It’s no hidden knowledge retained by a privileged few that Intel’s push (and rather creation) for “Ultrabooks” comes after increasing pressure from tablets and Apple’s MacBook Airs. The fact that no company could do what Apple did – pack in almost top notch hardware in an impressively small frame with incredible battery life to boot – Intel had to step in with $300M to make OEMs do something about the falling sales of Intel notebook processors.
And since last year we have seen a ton of ultrabooks hit the market. Many have made an impression on us, and despite mimicking some of the aesthetics of the MacBook Air, nothing has really come close to providing that quintessential ‘Apple experience’. That is until now; the Dell XPS 13 promises to be what we secretly always wanted ultrabooks to be, a MacBook Air with Windows without the high cost.
So let’s have a look at the XPS 13 and see what it brings to the table. The first thing you’ll notice is that if it weren’t for the Dell logo on the lid, the XPS 13 looks almost exactly like a MacBook Air. The dimensions and the cuts and the sweeping angles look very like an MBA. The other major distinguishing factor comes from the carbon fiber on the back that gracefully wraps the rear end of the XPS 13. Better yet is the small metal flap that hides your Windows 7 serial key behind the XPS logo.
The XPS 13 is designed to look extremely simple, and as such there are hardly any nooks and crannies. The number of ports is minimal, with the power, USB 2.0 and 3.5mm jack on the left, and on the right we have one mini-DisplayPort and one USB 3.0 port. There’s nothing on the back or front side.
Well, there is one cool small strip of white LED light on the front to indicate the power state of the XPS 13. Also, there’s a battery level indicator on the right side, very similar to MacBook Pros (although there it’s shown in green light).
Keyboard & Monitor
Opening up the XPS 13 we’re greeted with a pleasant looking chiclet keyboard with large indented keys. The keyboard is, of course, backlit with white LEDs. The palmrest area is magnesium alloy with a soft felt paint finish that easy on the hands, while the glass touchpad is nice and large, although I’m not a fan of the squishy mouse buttons at the bottom.
The Corning Gorilla glass display feels very sturdy, and is actually easy on the eyes with a rich contrast, but the glossy finish takes away from the appeal during brightly lit conditions. One of the best things about the display was the 1cm black edges, making the 13.3-inch screen look larger than it is. Viewing angles are typical in this class of laptops, with anything over 120° from the sides bringing in the “negative” effect, and if the screen isn’t tilted directly towards your eyes you’ll start seeing dark shades on the top.
With the Core i5-2467M @ 1.60GHz (Turbo boosting up to 2.30GHz), 4GB of dual-channel DDR3 memory and 128GB SSD the XPS 13 has all the right components to make it good enough for general daily usage. Of the 128GB, only 98.9GB is available after formatting. And after the Windows install and all the bloatware from Dell, just over 73GB is available. Using this with one or two games and a couple of hundred MP3s is fine, but forget storing anything huge as the drive space will be sucked up quicker than you’ll realize.
Overall using the 1.3kg XPS 13 was a pleasure. It’s fairly fast thanks to the Core i5 processor, and the 4GB of RAM is adequate for watching HD movies, doing office work and browsing the net. Heck, weak as the integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics are, I still managed to play DOTA 2 on it, albeit with lowest settings.
That said, the XPS 13 gets fairly hot when under full stress, which I experienced while running benchmarks and playing gamers. The carbon fiber bottom keeps the XPS 13 comfortably warm; however, the center metal plate is too hot to touch directly. HW Monitor showed the chassis maxing out at 85°C while CPU itself touched 85°C. And just when the heavy duty stuff kicks in, the puny fan inside kicks into high gear, which may or may not be irritating depending on your tolerance levels (and whether you’re wearing headphones!).
Since performance on most ultrabooks remains the same, what I decided to do this time around was to test the performance depending on the power modes. So first I ran PCMark 7 with the XPS 13 set to ‘High Power’ and plugged in. Then with ‘High Performance’, but unplugged. Finally I ran PCMark 7 with the XPS 13 on ‘Balanced’ and unplugged. Running it on ‘Power Saver’ mode results in a performance hit that’s felt even when browsing the internet, so no point in benchmarking in that mode.
Not bad, but we a performance drop of 5.4% when the XPS 13 is unplugged, and a further 7.5% when running in ‘Balanced’ mode. Not too bad, because the battery life I clocked in with ‘Balanced’, browsing the net and watching YouTube HD was just over 6 hours.
The Dell XPS 13 brings nothing new to the ultrabook market, as the basic performance shows. But what it does do, and with a lot of class, is an ultrabook form factor that’s desirable by many. You’re not stuck with different aspects of a design you may or may not appreciate. The XPS 13 is a class act from Dell, and if you ignore the rather liberal inspiration from the MacBook Air, then the aluminum chassis with carbon fiber composite base presents an aesthetically pleasing design. The light weight and 18mm – 6mm thickness is something that makes for an ideal ultrabook. Also, starting at $300 cheaper than a similarly specced MacBook Air, you can’t go wrong with the XPS 13 at all.