Last year Dell released a nearly perfect laptop. The XPS 13 (2020) is sleek, super portable, great to type on, and has wonderful battery life. One of our complaints? No OLED option. I’ve been working on a $1,599 OLED Dell XPS 13 for a couple of months, and it is beautiful. At the cost of battery life.
This really is the same laptop we reviewed last year with a new screen. So, just about everything we said there applies here. The design is top-notch and the best XPS 13 yet. The thing practically has no bezel, which makes the OLED touchscreen all the better. But of course, that means it also has the same downsides, like the lack of dedicated GPU, and despite that touch screen, this doesn’t convert to a tablet mode. Battery life is also a new drawback to contend with, but we’ll get into that later.
Phenomenal Cosmic Power, Itty Bitty Laptop Case
If you haven’t held a Dell XPS 13, it’s hard to describe how small it feels. Thanks to the bezel-less design, Dell can cram a 13-inch display into a case that rivals other 11-inch laptops. It’s super small, super light, and still packs a punch. The model I’m testing houses an 11th gen i7 Intel processor, 16 GBs of RAM, and a 512 GB SSD. That comes out to $1,599.99, which is the least you can spend on this model. Thanks to those specs, it screams.
Unless I try to play high-end games, nothing slows this thing down. I’ve thrown just about everything at it I’d use in my day-to-day life, and the only it can’t handle are programs that require a dedicated graphics card. My review unit uses Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics, and I’m pleasantly surprised by what you can accomplish with that. I fired up Rocket League, and the game ran like smooth butter.
But all in all, everything we said in our previous Dell XPS 13 review holds true for this model. From the case to the keyboard, what you get is darn near perfection. Unless you need something with a dedicated graphics card or some kind of convertible, the XPS 13 2020 line might be the best laptop you can buy today.
But what’s new here is the OLED screen. With it comes a higher resolution than the standard XPS 13 line and a hit to battery life. And you’ll find yourself doing some math between the benefits and the costs.
Oh My What a Display
I hate this laptop. Because it’s ruined me for any other laptop display I’ll ever have the displeasure of subjecting my eyes to again. From the very moment you fire the Dell XPS 13 OLED up, you know you’re in for something else. You see, when it turns on, you get a white Dell Logo on an otherwise black expanse. It’s a good choice that gives you a preview of what makes OLED special.
Most displays work by shining a backlight through the pixels to create colors. That means you don’t get a “true” black; it’s something closer to a grey. But OLED is different; each pixel is self-illuminating. And thanks to that party trick, when an image calls for black, the display simply doesn’t light up those pixels at all. It’s true black (or as close as you can get to true black currently). You get a downside to that—OLED screens aren’t as bright. That shows here where this machine maxes out at 350 nits, compared to the standard XPS 13’s 500 nits.
On the other hand, getting those “true blacks” out of your screen comes with several benefits. Take the black bezels, for instance. The XPS 13 has some of the smallest bezels around. But they feel even smaller with the right content on the screen. Drag a window with black borders to the bezel, and you have to squint to spot where one ends and the other begins.
It also means that any movie or TV show that contains a dark scene instantly looks better. My favorite movies are gorgeous on this display. That’s helped by the display’s HDR support, assuming you’re plugged in. To save on battery life (more on that later), Windows turns HDR off by default when on battery. You can manually turn that on, of course, but you’ll take a hit for it. But when you’re plugged in (or if you turn it on for battery), movies and tv shows look better than ever.
Even typing in programs like Word, Grammarly, or directly into WordPress, like I am for this article, things just look better. The black letters are a deep level of black instead of a grey that approaches black. Once you go OLED, you might not want to go back because everything looks better. Well, scratch that—most things look better. Other things, though, are scrunched by default.
That’s due to the display’s 3.5K resolution—yes, 3.5 and not 4K. At 3456X2160 on a 13-inch screen, the recommended size for text, apps, and other items is 300% . Most of the time that works out pretty well. Other times it’s really tight. Thankfully you can change that, though you’ll have to work to find just the right setting for your preferences thanks to the unusual resolution. For me, 150% resulted in text too tiny to read, and I ultimately settled on 200%. It’s by no means a showstopper. No, the real deal breaker is the battery life.
Disappointingly Short Battery Life
As it stands, I’m in the market for a new laptop. And thus far, just using the XPS 13 for review has been done a fine job of arguing that maybe some version of the XPS 13 should be my next laptop. It’s sleek, lightweight, powerful, wonderful to type on (for a laptop), and I actually think Dell’s version of YourPhone is better than Microsoft’s. That’s a big compliment. I usually hate apps that duplicate built-in functionality.
But, at least on this model, all of that goes out the window when I unplug the device. On average, I get about five hours of work use on battery. That’s writing articles, using Slack and other messaging programs, and browsing the web to find the latest news you need to know about. We’re not talking video on a loop, mind you—just average use. If I enable dark mode, turn down the brightness (which is already dimmer than a non-OLED model), turn off Bluetooth, and close any unnecessary apps, I can squeak five and a half hours.
And that’s just not going to do the job. That’s not a full workday; it’s barely over half a workday. And frankly, this is a laptop designed for travel. If you’re spending extra on a laptop that weighs less than three pounds and fits in the smallest of travel bags, it’s because you want to travel with it. Now, the standby time is excellent. You can unplug, not use it for three days, and return to a device with a charge. But the moment you start using it, that battery drops like a lead balloon.
At first, I thought it might be an issue with my review unit because the fans run near constantly. I can have a single browser open with a single tab going, and the fans will start whirring. When that happens, I can usually feel heat through the keyboard. But I’ve noticed two things. One, the fan and heat issue doesn’t happen as often when I don’t plug in the device. Which suggests the fan “issue” is a power optimization thing. And two, none of the other reviews I’ve read complained about fans. In fact, some say the fan never seems to run.
You might think, “ah-hah, so the problem IS your review unit!” But in those same reviews, in fact, in every review I’ve read, we’ve all come to the same conclusion. You can expect four to five hours of battery life out of the OLED version of the Dell XPS 13. That’s a whopping four hours shorter than the 1080p variant. Maybe it’s the touch screen. If that’s the case, I almost wish I could get an OLED screen without a touch display. I never use that feature.
You Probably Should Get An XPS 13, Just Maybe Not This One
At the end of this review, I find myself struggling to determine who the XPS 13 OLED is for. The display is, without a doubt, gorgeous. Video looks better, text looks better, everything looks better once you tweak it enough. But if what you care about is a great-looking display while you’re plugged in, you could buy a nice monitor, which would also give you more room and probably fewer scaling and resolution issues. You’d probably enjoy movies and TV shows on a bigger display, too.
At the same time, that five-hour battery life hurts. It’s a brilliantly small laptop that weighs practically nothing. It screams to be unplugged and taken everywhere. But you can’t rely on it on the go. Sure, you could buy a portable battery to top it up, but that defeats some of the point of an ultra-portable laptop.
Losing four hours of battery life for a great-looking display just doesn’t seem like a good trade-off, especially when the standard 1080p display is more than serviceable. If you are the kind of person who wants a laptop solely for home use and you don’t mind staying tethered, then the OLED model is perhaps the best XPS 13 you can buy, albeit at a $170 premium.
But even though $170 isn’t that much, I still think most people would be better off stepping back to the 1080p non-touch model. And that’s assuming you don’t pull back on specs to save on money, which you can’t do with the OLED model. Even with all other specs the same, you’ll get nearly double the battery life. Plenty to make it through a workday or a trip out and about. And at the end of the day, one thing remains true: it doesn’t matter how pretty a screen is when the battery is dead, and it won’t turn on.
Here’s What We Like
- The same sleek case as other XPS 13 Models
- Gorgeous Display
- Touch screen
And What We Don't
- The Battery Life is Atrocious