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.
Our review unit of the Dell XPS 13 (XPS L321X) has the following specifications:
While the starting price of the XPS 13 comes in at roughly $1,000, our review sample includes the higher-performance Core i7 processor and a 256GB solid state drive (SSD). These specifications are among the best in class among ultrabooks, but for $1,500, the XPS 13 had better not disappoint. Dell makes a big deal over the fact this 13-inch ultrabook has a starting weight of less than three pounds (2.99 lbs.) but the reason we have a "*" next to the weight listed above is that one of our in-house scales shows this configuration weighs in at 3.01 lbs. (1.365 kg) without the AC adapter. If you are willing to settle for a slightly slower Core i5 processor and a lower-capacity 128GB SSD then the XPS can be yours for the previously mentioned $999.99 ... or the 256GB SSD alone brings the price to $1,299.99 at the time of this writing.
PERFORMANCE AND BENCHMARKS
The Core i7 configuration of the XPS 13 delivers best-in-class performance among 13-inch ultrabooks at the time of this writing. This might not be as impressive as the performance you'll find in a thicker and heavier $1,500 notebook, but this is exceptionally good for a thin and light laptop and it's more than enough for everyday use and basic office productivity like working through documents in Microsoft Office. Speaking of productivity, it's worth mentioning that the XPS 13 comes pre-installed with Adobe Photoshop Elements 9.0 and Adobe Premiere Elements 9.0 for photo and video editing right out of the box.
While the Intel Core i7 processor has something to do with the impressive performance, the speediest part of the XPS 13 is actually the 256GB mSATA solid state drive. Our review unit uses a Samsung PM380 and although it's not the fastest SSD we've ever seen it is very fast and it is the fastest "mSATA" SSD we've seen in our labs so far.
wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):
PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
PCMark 7 is a newer benchmark which measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark06 measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
CrystalDiskMark storage drive performance test:
Heat and Noise
The single cooling fan inside the XPS 13 keeps running most of the time with a quiet, almost inaudible hum. This keeps some air moving around the densely packed internal components and helps push heat away from the CPU and the Wi-Fi card. If you push the CPU to 100 percent for an extended period of time (by running benchmarks or transcoding a large 1080p video file) then the fan will kick into high gear (with a high pitch) as it attempts to push more hot air out of the vents on the bottom of the notebook.
We were a little concerned about the temperatures on the bottom of the chassis since the vents are on the bottom and hot air can come into contact with your lap, but much to our surprise the heat wasn't an issue (likely because of the heat-dissipating nature of the carbon fiber) and lap temperatures largely remained well below 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The XPS 13 delivered 7 hours, 23 minutes of battery life during our standard battery rundown test (Windows 7 Balanced power profile, 70% screen brightness, wireless active and refreshing a web page every 60 seconds). This is a full 30 minutes longer than the HP Folio 13 and an hour longer than the ASUS UX31E ultrabook. If we turned down the screen brightness even more and weren't actively using Wi-Fi then we probably could have gotten closer to the "8 hours, 53 minutes" of battery life that Dell claims on the XPS 13 product page.
Battery life test results (higher scores mean better battery life):
After spending some time with the Dell XPS 13 we were left with the feeling that this is actually a reasonable alternative to a MacBook Air. Yes, if you buy the XPS 13 you have to live without Apple's operating system and you have to settle for a less-than-stellar screen. But you get a VERY durable Gorilla Glass screen, carbon fiber to keep the notebook cool, and exceptional performance with great battery life.
In all honesty the ultrabook market is going to be flooded with competition in 2012, and that means Dell needs to seize every opportunity to surpass other ultrabooks. That's why things like the missing SD card slot and the average screen might prove to be the downfall for what would otherwise be the best ultrabook on the market. As it stands now, the Dell XPS 13 is the leader of the pack in terms of performance among ultrabooks. What remains to be seen is whether the competition will rise to the challenge and provide those extra features that the XPS 13 fails to deliver.