It would seem that almost every notebook maker under the sun has an Ultrabook these days, but Dell has been hesitant to stick its toe in the Ultrabook waters. With the release of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook, Dell’s first Ultrabook, those days are over. With all that competition, the XPS has its work cut out for it. The XPS, like all Ultrabooks, is incredibly thin and light. It offers a winning design, very good sound, and with an Intel Core i5 ULV CPU and SSD, it offers abundant performance for most users. But is that enough to propel the XPS to the top of the Ultrabook heap? Read on to find out whether the XPS 13 is the right ultrabook for you.
The specifications of the XPS 13 under review are:
Since Apple came out with the updated MacBook Air in late 2010, it seems a lot of manufacturers are trying to imitate the Air (cough) Asus (cough). While the XPS can’t escape the fact it’s an Ultrabook, a very thin and light notebook, it’s nice to see Dell at least did their own take on an Ultrabook. Dell uses aluminum for the lid on the XPS. It’s smooth and silver in color. There’s little flash to it. A small simple Dell logo graces the lid. Dell uses durable carbon fiber for the bottom casing. It has a rubber coating that feels fantastic and gives the XPS a sure grip when being carried around. Despite the fact that both the Air and XPS have the same 13.3” screen size, the XPS is noticeably smaller – about a quarter inch less wide, though it uses a wider 16:9 aspect ratio LCD while the Air uses the more narrow 16:10 LCDs, and is an inch less deep. Dell achieves this by having a much smaller screen bezel on the XPS, which looks better than the larger bezels on other notebooks. The XPS is insanely thin, measuring just .71” thick, and light. Dell says the XPS 13 is 2.99 pounds, but on my unofficial postal scale it was just a hair over three pounds:
When opening the lid, the minimalist theme continues. You get a six row keyboard, a large trackpad with buttons that are integrated into the trackpad and a power button. It’s black like the bottom of the XPS. Unfortunately, it picks up anything that happens to be on your fingers. If you’re munching on a bag of Doritos while using the XPS, it’s likely to show up on the trackpad, keyboard and keyboard deck. The power button is to the left of the keyboard and it’s the same black color as the keyboard deck. It makes it hard to see in lower light conditions.
Front view of XPS 13
Back view of XPS 13
The XPS feels solid. Being so thin, there’s little give on it anywhere. It’s also very rigid. Picking it up by the corner, does not illicit sounds of protest. The screen uses a single hinge that runs most of the rear on the XPS. The XPS screen is stiff, which probably bodes will for its longevity, but the XPS is tough to open. Not just because the screen is so stiff, but there’s no lip or other way to grip just the top half of the lid to separate it from the bottom. Opening the XPS is definitely a two handed operation. The fit and finish on the XPS is excellent.
The XPS has a 13.3” matte LED LCD. It has a resolution of 1366×768, which is common on 13” notebooks, but short of what its premium competitors like the Asus UX31 or 13” MacBook Air offer on their machines. There are 11 brightness levels on the XPS. I thought all were at least usable. The screen is rated at 300 nits, which should be bright enough for any indoor usage.
Above is a picture of the XPS 13 screen on the left and MacBook Air screen on the right, both are 13” diagonal
The XPS 13 uses Gorilla Glass to cover the LCD. Gorilla Glass is a thin light scratch resistant glass. If you tap on the LCD with your finger, it has no apparent effect, but if you press the glass, it ripples. It should save your XPS LCD from any minor accidents. The Gorilla Glass is, sadly, highly reflective, more than some glossy screens. Glare is a big problem if you’re near any light source, which is tough to get around during the daytime. While the extra protection the Gorilla Glass affords the XPS is nice, I’d prefer to see my screen not my face. I was sitting by a window using the XPS and it was tough as the reflection covered half the screen. It’s also a fingerprint magnet, though it is easily wiped. Once you get past the Gorilla Glass, there’s nothing special about the screen on the XPS. Colors on it are acceptable, but the angles are below average. Minor adjustments in position cause colors to shift and if you’re by a light source, you’re dodging the reflections as well.
To get an idea of viewing angles of the XPS 13 screen we took some pictures with a straight on and then angled back and to the side looks:
Since this is a TN-panel technology screen you will notice colors distort as the viewing angle increases, especially vertically. Viewing straight on and perpendicular to the eyes is the sweet spot for getting the best colors.
The XPS 13 uses the latest Intel Sandy Bridge dual core ULV CPUs. This XPS has the 1.6GHz i5-2467, but the ULV i7 CPU is offered on the XPS if you want one and are willing to pay the premium. These are low voltage CPUs. The benefit of them is they offer longer battery life, but they don’t supply the same oomph as their full voltage counterparts. The XPS however is mainly a portable productivity notebook. You probably won’t be coding your blu-ray collection on the XPS 13. CPU performance is probably not a top requirement for most XPS 13 buyers. While the 3,539 the XPS scored in PCMark 7 may seem low (see charts below), the ULV CPU coupled with 4GB of memory and a SSD makes the XPS a competent performer for most notebook uses like Office, Media and Internet, which are not particularly hard on the CPU. The XPS ran smoothly while I was surfing the net, listening to some music, working on the review and running a virus scan in the background.
Helping to offset the slower CPU performance, the XPS comes with a SSD. For most uses a SSD is more likely than the CPU to make your system seem faster. This XPS came with an 128GB Samsung mSATA SSD, though you can order the XPS with a 256GB drive if needed. It’s a SATA III drive. It boots in a little over 20 seconds and applications open quickly. The downside of SSDs is the limited capacity. The XPS has a rather large 18GB recovery and a 8GB hibernation partitions. Out of the box, the drive was half used up before I put anything on it. Since we know SSD performance degrades as they fill, that doesn’t leave much room for other stuff. You could opt for the 256GB SSD, but that adds $300 to the cost of the XPS, making it the same price as the entry level 13” MacBook Air.
Below are some benchmarks performed on the XPS 13 using the FutureMark PCMark suite of benchmarks to get an idea of how the XPS 13 compares to other laptops:
The XPS has a six row chiclet keyboard. The keyboard is backlit for use in low light areas. When I was using the XPS, the backlight had a tendency to turn on by itself, even if I had just shut it off. I don’t know if I was inadvertently doing something to cause this or it’s just possessed, but it was odd. The keyboard on the XPS is sufficient. It’s relatively firm, but being that it’s an ultrabook, it’s too thin to provide much key depth, which is an important part of the typing experience. The XPS 13 keyboard sort of middles the other two ultrabook keyboards I’ve seen of late, the MacBook Air and Toshiba Portege Z835. The Air was firmer and used a higher quality material to make the keys. The Portege had better key depth, but used a less tactile material for the keys and was a little more bouncy during use. The XPS had better key depth than the Air and was more firm than the Portege. Of the three I’d probably take the XPS keyboard, but it certainly won’t make a ThinkPad keyboard jealous.
The touchpad on the XPS is a clickpad, a la the MacBook Air. It has no physical buttons. The buttons are marked using a small line towards the bottom of the clickpad. It makes it harder to use because as you’re dragging your finger across the clickpad you can’t feel where it ends and the buttons begin. The button mechanism on the clickpad is a little stiff and noisy for my tastes, but it works. The top third or so of the clickpad is more stiff, requiring additional effort to engage it which cuts down the effective size of the clickpad. Like the Air, anywhere you press down on the clickpad serves as a left click, except the lower right corner, which serves as the right click. The clickpad is large, measuring 4” across and 2” top to bottom. It’s smooth to the touch and dragging your finger across it is effortless. There’s no hesitation or stutter to it. It has all the touchpad gestures that are ubiquitous on notebook touchpads these days. The two finger scrolling deserves special mention. It actually works quite well, which is the first time I’ve seen that happen on a PC. The two finger scrolling on my X220i is particularly dreadful, but the X220 is at least saved by the stick.
Battery and AC
The XPS uses a six-cell 47w battery. The battery is not user replaceable on the XPS. You’ll need to send it to Dell for replacement. To test the battery life on the XPS I set the screen to half brightness. I used the power saver setting in Windows as the XPS does not offer battery optimization software. With WiFi on just doing normal stuff like working on this review, surfing the net and listening to some music, I was able to get 5:20 minutes of battery life before the system went into standby. That’s slightly better than the Toshiba Z835, but short of the almost six hours I was able to get on the MacBook Air. That’s doing fairly light load tasks. If you’re hitting the CPU harder, I’d expect less battery life. If you can tolerate a dimmer screen, you should be able to do better battery life wise. One nice touch is the XPS includes a battery life indicator on the right side. You just push the button in the side and the LED lights indicate roughly how much battery life is left on the XPS. The AC adapter for the XPS is small and light, but is a three pronged adapter, which may make finding an outlet more difficult.
Heat & Noise
Being so thin, keeping the CPU/GPU cool must be the bane of ultrabook engineer’s work. The XPS has a couple of ridges on the bottom that run most of the length of the XPS and raise the XPS a bit. In front of the rear ridge sits the vent on the XPS. I know there’s limited space available on any ultrabook and I’m not sure of a better spot to put it, but having the vent on the bottom just seems to be asking for fan noise. The XPS 13 didn’t disappoint. While it’s not on all the time, the fan likes to cycle on and off audibly every few minutes at half speed, sometimes hitting full speed. This is true when doing non-CPU intensive tasks, not just when maxing the CPU. The fan seemed to be more active when used in the lap as opposed to a flat surface because the fan’s more likely to be covered in your lap. When I got the XPS I turned it on and let it sit for a few minutes while I checked out the materials that came with the XPS. About the time I started to use the XPS, the fan kicked on. Keep in mind it had only been sitting on the desktop doing nothing until that point. Fortunately, the XPS has good speakers to drown out the noise (more on that later), but if you’re trying to be conspicuous, the cycling fan does not help. The bottom of the XPS gets a little warm, but nothing I’d call uncomfortable. The palm rests and keyboard remained cool to the touch.
Wireless & Networking
Dell gives users the wireless trifecta of WiFi, Bluetooth and WiDi. The XPS comes with the Intel 6230 WiFi Card(A/B/G/N). I had no trouble with the card at home or work. The XPS also gives you Bluetooth. I connected my iPhone and Bluetooth mouse to the XPS via Bluetooth with no issues. If you’ve got a WiDi enabled TV you can stream video to your TV via the WiFi card. I don’t have one, so I could not test it, but it’s there for those who want it.
Ports & Connections
It’s hard to imagine in 2012 a notebook maker could release a notebook without a card reader, but somehow Dell managed to do it. I could perhaps understand not getting one on a netbook due to a lack of space, but a card reader should be standard equipment on a notebook, which is what an Ultrabook is – a thin and light notebook, but still a notebook. Even Apple, known for doing things their own way, relented and added a card reader to the 13” MacBook Air. Needless to say port selection on the XPS is minimal. You get a mini DisplayPort, a combo headphone/microphone jack and two USB ports – one USB 3.0 and one powered USB 2.0 port. The powered port is nice for powering your phone, but it can’t make up for a lack of ports.
On the left side is the power jack, USB 3.0 port and the headset jack
The right side has the powered USB 2.0 port, the mini display port and battery life indicator
The XPS has two 1.5w speakers. When I got the XPS I transferred over my MP3 collection and fired up Windows Media Player. After importing my MP3s and hitting play, I was expecting mediocre sound quality to emanate from the XPS, but the sound on the XPS is good by ultraportable notebook standards. I found myself booting up the XPS just to listen to music while I was using another notebook. The XPS gets loud enough to fill a room and has a clear sound. There’s not a ton of bass, but the sound is crisp. While the XPS does not sound as good as the HP dm4t beats edition, that has a sub woofer to help with sound quality.
The XPS comes with Windows Seven Home Premium only. You’ll need to buy the upgrade to get Professional or Ultimate. Bloatware is kept to a minimum. You get MacAfee, Chrome and Microsoft Office Starter, which is a highly gimped version of Office that comes with Excel and Word, but is not trialware. All those should only take a few minutes to remove and I’d personally go with OpenOffice. On the plus side, the XPS comes with Adobe’s Photoshop and Premier Elements 9, which is definitely an upgrade from what you usually get on most notebooks.
There’s not a ton of Dell applications on the XPS like a battery optimizer or diagnostic tools, but Dell does include Dell Splash. When you log into Windows, Dell Splash pops up. It’s sort of a dock with widgets. It has widgets for your music/photos, the weather, an organizer, application shortcuts to name some. It basically gives you quick access to your stuff. The XPS has facial recognition software installed that works in conjunction with the camera. It worked well. I was able to hold the XPS at a normal length and it could recognize my face unlike some other setups I’ve seen. The software was a little pokey though. It was faster to just type my password in.
The warranty on the XPS is impressive. Dell calls it America’s Best Protection. It includes on-site service and accidental coverage. Dell will come to your work or home to repair your XPS should a problem arise. With the accidental coverage Dell will fix your XPS regardless of how it’s broken. If you drop your XPS or spill something on it, Dell will patch it up, at least while it’s under warranty. You also get 24×7 access to premium phone support and the XPS includes LoJack, which can help trace your notebook in the event that it’s lost or stolen. The XPS comes with one year of America’s Best Warranty, but unfortunately, the upgrades are expensive. It’s $200, $300 or $400 to upgrade to two, three or four years of warranty on the XPS.
The XPS 13 seems to be positioned in the center of the Ultrabook market. It’s got lower cost competitors in the Toshiba Z835 and HP Folio 13, and more pricey ones like the MacBook Air and Asus UX31. The XPS has some attractive qualities like a great design, very good speakers and a premium warranty. It also has some less attractive qualities too like the cycling fan, offers no card reader and the average highly reflective screen. Is it worth $1,000? I would say no. The poor screen and noisy fan are livability issues. Who wants a notebook where you have to constantly deal with reflections and hear the fan most of the time? I don’t. If I’m going to spend that kind of money, I’m going to bump up to the MacBook Air. If I’ve got less cash, I’d look at the ThinkPad X220, which while not an Ultrabook, is a better more well-rounded ultraportable with a far better screen. Perhaps when the XPS hits the Dell Outlet and sells for a more reasonable price, it’ll make more sense for those who value its better parts.