I made the switch to a Dell XPS 13 9300 ... and I might not go back

Dell Xps 13 9300
Dell Xps 13 9300 (Image credit: Windows Central)

After using a custom desktop PC and, more recently, Lenovo's awesome ThinkPad X1 Extreme (Gen 2) to handle my daily workload, I switched over to Dell's 13-inch Ultrabook as a daily driver. Its screen is smaller and it has a lower resolution than I'm used to. It's far less powerful than the X1 Extreme, it has fewer ports, and it doesn't have the coveted ThinkPad keyboard.

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On paper, it seems like the switch to an XPS 13 was a poor choice. While I still move around to different devices while going through the laptop review process, I've spent most of the last month comfortably sitting behind the XPS 13. Despite its comparative shortcomings to the hardware I was very accustomed to using, I haven't had this much fun ever when using a laptop.

If you've been on the fence about switching from a larger laptop down to a 13-inch laptop, I have some insight on what to expect. For the most part my experience has been positive, but here's what you need to know about the XPS 13.

Is the Dell XPS 13 the perfect 13-inch Ultrabook?

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The 9300 version of the XPS 13 is no doubt Dell's best effort so far and our pick for one of the best laptops this year. Windows Central Executive Editor Daniel Rubino gave it a full five stars and a Windows Central Best Award in his review, saying:

The 2020 Dell XPS 13 (9300) is close to perfection. With a taller 16:10 aspect, gorgeous redesign, fast 10th-Gen Intel processor, improved keyboard, and particularly good battery life, this laptop has it all. It's also the best-looking laptop on the market.

To get a bit deeper — and to compare previous generations of the XPS 13 — we need to look at some specs. Following is exactly what the XPS 13 9300 model I purchased is packing.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
CategorySpec
OSWindows 10 Home
Processor10th Gen Intel
Core i7-1065G7
Four cores
Up to 3.90GHz
RAM16GB LPDDR4x-3733MHz
GraphicsIntel Iris Plus
Integrated
Storage256GB M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD
Display13.4 inches
1920x1200 (FHD+)
16:10 aspect ratio
PortsTwo Thunderbolt 3
microSD card reader
3.5mm audio
AudioDual 2.5W Stereo speakers
WirelessKiller Wi-Fi 6 AX1650
Bluetooth 5
CameraFront-facing 720p
SecurityFingerprint reader
IR camera
KeyboardBacklit
TouchpadPrecision
Battery52Wh
Dimensions11.64 x 7.82 x 0.58 inches
(295.7mm x 198.7mm x 14.8mm)
Weight2.8 pounds (1.27kg)
ColorArctic white woven glass

Arguably the most impressive change is a move to a 13.4-inch display with a 16:10 aspect ratio. Dell created space by removing the chin below the display, effectively delivering a 91.5% screen-to-body ratio. Everytime I open the laptop I'm struck by how clean the whole thing looks. I also went with the white interior that doesn't show off oily fingerprints and smudges. The grime that builds up on a ThinkPad's soft-touch paint is one of the worst parts of the user experience, and I'm not seeing any of that here.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Dell offers a 3840x2400 (UHD+) touch display option, though I opted for 1920x1200 (FHD+). At this size it's enough pixels for a clear image, and Sharp IGZO remains some of the best display technology available. The display is also bright enough at almost 650 nits to handle outdoor work. I did go with the touch display with edge-to-edge glass and anti-reflective coating. The non-touch version with matte finish would fare even better in sunlight, but the raised plastic bezel wasn't something I liked the look of. As it stands, I can take the XPS 13 into my backyard and work on a sunny day without much trouble.

This was also true with the ThinkPad X1 Extreme's 4K OLED display, though battery life was limiting. Whereas I'll get a solid five to six hours from the XPS 13 with brightness maxed out, the X1 Extreme was closer to two or three hours with brightness cranked. It also ran quite a bit hotter, which was an issue working on a hot day. An XPS 13 with UHD+ display would likely run into some of the same issues, but the FHD+ option delivers a nice balance.

Speaking on battery life, the XPS 13 will make it through a standard workday if I set out with a fully charged battery. With brightness below 50% (more than enough for working indoors) I can expect at least eight hours from a charge. If I need to work on the move, there's not much issue with dropping the XPS 13 sans charger into a backpack and heading out for the day.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

I was concerned about switching from the ThinkPad's flavor of keyboard to something from Dell. I still prefer the overall typing experience from something like the X1 Extreme, but the XPS 13 9300's reworked keys are admittedly quickly catching up. Dell boosted keycap size by about 9% and the keys stretch from edge to edge. It's a nice look and works well for long days of typing. I have no need for a number pad, so no issues there.

The Precision touchpad was also made larger by Dell. It's one of the best I've used and there's really nothing much to say about it other than that. I also don't make use of the ThinkPad's TrackPoint system with red pointing nub and physical mouse keys, so I also don't have any regrets on that point. All this being said, there are some areas where the XPS 13 doesn't compare to the hardware I was accustomed to using.

Where the XPS 13 9300 falls short

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Switching to the XPS 13 9300 after a desktop PC and ThinkPad X1 Extreme, I knew there was going to be some downsides. Screen size was the main point I focused on. Sure, I can connect the XPS 13 to a large desktop monitor, but I made the switch in order to get out of my office and work in other locations. The X1 Extreme, at 15.6 inches, is almost ideal for heavy multitasking, especially at a 4K resolution. It's big enough that I could have two windows open next to each other at once, allowing for a lot less alt-tabbing.

The XPS 13 at 13.4-inches is considerably smaller, and it's not as good for multitasking. I'm using the alt-tab shortcut a lot more to switch between windows, and the move down from 4K OLED is noticeable. However, the XPS 13's display is still extremely sharp, and when I see a laptop with a chin it sticks out more than ever before.

Another thing I'm missing is the selection of ports, including a full-size SD card reader. The XPS 13 comes with just two Thunderbolt 3, a microSD card reader, and a 3.5mm audio jack, so it's definitely behind compared to a lot of larger laptops. I now need to carry a dongle or adapter with me if I plan on any photography or screen calibration tools.

Source: Daniel Rubino/Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino/Windows Central)

Unfortunately, there's also no Intel H-series processor (CPU) or dedicated graphics card (GPU) available in the XPS 13 if I wanted to do heavier work like editing. The 10th Gen "Ice Lake" CPUs are comparatively underpowered, as are Intel's integrated graphics. I still have enough juice to run Photoshop alongside heavy Edge or Chrome browsing, but I was sure to get at least 16GB of RAM from the factory. The XPS 13's RAM is soldered, though you can replace the solid-state drive (SSD) after purchase.

If you like the look of the XPS 13 but need the performance to handle specialized work like photo and video editing, something like the XPS 15 or even the enormous XPS 17 will likely be more to your liking. And, of course, the X1 Extreme is still a excellent laptop that also earned a Windows Central Best Award.

Driving the XPS 13 until it falls apart

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

I was ready to give the XPS 13 a try with the idea that I could send it back if I wasn't happy. The size change, the lack of upper-tier laptop performance hardware, and the reduction of ports were at the top of mind. However, after using my XPS 13 for a month as my daily driver, I'm going to continue using it for the foreseeable future. It's one of the best Dell laptops out there and totally fits my needs.

Despite the change in performance, it handles everything I need it to with my daily workload, including heavy browsing with multiple windows and tens of tabs, Adobe Photoshop dealing with RAW images for reviews, as well as Slack and a few other low-impact apps. The Core i7 model with 16GB of RAM chews through it all with only minor and far-between slowdowns.

The XPS 13 is built incredibly well, and when I pick up a 15-inch laptop now I wonder why I ever used something so bulky. I can slip the XPS 13 into a backpack or messenger and hardly know it's there. It appears to have an almost comically tiny footprint when closed, then opens up into a laptop that's almost all display, keyboard, and touchpad.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

There are a few reasons why I might want to switch back to a larger laptop after I'm done with the XPS 13. If I was going to get into video editing or even heavier photo editing I'd no doubt want to switch back to something with a dedicated GPU and 4K display. If I get sick of carrying dongles and adapter I'd want something with more ports. If I was going to be traveling, a laptop with privacy display options, lock slot, or a webcam shutter might be required.

Overall, though, I'm almost completely accustomed to the XPS 13's shortcomings. Its benefits definitely outweigh its downsides, and if you are thinking about making a switch to a 13-inch Ultrabook but aren't sure it will suit your needs, you might be surprised.

Cale Hunt
Senior Editor, Laptop Reviews

Cale Hunt is formerly a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He's been reviewing laptops and accessories full-time since 2016, with hundreds of reviews published for Windows Central. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.

17 Comments
  • If you're actually taking your laptop on the go, then you absolutely made the right choice. Personally, I would never want to lug-around a 15-inch laptop everywhere. However, I am considering getting a 15-inch laptop for my daughter. This device is going to live on a desk, so portability is not much of an issue, and screen size matters. But more importantly, in the entry-level category, 15-inchers are *way* cheaper than smaller laptops and convertibles with equivalent (or worse) specs.
  • I have been taking this around with me, as limited as public spaces are at the moment. If it's on a desk, why not grab a sweet external monitor and still go with a smaller device if she does decide to start taking it with her? Just a thought.
  • Honestly I thought of that, but cost is an issue in this case, and smaller laptops are often much more expensive for the same specs. (Which I totally understand, because the smaller ones are more desirable!) Who knows, maybe things will have changed by the time I finally make a decision. :P
  • I "lug-around" my Dell XPS 15 everywhere I go and its not a problem.
    Small, thin, light. Dont see any issues. I'm not saying that I wouldnt take the 13 inch model either, I'm just saying the 15 isnt bad at all. It all comes down to typing comfort and processing power.
    As a programmer I need a good and comfortable keyboard and something that can multitask and compile with ease.
  • To be fair, the XPS 15 is basically the size of a lot of 13-inch laptops.
  • I've been contemplating on getting a 14-inch, halfway between a 15- and 13-inch. Any drawbacks with this size?
  • 14 inch is a great size, I'm one of those not that much satisfied with 13". The only drawback I see with 14s is that the laptop offer is very limited. No XPS nor Surface which is the both lines I'm buying these last years for family members or myself. Hopefully new small bezels 15 ultrabooks are probably as small as older's 14".
  • I don't see how a desktop PC and a mobile workstation ever made sense for someone with your use cases. And you can always dock a laptop and turn it into a desktop experience.
  • Desktop is a gaming PC. Can't argue with mobile workstation.
  • Business laptop, e.g. Dell latitude, ThinkPad or elite book, will be better choice. They might not as slim as xps but have better durability
  • I love ThinkPad. I'm lucky enough to review a ton. The XPS 13 9300 was just too damn good looking.
  • For me the best choice currently is to have a 15 inch ultrabook like the new XPS 15 or the Surface Laptop 15 (with intel proc, not the disapointing AMD). There you got a lot more screen than a 13" while keeping a lightweight and thin device. Of course that means you can afford it. But idealy what I dream of is a 15 inch Surface Pro !! The Surface Pro form factor is the most versatile ever and by experience I never loved one of its clones as much as the original Surface Pro. 360 laptops are nice but heavy to switch from one mode to another, same with the unique but heavy Surface Book, while the Surface Pro still have that unique "computer from the future feeling".
    Of course my dream Surface Pro 15 would have small bezels like the Surface X. Hoping that Microsoft will rework its Surface Pro and Surface Book like to merge it into 13 and 15 screen size choices as well as the opportunity to use a cover for portability or a power user cover when you need more power with additional battery and an embedded GPU.
  • So Cale you made the mistake of not getting 4K display. With a 4K display, you can push the scaling smaller since letters will be much clearer. With a smaller scaling, you can see pretty much the same amount of information on screen as the 15" without 4K. I set my 13.3 HP Spectre with 4K using custom scaling to have a virtual screen resolution of 125 virtual pixels per inch. My non-4K 15.4" before that was at around 109.
  • The tradeoff is better battery life. I'm loving FHD+, but we will see. Also a matter of price; 4K is a lot in Canada. But you're not wrong.
  • If you want nearly the same performance, a USB-A port, and save some serious cash, check out the HP Spectre x360 13 T (late 2019). Even with the 4k OLED I get a solid 7 hours on battery, and if you go 1080p not only can you punch up the battery life you can drop in an LTE modem to boot.
  • I waffled between the x360 for awhile but ultimately didn't want a convertible. The new ENVY line is mighty attractive, however.
  • I went the other direction in 2012: moved from laptop to desktop. Never looked back. I still do have laptops, though.