With the introduction of the Dell XPS 13, Dell manages to come up with an impressive, extremely compact 13” laptop that is just slightly bigger than the Macbook Air 11. Sold at around the same price than the latter, it clearly outperforms its Apple counterpart in terms of specification and would-be “switchers” may want to look twice at the value proposition of this laptop.
For those who are worried that such a compact laptop isn’t powerful enough, take a good look at the benchmarks, and the Core i7 option that Dell offers. That said, the XPS 13 faces tough competition as Netbooks from many other vendors are hitting the market, and the competition is just becoming intense. In this review, we will go over the strengths and weaknesses of the Dell XPS 13 to show you how it feels to use one in the real world.
It’s a matter of personal preferences, but it is fair to say that Dell has done a really good job with the Industrial design of the XPS 13. One of the feature that Dell emphasizes the most is the carbon-fiber material visible at the bottom of the laptop. it greatly contributes to the overall rigidity of the Dell XPS 13 chassis, and the finish is impeccable. Also, the bottom is very clean and free of any sticker or Windows license.
On the other side, the back of the screen has a nice aluminum finish, with the Dell logo in the middle. Opening up the laptop reveals the black keyboard and display. The design is very minimalist here and only the white letters stand out.
On the right side, there is a battery indicator, a Displayport and a full-size USB port. On the left side, you can find the power connector, another full-size USB port and a 3.5mm headphones connector.
Keyboard: the keys letter are larger than on most laptops, which makes them particularly readable. The keys themselves are slightly curved, and I have to admit that I was impressed -and surprised- by the overall keyboard quality. This is probably the best keyboard that I have tried since the Lenovo X1. Dell did a great job on this one. The keyboard is an essential element that no manufacturer should “cheap out” on. If we could get slightly larger arrow keys… that would be awesome!
Trackpad: The trackpad is smooth enough and it is called a “clickpad” because users can induce a mechanical “click” from anywhere on the surface (no physical buttons). The lower-right serves as the right mouse button, while the rest of the surface is considered to be the left button. I still prefer the glass trackpads, but you may have your own preferences.
Overall, I find it to be very good, but I have also experienced accidental clicks when my right hands was going for one of the keys around the “H” key. This never happened to me with other laptops, so the sensitivity of the trackpad may need some tweaking.
The display is built with very thin bezels. That allowed Dell to build a 13” computer that is close to a 11” in size. The Dell XPS 13 with is about 1cm shorter than my Samsung Series 9 13”. The general design of the bezel is impressive, but I wonder if it has affected the view angle of the display in a slightly negative way.
The image looks good if you stand right in front of it, but the colors can change relatively quickly when the vertical angle changes. To some degree, most laptops have that problem to some extent, but I found it a bit more obvious on this computer (as opposed to the Macbook Air and the Samsung Series 9 13” that we have in the office). It would have been better if the design allowed the screen to go further back, because it would have made it easier to adjust the screen position. However, this is not the case.
Fortunately, the display view angle is fine when I’m sitting at a desk/table, but your luck may vary if you are taller (I’m 5’11), or in a cozy place (airplane seat) – which I haven’t tried.
If you look at the display straight on, the image is actually very nice and the contrast is high. That’s also due to the glossy surface used by Dell on this screen. It’s shiny outdoors, but indoors, the colors look very good. That’s the typical matte vs. glossy tradeoff.
The webcam of the Dell XPS 13 is pretty decent, and if I compare it to the computers that I have on my desk, it lands somewhere between the Macbook Air 11” (gen1) and the Samsung Series 9 13.3” (2011). It’s a bit difficult to describe the difference in image quality given that none of them are “excellent”, but there’s no question that they all get the job done if you want to hop on a quick family video chat. I’ve uploaded some screenshots done in Skype during optimal network conditions to show you what the “receiving” end sees.
In terms of performance, the Dell XPS 13 does well for a computer in this category, especially if you take into account that we ran these tests with the entry-level model equipped with the Core i5 Intel processor (CPU). Dell has a Core i7 option, which should be even faster. We’ve compiled some CPU scores using Geekbench, and you can tell that the Dell XPS 13 provides a level of performance that is on-par with other high-profile laptops in this category.
However, it easily wins the PCMark Vantage Productivity test, thanks to its very fast solid-state drive (SSD) storage system. If you compare it with my (now aging) Samsung Series 9 laptop, you can clearly see the benefits of using newer SSD technology, and frankly, many performance issues that users hits are storage-related, so this is very important.
Unfortunately, the XPS 13 does not have a discrete graphics processor (GPU), so while the day-to-day graphics run fine, games like Just Cause 2 don’t run fast enough for a good gaming experience. In that respect, the numbers from the Macbook Air (gen 1) show that even with a “weak” CPU, it is possible to get good gaming performance if the GPU is fast enough.
Perceived performance: Of course, the “perceived” performance is even more important than the raw synthetic numbers. I have to say that the Dell XPS 13 exceeded my expectations in terms of responsiveness. If you put aside gaming, I think that this computer would work just great for most people, and I would say that overall performance is very good. Now, if you want to play modern games, I would suggest that you look for a computer that has a discrete graphics processor. There is just no way around it, for now.
Raw performance is one thing, but it should clearly not be the only metric. It’s not very hard to build a fast computer that is heavy and expensive. It is also easy to build a thin and light one which is slow. That’s why we like looking at performance via prisms, like the performance in relation to the price and weight.
You can see that for its weight, the Dell XPS 13 provides very respectable processing power. However, when it comes to graphics power, the lack of discrete GPU bites it from this perspective as well. If you don’t mind about gaming, the XPS 13 provides pretty good value for the price.
If you take the design into account, you will realize that the Dell XPS 13 is a much better choice than the Acer S3 which is otherwise not that far away in terms of CPU and Graphics. That said, the XPS 13 SSD drive crushes the Acer S3 mechanical disk.
Battery depletion (7.5hrs): In a standard battery depletion test (display 50%, WiFi ON) the Dell XPS 13 reached 7h29mn before hitting 4% and going to sleep mode.
Simple battery depletion test are very important because it’s a “floor” for scenarios that involve a low-intensity workload. For example, if you type a text document or read an eBook, the computer works very little as it is just waiting for the next keystroke or page turn. In fact, the main processor actually goes to “sleep” mode in-between keystrokes.
1080p video (4hrs): The Dell XPS 13 can also play a 1080p MP4 video file for about 4h5mn, which is equivalent to two movies (well, maybe not two Titanic…) during a mid-range flight. If the display’s brightness was lower and WiFi was OFF, this may be pushed a bit further, but still would not be enough to play a 3rd movie.
Battery charge speed: it takes about 2h20mn to recharge from 7% to 80%, and it takes a total of 3h18mn to go to the full 100% charge. This is pretty long, and I expect some competitors to do better, or “much better” in this area.
As you may know, most batteries will charge at linear speed, up to a point (usually 80%-90%), so the charge time is important, especially if you are on the go, in between meetings or planes. It is unlikely (but possible!) that battery technology will get a significant boost (they have mainly gotten “bigger” in recent years), so the ability to charge quickly is desirable.
Offline battery depletion: Additionally, happened to leave the XPS 13 turned OFF (and unplugged) for about one week, and when I came back, the battery was still at 84% or so. I don’t exactly remember what the charge was when I closed it, but this is a worthy piece of information because it means that you can leave it, pick it up “days” later and it will turn on.
Charger: Dell has done a very good job at making the charger small. However, we really need better cable management. For one, what about making that thick power cable optional? That would go a long way in helping keep this charger more compact and clean.
Secondly, we need some kind of cable management system for the small cable that connects to the laptop. That would probably cost one more dollar to build (I actually don’t know, but it can’t be very expensive), and make the life of every single user better, every single time the computer moves around. Actually, I would *pay* for that.
The Dell XPS 13 is impressive: in a form-factor slightly bigger than the Macbook Air 11”, Dell has managed to provide a powerful 13” thin-and-light platform that scales up to a Core i7 processor, 256GB of SSD storage and 4G as an option. At $999, it offers twice the RAM and twice the SSD storage when compared to the current ($999) Macbook Air 11″, and its battery is 50% higher as well (7.5hrs vs 5hrs).
The XPS 13 works particularly well if you are a nomad who can work on a table, as this is the optimal position to get the best image quality from the display. For those who care about productivity, the keyboard performance is stellar and stands closest to the Lenovo X1 which I still consider to be the best keyboard out there. Dell has been consistently making its computer designs better, and it shows: this is probably the finest laptop that Dell has produced in recent years.
I hope that this review was helpful. If there’s something that I did not cover, or if you have additional questions, you can leave a comment below, and I will reply as soon as I can.