The Dell XPS 13 ultrabook is a unique hybrid of a premuim consumer laptop and a thin-and-light business notebook. Loaded your choice of either an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor and a blazingly fast solid state drive, this little laptop might just give Apple a run for its money.
Build & Design
The XPS 13 is one of the newest additions to the ultrabook category with its aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber construction and 13-inch screen size. While it's widely known that the ultrabook category is based on Apple's MacBook Air, the XPS 13 actually takes up less space on your desk than a 13-inch MacBook Air ... so Dell engineers are actually delivering a solid effort here.
The top screen cover is precision cut from a single block of aluminum. This not only makes the XPS 13 look nice but it gives the otherwise vulnerable screen some much needed protection. The sizeable palm rests beneath the keyboard are made of magnesium and covered with soft touch paint. The lower half of the chassis is made of a carbon fiber composite to help keep the weight down and prevent heat transfer from the internal components to your lap.
It's getting harder and harder to find an ultrabook with an easy-access panel on the bottom for upgrades or service. The XPS 13 is no exception. The bottom half of the XPS 13 is pretty well sealed. You'll find fan vents and plenty of screws if you're the type of IT professional or tech enthusiast who wants to completely disassemble the notebook. Unfortunately, even if you do disassemble the XPS 13 there isn't much you can do to upgrade it. The RAM is soldered to the system board (4GB is all you get) so the only reason to open the chassis is if you want to replace the SSD, the wireless card, or the battery.
Ports and Features
Most road warriors aren't too concerned about having a variety of ports on their laptops. The average business professional is content with two USB ports and a port to connect an external monitor or projector for a presentation. To that end, Dell didn't pack the XPS 13 with anything more. You get one USB 3.0 Super Speed port, one standard USB 2.0 port, a mini DisplayPort connection and a headset jack. That's it. No docking station connector, no ExpressCard slot, and not even an SD card slot.
One nice addition to the design of the XPS 13 is a battery life indicator on the right side. Just press a little button and up to five LEDs will light up to provide a rough estimate of your remaining battery life. This works even if the XPS 13 is turned off. It's not the most accurate way to measure how much charge is left in the battery, but it's a nice way to find out if you need to bring your AC adapter without turning on the ultrabook just to see a battery meter.
Honestly, our only complaint about the ports on the XPS 13 is that Dell didn't include a SD card slot so you can quickly transfer images and videos from your camera. You can use an external USB card reader, but that's sort of like building a luxurious bathroom without a sink. You can wash your hands in the bathtub so that's good enough. Right?
Left: AC power jack, USB 2.0, Headphone/microphone combination jack
Right: Battery life indicator, USB 3.0 port, mini DisplayPort
Screen and Speakers
We've said it before and we'll say it again: the 13.3-inch display is "average" and certainly doesn't make for a compelling visual experience. Not only is the resolution unimpressive at a mere 1366x768, but the viewing angles aren't particularly impressive. The screen looks fine when you're viewing from straight ahead or at a slight horizontal angle, but tilt the screen forward or back just a little and you'll start to notice color issues.
A higher quality display (such as an IPS panel) with better viewing angles an a higher resolution would have been ideal considering the fact that the XPS 13 is a "premium" product. On the bright side, the screen on the XPS 13 is covered in Corning Gorilla Glass for additional protection ... meaning you can toss the XP3 13 in your car, toss your car keys at it, and even if the keys hit the screen, they won't leave a mark. That extra durability is worth plenty to a mobile workforce, but there is still the issue of the mediocre viewing angles and ho-hum resolution. We should probably also mention that although the Gorilla Glass provides great protection, it is also a very glossy surface and creates some nasty glare/reflections under strong lights.
While the screen might not be overly impressive, the built-in speakers on the XPS 13 are actually pretty good for such a thin and light laptop. The stereo speakers are in fact located on the left and right sides of the notebook (in the space that is too thin for ports) but audio comes out of the vent holes in the bottom of the notebook. Hardcore audiophiles will still want to use headphones or external speakers connected to the single audio jack, but the built-in speakers work well in a pinch if you need some ambient music or want to share conference call audio with coworkers in a meeting room.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The full-size chiclet-style keyboard is quiet with soft, well-cushioned feedback and a simple layout; the individual keys and keyboard are matte black. This finish prevents the fingerprint smudges common to laptops with glossy keyboards but you can still get some smudges from the natural oils in your skin. The keyboard support structure is good; there is little flex but when a notebook is this thin, there isn't really anywhere for the keyboard to flex. Individual key travel is good but some of our editors thought the keyboard action was a bit "mushy" compared to something like a desktop keyboard with mechanical keys.
The XPS 13 features a bright LED-backlit keyboard which is helpful if you want to see what you're typing in a dark room or on a dimly-lit airplane. This is a very nice feature, but what really sets the keyboard backlight apart on the XPS 13 is the fact that there is minimal backlight bleed around the edges of each key. The majority of the light is coming from the letters themselves and that is what you want in a backlit keyboard.
The Cypress trackpad is actually a "clickpad" (a touchpad surface which lets you press down anywhere to produce a left click). There are no dedicated left and right mouse buttons but Dell marked the button area with a single gray line so you know where to press for a traditional left and right click. That said, the click zones aren't particularly well defined. Sometimes we made a right click when we only wanted to left click.
This is a glass touchpad covered in the same soft touch paint as the palm rests. The accuracy is good and there is minimal lag but the relatively large touchpad has no obvious palm rejection in the driver ... meaning your cursor will jump across the screen if your palm comes into contact with the touchpad while you type.
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