It took Dell years to fix 1 problem on its best laptop. Here’s how it did it

Dell XPS 13 2019
The new, 2019 version of the XPS 13 sports its redesigned webcam. Riley Young/Digital Trends

We love thin-bezel displays. The thinner, the better. Yet there is one issue that has plagued this otherwise awesome design innovation.

The webcam.

Dell, the pioneer of thin-bezel laptops, opted to place the webcam below the display. The result was an unflattering “nose-cam” that felt like a hold-over for a real fix to the problem. The latest version of the XPS 13 finally introduces that fix. The engineers and technologists at Dell have shrunken camera to make it fit in a miniscule bezel.

Doing it required years of work and forced Dell to consider many solutions, including a smartphone-like notch.

The legacy of the nose-cam

The nose-cam of the XPS 13 was its Achilles heel. It was the butt of jokes by other manufacturers and PC enthusiasts alike.

“We’ve had a lot of great feedback. We’ve also had a lot of pointed feedback, which is good as well,” Randall Heaton politely told us. He’s been the Product Manager for the XPS clamshells at Dell since before the InfinityEdge bezels were first introduced. “That way we know what to work on. I will admit that I didn’t realize I had a double chin until that camera location. So, I kind of understand the feedback.”

Dell XPS 13 9370 review | Screen and camera
The previous XPS 13 model released in 2018 featured a 720p webcam placed along the bottom of the display. Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Dell took the criticism well because it knew a fix was required. Placing the camera below the screen, pointed up your nostrils, was never a permanent solution. Still, Dell doesn’t regret making the compromise.

“We always knew we’d have to solve it,” said Heaton. “When we went to the InfinityEdge, there was a lot of doubt internally whether that was the right decision. Obviously, thin bezels seemed like the smart thing to do. Moving the camera to the bottom? That did not seem like a smart thing to do. I think there was more angst for us ourselves. Is everyone else going to think that this is the right trade-off we made here?”

Thin bezels seemed like the smart thing to do. Moving the camera to the bottom? That did not seem like a smart thing to do.

Given how the thin-bezel trend has taken off, the answer seems clear. There’s not a single laptop manufacturer today that doesn’t iterate on narrow bezels in some way. Even Apple has trimmed down its MacBook bezels in response to the pressure of increasingly thin frames.

“When we made the decision, we thought that was a problem we’ll solve with the next iteration. What we didn’t realize quite how much of a challenge it would be for our engineering teams and technologists to actually create a solution […]”

The difficulty of the situation became clear as Dell’s engineered began work on the first XPS 13’s successor. No single camera component was the issue. Every component was an issue. The sensor was too big, the lens was too big, the circuit boards were too big, and even more hardware was needed to wire it all together. Squeezing a camera back in the top bezel wasn’t a matter of rearranging parts. It meant engineering new parts and packaging them in new ways.

That’s why shrinking the camera wasn’t the first option — and we should all be glad Dell didn’t choose of the alternatives that were considered.

The notch that never was

Cutting out a notch in the display seems the obvious solution at first blush. The iPhone did it first, and just about every smartphone manufacturer has followed suit. It’s only a matter of time before they came to laptops, right?

“There were lots of other ideas floating around,” Maxwell Andrews, a managing engineer at Dell, told us. “We actually considered [a notch] quite a bit before the phone market was implementing this.”

If that makes you nervous, you’re not alone. Placing a notch in a Windows laptop isn’t quite like doing it on an iPhone. The first of the many problems was in the user experience itself.

“We did some mockups,” said Andrews. “To have this beautiful, undisturbed canvas and then to have some intrusion into that is pretty glaring. We didn’t want to impact people’s display experience for a camera feature that most only use occasionally. The display is something that customers uses every single day. It’s the flagship feature of the product. It’s where all the information, all the work, all the content — it comes through that display.”

Andrews is right. Taking a selfie on a smartphone is a bit more common than taking one on a PC. And making room for a notch on Instagram or WhatsApp is one thing. But in Photoshop or Google Chrome or CAD? That’s different. A notch could easily obscure important toolbars that users need to access.

Windows also doesn’t allow the same degree of customization that iOS or Android does. Apple completely controls iOS, while Google maintains very little control over Android. Microsoft, however, has an opinion about the baseline experience every Windows users should have, and while Dell is one of the larger PC manufacturers, even it doesn’t have enough sway ask for an entirely new Windows feature that benefits just one laptop.

That was that. The notch was out. But it wasn’t the only option on the table. This is where things get weird.

One concept put the camera behind the screen, which would have solved the problem entirely. This, like the notch, is not an entirely new concept. Various companies have pursued the idea in different ways, though with little success. Dell was no exception. The company couldn’t source the OLED panel it needed, and early engineering tests didn’t produce great results.

Dell XPS 13
A closeup view of the redesigned webcam and thinner bezel of the 2019 XPS 13. Riley Young/Digital Trends

“There’s a lot of artifacts that are created because you’re essentially still shooting through a grid of wires, so the image quality is awful. Even if we had an OLED panel to work with, that just wasn’t meeting the quality requirements.”

Another solution involved killing a couple of pixels in the middle of the screen and setting the camera behind it. That, however, had an obvious problem – dead pixels in the middle of the screen.

Desperate, Dell’s engineers were forced to consider unusual solutions. The strangest was a periscope camera. Andrews described a camera that folded into an “L” shape, bending at a 90-degree angle so the sensor could line up with the lens. It was an intriguing idea that helped keep the bezel small, but it resulted in its own protrusions from the chassis.

Ultimately, Dell had to come back to the obvious yet difficult fix. The camera had to be smaller. With the goal obvious, the company’s engineers went to work, though they had no idea if success was possible.

A sliver here, a sliver there

Most components that make up a webcam placed in your computer are made by different companies. The sensor, the lens, the structure around the lens — even the process of putting it altogether. Much of that is outside Dell’s sphere of influence.

“We had to do a lot of deep investigations with our suppliers to see what we could make progress on,” Andrews told us. “Ultimately, we saw a path where if we could get the smaller lens, some optimizations from our sensor supplier, and a better way to package those two components together that removes some of the unnecessary mechanical pieces of the camera, we could get to something very, very small.”

how dell fixed xps 13 biggest flaw ces 2019 tiny camera lens on finger

It started with the sensor. This central component is a commodity part  meant to be sold as a standard piece to many vendors. Convincing a vendor to make a small custom sensor for Dell wasn’t about to happen. Dell might be one of the largest PC manufacturers, but compared to the kinds of numbers smartphone companies push, it doesn’t have much sway.

Instead, the company had to do something far more challenging. It had to convince its partners it was on to something big. Something bigger than just Dell.

“At the time, I don’t think they had as much interest in solving the problem because we were the only ones doing a thin bezel,” Randall Heaton told us. “But now that more and more notebooks are coming out with thinner bezels, the manufacturer thought, ‘Okay, it makes sense for me to develop a new manufacturing process for this and do it in an efficient manner.’”

The company had to convince its partners it was on to something big.

Dell started that thin bezel trend, and ultimately, its vendor partner saw the benefit. Dell was one of the first buyers, snatching the sensors up hot off the assembly line.

With the smaller sensor in hand, Dell needed a smaller lens and plastic housing to put it all together. This, too, was harder than you might think. Building the new camera wasn’t just a matter of asking the company assembling it to screw the parts together more tightly. Entirely different techniques were needed to shave off the last few millimeters.

“Since they’re actually assembling the camera, we work with them to bring some of the really advanced assembly machinery from their cell phone camera production line over to the PC side, which is something they hadn’t done before,” said Andrews. “We really pushed them to modernize their PC camera assembly so that we could achieve this extremely small package.”

How advanced? Well, it involves robots and lasers. The threading that normally holds the lens directly in line with the sensor was part of the vertical stack that didn’t fit in the bezel. So, it was removed. Now the lens is placed by a robot to ensure a perfect alignment, and then glued in place. The excess glue is then trimmed off with a laser. These are techniques used for smartphone cameras, but it’s new territory for PCs.

dell tiny camera

Shrinking each piece and then cutting out every sliver of a millimeter of vertical height from the assembly, Dell finally transformed a 7mm camera into a 2.25mm camera. That’s just small enough to be squeezed into what Dell calls an “InfinityEdge” screen.

But with a smaller sensor and lens came a different problem. Image quality. A sensor that small isn’t exposed to enough light to create a high-quality image and trying to add more light can lead to excess noise that muddies the image. Dell calls its own proprietary solution to the problem “temporal noise reduction.” It’s a technology that had been in the works for years, but in the new XPS 13 camera, it’s found its ideal match.

“This temporal noise reduction takes multiple frames of the picture and compares it, and then is able to get rid of some of the noise that might be introduced by the smaller sensor with less light getting to the camera.”

It’s a combination of cutting-edge software and hardware — which is exactly where the best pieces of technology always land.

The result is not an amazing camera experience. It’s no better than any other laptop’s webcam. But that was never the goal. It gets the job done without being pointed up your nose or increasing the bezels. That’s a four-year engineering story, finally making its way into a product you can pick up and hold in yours hands.

The journey continues

Mission accomplished?

Not quite. The designers and engineers at Dell have a singular vision of tomorrows laptop. Thinner bezels. Smaller footprint. A maximized screen. But getting there is going to involve just as much creative thinking as did the journey so far.

how dell fixed xps 13 biggest flaw ces 2019 display
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Every millimeter of the keyboard must be considered. The palmrests. The hinge. The placement of the keyboard. Every aspect must conform to the vision.

“We’ve got what we think are exciting designs around that in the future,” says Heaton. “But that’s still in the future. To some degree, it’s going to be kind of like this camera location. We haven’t solved everything in order to enable what we think is the perfect system within these limits. But we’re working on how many we can solve one at a time.”

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