Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking, Dell’s MacBook Air challenger got a whole lot better in 2014. Now, in its third generation, the XPS 13 for 2014 hasn’t changed at all externally, which actually is a good thing as Dell’s design and build quality for the notebook has been top notch since it was previewed in late 2012, but the internal changes help to amp up performance.
Better processor, higher resolution display, improved graphics, and even more battery stamina help to keep this best-in-class Windows Ultrabook at the top of the list, and Dell doesn’t disappoint in giving Apple a run for its money either with stylish good looks and attention to design details.
Pros. Elegant design with a solid unibody lid, 1080p full HD touchscreen display, and soft touch keyboard deck along with a carbon fiber chassis makes this a classy Ultrabook with good looks and sturdy enough build quality to go up against Apple’s MacBook Air.
Cons. The XPS 13 can run a tad on the warm side and could sound loud when resources are maxed out and the fans kick in. Additionally, the system doesn’t have an SD card reader, which could limit the appeal of powerful Ultrabook to photogaphy enthusiasts.
Verdict. The XPS 13 stands out with one of the best construction of a PC laptop in recent years. Opting for the most expensive configurations, users will also be treated to a rare, but included, 3-year warranty plan.
The XPS 13 is a well equipped laptop with a consistent design in the same way that Apple’s successful line of MacBook Air has seen little changes over the years. Now, in its third generation, the XPS 13 for 2014 retains the same wedge shaped design that clocks in at just 0.7-inch thick in the back and tapers to a slim 0.2-inch at the front.
Designed to take on the MacBook Air, you can see that Dell has placed a lot of emphasis in making the XPS 13 a stylish notebook by utilizing a combination of carbon fiber, metal, and soft touch finishes along with accents like polished chamfered edging. Unlike other systems that rely on carbon fiber–the material itself is strong but not solid like a unibody aluminum construction would be–the XPS 13 feels a lot more mature and solid in construction, which can be attributed to Dell’s strategic use of a metal ring around the keyboard deck and within internals itself make the undercarriage of the notebook feel solid.
In terms of dimensions, when the XPS 13 was first shown off in late 2012 to us, Dell promoted the system as being one of the smallest 13-inch Ultrabooks on the market. Thanks to very slim bezels, Dell was able to make the XPS 13 fit into a footprint that was only slightly larger than an 11-inch MacBook Air despite having the larger screen real estate of the 13-inch Air. While that was a sizable accomplishment over a year ago, the XPS 13 is now faced with heavy competition from rivals like Toshiba and its 13-inch Kirabook notebook.
Though when compared to the Kirabook, the XPS 13 is about the same size and both systems utilize a touch-enabled 13-inch panel. The main difference is that while Dell has upped the resolution to 1080p full HD on the XPS 13, the Kirabook debuted with an even higher 2560 X 2440-pixel display, though the XPS 13 trumps the Kirabook in build quality.
Dell has paid a lot of attention to the aesthetics and design of the XPS 13, and you can clearly see this even before opening up the display. The lid of the laptop is made from a brushed machined aluminum plate, which helps to protect the display and the only thing breaking up the display is the Dell logo, encased in a circle, that’s fashioned from a black chrome-like finish.
Opening up the XPS 13, users will immediately notice that there isn’t a notch on the display surface to help users lift up the screen. The center top of the display actually curves out just a hair bit longer over the bottom edge of the laptop to make it easier to lift the display.
The XPS 13 is seeing incremental upgrades to its display. The 13.3-inch display is protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass NBT and houses a full 1080p resolution touchscreen, which comes in handy for Windows 8 and Windows 8.1.
When compared to other systems, though, the XPS 13′s display slots somewhere in the middle. It’s the same resolution as the upgraded HP Spectre 13t x2 convertible tablet that we had recently reviewed, though it doesn’t support as high a resolution as the QHD-enabled display on the XPS 11, which is ashame really as the display on the XPS 11 is crisp and detailed. We’ve already mentioned the Toshiba Kirabook’s high resolution display and Samsung also has a sharp display on its ATIV Book 9 Plus series. However, when compared to the standard MacBook Air from Apple, the XPS 13 is ahead of Apple’s 1440 X 900-pixel screen.
Resolution is only a part of what makes a display great, and Dell shows that it knows what mobile users demand in a premium Ultrabook. The display on the XPS 13 is punchy with a lot of contrast and a very bright screen that shines far brighter than on most systems offered by the competition. For consumers, this means you can take the XPS 13 on a sunny day to a park or check emails and log in from a picnic and still be able to see and read what’s on the screen.
Another benefit is that you don’t have the crank up the brightness to maximum to be able see the screen. In fact, the XPS 13′s display is miles ahead of the HP Spectre 13t x2′s display in brightness, and it was a bit jarring when switching between the two systems when looking at the screen at maximum brightness.
In my home office where I sit to type emails, my back faces the window so that the sun is always glaring in on the monitors and displays that I use. It’s a great benchmark for testing screen brightness as it’s not as harsh as taking notebooks to the beach, but represents some of the conditions that mobile workers may encounter at the office or while working at a cafe on a bright day. With the XPS 13, I was pleasantly surprised by how bright and effective this display is.
Blacks were inky rich and colors were vibrant on this screen, and streaming HD videos was a simple pleasure.
Keyboard & Touchpad
Unlike the MacBook Air, which is cloaked entirely in cold, hard metal, the soft touch finish on the magnesium keyboard deck is a nice touch. Immediately, it is inviting and warm so that when you first power on your laptop a cold morning–it only takes a few seconds to boot–you can comfortably start typing without feeling that the surfaces are too cold when your wrist breezes by and scrapes on the wrist rest. Using plastic would have achieved this same effect on the keyboard rest, but the use of a soft coat finish on magnesium gives this premium Ultrabook a much more solid feel.
The recessed keyboard is entirely coated with the soft touch material and the continuity of this finish is broken up by matte square black island-styled keys. Typing was easy and we were able to get full typing speeds on the well-paced, full-sized keyboard. Dell also added a nice, but subtle, concave curvature to the top of the keys to aid in typing accuracy.
In use, the keyboard sounded a bit more hollow than we’re accustomed to on a notebook. The keys offer decent travel–better than the keyboard on the convertible Spectre 13t x2 but still not as good as the keyboards on Apple’s and Lenovo’s systems.
The keyboard offers two levels of backlighting as well, which is good for typing in dark areas.
The one-piece glass touchpad is sufficiently large and accommodates the gestures needed for use with Windows 8, including two-finger scrolling, though sensitivity seems to be a bit jumpy. Though the trackpad doesn’t have physical buttons for left and right clicks, a grey demarcation line drawn on the bottom portion of the trackpad helps users identify where to click in for a left click or right click. When you do click, the entire glass trackpad clicks in.
And though the keyboard deck itself isn’t machined from the same unibody design that Apple’s MacBook Air is, Dell’s decision to layer a magnesium panel and cover it with soft touch paint helps to make the keyboard feel reassuringly solid with no flex, even if you poke hard in the middle T, Y, G, H, B, and N keys. The matte aluminum edge and nicely polished chamfered ring around the keyboard also help to making the carbon fiber undercarriage feel surprisingly sturdy.
Indentations to the checkered-black carbon fiber-clad edges of the XPS 13 reveal a limited array of ports on this stylish Ultrabook. On the left edge, you’ll have ports for the AC power adapter, a full-sized USB 3.0 port, and headphone jack.
On the right edge, you’ll have a mini DisplayPort along with a second USB 3.0 port. Next to the USB port is a small circular button that’s a bit hard to press, but once you get in there with a fingernail, you’ll see 5 LED lights that light up to indicate how much power your XPS 13 contains without having to physically turn on the Ultrabook to check within the software.
At the top of the display, there is also an integrated webcam that’s built into the bezel. Quality of the camera was decent, though you’ll likely be able to take better quality selfies without as much noise or grain in a room with average light through the use of a cell phone rather than the XPS 13′s built-in camera.
Notably missing from the suite of ports is a Kensington lock port, which many consumers don’t actually use these days but can come in handy if you want to secure your notebook to a table at work, as well as an SD card slot of any size. If you’re a photographer, you’ll likely need to invest in an SD to USB reader.
Battery life for the Haswell-equipped XPS 13 is solid, presenting strong numbers that will make this system a joy to use. Mobile professionals who travel cross country will find that strong battery numbers mean that they can get more done on the go, with battery life stretching above the 7-hour mark and well into the 8-hour mark.
When we streamed videos and opened a few browser tabs while connected to WiFi, battery life hovered closer to the 7 hours of continuous use on a single charge. With just editing some Word documents and having a few browser tabs opened stretched us beyond the 8-hour mark.
Thanks to partnership with Intel, this year’s XPS 13 offers powerful gains in performance, graphics, and battery life.
The XPS 13 starts out with a fourth generation Intel Haswell Core i3 processor for $1,049. At that price, the laptop ships with 4 GB RAM, a 128 GB SSD, and a full HD display sans touch. Jumping to the $1299 configuration, you’ll get a boost to an Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB RAM, and a touchscreen alongside the same 128 GB SSD.
The priciest configuration is at $1649, and at that price you’ll jump to a more powerful Core i7 processor, 256 GB SSD for storage, and a bump in warranty from the standard 1-year to a full 3 years of support.
Performance of the system–we reviewed the middle of the road configuration with an i5 processor–is on par with other Ultrabooks in the category. The XPS 13 uses Intel’s HD4400 graphics and this allows users to use some GPU- and CPU-intensive software on the go. You likely won’t want to rely purely on this system to edit the next cover of Vogue, but you can make quick Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements adjustments on the go. More graphics-heavy game load and run fine with medium details. Because the system runs Windows 8/8.1 rather than the Windows RT OS, you can run legacy Windows titles that are not found in the Windows Store.
The Dell XPS 13 remains one of the most solidly built Windows Ultrabook on the market today with build quality good enough to compete against the class-leading MacBook Air series. Weighing in at just over 3 pounds, the XPS 13 delivers a lot of power and performance, and this year’s refresh adds additional performance gains to an already superb system.
The Intel Haswell processor, better integrated Intel HD graphics, and a full HD touchscreen optional display along with a beefier battery and more battery stamina continue to make the XPS 13 one of our favorite Ultrabooks on the market today despite a design that has remained the same for three generations.
While you may find the same internals on competing systems, Dell did a fantastic job in wrapping the XPS 13 in a stylish design that is strong enough to woo away even the Apple faithful.