Dell had already outdone itself with the XPS 13 ultrabook in early 2013. That notebook matched the competition almost point for point, but in a smaller frame. Of course, the competition never stops, with full HD touchscreens and Haswell processors the norm for premium laptops going into 2014.
While Dell lagged a bit behind, the late 2013 XPS 13 line finally sports all new CPUs, 1080p touch panels and even beefier batteries. The company managed to fit all this in the same tiny frame that looks more like an 11-inch laptop than a 13-inch device. So, was it enough to remain relevant?
Competitors like the Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus and 13-inch MacBook Air have scored some much-needed upgrades, too. In the process, these premium machines have differentiated in key, divergent paths. The XPS 13 lands somewhere in the middle of both thin and light rigs, while maintaining its master class look and feel.
Where the Ativ Book provides a viewing experience that’s "beyond HD," the XPS 13 sticks to good old 1920 x 1080. (Where Windows 8.1 looks best, anyway.) And while the MacBook Air stuck to its guns with the now-dated 1440 x 900 resolution, doing so helped it achieve standard-setting battery life beyond what Dell’s laptop can say with its sharp new screen.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Little, if anything, has changed about the XPS 13 design with this update. And I have zero beef with that. The machined aluminum lid with shiny chamfered edges and chrome Dell logo return in good form. Opening the lid reveals the same magnesium palmrest, coated in that svelte soft touch paint (and again: chamfered edges) for that cool and comfy feel. And the returning carbon fiber base continue to stay put on your lap.
Through and through, the XPS 13 still looks and feels like Dell’s answer to the MacBook Air. If this laptop’s chassis were made completely of aluminum, you’d have a hard time distinguishing the two. But this notebook’s differences aren’t for sake of dodging patents or trademarks; they have purpose.
The question is whether they’re for the right purpose. The only tangible differences between this XPS 13 and its Apple-made rival are of size, feel, interactivity and weight as a result. This laptop’s dimensions not only make for an impressively thin bezel, but a machine that looks terrifically tiny for its screen size.
But the biggest difference is touch, something you find on so many Windows 8 machines, but only on iOS in the world of Apple. The touchscreen was a necessary addition if Dell’s wants to make a luxury laptop, putting the XPS 13 on par with Samsung and Acer’s premium machines. However, that screen bumps the XPS 13 up to 3.03 pounds from 2.95, and out of the MacBook Air’s weight class. Let’s see how else this notebook meets, or exceeds, the competition where it counts, on the inside.
This edition of the XPS 13 might be an iterative update, but the gains in features and performance are nothing to sneeze at. With this model, Dell ushers in the age of Haswell for its leading 13-inch personal laptop, not to mention a touchscreen. That said, this notebook was crafted with a heavy focus on portability.
At just 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.2 – 0.7 inches (W x D x H), the XPS 13 is "the most compact 13-inch ultrabook" around, according to Dell. Furthermore, Dell claims that its latest laptop offers the same size display as the 13-inch MacBook Air in a machine that’s 14 percent smaller, thanks to a noticeably thin bezel.
The Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus comes in at 12.58 x 8.78 x 0.54 inches, so it’s slimmer, but wider. Given that the MacBook Air measures 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.11 – 0.68 inches, Dell’s display promise checks out, but Apple’s laptop is still the thinnest on the block.
And at 3.03 pounds, the XPS 13 holds more heft than the 2.95-pound MacBook Air, thanks to its touchscreen, but beats the Ativ Book’s 3.06 pounds by a hair. Regardless, this is one of the most portable notebooks on the market. This laptop packs a lot for its form factor, but Dell cut one corner yet again that might make photo buffs groan. Here’s a look at what the company managed to cram inside this clamshell.
This is the XPS 13 configuration sent to TechRadar:
- CPU: 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U (dual-core, 4MB cache, up to 3.0GHz with Turbo Boost)
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4400
- RAM: 8GB DDR3
- Screen: 13.3-inch 1920 x 1080 with 10-finger touch support
- Storage: 256GB mSATA SSD
- Ports: 2 USB 3.0 (both with charging), mini DisplayPort, headphone/mic jack
- Connectivity: Intel dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
- Webcam: HD widescreen camera with dual microphone array
- Weight: 3.03 pounds
- Size: 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.2 – 0.7 inches (W x D x H)
Given that showing of specs, it should be no shocker that, at $1,649 (about £1,004, AU$1,843), this is the most expensive XPS 13 available. Since Dell only offers three terribly rigid configurations, I can only point at the included 3-year service package for driving up the price a bit. Mind, though, that every configuration – starting at $1,049 – comes packing that 1080p screen, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
The Ativ Book handily bests Dell’s displays with 3200 x 1800 touch panels across the board. But this notebook asks for $1,799 (around £1,100, AU$2,006) just to match what’s inside this XPS 13, namely its SSD, 8GB of RAM and Core i7 CPU. And while this machine packs micro HDMI, it can’t say the same for AC networking.
To match this XPS 13’s beefy Core i7 chip, RAM and SSD size, the MacBook Air would cost you just $1,549 (about £947, AU$1,724) in comparison. However, the Air’s 1440 x 900 panel doesn’t hold a candle to either laptop’s display. Plus, neither laptop offers Dell’s 3-year support contract, which includes in-home servicing and 24-hour phone support.
Most folks won’t need the oomph of a Core i7 chip and that much storage, given the advent of streaming entertainment. Going with the mid-range XPS 13 model would shave off a cool $350. This will net you a 1.6GHz Core i5-4200U that can throttle up to 2.6GHz, the same amount of RAM and half the SSD space with a much more approachable price tag of $1,299 (around £792, AU$1,450).
The cheapest Ativ Book 9 Plus goes for $1,399 (about £853, AU$1,567), matching this XPS 13 configuration point for point with the exception of its QHD touchscreen. A similarly-configured MacBook Air would cost just $1,199 (around £731,AU$1,338), though without a fancy 1080p touch panel.
What the XPS 13 is sorely lacking is an SD card reader (found in both competing machines), which could be a damper for even casual photographers. But if that’s the biggest compromise you’ll need to make, then pick up an SD card-to-USB adapter.
That you can’t ditch the touchscreen upon checkout is more of a dig for me. In fact, the ability to configure at least a few points when purchasing an XPS 13 from Dell would have been ideal. But let’s focus on the experience with the product at hand, shall we?
The XPS 13 fared just as you would expect a system with a high-end mobile CPU and the RAM and SSD to back it up. I ran this system through our usual synthetic tests and saw results that were marginally better than mid-level laptops. That said, everyday tasks will be no sweat for this machine. Here’s how it performed:
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 45,050; Cloud Gate: 4,721; Fire Strike: 632
- Cinebench CPU: 259 points
- PCMark 8 Battery Life: 3 hours, 47 minutes
While this notebook doesn’t have the Intel HD Graphics 5000 found in the 13-inch MacBook Air, its Core i7 processor will be handle a number of graphics-related tasks with little issue. Not only could I stream 1080p video with zero playback issues, I could play casual games like Hearthstone at max settings with no visible slowdown.
Granted, you won’t get a decent Battlefield session out of this rig – save that for the Xbox One or Sony PS4. The XPS 13 is designed to be a well-rounded machine, able to perform all of your everyday computing activities with gusto. During my time with the device, it handled a number of tasks with no visible problems at all. Mainly, I ran Spotify streaming high-bitrate audio, Mozilla Firefox with over 15 tabs open, a chat app, TweetDeck and a PDF reader.
The numbers above show a machine that fared marginally better than most Core i5 (Haswell) systems I’ve tested. So, perhaps the mid-level XPS 13 is a much better deal in this case. However, the battery life I saw gave me pause.
You better be an outlet ninja
With an estimated battery life of just 3 hours and 47 minutes from PCMark 8, I was concerned that the XPS 13 wasn’t equipped to go for the long haul; a real pity for such a portable machine. Even with its upgraded 55WHr – the previous had just a 47WHr juice pack – this laptop’s lasting power didn’t blow me away. Granted, TechRadar runs the PCMark 8 battery test on a Windows laptop’s "High performance" power setting with the screen brightness at 100 percent.
Regardless, my own tests only eked out another hour or so from Dell’s leading leisure laptop. I ran the XPS 13 down on the "Balanced" power setting with the keyboard backlit, volume around 30% and screen at about 50% brightness with the same apps and tasks I run in my anecdotal performance test. The result: 4 hours and 53 minutes, just 66 minutes longer than the PCMark 8 result.
Dell pegs the XPS 13 for up to 11 hours worth of battery life, but of course uses its own parameters and benchmarks for testing. There could be several reasons for the results I got, namely the 1080p touch panel; producing that many pixels is no doubt a power draw, not to mention touch control. That said, the Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus saw similar times with its QHD+ touchscreen on its highest power setting. It looks like there’s some work to do here.
The MacBook Air saw endurance more in line with today’s "all-day" battery life claims, its screen also sports a far smaller pixel count. If you were to switch to an even lower power setting and screen brightness, you would surely get a better time out of the XPS 13, but that’s a trade-off I’d rather not make.
Soft, smooth and snappy
These are the three words that immediately come to mind when thinking about the typing and tracking experience that Dell offers here. With a full-sized, brightly backlit set of chiclet-style keys in black, smooth plastic, the XPS 13 keyboard is already off to a fantastic keyboard. Thankfully, typing this review met my tough expectations with plenty of room for each finger as they rested on each key.
The soft, glass touchpad with integrated click made navigating Windows 8.1 a breeze – gestures like summoning the Charms menu and scrolling through web pages were pulled off effortlessly. The black touchpad offers just enough give upon clicking so as to neither feel chintzy or too stiff.
My complaints here are minor ones. First, these keys are oddly shaped and spaced, just short of square and with just a bit too much space between them. It’s nothing you won’t get used to after a day of use, but sticking to standard shapes and spacing would’ve made this all the easier. Second is that the function keys don’t give their attached commands priority, which is something I expect from a personal device. Despite these niggling issues, you will not be disappointed by these inputs.
Hitting the sweet spot for sharpness
Offering a 1920 x 1080 screen across all models, the XPS 13 sports a Corning Gorilla Glass display that’s just as sharp as Windows 8.1 can handle ideally at the moment. Competitors like Acer and Samsung offer "beyond HD" screens, which is nice, but not enough apps support those resolutions to make it worth the inflated cost.
Imperceptible pixels make for smooth fonts throughout and a pleasant reading experience. Icons on both the Desktop Mode and Modern UI home screens in Windows 8.1 looked fantastically sharp. If you’re looking for a (sensibly) premium viewing, this is where it’s at.
As I’ve mentioned, a touchscreen is one of Dell’s major updates to the XPS 13 line of laptops. For some, it might be a welcome addition, whereas I don’t see much use for a touchscreen on an otherwise premium (albeit standard) ultrabook. As responsive and smooth as it is – save for Desktop UI, which most apps aren’t touch-optimized for – the touch display isn’t any more useful than the touchpad and keyboard.
This is exactly why it’s such a bother that touch panels aren’t optional on the mid-level and high-end models of the XPS 13. Many Windows users, myself included, simply don’t see the need for touchscreens on their laptops, or would just like to forgo it to keep a little extra money in our wallets. And it has the unfortunate effect of packing on the pounds (the touch screen bumps this laptop up from 2.95 to 3.03 pounds) and driving up the price.
In 2014, Dell is blazing the trail against bloatware. With just two third-party apps pre-loaded on the XPS 13, Amazon and Kindle, this is one lightweight system software-wise. Here’s a look at some of Dell’s own, more notable pre-loaded apps:
- Dell Shop: Just a Windows 8 Modern UI app that offers easy access to Dell computers and accessories available for purchase.
- Dell Update: This tool pulls driver and software updates right from Dell’s servers, so no need to to go the Dell website and search around to keep up to date.
- My Dell: Offering backup and system scan features, this comprehensive app also provides links to system information and support.
- Pocket Cloud: Dell pre-loads this cloud app on all of its devices, which uses your Google account to sync files and app data across all computers with it installed. Plus, it offers 2GB of free cloud space.
Dell has chosen to meet the opposition head on in the portability race, with a laptop that isn’t thinner or even all that lighter, but rather more compact in width and depth. It’s an impressive feat, to offer the same screen size in a smaller frame. Coupled with an incredibly attractive design, the XPS 13 is one of the master class ultrabooks.
However, the move for a smaller frame continues to cost the XPS 13 what some would consider a core feature: an SD card reader. (But if you’re not a photo buff, then no harm, no foul.) This laptop also can’t seem to match the 13-inch MacBook Air’s nearly all-day battery life. Despite those two digs against the XPS 13 when stacked against its nemesis, I would still happily recommend this laptop.
For anyone seeking a premium Windows experience, the XPS 13 situates itself nicely between the MacBook Air and Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus. It possesses neither the Mac’s endurance nor the Ativ Book’s razor sharp touchscreen, but lands somewhere in the middle. All the while, this laptop would fit right in sitting next to either device.
Even in its mid-level configuration, you’ll have a hard time wearing this laptop down. Between it’s gobs of RAM, sizable SSD and Core i7 processor, the XPS 13 will handle almost anything you can think to throw at it. Want to stream House of Cards while live-tweeting your thoughts, lurking on Facebook and trading some blows in Hearthstone? No problem.
What’s better is how sharp all of it will come through on the notebook’s 1080p touchscreen. This is the resolution that most laptops should aspire to, not to mention come back down to, as it’s the optimal pixel count for Windows 8.1. Dell also set the panel to 350 nits, which it claims is up to 75% brighter than the average 200-nit display, and it shows. Videos looked fantastic, with deep purples and vibrant reds throughout, while web content was sharp and smooth.
A poor typing and tracking experience can ruin an otherwise fantastic notebook. Thankfully, that is certainly not the case with the XPS 13. Both this laptop’s keyboard and touchpad offer comfortable and accurate experiences. While the keyboard presents a brief learning curve with its seemingly unique key shaping and spacing, it’s not a deal-breaker by a long shot.
Finally, that the XPS 13 fit a 13.3-inch screen in a device with dimensions that make it look more like an 11-inch laptop cannot be ignored. It’s still an impressive feat, producing one of thinnest bezels on a laptop I’ve seen. This laptop isn’t all that thinner than the competition, but its compact chassis should make more room in your backpack. And remember, neither Samsung nor Apple include a 3-year service guarantee in their laptops’ prices.
One of the major digs against the XPS 13 is that it’s still without an SD card reader where both the Ativ Book and MacBook Air offer one and then some. It’s a conceit that was probably made years ago to differentiate the device with a smaller form factor. Was it worth it? Well, I use an SD card reader often enough for me to miss it if it were gone.
If you’re hoping for ultrabook-like battery life from the XPS 13, then you should level those expectations. At least in my own testing, I saw endurance times less than half of what the laptop’s maker claims, though the parameters of my tests are certainly different from Dell’s. While I saw battery life in line with some competing ultrabooks, it didn’t come close to its archrival: the MacBook Air.
My last issue with the XPS 13 is that none of its configurations are customizable. What you see is what you get. I would remove the check in the box next to "FHD Corning Gorilla Glass display with 10 point multi-touch" upon checkout without a second thought, if it were there. Bringing touch control to the XPS 13 line was a must for Dell to remain competitive, but it’s not something that should be imposed upon users.
The XPS 13 is one of those ultrabooks that the lot aspires to, and this edition maintains that status. Between its classy design and impressively tiny chassis, this laptop will turn heads with the likes of the Apple and Samsung laptops of the world. With this power-packed update, Dell offers one of the more premium typing experiences I’ve had with a Windows laptop.
However, the XPS 13 still lacks an SD card reader, not to mention it offers battery life that’s unbecoming of a Haswell machine. (And, given that I find it largely useless, where’s the option to ditch the touchscreen?) That said, smartphones are quickly replacing the point-and-shoot, and few folks travel regularly for leisure. So, those looking for a luxurious, reliable machine to rock at the coffee shop will find plenty to admire in the new Dell XPS 13.