When you first get a job at GQ you get to choose between two laptops to schlep around with for the rest of your joyous employment: a MacBook Pro or the Dell XPS 13. That face-off much sums up all you need to know about the most dependable Windows laptop going. Want a premium computer on which to get your work done? There have been few better alternatives for the best part of a decade now.
If you’re looking for this year’s iteration of the best-seller to reinvent the ultrabook formula it popularised, then you’re straight out of luck. Iterative fixes that add up to a rock-solid product have long been the way of the Dell XPS 13 and this is still very much the case in 2020. Most notably, Dell has trimmed the edges off last year’s screen to give you a glorious 13.4-inch display that’s ideal for everything from The Last Dance to day-to-day drudgery.
With rivals such as Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 and the HP Elite Dragonfly further raising the bar for your nine-to-five squeeze, is the XPS 13 still up to the job? We tested one for a fortnight to find out.
The old familiar
If there’s one long-standing criticism we have of the Dell XPS 13 it’s that it doesn’t especially excite us. Its metal and carbon-fibre-esque design is somewhat akin to dressing in a navy-blue suit for work: it’s smart, presentable and a little bit boring.
In fairness, it is very difficult to get excited about a laptop these days given how little their form factor has changed since forever ago, but that doesn’t mean Dell couldn’t have at least tried to break the mould a little. There’s no Alcantara fabric keyboard cover as with Microsoft’s Surface Laptop, no sub-1kg weight as with the HP Elite Dragonfly, and no shockingly great speakers as with the 16-inch MacBook Pro. Instead, the XPS 13 embodies a sort of “aggressive competency” wherein by playing things so safe it excels at every fundamental you could hope for. Much like Angela Merkel.
At 1.27kg this laptop is still easily compact enough to carry around wherever you please. Its ample edge-to-edge keyboard and trackpad are perfect for when you just need to spend a long afternoon wading through emails and bashing out a quick one-sheet or two. And the combination of a 10th-gen Intel i7 processor, 16GB RAM and a 512GB SSD mean you are never going to struggle for power or storage. It’s a computer you can depend on whenever you’re clocked into the office.
And when you’re back at home? That display really is quite impressive to behold. As we mentioned up top, Dell has really trimmed back the black bezels that frame this 13.4-inch monolith. So when you open up this laptop it’s really all screen you’re looking at. Even Apple’s latest MacBook Air can’t compete in this regard with the chunky border around its own 13.3-inch screen looking considerably more cumbersome.
Of course, these aesthetics wouldn’t count for a jot if the XPS 13’s screen itself was merely so-so. Available in either a HD or 4K resolution (we opted for the HD model) it is in fact a pristine window into the worlds of work and entertainment. Text is pin-sharp and easy to read, even when you’re delving across a thousand-cell spreadsheet. And with video, colours are sharp and precise even when there’s a lot of motion in frame. If you’re looking to sneak in another Normal People episode on the sly, you’re best off doing so with a pair of headphones to hand; the speakers here are decidedly average but still passable for most instances.
Not safe for Zoom
With a battery life that should comfortably see you through the working day – so long as you don’t overload on a combination of Chrome, Slack and Zoom – there really is very little to fault the Dell XPS 13 for. Apart from its webcam, which is objectively terrible even amongst a field of really quite mediocre competitors. So much so that one GQ staffer asked whether I’d started using a sepia filter on our video calls.
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a dealbreaker for the XPS 13 and even though we’re all Zooming a whole lot more than before, it probably still isn’t. That said, this ropey webcam does underline how unambitious Dell can be with its laptop design outside of the fundamentals it excels at.
Dell XPS 13 (2020) verdict
If you’re simply looking for the best Windows laptop around, then you should have little hesitation in opting for the Dell XPS 13. It is far too good an all-rounder for our quibbles to count against such a foolproof recommendation. From a rock-solid keyboard to its expertly redesigned screen and dependable internals, there is a whole lot to like about this super-portable laptop.
For those who aren’t minded to get a MacBook, there has never been a better roster of alternatives to choose from. And although the XPS 13’s glacial approach to iteration hasn’t yet caused its crown to slip, Dell could have done a bit more to keep its flagship laptop feeling fresh and exciting. Not least by giving its longstanding design a more drastic reimagining.
Realistically, those are problems for the next XPS 13 to deal with. For now, this champ remains undisputed.