Dell XPS 13 (2021) REVIEW – Slim and slinky
Lightweight but premium in more ways than one, the 2021 iteration of Dell’s XPS 13 gets the PAT PILCHER treatment.
Dell’s newest ultra-portable powerhouse, the XPS 13, has got a lot going for it. For a start, it’s one of the first to come with 11th Generation Intel Tiger Lake silicon. This should (in theory) translate into decent performance and good battery life. Add to this an impressive display and slinky, compact design, and there’s plenty to like.
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From a design standpoint, the XPS 13 is thin and light, yet solid too. Measuring in at 14.7mm (H) x 294.6mm (W) x 198.1mm (D), it weighs in at a portable 1.27Kg. You can get even lighter versions if you choose to spec a model without a touch screen, but why bother? It’s already sufficiently light that you can chuck it into a laptop bag without worrying about busting a hernia in the process.
Dell has used premium materials. The aluminium/carbon fibre lid and chassis felt reassuringly solid, and there was no noticeable flexing. Opening and folding over its lid (thanks to a 360-degree hinge) also meant that I could convert it into a tablet, making media consumption a doddle.
The XPS 13’s 13.4-inch display has a 16:10 aspect ratio instead of the usual 16:9. This translates into a tad more vertical space, which was handy for editing documents but didn’t hinder video watching. The review unit’s touch panel isn’t a 4K display, but it is vivid and crisp. The display gets helped along thanks to Dell’s 100% sRGB and 90% DCI-P3 gamut support. Cranking up brightness levels let the display dazzle with its rated 500 nits of brightness. For outdoors use, it worked like a charm.
Windows Hello is also supported thanks to a 720p webcam and infrared sensors in the centre of the top display bezel. In use, it worked a treat, letting me log in using my ugly mug instead of passwords or fiddly fingerprints. Thanks to the wonders of Covid-19, I got to put the camera through its paces with Microsoft teams, Skype and Zoom. Video quality was good, although indoor low-light shots had some pixel noise and looked a tad soft. Speaking of bezels, they’re next to non-existent, being only 4.6mm wide.
Any ultra-portable notebook is an exercise in compromise. In this case, the XPS 13’s slim chassis has less space for ports, limiting expansion options. This translates into two USB Type-C ports (both with Thunderbolt support), a headphone jack and a microSD slot. If you’re looking for a work-from-home device and want to use a mouse/keyboard and printer, you’ll probably need a USB hub.
The news is good on the wireless connectivity front. You get Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Bluetooth 5 (which means no dongles are needed for most wireless keyboards and mice, freeing up USB ports). Both its touchpad and keyboard were good to use. Unusually for an ultra-portable, the keyboard and touchpad felt spacious. Good key travel meant typing was comfy. However, split cursor controls/page up/down keys were annoying until I got used to them. The power button doubled as a fingerprint scanner, and I found it struggled to read my dabs.
The XPS 13 uses Intel 11th gen Tiger Lake CPUs. The review unit came with a Core i7-1165G7. Its quad-core silicon (with Hyper-Threading) clocked at a base frequency of 2.8GHz. Traditionally, Dell’s XPS 13 hardware has used integrated graphics instead of a dedicated GPU. This hasn’t changed, and the review model came with Intel Iris X integrated graphics. The XPS 13 handled pretty much anything I threw at it games-wise, although high-end game titles did need details turned down.
Under the hood, there was 16GB of memory and a roomy 512GB SSD. There are many configuration options, so you can choose an entry-level configuration or work your way up, depending on your budget. The 52-watt-hour battery ran for a reasonable 15 hours in a looped video test. This should translate into a full day away from a power outlet with typical use.
All told, the XPS 13 is beautifully designed. It’s a well-built, premium machine. For productivity/web use, it’s the bomb. For moderate gaming (you may need to dial back some detail settings), it’s more than capable. That said, it isn’t perfect. The lack of ports and iffy fingerprint sensor (which isn’t a biggie given how well Windows Hello worked with its camera/infrared sensor combo) might be an issue for some. If you’re looking at a regular commute between the office and home, its ultra-compact and lightweight design makes it a great choice.