By Charles King, Pund-IT® August 31, 2022
Product development is often a delicate balancing act, especially when vendors are updating well-established devices like consumer and commercial laptops. Since it is all too easy to get things wrong, many laptop vendors simply let things lie and make incremental changes or simply add in next gen CPUs and other components. But there is a strong case for modernizing classic laptop designs to account for valuable new technologies and evolving customer preferences or habits.
That is certainly the case with Dell’s new XPS 13 Plus 9320, one of the boldest examples of a vendor reimagining and enhancing one of its most successful solutions. Let’s consider why and how that is the case.
The challenges of change
Before diving into the new XPS 13 Plus, what challenges and potential problems do vendors face in making changes to established products? There are two that are particularly thorny: 1) implementing new features or functions that users find valueless or difficult to use, and 2) developing new technologies that fail badly. No vendor is perfect and virtually every PC maker has made serious mistakes that they either fixed or reversed, but additions Apple made to its MacBook line offer instructive examples of these two issues.
In 2016, the company added a “Touch Bar” to MacBook Pro models, a feature that replaced the Function (F) keys and allowed users to adjust settings, use Siri, access function keys and perform tasks in different apps by tapping, swiping or sliding directly on the Touch Bar. Apple extolled the virtues of the Touch Bar, but it seemed more likely that the company was attempting to mollify customers who wanted MacBooks to employ the touchscreen displays that are commonly available in Windows laptops. While some users developed a liking for the Touch Bar, most did not. Apple began phasing out the feature in 2021 though the 13-inch MacBook Pro announced in June 2022 still has it.
A more significant issue was the “butterfly” keyboard that Apple debuted in MacBook models in 2015 and 2016. The home switches beneath each key are hinged in the center, resembling a butterfly’s wings, rather than the overlapping “scissor” mechanism used in most keyboards. The butterfly mechanism enabled Apple to minimize the keyboard and MacBook thickness while providing users a satisfying feel when they pressed the keys.
Unfortunately, the keys also tended to malfunction when particulates, like crumbs and dust, got into the mechanism. Apple claimed that only a small number of butterfly keyboards actually failed, but users airing complaints on social media and other platforms kept the issue in the public eye. In June 2018, Apple launched a repair program for MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops equipped with butterfly keys. In May 2019, the company expanded the program to include all MacBook, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops with butterfly keyboards, including the new 2019 models. Repairs are covered for four years from date of purchase.
Apple discontinued butterfly keyboards, beginning with the 2020 MacBook models. In July 2022, the company also settled a class action suit filed by owners of MacBook with butterfly keyboards, paying $50 million in damages.
Getting changes right: Dell’s new XPS 13 Plus
These Apple examples are particularly germane when it comes to Dell’s XPS 13 Plus 9320 since this new laptop incorporates significant changes to both the keyboard and function keys. But first, let’s consider the system’s essential specs. These include:
- 12th gen Intel Core processor options, from i5 with 12MB cache, up to 4.4 GHz and 12 cores to i7 with 24 MB cache, up to 4.8 GHz and 14 cores.
- Memory options from 8GB to 32GB of LPDDR5.
- Storage options from 256GB PCIe SSDs to 2TB PCIe SSDs.
- Display options from 4-inch FHD+ (1920X1200) Infinity Edge display to 13.4 inch 4K UHD+ (3840X2400) Infinity Edge touch display.
- 55W WHr battery
- 2 Thunderbolt 4 ports and 1 USB-C port
The review unit that Dell provided for this review includes an Intel Core i7-1280p CPU, 16GB of memory and a 4K UHD+ Infinity Edge touch display.
If you have an XPS laptop, these features, specs and updates will look familiar but one significant change is Dell’s decision to use Intel’s 28W 12th Gen Core chips in contrast to the 15W 11th Gen Core chips in previous model XPS laptops. That’s a significant boost in power from one generation to the next and delivers excellent performance, even in complex business applications.
From the outside, the XPS 13 Plus is what users have come to expect with a machined aluminum case and clean sharp edges, but significant changes appear when the laptop is opened. The most obvious of these is the smooth glass palm rest that lacks any trackpad markings and the apparent absence of a top row of Function keys. The trackpad’s capacitive design delivers a “click” feeling for both right and left functions. While some reviewers have complained that the lack of markings makes the trackpad difficult to find and use, I didn’t have any problems with it myself.
Similarly, the XPS 13 Plus’ function keys are capacitive and are backlighted when the system is in use. However, rather than crowding keys with both F and setting symbols, the keys remain in setting symbol mode until the fn key is pressed. Finally, the XPS 13 Plus features a “zero-lattice keyboard” which extends from edge to edge without any spacing between the keys.
Along with the capacitive trackpad and Function keys, this results in a notable and elegant design that stands out from the vast majority of ultraportable laptops. More importantly, the keyboard design is also highly comfortable and functional. I had no problems or issues typing at my usual speed/accuracy.
Is the XPS 13 Plus problematic in any way? The only issue I noticed was a somewhat shorter battery life compared to the prior generation XPS 13. I expect that mainly has to do with the substantial boost in CPU performance with only a modest difference in battery size (from 52W to 55W). In any case, the XPS 13 Plus should make it through a standard workday on battery power, and the system also ships with a fast charger that will bring the battery to 80% of capacity in less than an hour.
What is my takeaway on Dell’s new XPS 13 Plus? Overall, the company has delivered a system with significantly improved performance over past generation XPS 13 solutions that also successfully pushes the boundaries of traditional laptop design.
This is not the first time that Dell or the XPS line have been parties to such an achievement. For example, the XPS 13 was the first laptop to incorporate what Dell dubbed “Infinity Edge” displays whose markedly thinner bezels enabled the system to incorporate larger display screens. It didn’t take Dell’s competitors long to incorporate similar features in their own laptops.
Will Dell’s new capacitive trackpad and function keys, and its zero-lattice keyboard spark similar responses? Quite possibly. Along with being visually stunning, all three of them offer excellent performance without unduly taxing users’ knowledge or patience. Additionally, none carries the whiff of “design for design’s sake” or poor performance that plagues many ill-considered new features and functions.
Overall, the new XPS 13 Plus is a solution that melds Dell’s understanding of what customers need with forward-thinking, user-focused design innovations. It is what businesses and consumers have come to expect from Dell, and among the many reasons for the XPS line’s continuing success.
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