Dell XPS 13 9310 (2021) review: A lot of money for very little laptop

Let’s pretend for a while that we still live in a world where the M1 MacBook Air doesn’t exist, that Apple’s new M1 Max chip hasn’t yet debuted. It’s in that world that Dell’s XPS 13 has a chance of reigning supreme.

The 2021 9310 model I’m holding right now is one of the slickest, densest and easily one of the slimmest 13-inch laptops I’ve ever used. The screen is a glorious (shush, the Air doesn’t exist) 13.4-inch UHD+ display in a wonderful 16:10 aspect ratio. Powering this dense little monster – it feels like it’s made of tungsten, in a good way – is Intel’s powerful (dammit, I said the Air doesn’t exist) Core i7-1185G7 with Intel Iris Xe Graphics, 16 GB of DDR4 RAM and 1 TB of high-speed NVMe storage.

The laptop does look polished and smart with its white metal lid and ‘arctic woven glass fibre’ palm rest. Image: Tech2/Anirudh Regidi

The screen supports touch input, the keyboard is backlit (not very well, but more on that later), and the speakers are great. There are just two USB-C ports, but they’re rated for Thunderbolt 4, and there’s a microSD card slot as well as a 3.5 mm headphone jack.

The laptop does look polished and smart with its white metal lid and ‘arctic woven glass fibre’, palm rest. It’s a handsome machine which, while surprisingly heavy for its form factor, is thinner than some tablets. Of all the Windows-based Ultrabooks I’ve tested this year, this is easily the nicest looking (and feeling) Ultrabook I’ve used.

As good as it is, there are some serious downsides

The 9310’s price of Rs 2,15,000 is simply too high for what’s on offer. It looks good, but for Rs 80,000, you can get a 13-inch ZenBook 13 with a stunning, and I mean stunning, OLED display that puts everything else to shame. For well under Rs 2 lakh, you can pick up HP’s Envy 14, Lenovo’s carbon-fibre ThinkPads, and I know we’re pretending that the M1 Air doesn’t exist, but the M1 MacBook Air as well.
Clearly, it’s not just Apple that charges a premium for brand value.

Backlighting for the keys on the Dell XPS 9310 is largely uneven, compared here to the key backlighting on the MacBook Pro. Image: Tech2/Anirudh Regidi

The worst part, though, is something that might seem rather silly on the surface, but becomes a big deal when you look at that hefty price tag: the keyboard backlight.

First, it’s extremely uneven. The ‘U’ key has a bright corner, the ‘c’ in Caps lock isn’t properly lit, the ‘Tab’ key is less bright than its surrounding keys, the ‘ctr’ of ctrl isn’t properly lit… I could go on. Second, you’re getting a white backlight on white keys. At certain angles, you can’t even read the keyboard.

Again, this laptop costs over Rs 2 lakh; it’s a premium laptop by any measure, a purely hedonistic purchase. What I expect from such a device is attention to detail, and it’s disappointing that you don’t get that.

Everything else is great

While there’s no OLED, the UHD+ IPS LCD is so good that I initially mistook it for an OLED. This is thanks to a high brightness of about 400 nits (Dell claims 500, but I suspect it’ll only hit that with HDR content) and a contrast ratio of 1500:1. By default, the panel is calibrated to 6900K, and professional photographers and designers will want to re-calibrate to 6500K. When calibrated with an i1 Display Pro Plus colorimeter, I got an average deltaE of 3, which, while not the best I’ve seen, is still quite good. deltaE simply indicates the variation in colour accuracy between what is rendered by a display and what is expected from an ideal panel. A value under 2 is considered nearly indistinguishable to the human eye.

The speakers are loud, and for once, I don’t have to complain that my iPhone is louder. There’s little bass, of course, but the volume is good and the overall sound signature pleasant enough for YouTube and TV shows. The audio can tear at higher volumes in bass-heavy tracks, but this is a rare occurrence.

Performance for day-to-day work, which is what I suspect anyone buying this will indulge in, is good. It handles Chrome, Word, and other Office apps easily, and multi-tasking between them results in no stuttering. You can, however, feel the system struggling a bit when you’re editing large images in Photoshop or making batch edits in Lightroom. This is, I suspect, an issue because the CPU is underclocked and that 4K resolution is pushing the GPU hard.

Video editing, unless it's limited to eight-bit 1080p footage or low-res proxies, is not something I’d recommend on this thin and light device.

You can game if you really want to, but only if it’s limited to lighter games such as CS: GO or F1 2019 running at the lowest settings. Both games managed to deliver average framerates in the 50-60 fps range.

Verdict: I had higher expectations from a flagship Ultrabook

Dropping the fiction, the fact of the matter is the M1 MacBook Air exists, and it’s cheaper and better than Dell’s best.

Configured with 16 GB RAM and 1 TB of storage, the M1 Air is Rs 1.6 lakh to the XPS 13’s Rs 2.13 lakh. The Air runs cooler, and since it has no fan, noiselessly as well. The screen has a wider colour-gamut, better contrast and similar brightness. Battery life is better, and performance, thanks to that M1 chip, is in entry-level gaming laptop territory. Not only can you edit the most demanding 10-bit 4K footage directly, but the Air also comes with a more powerful GPU that’s better at running games than the XPS 13’s Iris Xe is.

Even if you’re not a fan of the Apple ecosystem, you get devices with better configurations and a similar build for less than half the price. All you’re paying for here is brand value. If that’s worth Rs 2 lakh to you, go ahead and pick up an XPS 13. For everyone else, I’d recommend an M1 Air from Apple, a Yoga from Lenovo or the ASUS ZenBook 13 with an OLED display.

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