-1 over a conventional laptop with the same screen size. That’s not the case any more, and certainly not with the current 13-inch Dell XPS lineup.
The clamshell-style XPS 13 reviewed here is physically unchanged from its predecessor. It measures 0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.7 pounds. Compare those measurements with those of the XPS 13 2-in-1, which is 2.9 pounds and 0.51 by 11.7 by 8.2 inches. The minute difference won’t matter to most buyers—both designs are sleek, good-looking ultraportables.
The small difference is also a major contributing factor to why we aren’t giving the XPS 13 five stars this time. It’s still superb, but unless you actually need the extra processing oomph that the Comet Lake processor in our test unit offers (and most everyday users do not), the clamshell XPS 13 isn’t unquestionably better than its more physically versatile 2-in-1 cousin for every buyer.
The Configuration Options
The XPS 13 comes in a choice of three color schemes. You can choose an Arctic White interior with either a Frost or a Rose Gold exterior. Either of these two color choices are decidedly modern and stylish, at least compared with the more traditional third color option, flaunted by our review unit: Platinum Silver with a black carbon-fiber interior. To see the differences for yourself, compare our image gallery of the current model with the previous one, decked out in Arctic White.
In addition to the six-core/12-thread Intel Core i7-10710U CPU, our review unit also comes with 16GB of 2,133MHz memory, a 512GB PCI Express NVMe SSD, and a 13.3-inch touch screen. (The native resolution is 4K, or 3,840 by 2,160 pixels.) It’s an extraordinarily good value for the specs, at least compared with other Dell XPS models, which can be notoriously pricey.
The base configuration, meanwhile, features an Intel Core i3-10110U Comet Lake CPU (packing just two cores and four threads), a 128GB SSD, 4GB of memory, and a 13.3-inch non-touch display with a full-HD/1080p native resolution. (That’s 1,920 by 1,080 pixels.) You can select among lots of other configuration options, including a Core i5 CPU, a 1080p screen with touch support, and storage drive options that range as high as a whopping 2TB SSD. There’s something for everyone here, although I consider the configuration of our review unit to be close to the sweet spot.
A Gorgeous Display, Robust Connectivity
Other than the cutting-edge Comet Lake processor, the XPS 13’s key feature is its option for a 4K display. Its rated 1,500:1 contrast ratio, maximum 400 nits of brightness, and ability to display 100 percent of the sRGB color spectrum lead to crisp text and brilliant colors, but they’re relatively standard specs for this class of laptop display. More of a standout is the anti-reflective coating applied to the otherwise glossy display, which I found cut down on the amount of reflection from ambient light without compromising the brilliance of the screen. The opposite is a common side effect of anti-reflective matte displays.
The XPS 13’s screen is also noteworthy for its thin borders. The laptop has an 80 percent screen-to-body ratio, which falls short of the near-90 percent we’ve seen on a few other laptops, but it still achieves a cutting-edge look. Even better, the top border remains large enough to house the webcam, whose tiny 2.25mm lens captures 720p video but lacks Windows Hello face recognition. For some years, XPS 13 models of old couldn’t accommodate cameras in their superthin top bezels, so Dell relegated them to beneath the screen, where they captured unlovely images and video of users’ fingertips and nostril-scapes. It was a brief period of tech awkwardness that’s thankfully behind us now, with Dell having ramped up its camera miniaturization efforts with the early-2019 XPS 13, returning the webcam to its rightful spot.
On the left edge of the XPS 13, you’ll find a physical locking port and two USB Type-C ports, both of which support Thunderbolt 3 transfer speeds of up to 40GBps. The opposite edge holds a third USB Type-C port (without Thunderbolt 3, but supporting DisplayPort video output), a microSD card slot, and a 3.5mm headphone/microphone combo jack. This is a relatively robust connectivity offering for such a thin laptop—other machines in the XPS 13’s class include the 13-inch version of the Apple MacBook Pro, which has just two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone jack in its entry-level configuration.
The only missing port that could be an issue for XPS 13 owners is a conventional USB Type-A port, but the tech world is moving toward USB Type-C, so it’s not much of a problem. Dell thoughtfully includes a Type-C-to-A adapter in the configuration I’m reviewing.
In keeping with the futuristic theme of the Comet Lake CPU and USB Type-C ports, the XPS 13 also includes Bluetooth 5.0 and support for the latest 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) wireless networking standard. Wi-Fi 6 routers are currently few and far between, but if you’re planning to upgrade your router in the next year or so, the XPS 13 will be able to take full advantage of Wi-Fi 6’s higher throughput speeds.
Perhaps the only lackluster parts of the XPS 13’s physical design are its keyboard and touchpad. The keys offer a relatively stingy 1.33mm of vertical travel, and the touchpad is precise and made of glass but rather on the small side, at least compared with the generously sized pads of machines like the Apple MacBook Pro and the Razer Blade Stealth.
10th Generation, Times Two
As I alluded to up top, Intel has divided its 10th Generation mobile CPU lineup into two groups. Ice Lake processors, like the one in the XPS 13 2-in-1 and the Razer Blade Stealth 13, are intended for laptops where space is at an ultimate premium and cooling is in short supply. Comet Lake CPUs like the one in the XPS 13 are still efficient, but they can take advantage of more robust cooling hardware (if a laptop offers it) to chew through more complex computing tasks. The specific Comet Lake chip in the XPS 13 sample tested here, as I mentioned earlier, is a six-core CPU that supports up to 12 concurrent processing threads, impressively in a 15-watt envelope. The Core i7 Ice Lake chip in the XPS 13 2-in-1 and the Blade Stealth 13 is a four-core/eight-thread one.
To illustrate the differences between these two classes of CPUs, I compared the Dell XPS 13’s performance on our benchmark tests with that of its 2-in-1 cousin and the latest revision of the Blade Stealth 13, as well as two more excellent ultraportables using previous-gen Intel silicon: the MacBook Pro and the HP Spectre x360 13. (An Ice Lake version of the Spectre x360 13 has been announced, but we haven’t reviewed it yet.)
The Comet Lake difference isn’t immediately apparent on general productivity tasks, like browsing the web or working on text documents and spreadsheets. To approximate performance on these types of tasks, we use PCMark, which simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. PCMark 10 assesses overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet jockeying, web browsing, and videoconferencing. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the boot drive.
The fact that all of these systems performed roughly equally on the PCMark tests is proof that everyday users with casual computing needs don’t need to seek out the most powerful processor at the cost of other features.
When a Comet’s a Shooting Star
The Comet Lake Core i7 and its group-topping core and thread count really shine when it comes to multimedia content creation, however. Whether it’s rendering a 3D image in Cinebench, transcoding a video using Handbrake, or editing images in Adobe Photoshop, the XPS 13 is clearly the fastest among its class of similarly priced ultraportables.
Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image…
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video-editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that’s highly CPU-dependent and scales well with cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video to a 1080p MP4 file.
Then, using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a JPEG image. This test stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
Remember that the XPS 13’s superiority on these media tests is only relevant for people who occasionally need to perform these tasks but prioritize a thin-and-light design over a larger laptop with a more powerful CPU. As powerful and efficient as the six-core CPU in our XPS 13 tester may be, it’s still limited to 15 watts, which is the same maximum power consumption as most of the CPUs in other ultraportable laptops, including the Ice Lake CPU in the XPS 13 2-in-1. Professional multimedia creators and software developers will likely want to spring for a larger laptop like the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which has a 45-watt Intel Core i9 CPU.
Gaming vs. Productivity
Even though the XPS 13 performed the best on our on our partially GPU-accelerated Photoshop test, the Blade Stealth 13 actually has a far more powerful graphics solution than the Dell XPS 13 does. It’s a dedicated GeForce chip, and the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650-equipped Razer laptop therefore far outshines the XPS 13 when it comes to playing graphics-intensive games, as evidenced by our Superposition gaming simulation. (Superposition renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes.)
Also of interest here are the superior graphics numbers posted by the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 versus the XPS 13. In our initial tests of the Core i7 Ice Lake before the chip was released, it was clear that the much-improved GPU silicon on the Ice Lake chips, paired with high-speed system memory, would bring some new life to integrated Intel graphics. This is evidence of it in spades. Take, also, our results on UL’s 3DMark benchmark tests…
The chart is abbreviated, as the Razer Blade Stealth had driver issues at the time of its testing with running 3DMark. But the illustrative item here is the XPS 13 Comet Lake versus the XPS 13 2-in-1 Ice Lake. The Ice Lake chip’s Iris Plus Graphics doesn’t quite double the scores of the UHD Graphics on the Comet Lake chip, but it’s not far off. If you’re a fan of the XPS 13 form factor but the performance of the integrated graphics matters more to you than sheer CPU grunt, that might tip the balance in favor of getting an Ice Lake-based XPS 13 2-in-1 over a Comet Lake-based clamshell.
While I ran each of these benchmark tests, I heard the XPS 13’s cooling fan spool up to a level clearly audible above the din of a busy office. This is not a quiet machine under heavy loads, but then again, the cooling is clearly helping it accomplish impressive computing feats.
With 11 hours and 41 minutes of battery life as measured by our video rundown test, the XPS 13 is merely average for its class. It will likely last all day away from a power outlet, but its power-hungry 4K display is clearly holding it back from achieving the truly epic battery life of machines like the Spectre x360 13 and the MacBook Pro.
Pick Your Power
If you’re a moderate PC gamer who also admires thin-and-light 13-inch-class designs, the Razer Blade Stealth 13 is clearly the best option, with its uniquely powerful graphics chip, equally trim design, and superior touchpad. Meanwhile, if you typically use your PC to perform basic tasks and would enjoy the flexibility to occasionally prop it up as a tent or an easel for video watching, the XPS 13 2-in-1 is your best bet.
For nearly everyone else, though—especially power users who need as much raw performance on multimedia workflows as possible but are unwilling to compromise on a heavier, bulkier, bigger-screen design—the 7390 model of the classic Dell XPS 13 is the best ultraportable you can buy right now. The six cores in our Comet Lake test configuration bring real power to a classic, proven design.