Dell XPS 13: A Great Companion for the On-the-Go Consumer

A thorough review of Dell's first ultrabook finds the laptop quick, powerful, and light

Dell’s first ultrabook, the XPS 13 packs powerful performance into a sleek, strikingly thin, compact frame (Image: Dell)

Ultrabooks are hot in the consumer space. Their thin frames, light weight, and speedy hardware make these laptops ideal for road warriors and business people who spend most of their time on the move. With tech consumers buzzing that Dell’s first ultrabook is one of the company’s best designs to date, the compact laptop fares well within its category.

Though not made specifically for enterprise, Dell XPS 13 features a smaller footprint than most 13-inch systems, boasting a good keyboard and an understated yet attractive design. However, the small port selection may put some users off.

The XPS 13 is impressively compact even when compared to other skinny, svelte ultrabooks. It measures just 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.7 inches. (As a point of reference, the 11-inch MacBook Air is 11.8 x 7.6 x 0.11 inches, which is less than an inch smaller on all sides.) The XPS 13 is a hair under 3 pounds — slightly heavier than a netbook.

Despite the small size, you’ll still get a comfortable 13.3-inch display with a 1366 x 768 resolution. There’s also room for a full-size, backlit keyboard and wide touchpad. The keyboard’s square keys are comfortable to type on but don’t offer that firm, tactile feedback you get with keypads from other brands. Needless to say, it took some time to get used to the amount of pressure the keys need. Once I did, I got back up to normal typing speed with no problems.

The touchpad is a clickpad style, meaning the entire surface is touch-enabled and the buttons are integrated, not separate. This is usually a recipe for disaster on a PC, but this touchpad is the exception. I didn’t experience any lag, jumping cursors or finicky behavior.

The deck of the laptop has a rubberized coating that allows the palm to rest very comfortably. This same coating also covers the bottom, making the ultrabook almost completely slip-proof. Slight ridges across the bottom lift the XPS 13 up a little for better flow.

Since the laptop is tapered, there isn’t much room for ports on the side. There are only two USBs — one is 2.0, the other a super speedy 3.0 — a mini DisplayPort, and a headphone/microphone combo jack. If you want to hook the system up to a projector via VGA or HDMI for a presentation, you’ll have to buy adapter dongles, which are sold at Dell.com.

Thanks to speakers that deliver a decent amount of volume, it is possible to share multimedia presentations right from the XPS 13 as long as the room and audience are small. The display is bright and offers good color depth. The viewing angles aren’t very wide, so if your audience isn’t sitting within a narrow range they might see distorted colors.

There are a few pre-loaded programs, and the Intel Smart Connect utility is among the best. When the laptop is in Sleep mode, Smart Connect will wake it periodically to update apps like your email client, calendar, or social network aggregator. Users set how often the ultrabook wakes up — anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes — and Smart Connect will only download over preferred Wi-Fi connections.

The XPS 13 is available in three configurations. The base configuration is $999 and includes an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD (solid state drive).

Performance-wise, the XPS 13 will handle most mid-range tasks easily. You’ll be able to work on documents, spreadsheets and presentations without delay and multitask with dozens of browser tabs open. And, thanks to the SSD, the ultrabook boots and wakes from sleep very fast.

If 128 GB isn’t enough internal storage space, you can bump it up to 256 GB for $1299. Those who need more processing power for more robust programs should consider upgrading to an Intel Core i7 chip for $1499 total. Keep in mind that the XPS 13 only has integrated graphics, so it’s not the laptop to get if you need to do a large amount of video or image editing.

Dell claims that the battery will last between 8 and 9 hours on a charge. In my tests, it lasted between 6 and 7 hours during normal usage with the Wi-Fi on. For most people, this means you can leave the power adapter behind without worrying over battery power.
XPS 13 owners get premium protection service for one year for free with purchase. This includes accidental damage, in-home service, premium phone support and LoJack for Laptops, which can track a missing or stolen system.

Dell’s XPS 13 is an impressive laptop for such a compact machine with several features that will appeal to ultra-mobile users. It doesn’t offer the benefits of machines made specifically for business such as enterprise-level security or “drop it on the floor” ruggedness. But what it does offer makes it one of the most compelling ultrabooks available right now.

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