At a year and half old in its present form, it’s hard to think of the MacBook Air as the granddaddy of the Ultrabooks, but that’s what it is. Since the Air’s latest release in late 2010, other notebooks makers have been scrambling to match Apple’s combination of style, portability and usability. All except Dell that is. Until now Dell has been hesitant to venture into the Ultrabook market. With the release of the XPS 13 Ultrabook, Dell has dove headfirst into the Ultrabook waters and the game is now afoot, but does the XPS 13 Ultrabook have what it takes to vanquish the reigning champ of the 13” Ultrabook weight class – the MacBook Air? Read on to find out if the XPS is the new champ or just another chump.
These are the main specs of the laptops under review:
|Apple MacBook Air 13”||Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook|
|CPU||1.7GHz i5-2557M 17w||1.6GHz i5-2467M 17w|
|Memory||4GB DDR3 1333MHz||4GB DDR3 1333MHz|
|Storage||128GB Samsung mSATA SSD||128GB Samsung mSATA SSD|
|Screen||13.3” Glossy WXGA+ (1440×900) TN LED||13.3” Matte HD (1366×768) TN LED w/Gorilla Glass|
|Graphics||Intel HD3000||Intel HD3000|
|Ports||Two USB, Card Reader, Headphone, Thunderbolt||Two USB: One Powered, One USB 3.0, Headphone, Mini Displayport|
|Dimensions||Width 12.8”, Depth 8.94” and Height .11”(Front)/.68”(Rear)||Width 12.4” Depth 8.10” and Height .24”(Front)/.71”(Rear)|
|Weight||2.91 pounds||2.99 pounds|
The 13” Air starts at $1,299 on Apple’s website, though you can get one out the door for around $1,250 if you’re willing to buy a pre-configured model via an Internet retailer such as Amazon. The entry-level XPS starts at $999 at Dell’s web site. That’s a $200-300 advantage for the Dell depending on how and where they’re bought.
Advantage: XPS 13
One after another notebook maker has lined up to take a crack at making a better Ultrabook design than Apple, but all have seemed to come up short in one area or more. Here’s Dell’s chance to rock the Ultrabook world with their XPS design. Being that both machines are Ultrabooks, their designs are constrained by the limits that being an Ultrabook imposes, namely being exceedingly thin and light. Given these restraints, the Air and the XPS are awfully similar, but there are some distinct differences in the designs. The body on the Air is made form aluminum using Apple’s unibody construction method. It’s a silver whitish color. The aluminum makes it smooth to the touch all over. It has an Apple logo on the lid. Opening the Air reveals more aluminum and a black keyboard. The Dell also uses aluminum on the XPS, but only on the lid. The XPS’ is of a more silver gray color, but like the Air, has a small simple Dell logo adorning the lid. The bottom is made from carbon fiber. It has a rubber coating that not only feels great, but gives it a surer grip when carrying the XPS around. Also differentiating the XPS from the Air is the inside color of the XPS – the keyboard, palm rests and LCD bezel are all black. Unfortunately, it tends to pick up fingerprints and smudges easily.
Despite the fact that both the Air and XPS use 13.3” LCDs, the XPS is noticeably smaller than the Air, about an inch shorter and a quarter inch more narrow. Dell accomplishes this by using a much smaller LCD bezel on the XPS, which looks better than the almost inch of bezel that surrounds the Air’s LCD. The Air has a lip on the front of the bottom case. It allows you to use one finger to open the Air quickly. The XPS has no such opening mechanism and it makes the XPS tougher to open. It’s a two handed operation.
Thinness and Weight
The Air and XPS are both incredibly thin and light. The XPS 13 is the chunky one at .71” compared to the .68” for the Air. If I place the Air and XPS back to back and stare at them for several minutes, I think I can see the Air is slightly slimmer, but that may just be my eyes playing a trick on me. The Air is an ounce lighter, but if you held each on in your hands, I doubt anyone could discern a difference. I certainly cannot. These machines are so close in thinness and weight, it’s a photo finish and perhaps even a tie.
I’ve had the Air about six months now and it’s acquired a few small imperfections on the underside. The XPS came to me a couple weeks ago so I’ve not had as much time to damage it. I don’t know how much one can tell about the long term durability of a review unit, but both machines feel solid. Apple’s unibody construction method gives the Air that carved from one stone feel to it. It’s very rigid and has little give to it anywhere. The XPS is likewise very stout. It’s also rigid with little flex to it anywhere, but being so thin, that’s what you’d expect from an Ultrabook. Both machines use a single hinge that runs most of the length of the notebooks. The screens feel firmly in place and don’t move during use. Fit and finish for both machines is excellent. There are no unexplained gaps or misaligned parts.
The MacBook Air and XPS both have 13.3” TN LED displays. The Air uses a glossy screen while the XPS is matte. Dell covers the LCD on the XPS with Gorilla Glass to add a layer of protection. While the Gorilla Glass should help ward off minor mishaps it, in an odd turn of events, it makes the matte LCD on the XPS more reflective than the glossy screen on the Air, which is fairly subdued by glossy notebook standards. If there’s a light source nearby, there’s a good chance you’ll be looking at yourself instead of the screen on the XPS. In a more positive light at least no one will be able to sneak up on you while using the XPS 13. You’ll be able to see them long before you hear them using the XPS. The Gorilla Glass also likes to collect fingerprints too, though it is easily wiped.
Notice the more reflective screen of the XPS 13 due to the Gorilla Glass layer
Once you get past the Gorilla Glass, the LCD on the Air is clearly better than the XPS. First off, it uses a resolution of 1440×900 while the XPS uses the more common 1366×768 HD resolution. The extra resolution on the Air allows you to fit more on the screen and translates into less scrolling. While the extra resolution on the Air is nice, what sets the MacBook Air screen apart from the XPS 13 is the better contrast and viewing angles. Colors are richer and more vivid on the Air. The Air has a nice sweet spot in terms of viewing angles. Minor adjustments in position don’t cause colors to shift. The XPS contrast isn’t bad, it’s just not up to the Air’s standards. Colors look decent, but the viewing angles are below average. If you move in your seat, colors do shift quickly.
Advantage: Macbook Air
Performance and Storage
It’s a little difficult to talk about the differences between the MacBook Air and XPS 13 because they’re almost the same machine performance wise. Both offer Intel ULV i5 CPUs, for better battery life, mated to 4GB of DDR3 memory and SSDs. The Air does comes with an extra 100MHz of clock speed, but I can’t imagine anyone would ever notice it outside of doing benchmarks. Both of these notebooks are designed with portability more than performance in mind. Each machine is more than capable for all but a handful of users who need top performance. On each laptop I was able to surf the web, listen to music, work on office documents and do a CPU intensive task like running Handbrake or a virus scan. Neither machine put up any resistance while doing those tasks. To demonstrate how close these machines are in performance, the XPS scored 9,856 using PCMark Vantage benchmarking software, while the Air got a score of 10,133 running Windows 7 via Boot Camp. That’s less than a 3% difference and probably within the margin of error.
PCMark Vantage Score Comparison
|MacBook Air 13” – Windows 7 (Intel Core i5-2557M 1.7GHz, 4GB RAM, SSD)||10,133 PCMarks|
|Dell XPS 13 (Intel Core i5-2467M 1.6GHz, 4GB RAM, SSD)||9,856 PCMarks|
Both the base Air and XPS that we have carry a 128GB mSATA SSD on board. You can upgrade either notebook to a 256GB drive if you need more space. Both machines boot in a little over 20 seconds. The systems are responsive, web pages render promptly and applications open quickly. A noteworthy difference between the XPS and the Air is the XPS has a little over 60GB of empty space left over when I first booted the XPS. That means over half the space is already consumed by the recovery partitions, OS and applications. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for other stuff. The Air had just under 90GB of space with just the recovery partition, OS and factory applications on it.
The MacBook Air and the XPS 13 each have a six row chiclet style keyboard. Both are backlit, though the Air’s backlight is adjustable while the XPS is either on or off. Being that they’re so thin, neither machine has much key depth. Quickly after striking a key you hit the bottom as there’s so little travel distance available. The MacBook Air keyboard is slightly firmer and uses a better feeling material to make the keys, but between the two, the XPS has slightly better key depth. The keyboard on the XPS is spill resistant and can take a small amount of liquid without damage. Both keyboards work fine, but I wasn’t able to get into a rhythm like I can with the ThinkPads I own.
Both the Air and XPS use clickpads, not touchpads, which means the mouse buttons are integrated into the touchpad. The Air’s clickpad is an inch taller than the XPS, but they work about the same. The button mechanism is a bit stiff for both, particularly the top third of the touchpads, which cuts the effective size of the touchpad. Anywhere you press down on the clickpad is a left click. The Air lets you choose the lower right or left corner for the right click while on the XPS the the lower right corner serves as the right click. The buttons are not marked on either touchpad, which makes them a bit more difficult to use as you can’t tell where the touchpad ends and the buttons begin if you’re not looking at the touchpad. The gestures work well on both notebooks. The Dell is the first notebook PC I have seen where the two finger scrolling works well, though it’s still probably a slightly behind the Air in overall smoothness.
Before I used either machine, I wasn’t expecting much in the sound department, but I was pleasantly surprised by both. For ultraportables, both notebooks have good sound, but the XPS exceeds the Air in sound quality. Sound on the XPS is louder, fuller, more clear and crisper. Where the Air is a bit tinny, the XPS has a bit of boom to it.
Advantage: XPS 13
I tested the batteries on the MacBook Air and the XPS 13 in the same manner with the screen on half brightness and WiFi on. I did typical every day tasks like surfing the net, listening to some music and typing up some documents. With the XPS 13 I was able to get 5 hours and 20 minutes of battery before going into hibernation while the Air got 5 hours and 50 minutes before going to sleep. That’s an extra 30 minutes for the Air, which while not huge, is significant enough to give the Air an advantage.
Advantage: MacBook Air
These are ultrabooks, which means you can do a limited amount of configuration when purchasing them, but after that there’s no upgrading them later. Not even the battery is replaceable. Think carefully about what you need because after you buy you’re stuck with it.
Being they’re so thin, neither machine has a ton of ports, but Dell somehow forgot to add a card reader to the XPS, which is a major hole in its port selection, not that the Air offers a bounty of ports either. The XPS has a powered USB 2.0 port, which can, ironically, charge your iPhone. The Air offers no such port. The Air has offers a Thunderbolt port while the XPS goes with a USB 3.0 port. Thunderbolt is faster than USB 3.0 and can do video, but in practical terms, there’s many more USB 3.0 devices right now.
The left side of the Air has a USB 2.0 port and headphone jack while the XPS 13 has a powered USB 3.0 port and headset jack.
The right side of the Air has Thunderbolt port, another USB 2.0 and the card reader while the Dell has the powered USB 2.0 port and mini DisplayPort connector.
Advantage: MacBook Air
Heat and Noise
Bless Dell’s heart. I complained in my XPS 13 review that fan on the XPS liked to cycle on/off every few minutes and it was somewhat loud. The day after my review of the XPS 13 was published Dell, to their credit for caring about their customers, posted a BIOS update that has largely fixed the issue. When I use the XPS now when just doing normal stuff, there’s a whisper of fan noise, but you’ve almost got to really listen for it to be able to hear it. Still, when pushed the fan can get noisy, but it’s almost a night and day difference compared to the previous BIOS. The Air when doing typical tasks remains inaudible. When the CPU starts getting a workout on the Air, it gets noisy, noisier than the XPS, but it mostly remains quiet during normal usage. The Air stays very cool, even when running more CPU intensive tasks. The XPS gets a little warmer on the bottom, but nothing that should cause concern. The keyboard and palm rests stay cool.
Wireless and Networking
Both machines give you a Wi-Fi card and Bluetooth. The XPS 13 also brings WiDi to the table. The Air uses a Broadcom card while the XPS has an Intel card. Both worked well at home and work. I was able to sync my Bluetooth mouse and iPhone to each machine with no problems. WiDi is Intel’s new wireless display technology. If you’ve got a WiDi enabled TV you can beam video to it via the WiFi card using WiDi. Such a small subset of users will have WiDi, I don’t think it will enter in to the buying decision for most purchasers.
It’s OS X Mountain Lion vs. Windows 7 Home Premium. Actually, it’s OS X and Windows 7 vs. Windows 7 as the Air can have Windows 7 installed via boot camp, though battery life does seem to suffer in Windows. Both machines offer a minimal compliment of installed software. On the Air you get iTunes, Safari and iLife, but there’s certainly free equivalents for those in Windows except for GarageBand. The XPS is fairly light on the bloatware. You get MacAfee, Chrome and Office starter, which is a gimped version of Office that doesn’t even let you track changes in documents. It should only take a few minutes to remove those. The XPS does have LoJack, which can help track your notebook should it get lost or stolen. You also get Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements 9, which is an upgrade over what you usually get over on a new notebook.
Both machines come with a one year warranty standard. The MacBook Air has only 90 days of software support. That would not seem to befit a $1,300 notebook. The Dell XPS 13 offers 24×7 access to premium tech support, which includes software support for the life of the warranty. Both warranties can be extended, the MacBook Air to three years and the Dell can get up to four years of warranty service. The plum to buying an Apple product is you can take it to any Apple store and have it serviced right away. There’s no need to send it off and wait for it to return. That’s a major plus, but Dell goes one step further with the XPS. The XPS has what Dell calls America’s Best Warranty. For a standard warranty it’s very impressive. It includes on-site service and accidental coverage. Dell will send a technician to your home or place of business to fix your XPS. There’s no need to leave the house to get the XPS repaired. Because it has accidental coverage Dell will still fix it if it’s damaged in a manner not covered by typical notebook warranties like drops or liquid spills. The downside of the Dell warranty is it’s a little more expensive than the Apple upgrade, $250 vs $300. If you’re considering upgrading the warranty anyway, the extra $50 adds a lot of value.
Advantage: XPS 13
And the Winner Is…
If you add up the score, it kind of looks like a hockey record of 3-3-9. Three wins for Apple, three for Dell and nine ties. I think that shows how close these machines are, but there are some significant differences that may sway you one way or the other. The XPS 13 is less expensive, has higher quality sound and a better warranty. The MacBook Air offers a more pleasing screen, a wider port selection and longer battery life. Your choice will obviously be influenced by your priorities, but if it’s my money I’m spending, I’ll take the MacBook Air. I think you can make a very good argument that the most important part on any notebook is the screen because that’s what you’re staring at all the time. If there’s one area where the Air dominates the XPS, it’s the screen. The Air’s LCD, though glossy, is less reflective with the better contrast and viewing angles. It is just plain nicer to use. The XPS definitely has some admirable qualities, but the $200-300 price difference isn’t enough to make me consider the XPS unless I’m on a limited budget or need the better warranty. If I plan to keep my notebook for a number of years, the better screen is worth an extra $50 a year to me.
Comparison Summary Table (green tick indicates advantage, both with ticks indicates a tie)
|Dell XPS 13||MacBook Air Late 2011|
|Price and Value|
|Thinness and Weight|
|Performance & Storage|
|Battery Life Potential|
|Heat & Noise|
|Wireless & Networking|
- Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Review
- Apple MacBook Air 13” Review
- Toshiba Portege Z835 Review
- HP Folio 13 Review
- Dell XPS 13 Vs. HP ENVY 14 Spectre
- Apple MacBook Air Vs. Lenovo ThinkPad X220
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