The Dell XPS line is one of the best-selling Windows laptops, and for good reason. These are compact, powerful machines with excellent 4K displays (if you opt for a 4K model), and the starting prices aren’t too expensive (relatively speaking). If you want an ultrabook that lives up to that name, the XPS series, especially the XPS 13, has long been our favorite.
Dell recently released an updated version. The specs haven’t changed much, but there is one big optional addition: an OLED display. It brings with it a bump in price, a spectacular viewing experience, and, sadly, a hit to battery life.
Same Ol’ Excellence
The 2021 XPS 13 uses the same 11th-gen Intel chips as the previous model (9/10, WIRED Recommends). There remains an option to add Intel’s Iris Xe graphics, and RAM choices of 8, 16, or 32 gigabytes are also unchanged. All that was good about the last model still applies here.
Unfortunately, all that was not so good about the 2020 version is also still present, namely the scant amount of ports. You get two USB-C Thunderbolt 4 ports, a headphone jack, and a MicroSD card reader. I’d love to have a third USB-C port—I often have it plugged in and reserve the second port for a USB mouse, so I’m not able to connect anything else and have to rely on a pesky dongle.
My other gripe is with battery life. The XPS 13 2021 managed nearly 11 hours of runtime in our video drain test (which consists of looping a local 1080p video file). That’s down a bit from last year’s model, and it’s probably due to the OLED screen (more on this later). What was worse was real-world performance. The XPS 13 often struggled to get through a full day’s work without a recharge. This puzzled me, since I normally use an older XPS 13 (with a 4K display), and it has no trouble getting through the same day’s work.
For most people, this battery life will be enough. It usually lasted about six hours before I needed to plug it in, which isn’t the best or worst out there. I’d still like to see Dell prioritize this as the next area of micro-optimization, since that’s what Dell seems to be up to with the previous two XPS 13 updates.
About That OLED
Now on to what’s new: the OLED screen. It’s available only on the model with a 3,456 x 2,160-pixel resolution (3.5K), which isn’t quite the 4K resolution of the UHD+ display I own (and love), but the pixel difference isn’t noticeable in practice.
Put any OLED screen next to any non-OLED screen and what you will notice are the colors. Whether it’s TVs, phones, or now laptops, OLED colors leap off the screen; they’re more vibrant, more saturated, and more lifelike thanks to pitch-dark blacks.
So what is OLED and why should you care? Well, the O is for organic (the LED is still light-emitting diodes). That’s organic as in chemistry, not organic like the pesticide-free bananas you overpaid for at the supermarket. The light is emitted by organic molecules, in most cases rings of carbon atoms.
In a traditional display there is a backlight, and its light is emitted through a layer of stuff (which varies by display type) that then shows whatever color the pixel is supposed to show at any given moment. In an OLED display, each diode acts as its own backlight. There is no always-on, battery-draining backlight. This is why blacks look so good on an OLED display; they really are the absence of light, not something covering up a still-shining light.
I know what you’re thinking. If there’s no backlight, why did battery life go downhill? Shouldn’t OLED be using less power? Well, when the screen is fully lit up—let’s say by a mostly white webpage—then the OLED screen appears to use more energy. The answer, or an answer, is dark mode. All the OLED laptops I’ve tested have arrived with Windows in dark mode, which helps a fair bit. (I turned it off and things did get worse.) But if you’re primarily on the web, which is mostly composed of white pages, OLED screens are probably going to tax your battery more.
I switched my browser of choice, Vivaldi, to dark mode, changed themes on Slack, Gmail, and some other websites I use regularly, and found it did help. But the web is overwhelmingly bright. For now, that’s going to mean a hit to OLED’s battery life.
The big question then is if the OLED screen is worthwhile. It depends. If you want better battery life, stick with the full-HD models of the 2021 XPS. You are also then afforded more customizability when choosing RAM, storage, and processors.
With the OLED, you are forced to get the Core i7 model, 16 or 32 GB of RAM, and Iris Xe graphics, which is overkill for most people, not to mention the high $1,600 price tag. On the other hand, going back to my 4K screen after the OLED is, well, a little dim and washed out. I think I can live with the shorter battery life.