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Dell XPS 13 Plus review: Beauty versus usability


The XPS 13 Plus is one of the boldest laptops I’ve ever seen. It’s like Dell sent a computer to the past from the future, Destroyer-Style. It has a keyboard that stretches from edge to edge, with no gaps between keys. The tactile trackpad is hidden beneath the wrist rest, and the row of capacitive function keys keeps things clean, without the annoying shape-shifting keys from Apple’s Touch Bar.

With all those features and the highest computing power ever of a 13-inch Dell ultraportable, the XPS 13 Plus must be perfect, right? Well, not quite. That’s an admirable feat, but it also feels like Dell’s designers emphasized style over usability.

Dell XPS 13 Plus

Advantages

  • A beautiful design
  • Great wide keyboard
  • Fast performance for a 13-inch ultraportable
  • Gorgeous OLED display

Defect

  • The hidden trackpad can be annoying to use
  • Capacitive function keys are hard to see outside
  • No headphone jack
  • Only two USB-C ports

Collection: Dell XPS 13 Plus | 13 photos


Get that tactile trackpad, for one. When I first got my hands on the XPS 13 Plus last December, I was both applauded by its unique trackpad design and worried that it might lead to headaches. It’s certainly appealing: When the computer is turned on, the piezo motors in the touchpad area provide a clicky feel without movement. But when it’s off, the wrist rest is just a silent Gorilla Glass.

Of course, tactile touchpads are not new. Apple used them for many years and they finally started appearing on other Windows laptops like Surface Laptop Studio. Technically, they can make laptops more reliable because they can’t trap trash like regular trackpads. But on the XPS 13 Plus, that technology is even stranger. There’s no easy way to tell when you’re in the touchpad area without pressing down or looking for a moving mouse pointer. With other laptops, you can feel a clear difference between the touchpad and the wrist rest. It’s not something we think about very often, but it also helps us feel confident when browsing the web or scrolling through documents.

Dell XPS 13 Plus

Devindra Hardawar / Engadget

On the XPS 13 Plus, simply right clicking often feels like trial and error. Is my finger too far to the left? Too much on the right side? Doing something so simple won’t discourage you, especially not with a laptop that is meant to represent the future of computer design. The invisible trackpad is essentially a hoax: one that might impress your friends but will most likely make your life harder. Even after using the XPS 13 Plus for a week, I still found myself frequently missing the trackpad, especially if I tried to perform any complex finger gestures.

The keyboard of the XPS 13 Plus is much more successful. It spans the entire width of the computer, and it has practically no gaps between the keys. We saw something similar on HP Specter x360 2019, but Dell’s machine goes even further. The result is something that feels luxurious to type on – finally, my large hands can extend out like they would on a desktop keyboard. It would be nice if the key travel wasn’t just a millimeter, but the overall typing experience still feels responsive.

Dell XPS 13 Plus

Devindra Hardawar / Engadget

After seeing the tactile functionality of the touchpad in action, it’s not hard to imagine future keyboards using similar mechanisms to provide a deeper typing feel. That technology could also make the XPS 13 Plus’ functionality a bit more like traditional keys while still being covered under Gorilla Glass. I don’t mind the capacitive function row – at least the keys stay in place, Unlike Touch Bar – but I wish it was more visible outdoors. It tends to get washed out in direct sunlight or if you’re wearing sunglasses. (An Engadget employee also had to replace the capacitive function keys on his ThinkPad Carbon X1 multiple times. That could be an indication of Lenovo’s build quality, or it could indicate power buttons. It’s not very durable.)

Aside from these features, the XPS 13 Plus mostly looks like a typical XPS 13 when it’s closed. Features a machined aluminum case that looks more premium than ever and feels very solid. If you look closely, you’ll see there’s no headphone jack, just two Thunderbolt 4 USB-C connections on either side. It’s something Dell also removed from this year’s XPS 13, and it’s still a confusing decision. And no, I don’t think the new 4-speaker array makes up for it (sounds fine, but nothing magical).

Dell XPS 13 Plus

Devindra Hardawar / Engadget

Although Dell includes a USB-C to headphone adapter in the box, along with a Type-A adapter, there’s no way to charge the computer if you have both plugged in. If Apple can use the 3.5mm jack in the new MacBook Air, which weighs the same 2.7 pounds as the LCD-equipped XPS 13 Plus, Dell really has no excuse. (The OLED model is a bit heavier at 2.8 pounds.)

While we’re talking screens, if you want a 4K or OLED display in this year’s XPS, the 13 Plus is your only option. The standard XPS 13 only has a 1080p LCD screen option. Our review unit is equipped with a 3.5K OLED touchscreen model, which offers a decent 400 nits of brightness. It looks as great as all the other XPS displays we’ve seen, with great colors and deep black levels, but I’m more curious to see how the 500-nit 4K OLED variant performs. The screen of our review model is just fine outdoors, but the slightly higher brightness makes it look better in direct sunlight.



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