Dell XPS 13 Plus hands-on: is that… a touch bar?

Dell XPS 13 Plus hands-on: is that… a touch bar?

Well, it’s that time of year again: Dell has revamped the XPS 13. It’s somehow — and last year, I would have told you this wasn’t possible — made the device sleeker and more seamless than it’s ever been.

The new XPS was officially announced at CES 2022, but we got some hands-on time with the product at a pre-brief in December. It looks a lot like the prior XPS 13 on the outside, with the slim frame, Dell logo, two USB Thunderbolt ports, and aluminum build. But open the notebook up, and you’ll notice that things have gotten a lot… flatter.

The Dell XPS 13 Plus seen from above on a blue plush stool. The screen displays a blue and white background and the time 4:50.

Here’s a bird’s eye view.

First, Dell got rid of the function row. It’s been replaced with what the company is calling a “capacitive touch function row,” which refers to little LED buttons on a flat bar that you can tap to fiddle with things like brightness and volume. Dell insists that this is not a touch bar (but it is, I mean, a bar that you touch to toggle things, so anyone else whose brain immediately jumped to that comparison, you are valid, and I see you), and to that point, they have a fixed set of functions like real function keys. The touch keys were responsive in my brief testing time, and I was never worried about accidentally bumping them like I always am with the Touch Bar on older MacBook Pros.

Another thing you’ll probably notice: there’s no delineated trackpad beneath the keyboard. Dell has outfitted the XPS 13 with what it calls a “haptic ForcePad.” As is the case with MacBook touchpads, this one doesn’t physically depress when you click; it just reproduces the sensation of depressing. I imagine there might be some learning curve to figuring out where you can and can’t click, though Dell thinks muscle memory will make that a non-issue.

The Dell XPS 13 Plus capacitive function row illuminated, seen from the left side close up.

Totally not a touch bar, guys.
Photo by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge

And finally, the keyboard is now flush with the deck. This certainly creates a neat look — the entire keyboard deck is now a flat line. This layout also allows the keys to be wider since they don’t need to have a gap between them. I was worried that I’d feel like I was typing on a table when I took this for a spin, but Dell says these keys still have the same 1mm of travel that last year’s keys did.

I wouldn’t say the keyboard felt thin, ultimately, but it was certainly a different experience to typing on most standard laptop keyboards, and while I didn’t get to measure my speed, I felt significantly slower than I normally am. I imagine people with larger hands than mine might appreciate this sort of setup more.

There are also two upward-firing speakers hidden under the keyboard (in addition to two downward-firing ones). I didn’t get to fully test these out, but I didn’t have any trouble hearing sample videos in Dell’s crowded demo space. Last year’s model (with just two speakers) sounded decent, but improvements to audio in ultraportables are always welcome.

The other thing to note is that there is going to be an OLED display option. Last year’s OLED model was $300 more than an equivalent FHD configuration and had several fewer hours of battery life in my testing — but if those sorts of sacrifices aren’t a problem for you, that option is on the way.

The Dell XPS 13 Plus keybaord deck seen from above and to the left, with the capacitive function row illuminated. The screen displays a blue arctic background.

Just kinda gotta guess at where the touchpad is.

I won’t lie and say that all these changes don’t make me a tad bit nervous. Dell isn’t the only company making changes to its flagship ultraportable models in order to achieve a rectilinear look and feel this year, but the XPS 13 Plus is the most extreme expression I’ve seen so far. While I tentatively approve of the not-Touch Bar function row, I’m not quite sold on the keyboard and touchpad yet. The touchpad, in particular, was one of the features that made last year’s XPS 13 such a winner in my book, and this one’s click feels significantly thinner and more cumbersome.

But hey, I may just be an old person yelling at a cloud. People want their thin, light, flat laptops, and these sorts of features may well be where the market is headed.

The Dell XPS 13 Plus seen from the left on a blue plush chair. The screen displays a blue background.

It’s a new era for the XPS.

XPS 13 Plus models will ship worldwide this spring. They’re expected to start at $1,199. The base model will come with a 12th-Gen Core i5 (these are still Intel exclusive — I know, I know), 8GB of RAM (LPDDR5), a 256GB SSD, and a 1920 x 1200 non-touch display. You can spec it all the way up to a 12th-Gen Core i7, 1TB of storage, and a 4K touch display.

In our full review, I’ll be able to provide more impressions and complete pricing information. In the meantime, I’m just really, really hoping the keyboard and touchpad are an “acquired taste” situation.

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