Last but not least. Dell has taken its sweet time bringing an Ultrabook to market and it’s taken a while for real users to get their hands on the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook. I’ve set aside my 13” MacBook Air and spent a few weeks using the XPS 13 as my portable computer. Was it worth the wait? How does it stack up against the MacBook Air? Let’s check it out.
Full honesty in business can be suicide. That’s one of the reasons Intel does not define Ultrabooks as MacBook Air clones running Windows, but that’s really what Ultrabooks are. The MacBook Air is not only a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware, it fills a need so perfectly that it spawned an entire class of computers.
There are a number of portable computer form factors: netbooks, notebooks (commonly called laptops), and most recently Ultrabooks. I have always been underwhelmed with netbooks. They’re are slow to start up and slow to use. They have cramped keyboards and crumby touchpads. On the other end of the spectrum, most laptops are just too big. If you need to take almost all the power of a desktop on the road, you don’t really have much of a choice. Pack your laptop into your bag and lug it along. The Ultrabook gives you close to the same minimalism of a netbook but with all or most of the power of a laptop. That’s the promise of the Ultrabook. You don’t have to pack along all the stuff you hardly ever use or don’t really need like optical drives and big screens, but you keep the stuff you do need like speed, a decent keyboard, and a screen size that’s compact but still readable.
Styling & Design
As inconsequential as the box gadgets come in may be, I appreciate good and creative packaging design. I can only assume that I’m not the only one packaging has an effect on, or the manufactures wouldn’t bother. Dell is clearly trying to make a statement with the XPS 13’s packaging. The XPS 13 comes double boxed in a fairly standard consumer style briefcase box. The box within the box is held in place and cushioned with foam. It’s constructed like a jewelry box made of dense ridged cardboard with branding graphics on the hinged lid. The computer is presented elegantly, encased in clear protective plastic sheeting with the power supply and driver disc in compartments underneath. This is not the most ingenious packaging ever devised but it is done well and feels solid in the hand. The XPS 13’s packaging is not only functional but elicits ideas of quality and exclusivity.
The feeling of quality continues when you remove the computer from the box. The XPS 13 has the dense feel of high quality consumer electronics. Nothing rattles or is loose. The top has a fingerprint resistant, bead blasted, metal finish with the Dell logo embossed in the surface. The bottom is silky smooth carbon fiber that looks and feels fantastic. Most of the logos and other information that tend to appear on the bottom of laptops are cleverly hidden under a recessed door that is a little too difficult to open on mine. Long thin rubber feet run lengthwise along the bottom that help you grip the XPS 13 and keep it from sliding off of your desk or lap. It’s not slippery in any way and never feels like you’re going to drop it. The profile and hidden hinge borrow heavily from the MacBook Air, but the wedge shape of these devices makes perfect sense. It’s thick where it has to be and as thin as possible where it can be. The exterior design and styling of the XPS 13 is beautiful.
Other than the battery charge indicator on the right side, the leading edge of the computer contains the only indicator light. I haven’t been able to find any documentation on it. As far as I can tell the LED shows white when the computer is on or the computer is off and charging and shows red when the computer is on and the battery is around 10% charge. There may be other functions to the indicator light but I haven’t noticed any yet.
Opening the lid reveals the glossy Gorilla Glass screen, back lit island type keyboard, and large touchpad. The deck: including the area around the keyboard, the palm rests, and the surface of the touchpad are matt black and rubberized. I’m not a fan of this finish. The touchpad surface feels draggy and the deck picks up oily fingerprints and smudges. I much prefer the MacBook Air’s aluminum deck. The XPS 13’s deck would be greatly improved if it had the same surface as the lid. There are no indicator lights, no text, no Windows or Intel stickers, just a simple and classy "XPS" under the display.
All of the ports on the XPS 13 are on the sides. I typically dislike this configuration on laptops as it makes a mess of your desktop. It makes a little more sense on the MacBook Air and XPS 13 with the hinge taking up most of the real estate on the rear of the computer and the lack of Ethernet ports.
The right side features a mini DisplayPort connector, a single USB 3.0, and a completely unnecessary battery indicator. When the button is pressed, four LEDs light to indicate the state of the battery charge even when the computer is powered down. Power, USB 2.0, and 3.5mm audio jacks grace the left side of the XPS 13. Even though I typically like inline power bricks better than the MacBook Air’s over stylized wall wart, Apple’s power connector is far more elegant. The right angle Magsafe connector takes the pain out of having the connector on the side of the computer. The Dell power connector is uninspired and typical.
The lack of an SD card slot is almost criminal. Having to carry a USB memory card reader or USB cables to interface with cameras and other devices is hard to imagine. As long as SD cards are the standard for portable devices, this is a must have feature.
Display and Audio
The 1366 x 768 display suffers from poor viewing angles and less than exceptional contrast, but take that with a grain of salt. If you spend much of your time evaluating LCD displays, you’ll notice the XPS 13’s shortcomings immediately, but I think most people will find it more than adequate. The resolution is lower than the MacBook Air’s 1440 x 900 and some of the Utrabooks from other manufactures. The lower resolution is not much of an issue especially if you’re not sporting a pair of young eyes. Without taking measurements, the contrast is decent and the color looks natural. Display brightness is good and provides enough light for almost any environment. The 13” MacBook Air’s display is better in every way, but we’re talking about a display that is in the great to spectacular range while the XPS 13’s is good to great.
Audio is one area that the XPS 13 is as good if not better than the MacBook Air. All laptop speakers suck, but the XPS 13 and MacBook Air do pretty good for what they have to work with. Both pump out better sound than you might think they should. There is almost no bass but that’s understandable. Audiophiles with golden ears might not be so enamored with the XPS 13’s sound but for the rest of us it’s pretty darn good.
Keyboard & Touchpad
The backlit keyboard is excellent. It’s very much like the MacBook Air’s but with slightly higher keys that seem to have a bit more travel. The keys feel solid and break crisply when pressed. The space bar is a little louder and has a little more rattle than the other keys, but that’s to be expected. The keyboard has a quality feel to it and users that type for a living are going to appreciate it. If you like the MacBook Air’s keyboard, you’re going to like the XPS 13’s. They’re very similar.
The touchpad is another story. I’ve hated every PC touchpad I’ve used with the exception of the MacBook Air’s. Combined with the gestures of OS X 10.7, the MacBook Air's touchpad is just about perfect. On every other laptop I use a mouse whenever I can. Other than the draggy feeling of the surface of the XPS 13’s touchpad, it might be one of the best PC touchpads I’ve used, but I still prefer a mouse or the MacBook Air’s touchpad. Palm rejection works well and doesn’t pick up inadvertent touches when typing. The touchpad’s settings and controls need to be broader. The user should be able to match gestures with actions not just toggle them on and off. An inverted scrolling option would be nice as well. The way OS X 10.7 scrolls just makes sense.
The XPS 13’s battery life is sub-par. I averaged 5:13 of almost constant mixed use to get to 7% battery at which point the machine tells you to plug in or it’s going to hibernate. My MacBook Air lasts over 6 hours under the same conditions and I’ve seen higher numbers from tests on Ultrabooks from other manufactures. The XPS 13 lasted 4:38 playing 720p video which isn’t great if you’re on a long flight or something.
I didn’t bother to do any benchmarking on this machine. From what I’ve seen most the current Ultrabooks are close enough in raw performance that usability and even styling greatly outweigh CPU and graphics scores. Real graphics performance is going to be rare if not nonexistent in Ultrabook class machines and I don’t see the speed of the SSD controller being a major decision point. Only because they’re a no brainer to add, I’ve included the Window 7 Experience Index scores below.
The Bottom Line
The XPS 13 suffers a little from its own ambition. Almost all of the XPS 13’s woes come from Dell trying to stuff a 13” screen in a 11” Ultrabook. I think the two biggest issues with this machine, lack of SD card reader and battery life, are directly related to its size. The other issues; the sucky touch pad, rubbery finish on the deck, and slightly less than spectacular display might be hard to dismiss for some but are relatively minor overall.
Although the XPS 13 doesn’t steal the MacBook Air’s crown, its pros outweigh its cons. Externally, the machine is gorgeous and slightly smaller than other Ultrabooks and the MacBook Air with similar sized displays. The display is good, not great but good, and the speakers sound like they’re as good as could ever be expected in a device like this. The keyboard is great and the touchpad is one of the best I’ve ever used on a PC even though, for me, it’s not quite good enough to forgo using a mouse.
The bottom line is that the Dell XPS 13 may not be the top Ultrabook currently on the market, but it is among the top Ultrabooks available today. If you need an Ultrabook right away, I recommend the XPS 13, but keep in mind that Intel’s latest CPUs (Ivy Bridge) are right around the corner. At this time Dell hasn’t made any announcements regarding Ivy Bridge powered XPS 13s. Dell has taken so long to release this one they’re either going to be late to the Ivy Bridge party as well, or they might have something new within the next six months. As always, only time will tell if the next iteration fixes the current issues or introduces new ones.
Intel Core i7-2673M 1.70Ghz
4GB Dual Channel DDR3 1333MHz
Samsung PM830 256GB Solid State Drive
Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230
13.3” 1366 x 768 LCD Display
Windows Experience Index:
Gaming Graphics: 6.1