Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Review

The Dell XPS 13 is a great-looking, well-built, and well-integrated ultrabook. One of the last ultrabooks to market, Dell used its time wisely to put together what is definitely the best ultrabook I’ve reviewed. I’m kind of in love with it, actually.

And while it certainly takes some styling cues from the Macbook Air, it doesn’t feel like a knockoff. In fact, I kind of prefer the XPS 13′s carbon fiber base and soft-touch palm rests to the Air’s sharp edges.

Price and features

The Dell XPS 13 starts at $1,000 with a 1.6 GHz processor and 128 GB SSD. The version Dell sent me to review had the top-of-the-line options (1.7 GHz processor and 256 GB processor) and costs $1,499. The range of options means the XPS 13 undercuts the Macbook Air on price, but not necessarily on features. I would call it comparable. Other ultrabooks with similar specs are cheaper, but other ultrabooks with similar specs don’t have the polish of the XPS 13.

After all, the XPS 13 is not really competing on price. It is competing on its total package. And because the total package is excellent, so is the value.

Hardware and design

dell xps 13 bottom Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Review

Sitting with its lid closed, the XPS 13 looks like a Macbook Air with a Dell logo. Flip it over, though, and it’s a different story. The bottom is carbon fiber with a soft-touch coating. The rubber pads run in two lines across the bottom and anchor the Dell solidly, whether on a table or on your lap.

Open it up, and the same soft-touch material coats the palmrest. It feels great to touch, and does a good job of concealing smudges and fingerprints.

Size-wize, the XPS 13 is noticeably smaller than most 13″ ultrabooks, including the Macbook Air. Dell has crammed a lot into a small package. Since I value compactness quite highly, this makes me really happy. You won’t have trouble sliding the XPS into smaller bags and briefcases.

Keyboard and touchpad

The keyboard is very good, and the rounded, sculpted keys make for comfortable typing with very positive feel. A minor complaint: the keys feel just a bit on the small side. I don’t think the keyboard itself is any smaller than a standard laptop keyboard, but the rounding-off of the keys themselves make it feel smaller than usual. It’s easy to adjust to, though, and after about an hour, typing on the XPS 13′s keyboard felt natural.

dell xps 13 keyboard Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Review

I’ve griped about the generally poor state of buttonless trackpads/touchpads on Windows computers. The Samsung Series 9 was an exception, although it took a lot of tweaking to make it work properly. The Asus UX31 Zenbook was next-best, but felt like a chore to use. The buttonless touchpads on nearly every other Windows computer I have tried range from barely usable to worse than not having any pointing device at all.

The XPS 13 is, fortunately, a completely different story. Out of the box, the touchpad is refreshingly easy to use. It functions just like you would expect a touchpad to function. (It’s kind of sad that what should be a baseline has become an exception, but whatever.)

As a footnote, this apparently wasn’t the case when the XPS 13 first shipped in March. At The Verge, for example, Sean Hollister said “I did … spend a whole lot of my time with the XPS 13 fighting its terrible touchpad.” Dell fixed this problem with later drivers, which ship pre-installed on newer units. I was quite pleased with its performance. (If you have an XPS 13 and are frustrated with the touchpad, get the newer driver.)

Display, sound, and port selection

The XPS 13′s 1366×768 display has decent horizontal viewing angles, but the vertical viewing angles are quite narrow. As long as you are looking at the screen straight on, the picture quality is excellent. But it washes out if you are just a little bit above or below a straight-on perspective. Given all the other good things about the XPS 13, I’m inclined to go easy on it for the less-than-perfect display, but it is the one blemish on this otherwise-excellent ultrabook.

The lid’s hinge is solid, but does allow some play that doesn’t get in the way. The screen has a tendency to jiggle a bit, whether you are working on a surface or on your lap. This is true for most of the ultra-thin-screened ultrabooks I have tested to date.

Like the Zenbook, the XPS 13′s sound is surprisingly good. You won’t want to try hosting any dance parties, but it’s definitely good enough that you can get lost in a movie or game.

Some will also dislike the extreme lack of ports. The XPS 13 only has two USB ports (one is USB 3.0) and a Mini DisplayPort. On the road, that’s more than enough for me. I rarely plug anything in while I’m away from my desk, anyway. At my desk, I would probably plug in a USB hub if I were to use the XPS 13 as my primary computer, and that would get me all the ports I would need.

Included software

While the XPS 13 is fairly free of add-on software, there are two things you will want to remove immediately: McAfee Security Center and the FastAccess facial recognition program (facial recognition is still in the gimmick phase; it’s no more secure than a good password). I got rid of the Bing Bar, as well.

Otherwise, the included software is mostly unobjectionable. And you get that familiar copy of Microsoft Office Starter 2010 that you’ll want to replace with Office Home and Business (or Professional) right away.

Performance

The ultrabooks I have tested have mostly had the same hardware, which means they all perform about the same. I used the XPS 13 for about a week, and it definitely felt on par with its class.

I continue to be impressed by the capabilities of ultrabooks. The XPS 13 doesn’t behave like I would expect a processor with a full GHz less processor speed than my ThinkPad. Unless you really load up on open programs and browser windows, you won’t feel like you are missing out on any power, and you could absolutely use this as your primary computer (plugged into an external display and keyboard, of course).

For example, Netflix plays HD video without stuttering. I realize Netflix is not a key tool in a lawyer’s toolbox, but being able to stream Netflix in HD without stuttering is a decent baseline for testing whether a computer meets basic standards of competency.

The XPS 13 also wakes from sleep in a second or two — as fast as anything else I have tried. It boots plenty quick, too. This is important to lawyering, especially if you are paperless. The ability to get quickly to your files is key whether you are in the courtroom or the boardroom.

The only real negative when it comes to performance is the battery. Most ultrabooks get about 5.5 hours unplugged. The XPS 13 doesn’t even get to 5. That is not awful, but it is well behind the competition.

Who should buy the Dell XPS 13?

If you are in the market for a 13″ Windows ultrabook, this is the one to get. Sure, it’s a little more expensive than the competition, but the reason why is apparent as soon as you pick it up. Dell took a little more time to build a slick, integrated package that works well and looks good. This is the Windows ultrabook I would buy.

PROD NAME
Reviewed by Sam Glover on .

Summary: The Dell XPS 13 is a slick, integrated package that works well and looks good. This is the Windows ultrabook I would buy.

Breakdown:

  • Price and features: 5
  • Hardware and design: 4.5 (docked for the subpar display)
  • Included software: 3
  • Performance: 5

Overall score: 4.5 (out of 5)

Legal Technology

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  • Orlando

    I’ve been reading the reviews on the ultrabooks and there have been a few that say “this is the one to get. So, what is the pecking order of ultrabooks for attorneys here on Lawyerist or the LAB?

    I am sure there are some objective standards as well as subjective preferences. I have only had the chance to try out the Toshiba and Dell ultrabooks listed below. If anyone who has tried others or all, please chime in.

    Dell XPS 13
    Samsung Series 9(?)
    Macbook Air
    HP Folio 13
    Asus UX31 Zenbook
    Toshiba Portege Z830

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      The Macbook Air is still the best, if you want to use a Mac.

      Of the Windows options, I rank the Dell XPS 13 as the best, and the Samsung Series 9 as a fairly close second. The rest trail by a substantial margin.

      However, I haven’t yet tried the HP. I don’t expect to be impressed, as I’m not generally a fan of HP products, but I’ll reserve my opinion until I get a chance to try it.

  • http://www.myrlandmarketing.com Nancy Myrland

    Hi Sam….just read this, and your most recent, review. What is your favorite, lightweight, great battery life Ultrabook today? I’m beginning to travel more for client work, and would love to have something easy to travel with that can handle Social Media demo’s and other client presentations. Thanks for taking the time to review these so thoroughly!

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I don’t think there’s any competition; the MacBook Air is the clear winner in this category. If you want a Windows PC, I really liked this one, the Dell XPS 13, despite the middling battery life compared to the competition. Still, at just under 5 hours, it will still get you through most plane rides with battery life to spare.

  • http://about.me/msylvestre Michel Alexandre Salim

    Got here after short-listing the XPS 13 as my next computer (in addition to the MBA). The bonus point for me is that Dell also sells it configured with Linux (as a Linux developer, purchasing laptops always takes a lot of research w.r.t. compatibility, and the Ultrabooks are generally harder to get working – so this is a big bonus point).

    w.r.t. battery life, apparently MBA also fails to hit 5 hours when used as a Windows 7 laptop (per the Verge), though interestingly they still crown it as their best Windows 7 ultrabook thanks to the screen and trackpad. Looking forward to the 2013 refresh of XPS 13, the one with that bright 1080p screen — that’d put it on par.