When Dell brought back the XPS name, it did so with little fanfare. The first new XPS computers were mediocre, with little to differentiate them from the models they replaced. But these - these are worth of the XPS moniker, and might be the best laptops Dell's yet made.
Let's get it out of the way now: the new XPS 14 and XPS 15 are superficially reminiscent of Apple's MacBook Pro line of notebooks. Except possibly better looking. The new Dells are thinner than the standard MBP, though just a bit thicker than the new Retina model.
Clad in aluminum on the back, and black magnesium on the palm rest, the overall effect is stunning. The aluminum on the XPS 14 is actually replaced by black leather on the models equipped with a cellular radio. I didn't get a chance to see one of these configurations, though it wouldn't be the first time we've seen it - Dell used leather touches on the Studio XPS line, and Lenovo once put out a leather-bound notebook. All things being equal, however, we prefer the aluminum.
Like the recent Samsung laptops, Dell put a lot of effort into the computers' displays. You will regrettably find no IPS panels here, though you won't find an IPS price tag, either. The laptops do have bright, easily viewable displays, clocking in at 400 nits on the 14-inch model, and 350 nits on the XPS 15.
Unlike a lot of manufacturers, the laptops are standardized around high-resolution displays - the XPS 14 comes with a 1600x900 screen, while its bigger brother comes in with a full HD, 1920x1080 display.
The fact that these laptops were coming was no surprise to many who follow the industry; Dell had a bit of a hard time keeping the new models under wraps.
Each computer comes with a spill-resistant, chiclet-style keyboard. They're both backlit, too, and come with a glass touchpad. The touchpad reportedly supports multitouch gestures along its integrated buttons, but I wouldn't hold your breath. Aside from two-finger scrolling, which actually works pretty well, Windows seems to have a terrible time supporting such a feature.
Windows 8, built for multitouch, may make things easier.
The new XPS lineup is thin - thin enough, in fact, to qualify for Ultrabook status. Dell is pushing the issue with its XPS 14 model, which you're more likely to find with a 32GB mSATA SSD - Flash storage is one of the Ultrabook requirements. Not every configuration will earn the status, however, since you'll be able to buy an XPS with a standard 500GB hard drive. Despite being a premium notebook, the drives are still only 5400RPM. Boo, Dell.
Thanks to the Ivy Bridge chipset, USB 3.0 is natively supported. With no need for third party chips, all of the USB ports on these guys are of the SuperSpeed variety: that's two for the XPS 14, and three for the XPS 15. You're also getting Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, audio jacks, and an SD card reader.
See the rest of Dell's XPS 14 and XPS 15 specifications here.
In the case of the XPS 15, you can even opt for Blu-ray. It's pretty interesting that Dell chose to stick with an optical drive, whereas some manufacturers (ahem) are looking past the feature. I got to spend some time with the new XPS models before the next-gen MacBook Pro came out, and I remarked to the Dell staff that these would be an excellent alternative for users who want to upgrade, but need the ODD capability.
I stand by that statement, too. The Retina variant of the MacBook Pro is a really stellar device. If you're looking for something a bit cheaper, however, then the XPS 14 and 15 should be at the top of your list - above the non-Retina MacBook Pro 15.
It's not all peaches and cream down in Round Rock, however, and users will no doubt find things to criticize about the new XPS lineup. As seems to be the trend lately, the battery is non-user serviceable. That means when it eventually fails, you're going to have to pay Dell, or an authorized service rep, to replace it for you.
The new machines are also just a bit heavier than we'd like to see, at 4.6 or 4.9 pounds for the XPS 14 and 5.8 pounds for the XPS 15 - no doubt over five and six, respectively, once you include the power bricks. Still, it's not like the RAM is soldered down, or the drive is proprietary, which means you'll be able to buy these, open them up (we hope), and push in all the RAM and SSDs you can handle.
You'll still be stuck with a max GPU of NVIDIA's GeForce GT 640M in the case of the XPS 15 - it'd be nice if Dell bumped this up a bit.
Finally, the cost - the XPS 14 will start at $1099, which is not out of line for the premium Ultrabook market, and the XPS 15 will come in starting at $1299. These are really good prices for machines that feel this good - and they do feel really good. I mentioned earlier that these laptops are a new standard from Dell, and they are.
At last, Dell has realized that you can make an affordable laptop that makes no compromise on design, and few on performance.
Be sure to check out the rest of our image gallery for more shots of Dell's hot new XPS lineup.
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