Dell Studio XPS 13 Review

by Jerry Jackson Reads (267,801)
  • Pros

    • Attractive
    • Excellent build
    • Great keyboard
  • Cons

    • Only two USB ports
    • No matte screen option
    • A little expensive

Buy Direct From Manufacturer


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:

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 (2.4GHz)
  • Memory: 4GB – 2DIMM DDR3
  • HDD: 320GB 7200rpm
  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce 9500M GE 256MB
  • Display: 13.3″ WXGA UltraSharp LCD with TrueLife WLED
  • Optical Drive: Slot Load DVD+/- RW with Dual Layer DVD+R write capacity
  • OS: Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64 bit)
  • Wireless: Dell Wireless 1510 802.11n and Dell Wireless 370 Bluetooth Module (2.1+EDR)
  • Battery: 6-cell battery
  • Dimensions: 0.9-1.4 x 12.6 x 9.3 inches
  • Weight: 4.93 lbs with 6-cell battery
  • Price as configured: $1,444 (Starting price: $1,099)

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.

Screen
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:


Front: Indicator lights, card reader, dual headphone jacks, microphone jack, and IR port.


Rear: No ports, just battery and heat exhaust.


Left: Security lock slot, VGA, Ethernet, USB, DisplayPort, and HDMI.


Right: ExpressCard slot, FireWire, slot-loading optical drive, combo USB/eSATA port, and power jack.

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.

Speakers
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.

Performance and Benchmarks
At the end of the day the most important parts of a laptop are the internal components that do all the work. Our review unit came equipped with the Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 processor (2.4GHz) which offers excellent performance in terms of number crunching and video encoding. The 4GB of DDR3 system RAM is enough to satisfy Vista and still provide enough RAM for most needs. The 320GB 7200rpm hard disk drive (HDD) in our review unit offers plenty of storage for most of your entertainment needs.

The big news with the Studio XPS 13 is the inclusion of Hybrid SLI graphics in the form of Nvidia GeForce 9500M GE graphics. Without getting too technical, the Studio XPS 13 essentially includes both low-power integrated graphics and high-performance discrete graphics. When you need the best possible battery life you can use just the integrated graphics, and when you want to play video games the integrated graphics and the discrete graphics combine forces to provide as much video processing power as possible. The synthetic benchmarks listed below will give you some idea of how this system performs compared to other systems on the market.

wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):

Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
HP Pavilion dv4t (Core 2 Duo T9600 @ 2.8GHz)
26.972 seconds
Dell Studio XPS 13 (Core 2 Duo P8600 @ 2.4GHz) 31.951 seconds
Toshiba Satellite U405 (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.1GHz) 37.500 seconds
HP Pavilion dv3510nr (Core 2 Duo P7350 @ 2.0GHz)
38.656 seconds
Dell Inspiron 13 (Pentium Dual Core T2390 @ 1.86GHz) 44.664 seconds
HP Pavilion dv2 (AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 @ 1.6GHz)
103.521 seconds

 

PCMark05 measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):

Notebook PCMark05 Score
HP Pavilion dv4t (2.8GHz Intel T9600, Nvidia 9200M GS 256MB) 5,463 PCMarks
Dell Studio XPS 13 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9500M GE 256MB) 5,450 PCMarks
HP Pavilion dv3510nr (2.0GHz Intel P7350, Nvidia 9300M GS 512MB) 4,920 PCMarks
Toshiba Satellite U405 (2.1GHz Intel T8100, Intel X3100) 4,145 PCmarks
Dell Inspiron 13 (1.86GHz Intel T2390, Intel X3100) 3,727 PCMarks
HP Pavilion dv2 (1.6GH AMD Athlon Neo, ATI Radeon HD 3410 512MB) 2,191 PCMarks

 

3DMark06 graphics comparison against notebooks @ 1280 x 800 resolution (higher scores mean better performance):

Notebook 3DMark06 Score
Dell Studio XPS 13 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9500M GE 256MB, Hybrid SLI) 3,542 3DMarks
Dell Studio XPS 13 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9500M GE 256MB, Integrated) 2,090 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv3510nr (2.0GHz Intel P7350, Nvidia 9300M GS 512MB) 1,865 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv4t (2.8GHz Intel T9600, Nvidia 9200M GS 256MB) 1,741 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv2 (1.6GHz AMD Athlon Neo, ATI Radeon HD 3410 512MB)
1,355 3DMarks
Toshiba Satellite U405 (2.1GHz Intel T8100, Intel X3100) 539 3DMarks
Apple MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7500, Intel X3100) 502 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 13 (1.86GHz Intel T2390, Intel X3100) 470 3DMarks

 

HDTune for the built-in hard drive:

 

Heat and Noise

Like its big brother the Studio XPS 16, the Studio XPS 13 generates more lap heat than what we’d like to see. Our review unit gets quite hot whenever the processor or graphics card are working hard. After running multiple benchmarks and watching 30 minutes of a streaming online TV show the Studio XPS 13 got uncomfortably hot on my lap. The heat isn’t horrible, but if you are sensitive to laptop heat then this notebook might be a little too hot to use as a “laptop.” The temperatures listed below are in degrees Fahrenheit.

As mentioned previously, noise was a bit of a mixed bag with the Studio XPS 13. The slot-loading optical drive made some noise when inserting or ejecting a disk but it was reasonably quiet compared to older slot-loading drives. The hard drive in our review unit was rather noisy and suffered from random clicks when accessing data. The cooling fan was noisier than expected and even when running idle the fan was loud enough to be head by people several feet away in a quiet room. When we stressed the CPU and GPU during the benchmarks the fan became quite loud.

Battery Life

The Studio XPS 13 comes with either a 6-cell battery or a 9-cell extended-life battery. The 6-cell lithium-ion battery included with our review unit provides reasonable battery life without adding extra weight or bulk to this 13-inch notebook. With Vista’s power management running in “high performance” mode, screen brightness set to 50 percent, wireless on and using hybrid SLI graphics, the 6-cell battery delivered 2 hours and 12 minutes of battery life. With Vista’s power management running in “power saver” mode, screen brightness set to 30 percent, wireless on, and using integrated graphics only, the 6-cell battery delivered 4 hours and 5 minutes of battery life.

While these numbers aren’t bad, this is less battery life than what we expect from a “premium” notebook priced at more than $1,000.

Conclusion

The Dell Studio XPS 13 is a solid notebook that combines attractive style and performance in one easy-to-carry package. The Nvidia Hybrid SLI graphics do a fantastic job of balancing battery life and performance, and the available Core 2 Duo processors have all the muscle you need to get serious work done. That said, all this style and power comes at a price … both literally and figuratively. Not only is the Studio XPS line priced above the Inspiron and current Studio lines but the Studio XPS 13 is also more expensive that the popular XPS M1330. In all honesty, it’s hard to overwhelmingly recommend the Studio XPS 13 as long as the XPS M1330 is still available for several hundred dollars less.

Pros:

  • Excellent build quality
  • Nice keyboard
  • Solid performance as configured

Cons:

  • Glossy screen with glossy protective layer
  • Only two USB ports
  • Battery life okay but not great
  • A little too expensive for what you get


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