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Dell SX13-163B review: Dell SX13-163B

Dell SX13-163B

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
5 min read

Editors' note: This review is part of our Retail Roundup: Q1 2009, covering specific configurations of popular laptops that can be found in retail stores.


Dell SX13-163B

The Good

Upscale design with leather trim, backlit keyboard, and edge-to-edge screen glass.

The Bad

Bulky for a 13-inch laptop; weak battery life.

The Bottom Line

Dell's SX13-163B (a retail version of the upscale 13-inch Studio XPS model) offers a solid set of components, but looks and feels clunky compared with other 13-inch laptops.

The 13-inch laptop owes much if its success to Apple's embrace of the form factor for its popular MacBook systems. But besides that, the 13-incher hits the right middle ground; it's the smallest size we'd consider using for everyday work, and at the same time, the biggest size we'd consider carrying around on a regular basis.

Dell recently made waves with its new high-end 13-inch Adamo system, less than an inch thick, but starting at a wallet-crushing $1,999. More reasonable is the $949 Dell SX13-163B, part of the Studio XPS brand. Like the Dell Studio XPS 16 we looked at recently, this model has some features that distinguish it from a run-of-the-mill Inspiron, including a backlit keyboard and a somewhat superfluous leather trim on the back of the lid--but at 5 pounds and 1.4 inches thick, it's bigger and heavier than 13-inch systems such as the Adamo and MacBook.

Price as reviewed $949
Processor 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600
Memory 4GB, 800MHz DDR3
Hard drive 320GB, 7,200rpm
Chipset Mobile Intel PM45 Express Chipset
Graphics Nvidia GeForce 9400M G
Operating system Windows Vista Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 12.5 x 9.3 inches
Height 1.4 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 5.1/5.9 pounds
Category Thin and light

The rounded hinge and tapered design remind us of Dell's XPS and Studio laptop lines (which makes sense, since this is a hybrid of those two). The SX13 is cast in a shiny piano black, with a matching black leather trim that covers a strip on the back of the lid near the hinge. Whether you like the leather look is a personal aesthetic consideration, but the glossy parts of the lid were definite fingerprint magnets.

With a backlit keyboard and flat, widely spaced keys, the Dell SX13 shares a general aesthetic with Apple and Sony laptops. We always encourage backlit keyboards, which are fantastically useful when, for example, looking something up online while watching TV in a darkened room. A row of touch-sensitive media controls sits above the keyboard, along with buttons for turning the Wi-Fi antenna off and on, and ejecting a disc from the slot-loading DVD burner.

The 1,280x800 resolution on the 13.3-inch LCD screen is standard for a thin-and-light laptop, and is the same as you'd find on a MacBook. Ordering direct from Dell (where the system is called the Studio XPS 13), you can get a thinner LED display for an extra $125.

  Dell SX13-163B Average for category (thin-and-light)
Video VGA-out, HDMI, DisplayPort VGA, mini-HDMI or Mini-DVI
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone (x2)/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 2.0 (1 USB/eSATA), mini-FireWire, SD card reader 3 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, SD card reader
Expansion ExpressCard/54 ExpressCard/54
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

Dell is stepping up to the plate with DisplayPort, including the connection as a video out on many of its current systems, including the Adamo and the Studio XPS line. But if you're not ready to be an early adapter, both VGA and HDMI connections are included. We're also pleased to see 802.11n Wi-Fi in a sub-$1,000 system.

Intel's 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo P8600 CPU is the same as the one we saw in the larger 16-inch Studio XPS, and coupled with 4GB of RAM, it makes for a powerful laptop that was slightly faster in many of our benchmarks than other systems in our current roundup of retail laptops.

Even though the SX13 includes Nvidia's GeForce 9400M GPU (similar to what you'd find in a 13-inch MacBook), its gaming scores were less than impressive, turning in only 23.1 frames per second in Unreal Tournament III at 1,280x800. You could, however, dial down some of the graphics settings and get a frame rate closer to the playable baseline of 30fps. In the same price range, we saw systems specifically designed for PC gaming from Asus (the G50VT) and Gateway (the P-7805u FX), which delivered impressive scores for inexpensive gaming rigs.

The Dell SX13 ran for 2 hour and 46 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, which is less than the 3-plus hours we'd expect from a 13-inch laptop. Even the Asus and Gateway gaming laptops ran for longer. The 13-inch MacBook, as another example, passed 4 hours on the same test.

Dell includes an industry-standard, one-year, parts-and-labor warranty with the system, and the Dell Web site has a robust collection of support tools, including online chat, a Flash-based question widget, and 24-7 toll-free telephone support. Retail stores offer a variety of extended warranty plans with your laptop purchase, but they're generally expensive and hard to use, so we do not recommend them.

Multimedia Multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Unreal Tournament 3 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1280x800, 0X AA, 0X AF *  
Asus G50VT-X5 @ 1280 x 720
Dell SX13-163B

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

Sony Vaio VGN-FW351J/H
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6400; 4,096MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 128MB Mobile Intel 4500MHD; 320GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Asus G50VT-X5
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7450; 4,096MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9800M GS; 320GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Gateway P-7805u FX
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400; 4,096MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800M GTS; 320GB Western Digital 7,200rpm

HP Pavilion dv7-1285dx
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600; 4,096MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT; 500GB Western Digital 7,200rpm

Dell SX13-163B
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600; 4,096MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9400M G; 320GB Seagate 7,200rpm


Dell SX13-163B

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 8Battery 5Support 7