Dell XPS 13 review

You don't have to be a marketing skeptic to agree that "Ultrabook" is a somewhat hyperbolic term for a class of devices designed a little thinner, a little lighter and maybe a little quicker than those notebooks that have come before. From a pure hardware standpoint there's nothing particularly "ultra" about them when compared to a standard Wintel lappytop, but manufacturers are, thankfully, using this as an opportunity to raise their game on another front that's becoming increasingly important in the world of portable computing: aesthetics.


Compared to clunky laptops of yore, many Ultrabooks mark a truly massive step forward when it comes to purity of design and Dell is showing some impressive chops with the new XPS 13. But, when you're buckled in to coach class and it's time to get to work, looks are less important than having a solid laptop that performs. Does the new XPS have the brawn to match its beauty? Let's find out.

Gallery | 34 Photos

Dell XPS 13 review

74
Dell

Dell XPS 13

Pros

  • Lovely, sophisticated design
  • Good performance
  • Powerful speakers

Cons

  • No SD reader
  • Mediocre display
  • Unreliable touchpad
Summary

Dell's XPS 13 is one of the best looking Ultrabooks we've seen yet, but isn't necessarily the best Ultrabook.


Look and feel


Right out of the box it's clear Dell is trying to make a statement with the new XPS 13. Simple, dark, minimalist packaging contains the sliver of the laptop itself -- and an unfortunately clunky power brick. The 45-watt adapter is smaller than many others Dell makes, but it's outfitted with a fat, three-pronged power cable that makes the thing take up a huge amount of space in your bag. If PC makers are going to get really serious about going after Apple with slinky laptops, they're going to have to come up with some slinkier power adapters to match.

Ignoring that bit of standard-issue fare, the XPS 13 makes a great first impression. If you've been following along, you'll notice it dispenses with many of the gaudy embellishments that made the XPS 14z and 15z so polarizing, with only the fingerprint-free metal lid and pillowy keyboard tying it all together. Its lid is of satiny aluminum with a sandblasted sort of appearance, embossed in the middle with a glossy, 1.5-inch Dell logo. The bottom, though, is even more alluring. Protected beneath a thin rubberized coating is a carbon fiber construction that feels fantastic. You don't have to be a motorsports nut to appreciate the look of a fine carbon weave, and with the soft-touch coating it creates a surface that's reassuringly easy to hold onto when you're wandering around the office trying to find your next meeting.

That grippability is further aided by a pair of rubber feet that run the width of the bottom of the unit, one on the front and the back. These also do a fine job of keeping the laptop in place when typing furiously in said meeting, elevating the thing slightly so that the ridge of air vents on the bottom can do their thing. And they seem to do their thing well. We never noticed an excessively warm lap thanks to our Core i5-equipped unit.


That Dell took the time to design a metal flap just to hide unsightly logos and stickers says a lot about the attention to detail here.
Inset amid that lovely weave is another bit of brushed aluminum, a metal plate with "XPS" menacingly present. (We think this logo would make for far more interesting lid decor than that somewhat overly friendly Dell circle with its quirky E.) Flip this flap open and hidden below is the ugly Windows product key sticker along with about a million certification logos (FCC, etc.). That Dell took the time to design this metal cover just to hide all these unsightly logos and stickers says a lot about the attention to detail here.

Try to open the laptop, though, and you'll realize some further attention was needed elsewhere. There's a somewhat stiff hinge, which isn't necessarily a problem (you certainly don't have to worry about it separating on its own), but actually getting it open can be a bit of a challenge. Stick a finger under the lip of the lid and, when you start to lift, the laptop will start to flip over before opening. And that's not because it's a particularly light little thing. In fact, at just under three pounds, it's actually fractionally heavier than the physically larger 13-inch MacBook Air.

Get it open and you're presented with a backlit, island-style keyboard, black semi-gloss keys raised over a matte background and situated above a similarly dark touchpad, power button to the upper-left.

At 2.99 pounds (1.36kg), the XPS 13 in good company among the 2.96-pound MacBook Air and the 2.9-pound ASUS Zenbook UX31, though none of these are quite as impossibly light as the Toshiba Portege Z830, which weighs a mere 2.47 pounds. Certainly, Dell's entry bests the HP Folio 13 (3.3 pounds), along with the 13-inch Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook (3.5 pounds) and the untold number of 14-inchers we'll see this year.

Available ports are predictably limited, but comprehensive enough. On the left are a 3.5mm headset jack, USB 2.0 port and the power input. On the right is a USB 3.0 port and a Mini DisplayPort, plus a series of five little white LEDs that will give you the battery's current charge at the press of a button. And that's it. Dell went the way of Lenovo and sadly opted not to include an SD card reader, which we would consider an oversight.

Keyboard and trackpad


Following in the footsteps of the XPS 14z and 15z, the keys here are small but comfortable, feeling slightly tall and springy but not overly so.There are no dedicated media keys at your disposal; the various F keys doing double-duty with the help of the Fn key nestled between Ctrl and the Windows logo key. All told, it feels like a step up from the shallow 'boards you'll find on so many other Ultrabooks, such as the UX31 and Acer Aspire S3.

After using the keyboard for a few days we found ourselves neither loving nor hating it, but we did lean toward the latter when it came to the trackpad.
After using the keyboard for a few days we found ourselves neither loving nor hating it, but we did lean toward the latter when it came to the clickable trackpad. It too has a soft-touch feel to it, which makes it a bit sticky as you try to gesture. We could live with that if it were responsive enough. We cranked the sensitivity as high as we could in the Cypress TrackPad settings, which helped to some degree, but it still felt unpredictable and unreliable.

We particularly had issues when clicking, as the slight movement of our fingertip when depressing the trackpad would cause the cursor to jump. Instead of simply placing the text caret we'd wind up highlighting a full row of text. This happened over and over again regardless of how precise we tried to be.

Display and sound

This is, again, a 13-inch laptop. While there are multiple choices for processor and disk size there's but one display on offer, a 1366 x 768 unit that manages to do greater than 720p, but not by much. It is a 16:9 aspect ratio display, so the panel itself is slightly shorter and wider than that on the 13-inch MacBook Air, despite the XPS 13 itself being slightly narrower.

Yes indeed we have some skinny bezels here, but sadly we're also talking about a screen that has a lower pixel density than the 1600 x 900 panel on the $1,100 UX31. (The Air has a 1440 x 900 display, but you'll pay $1,299 and up for the privilege.) It's not a massive difference, but individual pixels are far more noticeable on the Dell.

The contrast of the display doesn't exactly impress either. Get perfectly on-center and it's adequate, but stray more than a few degrees to either side and it quickly begins to fade. This is a particular problem when you're looking down from above, as you're likely to be when sitting upright with this guy on your lap. The hinge doesn't let you lay the screen flat enough and you're often be stuck with a decidedly pasty image.

The speakers are good enough that you can leave your Jambox at home.
We were, however, quite impressed by the integrated speakers -- surprisingly so. Even at moderate levels the laptop easily filled a hotel room with adequate sound and, when cranked, managed to become uncomfortably loud. This will not beat the quality of even mid-range cans or earbuds, but it's certainly good enough that you can leave your Jambox at home.

Performance


Our base-spec XPS 13 contains a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M processor with 4GB of RAM and we found it to be more than adequate for general computing tasks, including writing this very review. It was quite snappy and responsive navigating through Windows, playing videos, listening to music and, in general, computing.

A cold boot is completed in a very respectable 15 seconds and the system wakes from a sleep almost instantly. A 3DMark score of 4,130 puts this in the higher end compared with other Ultrabooks, though slightly behind the UX31. We were unable to get Vantage to execute successfully.

PCMark Vantage
3DMark06
Dell XPS 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) N/A 4,130
HP Folio 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 6,701 3,387
Toshiba Portege Z835 (1.4GHz Core i3-2367M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,894 3,601
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,939 3,651
ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,508 4,209
Acer Aspire S3 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,367 3,221
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,484 4,223
2011 Samsung Series 9 (1.7GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,582 2,240
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

Battery life


Our XPS 13 and its six-cell, non-removable battery soldiered through our standard battery rundown test of videos looping endlessly for a respectable four hours and 58 minutes before succumbing to exhaustion. That's a half-hour longer than the last XPS we reviewed could manage, the XPS 15z, and a full two hours more than 2010's XPS 14. But, looking at a more direct competitor, it lags about an hour behind what HP's Folio 13 managed on the same test.

Laptop
Battery Life
Dell XPS 13 4:58
HP Folio 13 6:08
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
ASUS Zenbook UX31 5:41
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air 5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:08
Samsung Series 9 4:20
Acer Aspire S3 4:11

Of course, your computing tasks might not entail simply looping videos endlessly, and indeed ours don't either. With the WiFi on and connected and the screen set to a moderate brightness we managed almost six hours on a charge of light web surfing and document editing. Lose the WiFi and you could surely do well better, though we're thinking Dell's estimate of eight hours and 53 minutes is a bit optimistic for most usage situations.

Software


With previous XPS models we've found ourselves shaking our heads as we scrolled through the Programs listing, but we're happy to report Dell has kept things respectably clean with the XPS 13.
It's hard to take a premium laptop seriously when it's constantly nagging with trialware pop-ups in your face. Those annoyances set a lasting impression, and it isn't a good one. With previous XPS models we've found ourselves shaking our heads as we scrolled through the Programs listing, but we're happy to report Dell has kept things respectably clean with the XPS 13.

McAfee SecurityCenter is here and probably the most nagging app that's pre-installed, prompting you to hop online and activate it. There is also a solid complement of Dell applications for controlling the webcam, creating recovery media and backing up the laptop. That too throws up an annoying pop-up after you boot, but it's only suggesting you create our recovery media, something that is a good idea. The only slight complication is that, by default, the DataSafe app wants to write that stuff to disc, something the XPS is ill-equipped to do out of the box. Thankfully it can also write to USB drives, should you have one big enough.

Configuration options and the competition


On the inside, again, is an Intel Core i5-2467M processor clocked at 1.6GHz and paired with 4GB of RAM. Configured with a 128GB SSD this laptop would cost you $999, a price we consider reasonably fair. However, step up to the 256GB model with a Core i7-2637M processor and you're looking at a somewhat less wallet-friendly (though still fair) $1,499.

That said, both options compare favorably to the competition, at least that from Apple's camp. Though higher-res, the 13-inch Air comes in at $300 higher than the $999 XPS 13 and, if you move up to a 256GB SSD, you're looking at $1,599 -- and that's still with a Core i5 processor. Still, raw specs aren't everything, and it's worth bearing in mind that for $1,299 you get a skinny laptop with a comfy keyboard and reliable trackpad -- a combination we can't say we've found in any of the Windows-based Ultrabooks we've tested so far.

However, the lowest-end of HP's Folio 13 Ultrabooks comes in at about $100 cheaper than the XPS 13, and starts with a Core i5 processor, 128GB SSD and display that suffers from the same issues as the XPS 13. If you're looking for the value leader, at $900 that's still the one.
Gallery | 7 Photos

Dell XPS 13 vs. MacBook Air


At that rough $1,500 price point the XPS 13 sits about on par with the highest-end Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, which also comes with 256GB of storage and a somewhat disappointing display. (The U300s is also missing an SD reader, but it makes up for it somewhat with an elegant design and one of the more ergonomically sound keyboards we've tested.) But, if you're looking for something in this category with a genuinely good display, right now it's still the $1,099-plus UX31 that's taking the cake -- or, of course, the Air. As always, though, we'd be remiss if we didn't remind you the UX31's fast performance, healthy battery life, gorgeous design and high-res display all come at the expense of one sticky, shallow keyboard.

Wrap-up


From the moment it comes out of the box the XPS 13 looks and feels like a truly premium product and, with a nice keyboard and respectable performance, it's a nice machine to use, too. But, the display suffers the same complaints we've seen with other Ultrabooks in this price range -- middling resolution, poor off-angle contrast -- and the trackpad only works well when it feels like it.

It is, then, another solid choice at the sub-$1,000 price point, but put aesthetics aside and we wouldn't say it's universally better than HP's Folio 13, which is about $100 cheaper. It is, however, better looking.

Dana Wollman contributed to this review.

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