Dell XPS 14 review a 14inch Ultrabook with Ivy Bridge and graphics might

While we can't say that we universally liked Dell's first attempt at an Ultrabook, the XPS 13 we reviewed about three months ago, we can quite confidently say that it earned our respect. Here was a smartly styled, sophisticated machine free of stickers and bloatware from a company that, let's be honest, has delivered its share of each over the years. That machine was far from perfect, but it showed a purity of vision in design that you couldn't help but acknowledge.

So where do you go from there? Why, you go bigger of course. Meet the new Dell XPS 14, successor in name only to a model that went out of production over a year ago. It is, as you might have guessed, an inch larger than the XPS 13 and so has more room for ports and pixels -- but there's more to it than that. In some ways this feels like a more polished machine than the 13 that came before, and it's certainly faster but it, too, is far from perfect. Join us for a joyous exploration of why.

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Dell XPS 14 review

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Dell

Dell XPS 14

Pros

  • Clean, sophisticated design
  • Great trackpad
  • Solid battery life
  • Mighty graphics

Cons

  • Heavy for its size
  • Poor I/O performance
Summary

Dell's XPS 14 is more than an inch-larger version of the XPS 13. It's a solid laptop in its class, but not a record-breaker.

Look and feel

This is not the 10 percent scaled-up clone you might be expecting.

We were kind of blown away when unboxing the XPS 13. It was a sleek, finely hewn husk of aluminum nestled inside of a dark, sophisticated box. The attention to design was obvious in every facet of the thing -- except for the decidedly low-rent power brick that came along for the ride. The feeling for the XPS 14 is, unsurprisingly, much the same, but this is not the 10 percent scaled-up clone you might be expecting.

It's largely the same clean, simple visual language here. The lid is a similar aluminum design with the glossy, embossed Dell logo again stuck square in the middle and standing out as the least aesthetically pleasing part of this package. From above, then, this looks just like a bigger 13, but flip it over and things change.

Here, now, is a large rubberized pad upon which the laptop sits, surrounded by a slightly elevated soft-touch ring with slots on the front for the speakers and on the back for the (unfortunately noisy) CPU ventilation. It's a far cry from the XPS 13's über-cool carbon fiber bottom casing, its coy weave subtly exposed to the world. But, to be fair, while silicone and rubber don't look anywhere near as cool as carbon, how often are you looking at the underside of your laptop?

DNP Dell XPS 14 review 14inch Ultrabook with Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor

The 14 does at least borrow the XPS 13's metallic flap covering the Windows serial number and all the various numerals and certifications the product passed on its way to retail. This hides all the unsightly logos and stickers and makes for a much cleaner look.

The edge of the 14 is comprised of an aluminum ring punctuated throughout with ports, lights and the big hinge along the back. On the left, starting at the back, you'll find a hole for that unsightly AC adapter, followed by Ethernet, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort and a pair of USB 3.0 ports. Turn to the right and there's much less clutter, just a Kensington Security Slot, an SD card slot and a combination 3.5mm headphone / microphone jack. On the front, there's just a single sliver of a light and nothing more.

It's a reasonably healthy complement of ports, and we welcome the addition of the SD reader that was sadly missing on the XPS 13, but with all that room on the right we wouldn't have minded another USB port or two. There's certainly space. We also miss the battery charge indicator found on the 13.

DNP Dell XPS 14 review 14inch Ultrabook with Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor

The overall package weighs a healthy 4.6 pounds (2.1kg) and measures 0.81 inches (22.07mm) thick. It's 13.2 inches wide and 9.2 inches deep (335.8 x 233mm). Those are the dimensions for the model we reviewed, packing 802.11a/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. Dell also offers Intel Wireless Display here, but should you need even more connectivity, there is a range of models offering WWAN connectivity which, interestingly, sport a "full-grain charcoal gray leather" lid instead of the anodized aluminum you'll see in our photos.

Sadly, rich Corinthian leather is not an option, but you will have your choice of WiMAX, EVDO/HSPA, HSPA+ or Dell's own NetReady prepaid service. Should you opt for any of these extended wireless options, you'll be looking at an even heftier laptop, moving up to 4.88 pounds (2.2kg) and 0.91 inches (23.2mm) thick.

Keyboard and trackpad

Dell XPS 14 review a 14inch Ultrabook with Ivy Bridge and graphics might

Unsurprisingly, the keyboard here is more or less exactly what we diddled on the XPS 13. It's an island-style layout with smallish, well-separated keys. They're on the springy side and have good enough feel, but their size isn't particularly well-suited for fingers that are of the larger size. Also, the 'Y' key has a very curious sound when depressed that almost makes the laptop sound hollow. We presume it isn't, though we'll leave that to iFixit to verify.

The 'Y' key has a very curious sound when depressed that almost makes the laptop sound hollow. We presume it isn't, though we'll leave that to iFixit to verify.

The trackpad is, again, much the same as on the 13. It has a tacky, soft-touch feel that isn't nearly as pleasing to the fingers as the glass units manufacturers have been packing. It's of the clickable type, with a single, short line on the bottom designating the space allocated for left or right clicking.

Nothing new there, but yet we found the overall feel and responsiveness to be much improved over our time spent swiping around in the XPS 13. Sliding and gesturing here is a far more pleasurable experience than it was on that machine. The overall experience still doesn't match that of the class-leading Apple MacBooks, but it's respectably close.

Display and sound

DNP Dell XPS 14 review 14inch Ultrabook with Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor

The 14-inch display here offers a fair number of pixels for a display of this size: 1600 x 900 to be precise. This, in a 16:9 orientation makes for a comfortable amount of screen real estate without creating a laptop too small to be comfortably used on the tray table of seat 36C. Of course, it would be more comfortable in seat 2A, but sometimes we all have to fly coach, and the XPS 14 is well-sized for that duty.

The display is bright enough to be used in sunny situations, too, showing respectable contrast; though color temperature gets increasingly cool the higher we crank that backlight. Viewing angles are more than adequate when the laptop is turned from side-to-side, but look at it from above or below and the contrast quickly falls to unacceptable levels. You'll want to make use of that hinge to keep this non-IPS panel properly perpendicular.

Sometimes we all have to fly coach, and the XPS 14 is well-sized for that duty.

You'll also want to make sure you don't have much in the way of bright objects behind you, because there's no matte option here. Every XPS 14 has an edge-to-edge Corning Gorilla Glass panel that should eradicate any concerns about accidental scratches, but it's more reflective than some other glossy displays, particularly the one found in the MacBook Air.

And then there's the sound. Speakers are built into the bottom of the laptop, under the front lip, which is a somewhat curious and, it must be said, often less-than-optimal place. Set this thing on a soft surface (carpet, bedspread, bearskin rug) and the sound will be muffled. But, when the grille opening isn't blocked, the XPS 14 packs a surprising punch. Overall audio quality isn't immaculate, but for a laptop of this size, or any size really, we were impressed by the output levels here. It's more than adequate for an impromptu hotel suite dance party. Just make sure you close the blinds first.

Performance and battery life

Dell XPS 14 review a 14inch Ultrabook with Ivy Bridge and graphics might

You can get your XPS 14 specced with Intel processors ranging from a Core i5-3317U chip clocked at 1.7GHz all the way up to the range-topping Core i7-3667U at 2.0GHz. We're testing the highest-spec processor available on the non-business models, a 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U CPU with 4MB of cache.

Predictably, it performs reasonably well, particularly since it pairs the Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics with an NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M graphics chip flaunting 1GB of GDDR5 memory. There's some Optimus technology sitting between them to make sure you're only using as much graphics horsepower as you need.

While the small SSD helps resume time, it's obviously not doing much for day-to-day performance.

PCMark Vantage gave us a score of 10,003, which is slightly on the low side compared even to the lower-powered Samsung Series 9 tested a few months back, and thoroughly underwhelming compared to the 13,469 the latest MacBook Air delivered. Also low is disk I/O performance, showing max writes of just 108 MB/s and reads of 142 MB/s. That's coming from a 5,400 RPM, 500GB paired with a 32GB solid-state drive and, while the small SSD helps resume time (less than three seconds), it's obviously not doing much for day-to-day performance -- nor startup. A cold boot takes nearly 45 seconds.

Thankfully, things are much better on the graphics performance side, a 3DMark06 score of 6,995 is among the highest we've seen from an Ultrabook, easily besting the scores of those other two mentioned above. Thanks be to NVIDIA on that one.

PCMark Vantage 3DMark06
Dell XPS 14 (1.9GHz Core i7, NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M) 10,003 6,995
MacBook Air (2012, 1.8GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 13,469 5,827
ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,508 4,209
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A (Ivy Bridge Core i7 processor, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 10,333 4,550
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,939 3,651
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012, 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,580 4,171
MacBook Air (2011, 1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,484 4,223
Note: higher scores are better

The performance may not be world-class, but we're happy to say that we found the XPS 14 to deliver plenty of longevity for us, scoring an impressive six hours and 18 minutes on our standard run-down test, endlessly looping a video with WiFi turned on and the display at a fixed brightness. That's right in the ballpark of last year's Inspiron 14Z and over a full hour healthier than the four hours and 58 minutes the XPS 13 managed before throwing in the towel.

Battery life
Dell XPS 14 (Core i7-3517U) 6:18
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 7:29
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:19
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012) 6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)
HP Folio 13 6:08
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
ASUS Zenbook UX31 5:41
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2011) 5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:30
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:08
Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook (14-inch, 2012) 5:06
Dell XPS 13 4:58
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2011) 4:20
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19

If indeed there is a drawback here, it's in some rather distracting fan noise. Do some serious work on this machine (like, say, running an endless string of benchmarks back to back) and the fan will certainly make its presence known. Even when doing less intensive tasks, like streaming YouTube's latest hits, we quite often heard the noisy little thing spinning itself up.

Configuration options

DNP Dell XPS 14 review 14inch Ultrabook with Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor

Again, Dell is offering Intel processors ranging from a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U chip up to the 3.1GHz Core i7-3667U at 2.0GHz, which is available only to businesses. RAM is 1333MHz DDR3 in your choice of 4GB or 8GB quantities and storage starts at a 5,400 RPM, 500GB disk and goes up to a 512GB SSD. All models offer Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics, while the NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M with Optimus tech is optional. The 14-inch, 1600 x 900 non-IPS panel is standard on all.

The lowest spec model starts at a perfectly respectable $1,099, but tick all those boxes and get yourself the SSD with all the fixins and you'll nearly double that figure, up to $1,999. Our configuration, which has every option save the SSD, costs a rather more manageable $1,499.

The competition

Dell XPS 14 review a 14inch Ultrabook with Ivy Bridge and graphics might

We're still waiting for all the manufacturers to bring their Ivy Bridge boys to the yard so that we can tell you whether they're better than ours. Dell is at a slight advantage by beating most of them to market, but it isn't the first, and there are certainly plenty of Sandy Bridge-powered Ultrabooks to stack it up against.

Dell's smaller, older and cheaper XPS 13, with a Core i7 Sandy Bridge processor and 256GB SSD, comes out cheaper than the model we tested here. But, if you can manage an even larger laptop, the XPS 15 comes with faster CPUs, more storage and even an optical drive for prices ranging from $1,299 to $1,999.

We're guessing some will be cross-shopping this with Apple's offerings, and though the largest Air gives up an inch of screen real estate and some resolution (1440 horizontal pixels vs. 1600 here) it is a superior panel in every other regard. It's also a comparably quick machine and also offers competitive battery life but much, much faster disk I/O thanks to its 500+ MB/s SSDs -- but you will be paying slightly more. It's $1,499 for a Core i5 model with 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. Going to a Core i7 chip and 8GB of RAM adds $200, and the 512GB SSD is a painful $500 addition.

Wrap-up

DNP Dell XPS 14 review 14inch Ultrabook with Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor

It's easy to see the XPS 14 as just a slightly larger version of the 13 that came so recently before, but that's far from telling the full story. Yes, this looks an awful lot like that one, but it's considerably heavier, considerably faster and has a considerably better trackpad. It is, therefore, a considerably better laptop -- if you don't mind that extra heft -- but it's far from perfect. Disk I/O performance left us wanting, solid speaker performance is offset by a distracting fan and the LCD, though good, sits only on the higher side of adequate.

If you can make do with a smaller, lower-res screen (and a rather different OS) you can get a similar-performing MacBook Air for an MSRP that's in the same ballpark or, heading in the other direction, there's the even larger XPS 15. Beyond that, it's looking like a long summer of Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks, and we still don't know what wonders the rest of the year holds. But, right now, the XPS 14 makes its mark as a respectable performer with a solid design at a fair price. It's not destined to be a standout, but rest easy knowing it is, at least, a respectably safe purchase.

Dana Wollman contributed to this review.

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Dell XPS 14 review: a 14-inch Ultrabook with Ivy Bridge and graphics might