Dell's XPS 13 With OLED Is Love at First Sight

Or it was until Apple released the M1 iPad Pro

Key Takeaways

  • Dell’s XPS 13 is now available with an OLED display.
  • OLED’s excellent contrast and deep, inky shadows demolish LCD screens.
  • Brightness and HDR performance are still OLED’s Achilles heel.
Closeup of the screen on the Dell XPS 13

Matthew S. Smith / Lifewire

Dell’s XPS 13 is now available with an OLED display, and it’s gorgeous. 

OLED remains strangely rare among laptops. All of today’s most popular phones, including Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy line, have embraced it in a warm, fuzzy, high-contrast hug. Yet few laptops have taken the same step, and those that have are typically large, powerful 15-inch models aimed at a niche audience. 

A week with the Dell XPS 13’s OLED left me wishing the tech was more readily available on modern laptops. Yet its arrival in the XPS 13 might be a case of too little, too late.

Why OLED?

OLED is self-emissive, which means each individual pixel creates its own light. This also means each pixel can be shut off entirely, achieving a deep, abyssal black that a typical LCD panel can’t match. 

Most high-end laptops have great displays: the MacBook Pro 13, Microsoft Surface Laptop 4, and prior Dell XPS 13 all can impress with bright, vibrant images. Yet they fail when displaying photos or dark, atmospheric movies. 

"The real competition isn’t the MacBook Pro. It’s Apple’s iPad Pro 12.9 with the new Liquid Retina XDR display..."

Starlit skies that should contrast the infinite darkness of space against brilliant points of light instead look hazy, as if a light fog had crept into the shot. Dell’s XPS 13 with OLED doesn’t have that problem. Shadows have true depth, providing a sense of presence and realism not found from competing LCD laptop displays.

This advantage isn’t just for 4K movies or high-res photos. On the contrary, I appreciate it most when doing what I’m doing at this very moment: writing. 

The Dell XPS 13’s OLED looks distinct from LCD laptops. It’s as if the screen is not a screen at all, but instead a page ripped from an enchanted high-gloss magazine that can magically change form. It’s simply fantastic. 

It’s Not All Good News

Despite its strengths, I admit the XPS 13’s new OLED screen falls into its own familiar trap. OLED often lacks the brightness of LCD rivals, and Dell’s XPS 13 doesn’t resolve this issue.

Dell pegs the OLED’s maximum brightness at 400 nits, which, in my testing, it came close to achieving. That’s enough for use in a typical room with modest light control. The display rarely feels dim. 

However, Dell claims the screen has an anti-reflective coating, which, frankly, is ridiculous. I don’t doubt it dampens reflections, but, as with many laptops, it’s not enough: the screen can double as a mirror to freshen up before a video call. The OLED’s maximum brightness can’t compete with glare from bright overhead lights or a sunlit window. 

The Dell XPS 13 with OLED screen sitting on a kitchen table.

Matthew S. Smith / Lifewire

This also leads to disappointing HDR. The XPS 13 supports HDR, but it doesn’t pop that way it does on today’s best televisions or smartphones. Windows also forces HDR off by default when a laptop is on battery power (it is possible to turn it on by tweaking settings), which will annoy travelers who like to watch movies on a laptop.

OLED also skews towards a white point that’s cool and green, and Dell hasn’t resolved this problem. Scenes that rely on bright, white highlights, like a snowy mountaintop, can look unnatural. I doubt most owners will pick up on this issue, but, when the XPS 13’s OLED is placed side-by-side with a quality LCD laptop display (like that on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon), it becomes obvious. 

Dell XPS 13 vs. MacBook Pro vs. iPad Pro

OLED’s downsides make it more of an alternative, rather than a straight upgrade, over the quality LCDs available in Apple's MacBooks and in Lenovo laptops. In fact, Dell offers its own 500-nit 4K LCD for the XPS 13, and I can see why some would choose it. OLED makes sense in a home office with proper light control, but a brighter LCD could be preferable for travel.

"A week with the Dell XPS 13’s OLED left me wishing the tech was more readily available on modern laptops. Yet its arrival in the XPS 13 might be a case of too little, too late."

This isn’t the flawless victory Dell and OLED fans might hope for. And the real competition isn’t the MacBook Pro. It’s Apple’s iPad Pro 12.9 with the new Liquid Retina XDR display, which is based on Mini-LED technology. It’s almost as good as OLED when displaying dark scenes, but destroys it in HDR. The new iPad Pro’s display has a peak brightness of up to 1,600 nits, with 600 nits sustained.

Liquid Retina XDR is exclusive to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro for now, but it’s sure to make its way to other Apple products, including the MacBook Pro. Which begs the question: if Mini-LED is this good, does OLED have a future in laptops and tablets?

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