Around six years ago, I remember lusting after a carbon-fibre Sony ultraportable that weighed under a kilogram, was wafer-thin, and cost $5000. Dell’s Ultrabook XPS 13 is a much more affordable $1699, but it has many of the characteristics of that long ago crush of mine.
Take, for example, the carbon fibre chassis. It feels fantastically tactile in the hands – soft, smooth and yet grippy – and it’s also cool to the touch even when running heavy multitasking content from our benchmark suite. The lid is aluminium and provides resilience and scratch resistance. Put them together and you have a solid and strong laptop. I haven’t been entirely impressed with some recent Dell models when it comes to build quality, but this is exemplary.
What makes it even more stunning is that it’s all packed into a design that is just 18mm thick at its maximum – and just 6mm at its minimum.
It’s the same size and weight as many 11-inch laptops, but there’s a 13.3-inch screen onboard. I admit that, having just reviewed the third-generation iPad (page 48), the 1366 x 768-pixel screen looks a little low-res compared to the iPad’s Retina Display. It’s hard to be entirely satisfied with any regular laptop screen after that, but the Dell holds its own and the Gorilla Glass coating helps it stand out. Colours are vivid and accurate, and text is crisp and clear.
The keyboard surround has the same tactile, soft feel as the chassis, but the aluminium surround can seem a little rough at times while typing on the well-separated keys of the backlit island keyboard. The keyboard itself uses an odd font face, and travel can seem a little shallow. This make typing for long stretches a little hard on the fingers, but given the overall depth of the laptop it’s hard to know how Dell could improve that.
So far, so good, but there are downsides. You’ll find only one USB 3.0 port and one USB 2.0 port, along with a headphone jack and mini-DisplayPort. That’s it – no card reader or optical drive here.
That’s part of the tradeoff of ultrabooks, of course, but you’ll also have to live with a measly 128GB solid state drive (there’s a pricier model with a 256GB SSD). It’s just as well that the Intel integrated graphics don’t allow for heavy-duty 3D games, since you’d have little space on which to install them. Still, if you only have a small multimedia library you should be fine.
The XPS name is usually associated with performance, and the XPS 13 range includes either an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor. Our model was the entry-level version, with a Core i5-2467M processor at 1.6GHz (2.33GHz with turbo boost) and 4GB of DDR3 RAM. The higher priced Core i7 model starts at $2,399. The XPS 13 is the sixth ultrabook through the PC World labs, and it’s on a par with the Toshiba Satellite Z850 in terms of performance. It doesn’t quite match the HP Envy Spectre and Asus Zenbook, but its price is well below those two models. In terms of bang-for-buck, the entry-level XPS 13 model hits a definite sweet spot.
The only weak point was in our Trackmania Nations Forever benchmark, where the XPS 13 had the lowest score of any ultrabook we’ve tested to date. It reinforces that this is a laptop for taking places, not for sitting on a desktop at home. Which brings us neatly to battery life – the XPS 13 performed well with a tidy five hours and ten minutes.
In all, this is a well-priced, moderately well performing super-lightweight laptop that I’d be proud to tote around town.
Dell is distributed in New Zealand by Simms International.
This review first appeared in the May issue of PC World magazine.