by Jerry Jackson
The Dell Studio XPS 13 packs high performance features and impressive style in an extremely mobile 13-inch laptop. The metal and leather accents on the Studio XPS 13 will certainly make a statement in your next business meeting or class. Hybrid SLI graphics from Nvidia gives you extended battery life when you need it or offers extreme graphics performance if you want to play games. Will the Studio XPS 13 turn out to be as impressive as the larger Studio XPS 16? Keep reading to find out.
Our review unit of the Dell Studio XPS 13 features the following configuration:
Build and Design
The Dell XPS M1330 was a major success in late 2007 and revitalized the Dell brand name in the eyes of consumers. It's no big surprise then that Dell's all new Studio XPS 13 is a multimedia notebook that combines the latest technology with much of what made the M1330 a success.
The Studio XPS 13 proves that Dell has come a long way since the boring gray laptops from previous years. They've taken the sleek lines and brushed aluminum accents from the XPS line and combined it with the multimedia features and a few chassis design elements from the Studio line to create a solid mobile notebook. Unlike the larger 16-inch Studio XPS 16, the Studio XPS 13 is designed for people who need to keep their laptop with them at all times ... but need the same high performance found in larger notebooks.
The Studio XPS 13 does a surprisingly good job balancing mobility with solid design and construction. As mentioned above, the Studio XPS 13 takes several design elements from the XPS M1330: the wedge-shaped profile, drop hinge, slot-loading optical drive, and touch-sensitive media buttons are all hallmarks of the XPS M1330. That said, the new Studio XPS 13 is thicker and heavier than the older 13-inch notebook.
One nice design touch is the use of leather on the lid over the hinge area. We've seen leather-wrapped notebooks before, but this subtle use of leather looks a little more appealing and might even be practical. Since many people carry their laptops in their hand with the hinges pointed down this leather area provides a soft, textured surface for you to hold and keep a tight grip on your notebook. We aren't certain how well the leather will hold up over time, but it was durable enough to resist scratches during our testing period.
In terms of overall chassis construction the Studio XPS 13 is extremely solid and suffers from virtually no flex or creaks when squeezed and twisted between your hands. Construction is mostly magnesium alloy and some plastic with brushed aluminum accents around the hinges and the outer edge of the notebook. The Studio XPS 13 isn't quite as rugged as the Dell Latitude or Precision business notebooks but it should survive a drop from your desk without significant damage.
The one design element I have mixed feelings about is the bottom access panel. Rather than have the typical RAM cover, hard drive cover, and main panel on the bottom of the notebook, the Studio XPS 13 uses a single, massive panel that provides access to all of the notebook at once. While this is helpful for those people who want to make multiple modifications or service their notebook it also means you have to remove 10 screws from the bottom of the notebook just to upgrade the RAM.
The 13.3" WXGA UltraSharp TrueLife WLED display is quite nice, but not nearly as beautiful as the RGBLED display available on the larger Studio XPS 16. Colors and contrast are rather average but viewing angles are surprising good. You won't have any trouble sharing a DVD or Hulu clip with your friends using this screen.
A potential problem for some owners is the fact that Dell only offers the Studio XPS 13 with a "frameless" glossy display ... the type that uses a separate glossy protective layer in front of the actual display panel. This gives the screen a very modern look, but the trade-off is a significant amount of reflections on the surface of the screen under strong indoor lights. Outdoors under direct sunlight the screen reflections are so strong it can be extremely difficult to see anything on the screen.
If you keep your office lights dim or live in your parents' basement with the lights turned off this won't be a problem.
Keyboard, Touchpad and Media Controls
The keyboard on the Studio XPS 13 is quite nice and similar to what is used on the Studio XPS 16. The keyboard is firm with only a minor bit of flex detected near the "Enter" key. All the keys have excellent travel and cushion. The only complaint some may have is that the keys are "flatter" than the ones used on other Dell notebooks, so touch typists might have a learning curve when using this notebook. The keyboard also features a nice white LED backlight function when you're typing in the dark.
The Synatics touchpad works well enough, though it seems a little too small considering that most notebook manufacturers are switching to larger touchpads. The mouse buttons, though small, have excellent travel and cushion when pressed. The good news with the touchpad is that it's responsive, has dedicated scroll areas and the glossy textured feel is extremely good.
A series of touch-sensitive media buttons with white LED backlights are located above the keyboard. The media button LEDs stay lit constantly rather than turning off after a fraction of a second, so they might distract you and reduce battery life by staying lit all the time. The only negative issue we experienced with these buttons was that they flicker slightly when the notebook is running on battery power ... which can give you a mild headache if you stare at them.
Ports and Features
The port selection on the Studio XPS 13 is rather unique for a notebook of this size and will probably take a few people by surprise when they notice it has three video out ports. Here's a quick rundown of what you get:
The built-in HDMI is a very nice thing to have for those that want digital video and audio output. Likewise, the addition of DisplayPort is a nice addition for road warriors using the latest external displays. That said, I'm a little disappointed that Dell included three different video out ports but only two USB ports. Since most $300 netbooks have three USB ports it's completely unacceptable that a premium notebook only has two.
The speaker quality is average for a 13-inch multimedia notebook, but noticeably less impressive than the larger Studio XPS 16. The speakers perform roughly as well as the speakers on the older Dell XPS M1330, but since they're so small they tend to produce a rather hollow sound with plenty of highs and mid tones but virtually no bass.
The speakers on the Studio XPS 13 are located next to the hinges on both sides above the keyboard. The speaker grill surface is rather small, but that's to be expected with 13-inch notebooks.
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