74
8.0
final rating

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Criteria Comments Rating
  • Speed and features Various configurations are available and even at an entry level the specs are generous. good
  • Design and form factor Quite possibly the most beautiful Windows laptop ever made. Others will point to the Asus Zenbooks but I personally find them a bit contrived. great!
  • Battery life Regular work on a "balanced" gets about 4 hours. Watching movies on while traveling with the brightness turned down, WiFi off and "power saver" on gets 5 hours. so-so
  • Display Good for watching movies at 720p resolution, text rendering could be better. Bright but somewhat washed out. Viewing angles could be better. so-so
  • Durability The machined aluminum top feels very solid but if Macbooks are anything to go by it will pick up nicks and scratches over time. The carbon fiber bodes well. good
  • Expandability Yes, there is a limited port selection but what is there is very useful and RAM is up-gradable. good
  • Noise There are definitely quieter machines out there. so-so
  • Portability (size / weight) The fact the designers squeezed a 13" panel into a body this compact is very impressive. great!
Detailed review
The last Windows laptop I bought was a Lenovo X220 (which I love, but isn't the lightest machine around) and this has over time become my Linux machine. I between I've bought and extensively used both the Samsung Series 7 Slate and the Microsoft Surface RT. I also use frequently use a Chomebook Series 5 550. Prior to that I was using a 2nd Gen Macbook Air 11 - I loved the hardware but am not crazy about the direction that Mac OS has been going in since Lion.

However, some recent work projects demanded a machine with traditional laptop form factor running Windows. In addition to work requirements, I spend a lot of time on planes and use my laptop to watch movies when traveling.

Finding the right one wasn't any easy process as I had a number of prerequisites and further constrained by the fact that I didn't want to spend a whole lot on this machine - I set myself a budget of $900 and my other requirements were:
  • 13"-14" screen, ideally at 1080p but nothing in the budget conformed to this.
  • As compact as possible, didn't need to be the thinnest but in terms of overall dimensions.
  • Decent battery life - it's somewhat unbelievable that in 2013 that this is a) still hard to come by and b) that manufacturers still so blatantly overstate this. I would have liked something that get at least 6 hours but...
  • A trackpad that works properly - again, a surprise that this is still a problem but reading reviews this seems to be pain point with Windows machines in general.
  • Something that looks good and is well made.
  • Back-lit keyboard - not a must-have but definitely a nice to have.
  • A touchscreen was NOT a requirement.
My shortlist came down to:
  • HP Folio 13 - it ticked most of the boxes and allegedly gets great battery life but is very difficult to get a hold of.
  • Lenovo u410 - likewise appeared to be a viable option but was at the upper end of the budget and bigger end size-wise. It also seems to get poor battery life (3 to 4 hours) and the trackpad gets mixed reviews.
  • Asus Zenbook Prime UX31 - has the best screen and while it's very thin is big in every other dimension. As noted above it looks good but I find it too angular and am worried about its durability, it feels fragile.
And, the Dell XPS 13 which is the one that I ended up getting.

I'd had the original XPS when it came out many years ago and it was a machine that I was very happy with until it died on me (possibly due to overuse).

So far, after a week of ownership, I've been pleased with the XPS 13 - it meets most of the aforementioned requirements at least adequately, in some cases very well.

The best thing it has got going for it are its looks, build quality, material choices and industrial design. Comparisons to the MacBook Air will be inevitable but such is the case with Ultrabooks in general and Dell has made some smart, albeit subtle, design decisions here - notably the use of carbon fiber for the chassis and bottom of the machine. The MacBook Air's are delicate, this feels very solid.

The weakest point is the screen - yes, there is a 1080p version out but it's quite hard to get a hold of (at retail) and is significantly above the budget I'd set myself. Movies and video look good in general, though darker scenes have a tendency to wash out a little. Text, especially larger, serif fonts aren't as smooth as I would like but are acceptable.

Speaking of which, while this machine was quite pricey when it launched, the entry-level spec (720 p screen, 4GB RAM) offers very good value for money.

Between the best and weakest points noted above everything else is really very good. The keyboard is excellent, well-spaced keys, good feedback, no missed keystrokes, etc. As is the trackpad - very responsive and accurate.

The battery life could be better but has been adequate for my requirements.

In terms of overall performance it has been very solid, handling everything I've thrown at it without any undue stress.

Worth noting is that its ability to hold onto WiFi signals is significantly better than most other machines that I use regularly and the speakers and sound quality are very good - the speakers themselves are cunningly integrated into the overall design.

In sum I feel that I've gotten a good deal based on what I paid for this machine and once again would point out that Dell's designers really have done a great job from and industrial design point of view.
review history
2013-02-17
Updated detailed review