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Dell XPS 13 review: A high-end ultrabook that hits all the marks

After two years of incremental upgrades, the XPS 13 gets a touch screen revamp that works.

Dan Ackerman
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
6 min read

The first generation of the Dell XPS 13 was so obvious in its intentions, we gave it the nickname DellBook Air.


Dell XPS 13

The Good

The well-made <b>Dell XPS 13</b> finally combines a current-gen CPU, high-res display, touch screen, and nearly everything else on our wish list.

The Bad

For the same premium price, you could get a MacBook Pro, ports are limited, and the basic design hasn't changed in a couple of years.

The Bottom Line

Early versions of the Dell XPS 13 had promise, but lacked must-have features. Over time, the system slowly added a high-res display, then a touch screen, making the new 2014 version an ultrabook that hits nearly all the marks.

Since its 2012 launch, the XPS 13 changed in small but important ways, while keeping its slim silhouette intact. In the intervening years, ultrabook and ultrabook-style laptops have become commonplace, so at least the XPS 13 now looks a lot like many other laptops, not just Apple's.

I've liked previous incarnations of the XPS 13 well enough, but there were always a few missteps that kept it from being a top choice, usually because they left the system feeling like the last leg of the previous generation of hardware, not a high-end, high-price, cutting edge example of forward-looking technology.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The original 2012 XPS 13 was hobbled by a low-resolution 1,366x768-pixel display (which also suffered from poor off-axis viewing) -- a notable omission for a thousand-dollar laptop. Still, it was a slim, sturdy laptop in a smaller-than-expected chassis for a 13-inch screen.

By 2013, Dell had finally added a full-HD 1,920x1,080 display. Unfortunately, the company missed the boat on that year's big trend, touch screens. Yes, that was a 2013 Windows 8 13-inch ultrabook that cost $1,300, but had no touch screen.

Can you see where this is going?

It's late to the party, to be sure. But the Dell XPS 13 is finally available with a 1080p touch display. It took too long, but give Dell credit for finally getting there. With this new addition, the XPS 13 is a great all-around very portable laptop, and in some ways, more useful than a 13-inch MacBook Air.

The price is still a point of contention. $1,049 will get you a non-touch version, which seems like a poor way to save a few bucks (I've got a $300 laptop with a touch screen sitting on our testing bench right now). This configuration, with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD, is $1,349. A premium price, to be sure, considering you can get the same specs for under $1,000, but the design and craftsmanship make it feel reasonable, if not exactly a bargain. A further upgrade to a Core i7 CPU and 256GB SSD takes you to $1,649.

The XPS 13's original pitch as a crossover business/consumer machine is still evident in its lack of an HDMI port (you get mini-DisplayPort instead), and its optional TPM/BitLocker support, but the small size, year-over-year upgrades, and a body that's closer to an 11-inch laptop finally move the XPS 13 into the top-tier of 13-inch ultrabooks.

Dell XPS 13 Acer Aspire S7- 392-6411 MacBook Air 13-inch
Price $1,349 $1,399 $1,099
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 touch screen 13.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 touch screen 13.3-inch, 1,440 x 900 screen
PC CPU 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 4250U
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz 4GB SDRAM 1600MHz
Graphics 1792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 128MB Intel HD Graphics 4400 1024MB Intel HD Graphics5000
Storage 128GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11 a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit) OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4

Design and features
The silver aluminum look of the XPS 13 (largely the same at the 2012 original) is about as standard as laptops get, and frankly very MacBook like, which is usually the first observation out of anyone's mouth seeing it for the first time. In the intervening two years, so many new ultrabooks have followed a similar design strategy that the XPS 13 just looks like part of the pack now, and less tightly tied to Apple's design.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When lined up with other 13-inch laptops, you'll notice that the XPS 13 has a slightly smaller footprint. Dell says it's closer to an 11-inch body, but with a larger 13-inch screen. I wouldn't go that far, but it's definitely smaller than your average slim 13-inch laptop.

It also feels nearly bulletproof. The upper half is aluminum, while the base is carbon fiber. Of course, with a big sheet of Gorilla Glass covering the entire front panel, and the same components packed into a slightly smaller body, the system feels dense, and is heavier in the hand than you might expect.

The all-matte-black interior is minimalist, with only a large clickpad-style touch pad and Dell's standard island-style laptop keyboard. The backlit keys have the slightly exaggerated rounded corners we've seen on the last few generations of Dell laptops, and typing is pleasantly quiet. Your only complaint might be about the half-height row of Function keys, or that the more useful functions of those keys, such as brightness or volume control, require you to also hold down the Fn key to access.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The part we're most excited about in the new XPS 13 is the 13.3-inch display. Last year's version bumped the display from 1,366x768 pixels to a more appropriate 1,920x1,080, but without touch. Now, we finally have a full-HD display with touch, making it much easier to use with Windows 8. The screen is also bright with great color, and looks good even from very wide viewing angles. However, the edge-to-edge glass overlay is very glossy and picks up plenty of glare from nearby light sources.

Dell XPS 13
Video Mini-DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0
Networking Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery
Maybe it's the smaller chassis, but it seems like Dell had a hard time fitting in the standard set of ultrabook ports and connections. The nearly universal SD card slot is missing, and you only get a mini-DisplayPort video output, not the more common HDMI. You can forget about Ethernet as well.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Our $1,349 configuration includes an Intel Core i5-4200U CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. for most users that's more than enough power. Trading down to a Core i3/4GB RAM configuration for $1,049, but you also lose the touch screen, which doesn't sound like a great deal for more than $1,000. For a Core i7 CPU and big 256GB SSD, it's an extra $300.

In our benchmark performance tests, the XPS 13 performed very well, even beating the most recent 13-inch MacBook Air in some tests, although the margins were close enough that you're unlikely to notice a real-world difference among current high-end Core i5 ultrabooks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life is a much more important number for a very portable system such as this. The XPS 13 ran for a very impressive 8:27 in our video playback battery drain test. That's not MacBook Air numbers, but it compares very favorably with other premium 13-inch ultrabooks from HP, Acer, and Samsung. Note that the original 2012 XPS 13 ran for about 4.5 hours on the same test, and the 2013 version ran for about 5.5 hours.

To give credit where it is due, Dell corrected the main issue we had with the last version of the XPS 13. It's still on the expensive side of what this particular set of components should cost, but keep in mind the aluminum/carbon fiber body is excellent, and the actual footprint is noticeably smaller than other 13-inch laptops.

For the first time, we can say that the Dell XPS 13 has earned a place among the best high-end 13-inch ultrabooks.

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

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

HandBrake multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

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

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Dell XPS 13

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8Battery 9
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