In defense of the Dell XPS 13 Plus

Dell’s upcoming XPS 13 Plus has been mentioned a lot. Experimental. Risky. bold. Impractical even.

But when it comes to technology, and specifically an established category like laptops, there’s only one rule that matters: innovate or die. As great as the standard XPS 13 has been over the years, it’s very possible that the laptop will fall behind. The Dell XPS 13 Plus ensures that this will never happen, even if it risks being rejected because of some of the more controversial changes.

The Dell XPS 13 Plus laptop on a white table.

A colder design

One of the most visible design changes is the loss of the carbon or fiberglass layer on the XPS 13 keyboard deck, depending on the color you select. The fiber not only provides a distinctive look, but also provides warmer and more comfortable wrist rests. The XPS 13 Plus is made entirely of aluminum, which makes it colder to the touch and has a simpler aesthetic.

But there is more than that. The palm rest on the XPS 13 Plus is a spotless metal stripe. There’s no visible touchpad to mar the lines, giving the inside of the XPS 13 Plus a stunningly clean look. While all-metal designs are common, this aspect is not. I’m not sure if there is another modern laptop that creates such a modern aesthetic in this aspect of its design.

The Dell XPS 13 Plus on a marble side table.

Dell was able to implement the look thanks to the addition of another new and futuristic feature, a haptic touchpad made invisible in the ultra-clean palm rest. The same effect probably couldn’t be achieved with the fiber layer, so it had to go.

Looking at it from this perspective, I’m happy with the decision, even though I’ll miss the warm feel and attractive look of the fiber coating. The palm rest is striking and creates its own aesthetic flair – and not many laptops can say the same. Essentially, Dell created a laptop with an even simpler and more cohesive design, while still managing to give it something to set it apart from the rest.

Haptic feedback for the win

The ultra-clean palm rest of the Dell XPS 13 Plus.

Apple has been using haptic feedback for its MacBook touchpads for generations, and it’s a technology the company has perfected and works exceptionally well. The latest versions are virtually indistinguishable from physical touchpads, and they offer some benefits, such as the ability to click anywhere without worrying about physical buttons.

The market is following very slowly, with the XPS 13 Plus being one of the first to implement its own haptic touchpad. Lenovo is another with its new addition to the ThinkPad line, the ThinkPad Z13.

I think this is an excellent upgrade that will prove popular, and I applaud Dell for implementing it. I don’t know what the next version of the XPS 13 will look like, and it’s entirely possible that it will also have its own haptic touchpad (although I have no reason to think either way). Sure, in our initial testing, the touchpad is a little clunky, but that’s to be expected in pre-production machines.

I imagine Dell will have this fixed by the time the laptop ships. And as mentioned above, without the haptic technology, Dell wouldn’t have been able to implement striking palm rest, showing that the company combined function and form when designing the XPS 13 Plus.

Achieving performance with an innovative approach

The touch function buttons on the Dell XPS 13 Plus.

At first glance, one of the more mind-boggling changes is the move to capacitive touch keys for the row of function keys. They roughly mimic Apple’s Touch Bar, which was already abandoned on the most recent MacBook Pro machines. So why follow Apple over the cliff?

Well, according to Dell, the reason is twofold. First, it creates a smooth, futuristic look. That much is undoubtedly true. Like the Touch Bar, the capacitive touch buttons offer room for larger keys.

But the second reason is a thirst for more performance. Dell equips the XPS 13 Plus with the faster 28-watt version of Intel’s 12th generation Core CPU. To run that processor at full speed, Dell had to implement a more advanced thermal design, which required more space. Apparently using the touch buttons gave Dell some extra room for bigger fans and heatsinks.

That makes sense, in theory. I wish there was some sort of haptic feedback to know that a button has been pressed. But there are plenty of people who would probably trade in physical keys if it means better performance.

A good keyboard made even better

Close-up of the keyboard and trackpad on a Dell XPS 13 Plus.

Dell has also drastically changed the keyboard itself. Instead of the large keys and excellent spacing of the XPS 13 version, the XPS 13 Plus keyboard is completely flat with almost no spacing between the keys and even larger keys. It’s certainly an eye-catching design that complements the palm rest and creates a futuristic look, and it’s edge to edge, leaving more room for comfortable typing in general.

Thankfully, the keys retain the 1mm of travel that the rest of the XPS line enjoys, and in our hands-on testing it felt just as good. I can call this change a positive, assuming you can get used to the new layout – the more streamlined look and bigger keys could be an advantage, as long as it doesn’t slow you down.

Fewer ports for more power

Side view of the Dell XPS 13 Plus with a single port.

The XPS 13 Plus drops the 3.5mm audio jack, a move we’ve seen from just a few laptop makers and one that may be the most controversial change of all. The reason is the same as for the touch function keys – Dell says it needed all the space it could get for better thermal performance without increasing the thickness of the chassis.

Removing the headphone jack is hard to call “innovative.” It’s certainly not why we chose this for our list of the most anticipated laptops of 2022. That is, unless Dell can get noticeably better performance from a laptop that’s seriously thin and light. When you compete with the efficiency of Apple’s M1 MacBook Air, that’s extremely important.

And while no one is excited to lose their headphone jack, take a look at what has happened to phones over the years. Critics lamented the lack of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7. But more than five years later, it has become the standard on modern flagship smartphones.

Today, more people than ever are using wireless Bluetooth headphones and earbuds. Regardless of how they feel, this means that the average person probably uses their headphone jack a lot less than in the past. And again, if it means better performance without increasing thickness, then that’s the icing on the cake.

Innovate or die

As I said at the beginning, today a laptop manufacturer has to innovate or else it will not survive in a market that is constantly evolving. Dell has done a good job of keeping up with performance improvements and display technologies, but the designs are at risk of getting a little old.

Mixing things up with the XPS 13 Plus, again without affecting the venerable XPS 13, seems like a wise choice. Even if it doesn’t become the most popular XPS in the lineup, the XPS 13 Plus points the way to a more innovative future for the line, and that’s important. Resting on its laurels would be even more risky, and it’s now clear that Dell has no intention of doing so.

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