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Dell XPS 13 (winter 2013) review: Still can't touch this sleek ultrabook

There are only a few minor improvements to Dell's ultrabook update...and a touch screen didn't come along for the ride.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
7 min read

A little over a year ago, Dell debuted a then-quite-impressive little 13-inch laptop called the XPS 13. Aimed at the part of the business market that's become increasingly enamored of the MacBook Air and Windows ultrabooks, the XPS 13 was technically geared toward business customers, but with lots of stylistic flourishes and compact appeal. It was like a Windows MacBook Air, but with less impressive battery life. We called it the "Dellbook Air."


Dell XPS 13 (winter 2013)

The Good

The <b>Dell XPS 13</b> has a sharp new 1080p display, updated Intel processors, and the same sleek design as before.

The Bad

Few ports; a high price; no touch-screen option.

The Bottom Line

Attractive and compact, the new Dell XPS 13 ultrabook isn't that much different from last year's model, aside from new processors and a higher-res non-touch screen.

The XPS 13 is back for a second go in 2013, but it doesn't seem to have gotten the "Windows 8 touch" memo. Yes, it now has third-gen Intel Core i5/i7 processors, two USB 3.0 ports, and a higher-resolution 1080p screen. But a touch display? No.

Last year, we said this about the XPS 13's main drawbacks: "A limited port selection doesn't include HDMI or an SD card slot; the display should be better; and battery life falls behind other slim laptops." The new XPS 13 adds a fancy 1080p screen and gains a little more battery life, but that screen option will cost you: the 1080p version costs $1,299.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Can you live without touch on a laptop? Do you like the idea of a tweaked version of last year's XPS 13 in the current laptop world? There's really nothing wrong with what this new Dell XPS 13 brings to the table, but it's expensive, a bit heavy compared with other ultrabooks, and it lacks touch, which should be a major consideration when moving to Windows 8. Call it an old-fashioned ultrabook.

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,599 / $999
Processor 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U
Memory 8GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 256GB SSD
Chipset Intel QS67
Graphics Intel HD4000
Operating system Windows 8
Dimensions (WD) 12.4x8.1 inches
Height 0.24-0.71 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 3.0 pounds / 3.6 pounds
Category 13-inch

The Dell XPS 13 might have been one of the best-designed Dells since the Adamo. Soft-touch finishes, an elegant keyboard, sleek metal, and solid construction give instantly strong first impressions. The new XPS 13 isn't much different, and it still presents itself well.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Its footprint is smaller than a 13-inch MacBook Air, giving it something of the feel of a 12-inch laptop. The narrower footprint feels right, and the keyboard hasn't been compromised. A magnetic hinge opens smoothly, and the lid has just enough bezel to provide finger room to open and close, while maxing out screen real estate.

Did I say the XPS 13 seemed heavy and thick? Maybe that's unfair. It actually weighs an even 3 pounds, which is lighter than the 13-inch Air. It's 0.71 inch thick at its thickest point, tapering down to the other end. That's certainly slim and light enough for a 13-inch ultrabook, but the XPS 13 may be a psychological victim of its own small (for a 13-inch) footprint. It feels almost like an 11-inch Air in terms of dimensions, but the 11-inch Air is indeed lighter.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Lining up the new XPS 13 with last year's, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. So, our opinion stays the same, cosmetically: the backlit keyboard is comfortable and spacious, and the multitouch clickable touch pad has ample finger room.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Ah, but now the spectre of Windows 8 casts its shadow. Windows 8 is a touch-oriented OS. It's arguably not necessary, but you'll miss it on many of Microsoft's native apps. That touch pad is your lone tool to interface via touch at all, and in this case, it's just not as responsive as better versions out there. In particular, off-edge swipe gestures, which can be used to bring up Windows 8 functions, are hard to pull off.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The best -- and worst -- new feature of this XPS 13 is its 13-inch 1080p Gorilla Glass-covered display: it's crisp, bright, vivid, and looks great at all angles. It's a big step up compared to the average laptop, and better than the display on the MacBook Air. But not all XPS 13 models have it: step-down versions have 1,366x768-pixel displays, which I didn't test. That 1080p on a 13-inch screen used to look crammed, but the nice thing about Windows 8 is that its new tile interface and full-screen apps generally take advantage of higher-res smaller screens in ways that don't shrink and cram text and buttons down like Windows 7 did. It's a better experience.

But, I'll say it once again: there's no touch screen. I harp on that because this is a $1,600 computer, and there are touch ultrabooks out there for half that price. That may not matter to some people, but in the Windows 8 world, ultrabooks are routinely getting touch-screen makeovers without great cost. Top-end laptops are starting to have touch by default. The Dell XPS 13's lack of touch just feels like an oversight. At this price, it should at least have a touch-screen option. In a Windows 8 world, touch is just too potentially useful to completely ignore.

The 0.9-megapixel Webcam takes grainy pictures, and isn't as good as others I've seen.

Dell XPS 13 (2013) Average for category [13-inch]
Video Mini DisplayPort HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None DVD burner

Ports, configurations, performance
The ports are sparse indeed on the XPS 13: two USB 3.0 ports and a Mini DisplayPort. No HDMI, no Ethernet, not even an SD card slot. I can forgive the first two, but not the third. There's plenty of room.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This XPS 13 review unit is the highest-end model, the surf-and-turf of Dell's fleet: Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD, 1080p display, for $1,599. The lowest-end XPS 13 starts at $999, and has more-standard specs: Core i5, 4GB of RAM, 128GB SSD, but only a 1,366x768-pixel display. You can mix and match specs to some degree, but for 1080p you have to step up to a $1,299 model with 4GB RAM and a 128GB SSD. Sure, that sort of matches a MacBook Air, but it's hard to swallow for a PC -- especially one that lacks a touch screen.

The Core i7-3537 CPU is a little faster than the Core i7-3517 in the step-down 720p models, and handled as well as you'd expect a top-end, third-gen Intel ultrabook processor to perform. It's one of the fastest we've tested in our benchmarks, but not by a huge degree. You're still stuck with Intel HD 4000 graphics, which are fine for most purposes but, at this price, fall short of serious PC graphics power.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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

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

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

Battery life, warranty
The killer differentiator in a lot of superportable ultrabooks often comes down to battery life. The original XPS 13 in 2012 was a disappointment, getting a little under 5 hours. The new XPS 13 does a little better, scoring 5 hours and 31 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. An extra 40 minutes is nice, but it doesn't quite match up to the 6-plus hours a lot of top-end ultrabooks can achieve.

Dell offers a one-year warranty with at-home service (after remote diagnosis) with the XPS 13, plus a year of 24-7 "premium" phone support (1-877-717-3355). This can be upgraded in various ways on Dell's Web site: $199 to extend to three years, or up to $349 for additional accidental damage protection and LoJack.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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

Load test (average watts)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Conclusion: A great laptop...for 2012
The Dell XPS 13 is a slightly fancier version of last year's Dellbook Air: compact, functional, and upgraded with an excellent display. But its price -- and its lack of touch-screen options -- leave it as a product I'd have some reservations recommending for everyone. It feels like last year's product in a 2013 Windows 8 world that's moved on from basic ultrabooks -- or, at this price, one that at least includes touch. You might not need a touch screen, but believe me, at this price Dell should be including one. When it does, the XPS 13 might once again be a serious contender for best Windows 8 ultrabook.

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System configurations

Dell XPS 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Sharedl) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Samsung SSD

Asus Taichi 21
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 1.9GHz IntelCore i7; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Sharedl) Intel HD 4000; 256GB SanDisk SSD

Acer Aspire S7-391-9886
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 128MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Intel SSD

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Samsung SSD

HP Envy x2
Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 747MB (Total) Intel GMA; 64GB SSD


Dell XPS 13 (winter 2013)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Battery 7