The stream of Ultrabooks coming through my office has started to dry up as manufacturers wait for the release of Windows 8 later this year. In the interim, I have a few more Ultrabooks to go, and this week I look at the Dell XPS 13.
By far, the Dell XPS 13 does the best job of mimicking the Macbook Air’s look, the main driver behind Ultrabooks. Out of the box, I was struck by the minimalist, almost industrial look of the XPS 13. The lid is made of aluminum while the bottom is comprised of rubberized-coated carbon fiber. What really impressed me with the cover was how it didn’t collect fingerprints. I was impressed with how solid the XPS 13 feels—something you don’t always associate with a Dell product.
Open the lid of the XPS 13, and you are treated to a 13-inch display covered edge-to-edge with Gorilla Glass. This makes the display very sturdy, something I can’t say about every Ultrabook. I was a bit worried when I first saw the glass, as I am not a fan of high-gloss displays. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how relatively little glare there is, even in bright light conditions. Unfortunately, Dell chose to use the Gorilla Glass to cover a mediocre 1366 by 768 resolution display. While this seems to be the standard among many Ultrabook makers, the display falls short of benchmark Macbook Air, which has a resolution of 1400 by 900. Another knock against the XPS 13’s display is how quickly the color fades as you change the vertical angle. When viewing straight on, the display is rather good, with sharp contrast—even the pixels are relatively easy to pick out with the 1366 by 768 resolution. However, move off axis and the colors become muted and washed out.
The bezels around the display are very thin, which has allowed Dell to put a 13-inch screen in an Ultrabook with the footprint of a 12-inch system. The thin display has also allowed Dell to cut down on the weight, even with the Gorilla Glass. The XPS 13 that I reviewed tips the scale at 2.99 pounds, putting it in the lower range of the Ultrabooks I’ve looked at, but still nearly a half pound heavier than the Toshiba Portege Z830 I reviewed in March. Besides having a smallish footprint, the XPS 13 is also very thin, measuring just 0.71 inches at its thickest.
The touchpad was relatively responsive. I had little trouble selecting text, copying, pasting and the like. It supposedly supports gesturing—touchpad shortcuts performed using various finger motions—but I was never able to gesture with any success. Unfortunately, Dell chose to integrate the mouse buttons into the touchpad. I prefer the dedicated mouse buttons. The deep wrist rest also helps to cut down on the number of accidental mouse “bumps” when typing. That said, I would still like the ability to turn the touchpad on and off, as is the case with the Portege. The rubbery wrist rest, however, is a magnet for smudges and fingerprints.
So, too, are the semi-gloss keys of the keyboard. Overall, I wasn’t overly impressed with the keyboard. I enjoy a tactile experience when typing, something the XPS 13’s keyboard doesn’t deliver. I found the key travel to be relatively shallow, which made me feel like I was pounding on the keyboard when typing. The keys also have a plastic feel to them. There are no dedicated media keys; instead you have to press the "Fn" key to operate them. Even though I wasn’t wowed by the typing experience I had with the XPS 13, I did find that my typing speed was faster with the XPS 13 than with most of the other Ultrabooks I have reviewed.
One big plus for the keyboard is that it’s backlit, which makes typing on a dimly lit train or airplane much easier—especially if you aren’t a true touch typist such as me. Frankly, it boggles my mind that this isn’t standard on all Ultrabooks. But, alas, it isn’t.
Like most other Ultrabooks, the XPS 13 doesn’t have a fingerprint reader, a feature apparently reserved for systems more likely found in an office environment. After using such a reader with the Portege IdeaPad, I wish more manufacturers would add them.
The speakers on the XPS 13 did a very good job streaming my Spotify audio and Netflix videos. In fact, the XPS 13 has one of the better sound systems I have found in an Ultrabook. The Waves MAXXAudio technology provides a great deal of flexibility and customization, allowing you to find the audio settings that work best for you.
The XPS 13 is a little disappointing when it comes to input ports. On the left side, you will find a standard USB 3.0 port as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack. On the right, there is a USB 3.0 port and mini DisplayPort. As a result, you cannot connect to HDMI or VGA without an adapter. Furthermore, the USB ports on opposite sides make it impossible to plug in two-plug USB devices without using a port. The biggest omission, however, is the SD slot. With a 128G SSD drive, having a built-in SD card slot is an easy way to boost your storage space, as well as transfer files such as pictures. Now that Apple has added an SD slot to the Macbook Air, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of Ultrabooks offers this as standard.
For wireless connectively, the XPS 13 has Bluetooth 3.0 and 802.11 A/G/N. Since I use my laptops and Ultrabooks in an office setting, the lack of an Ethernet connection for wired networking is an inconvenience. In addition, the XPS 13 supports Intel Wireless Display technology, and has Intel Smart Connect Technology, which means it can stay connected to the Internet even with the system in sleep mode.
The XPS 13 I reviewed came with a 128G Samsung solid-state drive (SSD). You have the option of upgrading to a 256G drive on a higher-end XPS 13 model. The SSD gave the impression that it was faster than some of the other Ultrabooks I have reviewed. Looking at performance tests performed by other reviewers, the XPS 13 performed at the higher end of the range. From a cold boot, the XPS 13 started in less than 25 seconds and awoke from sleep mode in under four seconds.
Like most other Ultrabooks, the XPS 13 comes with a 1.3M integrated webcam, which is adequate for video conferencing over such services as Skype.
The XPS 13 comes standard with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit and, pleasantly, isn’t loaded down with trial ware (although Dell does seem to like to pack a lot of its own proprietary utilities on its systems). The XPS 13 came with Adobe Reader X, Microsoft Office Starter, Skype, Internet Explorer and McAfee SecurityCenter trial, among others, preinstalled.
The XPS 13 I reviewed came with a second-generation Intel Core i5 1.66GHz processor and 4G of RAM. While you have the ability to upgrade to a more powerful Core i7 processor, I don’t think this is necessary for the typical user. I found it to be responsive when surfing the web, opening programs and running more processor-intensive functions like reindexing data files and recalculating custom fields with AAII’s Stock Investor Pro fundamental stock screening and research database program. While this wasn’t as fast as the Ultrabooks with i7 processors I have looked at, I never found myself checking my watch while waiting for something to happen.
For cooling, Dell put the vents of the XPS on the bottom, probably due to the overall thinness of the system. Having the vents on the bottom tends to make the cooling fan have to run more often since the system itself traps heat. While you can hear the XPS 13’s cooling fan, it is by no means annoying.
Dell claims that the built-in six-cell battery will deliver nearly nine hours of battery life. My real-world testing, however, makes this claim somewhat optimistic. When I was using the XPS 13 for normal word processing, Wi-Fi web browsing and audio streaming, I was getting about five hours of battery life with the screen brightness at about 50%. Using some pretty strict power-saving settings, you may be able to squeeze 8+ hours from the battery, but that’s unlikely. Overall, the XPS 13’s battery is toward the bottom end among the Ultrabooks I’ve reviewed.
I held high hopes for the Dell XPS 13. It definitely looks like it could be a Macbook Air killer, with its aluminum case and rounded edges. Furthermore, it is extremely well built, yet it is almost the same weight at the Macbook Air.
Performance-wise, I am very pleased with the XPS 13. I found the hard drive and processor to be responsive, making an upgrade to the i7 processor unnecessary for the typical user.
At $999 for the model I reviewed, the XPS 13 also delivers excellent value relative to the other Ultrabooks on the market today.
However, the mediocre display and below-average battery life keep the XPS 13 from being anything more than a middle-of-the-road Ultrabook with a “value” price. There are rumors that Dell will improve the resolution on future models. If they are able to improve the XPS 13’s two biggest weak spots, they may just have a true rival to the Macbook Air. Until then, I would still have to go with the Toshiba Portege Z830.
Clean, sleek, sturdy design
Very good audio
Edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass covering the display
Relatively small footprint for a 13-inch system
Below-average battery life
$999 as reviewed
Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is the author of “Gadget Corner.” All reviews are based on firsthand experience of the product or service. No third-party compensation is received for opinions on products, services, websites or topics. However, sometimes the author is not required by the manufacturer or their PR firm to return the product under review. In such instances, it is our policy to convey this within the review. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are strictly those of the author. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider.