The first Very Important Laptop of 2012 has arrived, in the form of the new Dell XPS 13. This is Dell's first ultrabook (an Intel designation for laptops with certain specs--essentially a Windows MacBook Air), and even though the company is a little late to that particular game, the XPS 13 nails a lot of what makes for a good ultrabook experience.
At $999 for a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) and Intel Core i5-2467M CPU, the XPS 13 is reasonably priced, although Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, and others offer similar specs for $100 or so less. Working in Dell's favor are the system's excellent build quality--the body is a mix of aluminum, magnesium alloy, and carbon fiber--and its smaller footprint. It's not quite a 13-inch laptop in an 11-inch body, but it's in the ballpark.
The backlit keyboard, large touch pad, edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass over the display, and the small footprint all add up to an impressive package. If the battery life and screen (both image quality and resolution) were better, it could be the best of the current ultrabooks. As it is, it's still in the running, but it's not a blowout win.
|Price as reviewed||$999|
|Processor||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.4x8.1 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3 pounds / 3.6 pounds|
The first thing you notice about the XPS 13 is how small it looks. Dell claims this is a 13-inch screen in a chassis more like an 11-inch laptop's. In reality, it's not exactly that compact, but it is a bit smaller than other 13-inch ultrabooks. It falls right between the 11-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Air. Although, with the bigger screen and edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass, it feels dense. When you pick it up for the first time, it's heavier than you expect.
And the comparison to the MacBook Air is an apt one, as this is the most Air-like ultrabook to date, more so even than the Asus Zenbook UX31. If not for the circular Dell logo replacing the circular Apple logo on the back, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference with the lid closed.
The bottom surface is more distinctive. Two raised channels allow heat to escape from a bottom vent, but also raise the entire system by a few millimeters. It's not as nice-looking as the all-over smooth body of the Air.
The keyboard is shallow but very pleasant to use, with a soft, clack-free touch. The backlight is bright, but not overpowering against the all-black keys and keyboard tray. Something must be said for the all-over use of matte black as well. The less glossy my laptop interior is, the happier I am. The glass touch pad is large, with a drag-free matte surface, but the tap sensitivity needed to be cranked up a bit for it to be usable, and even then it still acted a bit wonky, though arguably not worse than most other Windows laptop touch pads.
One disappointment is the screen itself. While the 1,366x768-pixel native resolution is what you'll find in most 13-inch laptops, we've seen 1,600x900-pixel models recently, and the 13-inch MacBook Air has a 1,440x900-pixel display (admittedly starting at $300 more). Edge-to-edge glass is always a look that I like, but the off-axis viewing on this display is poor. Dell is purportedly going to offer a higher-resolution screen in the near future, so hopefully it'll be an improvement.
|Dell XPS 13||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||DisplayPort||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0||2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
One thing that gives me pause is the lack of an SD card slot--the 13-inch Air and most 13-inch ultrabooks have one. Many times, a large SD card is an easy and inexpensive way to temporarily boost the capacity of a laptop with SSD storage. You may also be bothered by the choice of DisplayPort instead of HDMI for the video output, which just isn't as universally useful. Sure, an adapter can connect the two, but even in corporate settings, you're more likely to run into HDMI (or even VGA) than DisplayPort--for now, at least.
The base $999 configuration, with a 1.6GHz Core i5, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD, should be fine for most. For $1,299, the SSD gets bumped up to 256GB--more than Apple will give you at that price--and a faster Core i7 CPU gets added to the 256GB SSD at $1,499.
An IT-focused version of the XPS 13 will offer corporate-friendly extras such as a TPM chip, BitLocker data encryption, and static images (for companywide IT groups that require systems to be identical, even if purchased many months apart). A casual consumer won't need to worry about these features.
The included Intel Core i5-2467M CPU is in the same category as the Core i5-2450 or i5-2430 processors found in most current mainstream 13-inch or midsize laptops. The XPS 13 performed in the middle of the pack when compared with other similar laptops--overall differences were slight. In anecdotal use, the XPS 13 felt fast and lag-free, and is more than powerful enough for everyday multitasking.
Only the Intel HD 3000 graphics hold it back in terms of performance, as you won't be able to play much beyond casual and social games; but neither will you be able to on any other current ultrabook.
|Dell XPS 13||Avg watts/hour|
|Raw kWh number||26.25|
|Annual power consumption cost||$2.98|