Laptop manufacturers love refreshing their stuff every year, and every year it’s more or less the same story. Marginal percentage increases in performance here and there, 10 or 15 percent better performance in games there, maybe an extra half hour of battery life. Occasionally some great quality-of-life changes get implemented, but most of the companies in the laptop game are facing the same problem: good screens just take up too much juice.
And that’s kind of the kicker with the latest Dell 2-in-1. It’s a nice bit of design, and a lot of the moment-to-moment usage is really good. But if you were hoping for that dream of a true thin-and-light laptop that’s competent enough for some Overwatch or low gaming on the side? Well, the future isn’t quite here yet.
It’s a problem that I’ve run into playing around with the latest 2-in-1 from Dell, the XPS 13 7390. It was an eye-catching device when I first saw it at Computex earlier this year thanks to its bright, vibrant screen and a move away from the oldschool 16:9 aspect ratio. But after having lived with it for a few weeks and putting it through its paces in various games, working environments and travel, I’m left a little frustrated.
It’s not really Dell’s fault, mind you. On a lot of front, Dell’s latest hybrid has a lot to love even compared against the traditional XPS 13 and one of the best all-rounder laptops money can buy. The 16:10 screen ratio is a nice improvement for those working on the go, particularly anyone who spends a lot of time in browsers, spreadsheets or long documents, although it’s still not as useful as the 3:2 screens adopted by the Surface line or Huawei’s Matebooks.
But the XPS laptops have always had a style and sturdiness to their chassis that Huawei and, to a lesser degree, Microsoft couldn’t quite match. Dell’s latest convertible carries over most of the design sensibilities from the previous generation, save for the keyboard which is a thinner maglev design that’s halfway between the last generation of Dell keyboards (which are great) and Apple’s butterfly designs (which Apple eventually started offering free refunds for). I would have preferred the older design or at least something with a bit more heft, although I’ve gotten accustomed to the design by now. It’s fine, although I’m not the biggest fan.
Starting from $2123 and configurable up to $4299 if you want a 512GB drive, 32GB 3733MHz RAM and the best Intel i7-1065G7 CPU. If you just want the i7 with 16GB RAM, you’ll have to fork out $3200, adding an extra $600 if you want the 4K HDR screen with those specs. If you do opt for the 4K HDR screen, just note that the battery life will take a massive plunge. The best I could accomplish with just Chrome streaming Netflix at 50 percent brightness was around five and a half hours, although the screen is so bright that most people would be happy using it at 40 percent or lower, unless you’re working outdoors or in some kind of direct light.
Convertibles aren’t cheap, then. The 2019 versions of the XPS 13 — the laptops that don’t have 360 degree hinges — will set you back around $2800 for the i7/16GB/512GB variants, at least the models with the much nicer white/rose gold finish. The RAM is a lot slower in those models, despite still being 10th generation Intel CPUs, because the i7-10510U chips are based on the older 14nm process, while the versions in the Dell 2-in-1 are the 10nm Ice Lake models. (It’d be nice if the product stack wasn’t so confusing, Intel.)
For most people, though, the main thing that will matter is simply having the extra RAM to begin with. And the better graphics processing in the Ice Lake machines mean that it’s much more usable as a low-end gaming machine than ever before.
But just how much gaming can you do, exactly?
Integrated graphics used to be the most common devices on Steam, although that’s since been replaced with the entry-level GTX 1060 and GTX 1050 Ti, which accounted for just over 23 percent of all devices in the most recent Steam survey.
That’s an important shift, because developers use the Steam surveys as a baseline for the hardware they should target. That doesn’t just affect AAA developers, but also indies looking to make their games playable to the biggest audience possible.
Older generations of laptops have always been able to play indies like Undertale, though. But what’s really exciting is the possibility to maybe sneak in a serviceable game of Overwatch, Age of Empires, pixel-art adventures or older games.
The laptops that lean the most into more uncommon aspect ratios, like the Surface devices and the Huawei Matebooks, have a harder time even with discrete GPUs. A lot of games are only playable in 16:9 resolutions. Overwatch is one of the few that natively supports 16:10 and 21:9, the former of which helps a lot given that the screen is 16:10 by default. But that odd ratio means a lot of normal games end up looking quite squished and unpleasant on a thin-and-light laptop even if the game itself runs at a playable frame rate. Some games won’t even launch without adjusting your desktop resolution first.
There’s also the input latency to consider. Thin-and-light screens aren’t meant for gaming. They’re getting brighter and brighter, and they’re even HDR capable now (at least for the 4K variants in the XPS’s case), but the response time won’t be as good as a proper gaming laptop or standalone gaming monitor.
Matches of Overwatch on low settings with 75 percent resolution scale at 1280×800 (the lowest native 16:10 resolution) ran between the mid 30s to mid 40s during major team fights, which is where you need the most performance and ability to respond. I’ve had high refresh rate monitors basically since I could afford my own, and while I’m accustomed to being able to track Lucio through a hail of bullets, the performance wasn’t unpleasant.
I wouldn’t have especially high expectations if I was going to play a ton of ranked Overwatch on the Iris Plus integrated graphics. The performance from the discrete Nvidia MX GPUs is still better, maintaining closer to that nice 60fps mark on similar settings. You could eek more performance out of the XPS 2-in-1 by dropping the resolution scale even further, or by lowering the resolution to 1024×768, but you will reach a point where the quality is so low that the game is visually unplayable, even if the frame rate isn’t.
The Iris Plus can handle more games than you’d expect from normal integrated graphics, though. Games like Legend of Runeterra and Dota Underlords run just fine at lower resolutions, but more intensive offerings like the recently-released Disco Elysium will run and play provided you don’t mind playing on the lowest possible options.
And there’s plenty of games released in 2019 that you can enjoy on the XPS. Streets of Rogue is a banger of a roguelike that came out of early access this year; it runs fine on the XPS’s Iris Plus graphics with no trouble. Rimworld won’t have many issues, and games like Magic Arena, Hearthstone, or Football Manager are more than playable. I wouldn’t get too excited about running something like Total War: Three Kingdoms though, and just note that when you do push the laptop, the 360 hinge becomes uncomfortably hot.
But convertibles and thin-and-light laptops are predominately work and travel laptops first, with some light gaming second. The latest Ice Lake hardware doesn’t do much to change that, even though the status quo has shifted slightly from “don’t expect any decent games to run at all on your work laptop” to “you could probably play that, but maybe consider these games instead”.
In a lot of ways, the XPS 2-in-1 makes the most of what laptop hardware in 2019 can do. 4K HDR screens just aren’t that energy efficient, so you’re not going to genuinely get all-day battery life if you also want a laptop screen that can rival the brightness of modern smartphones. And if you want something that’s truly thin and light, the lack of cooling means you’ll still be best off playing games like Monster Hunter: World, Destiny 2 or something like Remnant on a proper console or machine.
But that’s OK. The XPS 2-in-1 does a great job at just being a solid convertible laptop. If you’re travelling a lot, and want something that can also knock out an hour or two of indie gaming while you’re stuck in a hotel room, or you just wanted to check in with your World of Warcraft: Classic guild, then the XPS 2-in-1 can do that. You’ll get more purchase out of something with the discrete Nvidia GPUs, or even the recently released Surface line with the Ryzen chips and Vega 9 GPU. And if you want something with better battery life, then the traditional clamshells with non-4K screens will wipe the floor with any convertible.
But are they as nice a package to live with day in and day out, something you can flip into a tablet and play Legends of Runeterra or Underlords in bed with? Not really.