Dell XPS 13: initial impressions

Back at CES, we gave you the details on Dell’s first Ultrabook, the XPS 13. At the time, I said “it may be the best laptop Dell’s made in years,” based on a very limited demonstration. Now I have the final production model in my hands, and I’m pleased to say my impression stands. The XPS 13 is by no means the perfect laptop, but my initial hands-on impression is extremely positive.

A full review with benchmarks and a lot more hands-on use will be forthcoming, but I wanted to let you know what I think before the system goes on sale next week. Dell makes a big deal about the size of the XPS 13, and they’re right to: it’s sort of impressive.

Related story: First-Gen ultrabook prices may drop by 25 per cent

While slightly thicker than the 13-inch Macbook Air, and just a touch heavier (we measured 2 pounds 15.8 ounces, where the Air is 2 pounds 15.1 ounces), the XPS 13 actually has a significantly smaller footprint than Apple’s hot laptop. While the screen is the same size as the 13-inch Air, the XPS 13 is actually less wide and less deep. An Ultrabook that’s actually smaller than the comparable Macbook Air is no mean feat, and it’s definitely not the kind of thing you expect from Dell. Speaking of the display, its resolution is 1366×768, which is a bit lower than the 1440×900 resolution of the Air.

It’s also a 16:9 aspect ratio instead of 16:10 on the Apple product, so it’s slightly wider and slightly shorter. It gets quite bright, though the glossy screen makes it hard to use in bright, direct sunshine. Off-axis viewing is reasonable, though I’ve seen better, and I’m spoiled by the IPS displays on premium tablets. The system I’m testing is the entry-level $999 model, which features a 1.6GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD.

The entry-level Macbook Air costs $300 more and gives you the same RAM and SSD, but a very slightly faster (1.7GHz) Core i5 CPU. Dell also offers configurations with a 256GB SSD for $1299, and with a 256GB SSD and Core i7 2637M for $1499. The performance of this entry-level model feels quite snappy. The system boots up quickly, and wakes up from sleep in just a couple seconds when you open the lid. Applications launch quickly. It’s the performance you expect from a good Core i5 CPU and fast SSD. 

The keyboard is actually quite nice. The key travel is sort of short, but that’s a problem with all these super-thin laptops. If found it quite easy to type quickly and accurately, which is a step up from a lot of Ultrabook keyboards. Oh, and it’s backlit, too. The trackpad is a new “clickpad” that clicks anywhere over the entire surface. Even near the top of the trackpad you get a satisfying “click” to let you know you’ve…well…clicked. The pad on my review unit is a little finicky, but I’m promised a driver update any minute now that should improve sensitivity and scrolling.

The software loadout bears mentioning. The XPS 13 test system I’m using has a very clean build, with no Dell Stage software. JThere’s only the Dell support stuff, a Webcam utility, Skype, McAfee, and Windows Live Essentials. Boot up for the first time and you won’t see much on the desktop or taskbar. I’ve been informed that the very first batch of XPS 13 systems will have the usual Dell software loadout with Stage, but that the second run of systems (shipping around April) will feature the very lean software configuration I’m using. I’m thrilled to see Dell trim the fat; these days, people know how to get the software they like on their PCs.

After spending an afternoon with the XPS 13, my opinion is just as favorable as it was when I first laid eyes on it at the start of the year. It’s a system that is so un-Dell-like (and I mean that in the best possible way) that I’ve actually carried it around the office to show it to coworkers, most of whom are similarly impressed. I reserve final judgement until I get some hard performance numbers and spend a lot more time with it, but for now, it feels like the only thing stopping me from running out and buying one myself is the knowledge that Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips will be shipping in a few months, and I really want a laptop with one of those.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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