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Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Review: Best Ultrabook Yet

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For $999, you get an incredibly capable, attractive and compact notebook that will sway some buyers away form the MacBook Air 11.6″ model.

While this notebook isn’t perfect, it is one of  the best Dell notebooks I’ve used. From portability to performance, the XPS 13 Ultrabook brings a lot to the table.

The Dell XPS is the best Ultrabook we have used, which is why we are gave it a Notebooks.com Editor’s Choice Award.

The XPS 13 Ultrabook isn’t perfect, but if we only gave awards to perfect notebooks, we would never give out awards. The trackpad, which is our biggest complaint, will likely be fixed by Dell in a driver update, as they have in the past.

If you want an Ultrabook, the Dell XPS 13 offers beauty, the best build quality, and performance at an attractive price.

The Dell XPS 13 is a very compact notebook that is closer in size to the 11 inch MacBook Air than the 13 inch model. In many ways, the XPS 13 Ultrabook is best compared to the smaller MacBook Air. Both models are similar in size and build quality, both have the same 1366 x 768 resolution and both lack an SD card reader.

More importantly, the Dell XPS 13 starts at $999, just like the 11 inch Macbook Air. But, for the same price consumers get a bigger screen, double th hard drive space, double the RAM and a faster processor.

OS X fans may not be tempted to switch to the Dell XPS 13, but shoppers looking for value will appreciate the components and performance packed into the base model we are reviewing.

Dell XPS 13 vs MacBook air

Dell XPS 13 vs MacBook Air 13-Inch

Does the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook have what it takes to beat out the Ultrabook competition and win back users tempted by the looks and performance of the MacBook Air?

Find out in our Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook review.

Pros

  • Small and compact
  • Very nice, backlit keyboard
  • Great design
  • Excellent Audio
Cons

  • Palm rejection is poor
  • Low resolution display
  • No SD card reader

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Video Review

Watch our hands on review of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook to get up close and personal with Dell’s first Ultrabook. From the aluminum lid to the carbon fiber base we have you covered with impressions of the keyboard, mouse and display.

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook | $999 | Ultrabook

The Competition

Who is the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook for?

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook is a notebook designed for users who are on the go. From students to travelers, the XPS 13 will be a good fit. The $999 entry-level model we are reviewing offers a faster processor than the MacBook Air 11.6″ and double the storage. If you want a sturdy notebook, the XPS 13 is right up there with Apple, beating out the Portege z835.

Professional creatives may be constrained by this entry-level model’s power, but Dell offers a Core i7 model for $1,499.

Design

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook has an anodized aluminum body, but instead of using metal on the bottom Dell opted for a soft touch carbon fiber finish that looks and feels great.

This notebook is very compact. At 12.4″ x 8.1″ x 0.24-0.71″ it is about the same size as the 11 inch MacBook Air, and noticeably smaller than the 13 inch MacBook Air. Users who want a very small package will appreciate this compact form factor, even if the XPS 13 is slightly thicker than the Macbook Air.

One of the things basic users will like most about the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook is that you don’t need to make the typical trade off between screen size and overall size. The XPS 13 Ultrabook is the same size as many 11 inch notebooks, but delivers the screen size of the Toshiba Portege z835 and the HP Folio 13.

Users will also appreciate the build quality, which is higher, and feels nicer than the Portege z835.

I really like the soft touch finish on the palm rest and keyboard tray. The black looks great against the anodized aluminum edges, and it provides a comfortable place to rest your wrists while you use the XPS 13 Ultrabook.

Dell XPS 13 Review Ports left

The Dell XPS 13 has one USB 2.0 port, 1 USB 3.0 port, a DisplayPort and combo mic/headphone jack. There is no SD card slot.

Keyboard and Touchpad

Dell XPS 13 Review keyboard

I was really impressed with the keyboard on the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook. The keys feel great and offer good travel, the distance they need to go before being registered. Spacing is also excellent on the island style keyboard. Even though the notebook is compact, Dell didn’t make any weird key placement or sizing choices.

Dell XPS 13 Review Mouse

Unfortunately the glass touchpad is another story. While accurate and responsive to gestures, even three and four finger gestures, the touchpad has little to no palm rejection. Even with the settings cranked as high as possible, my cursor still jumped constantly while writing this review.

Another issue with the touchpad is the odd click zones. Too often while I was trying to tap to click anywhere on the touchpad I would activate a right-click. This doesn’t happen every time, but often enough that it was an issue.

If you can overlook these two issues you’ll enjoy the built in two, three and four finger gestures, which bring some of the magic from OS X to Windows with easy swipes to see currently open windows and to show your desktop. These weren’t enough to make up for the other issues in my experience.

These issues are most likely software based, so Dell could fix these complaints in a software upgrade.

Display

Dell XPS 13 Review Display

Dell is able to squeeze a 13 inch display in this small form factor thanks to a very small bezel, and strengthens the display with Gorilla Glass to prevent scratches and damage from mobile use.

The XPS 13 Ultrabook has a meager 1366 x 768 resolution, which will disappoint power users. This is the same resolution as the 11.6 inch MacBook Air, and the same as you’ll find on most 14 and 15.6 inch notebooks. This is acceptable on an entry-level notebook, but I wish there was an upgrade to a higher resolution display like the 1440 x 900 resolution on the 13 inch MacBook Air.

Dell XPS 13 Review Profile

Colors look great on the 13 inch display and viewing angles on the Dell XPS 13 are also very good side to side. Colors quickly take a hit when you get off-center vertically, but in most use cases you can position the display to stay in the sweet spot. If you need to share the display with someone for a short YouTube clip you can, but I wouldn’t plan on watching a feature film with someone else on the XPS 13 Ultrabook.

Features

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook isn’t just a pretty face, Dell packs in features you will use and love. Thanks to Waves Maxx the XPS 13 has seriously good sound and Intel WiDi helps you connect to your HDTV with no wires.

WavesMaxx Audio – The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook comes with WavesMaxx Audio which delivers a premium sound experience in a small package. The sound is surprisingly clear and loud. You’ll hear a noticeable difference between the XPS 13 and the competition.

Carbon Fiber Base – The carbon fiber base isn’t just for looks. The Dell XPS 13 is able to stay cooler than the competition thanks to this base.

Wireless Display – If you have an optional $99 WiDI adapter you can wirelessly stream your desktop to your HDTV without any wires.

Performance and Graphics

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook review notebook we have is the base $999 model. This has a 1.60GHz Intel Core i5 2nd Gen processor, 4GB RAM an a 128GB SSD.

The XPS 13 Ulrabook has the power to run your web browser, chat client and Office apps without any slowdowns, including hopping back and forth between them with ease.

I loaded up the included full copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements 9, and edited a number of photos very quickly. The system didn’t struggle with quickly applying filter after filter, no did it struggle when I decided to undo my 18 changes by quickly hitting undo over and over.

The notebook handles streaming video with ease. I watched an episode of Family Guy on Hulu Plus at 720P while all the above apps were open. The XPS 13′s carbon fiber base and large vent kept the notebook nice and cool even at the end of a 20 minute episode.

One issue that users may have is fan noise. During most of the time I used the Dell XPS 13 the fan was audible. It was not so loud that it overpowered the music or audio on these speakers, but if you want a silent notebook, the XPS 13 is not it.

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook resumes from sleep almost instantly, and boots to a usable state in 20-25 seconds.

$999 XPS 13 Model $1,299 XPS 13 Model $1,499 XPS 13 Model
2nd generation IntelÆ Coreô i5-2467M
1.60 GHz with Turbo Boost 2.0 up to 2.30 GHz
2nd generation IntelÆ Coreô i7-2637M processor
1.70 GHz with Turbo Boost 2.0 up to 2.80 GHz (4G)
4GB Dual Channel DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz
128GB SSD 256GB SSD
Silver Anodized Aluminum and 13.3″ HD (720p) Truelife WLED Display with 1.3MP HD
IntelÆ HD Graphics 3000
WindowsÆ 7 Home Premium, 64bit
1 Year Premium Protection Package – America’s Best Standard Protection
2.99 lbs

Battery Life

The Dell XPS 13 is rated for 8.5 hours of battery life, but I came up short. Using the Laptop Magazine Battery Test, which simulates web browsing with the screen at 40% brightness I was able to record 6 hours an 19 minute of battery life.

This is good real world battery life for a compact and light notebook, on par with the rest of the Ultrabook notebooks we have tested. If you drop the screen brightness lower, you will likely achieve longer life, without making the notebook completely unusable.

The Bottom Line

Dell XPS 13 Review half open

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook is an impressive notebook that delivers a lot in a small package, especially at $999. If the trackpad was as good as that on the Macbook Air I would say that Dell had bested Apple in that price range, but sadly that’s not the case.

If you plan to use an external mouse with the XPS 13 Ultrabook, you are in for a great experience. One that will suit Windows fans better than a 11 inch MacBook Air. If you have $999 to spend on a new notebook and the 11 inch MacBook Air’s 64GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM sounds cramped, the XPS 13 Ultrabook is a good option to look into.

Even though the XPS 13 carries the same size display as the 13 inch MacBook Air, the $300 price difference and the higher resolution of the Air put the two at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Gallery

Specs

OS Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Display (size/res) 13.3-inches, 1366 x 768
CPU 1.60-GHz Intel Core i5-(2nd gen)
RAM 4GB
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 3000
Storage 128GB SSD
Wireless Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n; Bluetooth 3.0
Ports 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, DisplayPort, headphone/mic, 1.3MP HD webcam
Size 12.4″ x 8.1″ x 0.24-0.71″
Weight 2.99 pounds

Josh Smith is a longtime mobile tech user, currently using a Droid as his primary smartphone. Josh is also an editor at Notebooks.com where he reviews notebooks and other mobile tech. Follow Josh on Twitter @Josh_Smith or email him Josh@Notebooks.com.

3 Comments

  1. Jmr

    May 6, 2012 at 4:34 am

    Why don’t you insert any picture of the power supply. That’s critical for these ultrabooks. I bought a laptop from HP with a 13.3″ screen and a sleek design and the power supply was so bulky I’d regret the purchase immediately. Mac PS is really brilliant. This is key for a device you need to transport every day.

    • Josh Smith

      May 8, 2012 at 1:09 pm

      I’ll be sure to include that in the future. If i recall correctly this has a small power supply. will try to track an image of one down.

  2. Ritobhas Sarkar

    July 3, 2012 at 6:43 am

    I am Using This XPS 13 Ultrabook…IT is great!

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