Dell has a lot of faith in the XPS 13, its first entry into the emerging Ultrabook class of superthin laptops. Compared to what we’re used to seeing from Dell, it’s a design marvel: thin, light, sleek, and well built with high-quality materials. It looks good, feels good, and performs well. If not for its disappointing display quality and a few minor trackpad issues, the XPS 13 would qualify as the best Ultrabook yet. Even with those drawbacks, it’s one of the best Ultraportables around, but I can’t recommend it unreservedly.
The version of the XPS 13 that I tested is the entry-level model. For $999, you get a Core i5-2467M with Intel integrated graphics, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid-state drive. For $300 more, you can upgrade to a 256GB SSD; and another $200 will boost the CPU to a dual-core Core i7. Our baseline configuration proved to be pretty zippy on its own, delivering a strong WorldBench 7 score of 136. Chalk that performance up to the SSD, which helps the system boot up in about 17 seconds and performs basic file operations very speedily. In our battery tests, the system lasted just a hair under 6.5 hours. However, that number drops precipitously if you crank up the screen brightness, which can get quite bright.
The design and build quality are a cut above anything we’ve seen from Dell in a long time, and among the best we’ve seen in any thin-and-light laptop on the market. The base, composed of carbon fiber, has a pleasant soft-touch feel, and it hides the obnoxious service tag info under a flip-up metal plate for a cleaner look. The matte-black magnesium-alloy keyboard deck and the aluminum lid add rigidity where it’s needed. The whole machine weighs 3 pounds–nearly the same as Apple’s 13-inch Macbook Air. Dell’s system, despite having a 13.3-inch screen, is actually shorter and narrower than Apple’s, thanks to the extremely narrow bezel around the edge. Dell likes to say that it put a 13-inch screen into an 11-inch chassis, which is a bit of a stretch, but the laptop’s compactness is impressive. The XPS 13 felt solid and dense in my hands, and it didn’t flex at all.
If you’re into games, you had best look elsewhere. Lacking a discrete graphics chip, the XPS 13 delivered unsatisfactory performance in modern 3D games. To achieve playable framer rates in games at the display’s native resolution of 1366 by 768, you have to dial the details down to their lowest setting. Even then, with some strenuous games, you can’t get a good experience. Thus far, ultrabooks simply aren’t for gamers.
I was quite impressed by the keyboard. Most ultrathin laptops’ keyboards don’t support fast, accurate typing, but the one on the XPS 13 permitted me to click away at full speed. It’s even backlit. The trackpad was another story. With the initial release driver, it seemed quite finicky. Set the sensitivity so that the cursor responds well, and it will jump around the screen as you type, due to poor palm detection. Lower the sensitivity to remove that problem, and the cursor stops responding to your touch. I got my hands on a new driver and calibration program (which Dell says will be on its site soon), which greatly improved the situation. The trackpad still isn’t among the best I’ve used, but it’s no longer a major weakness.
The display, on the other hand, remains a serious shortcoming. How Dell could make such a solid, attractive, well-performing laptop and then hamstring it with a crummy display is beyond me. The resolution is a bit on the low side–we’re used to seeing 1440 by 900 or 1600 by 900 on premium 13-inch laptops. Though 1366 by 768 isn’t uncommon, it’s not the luxurious high-end spec that Dell ought to have aimed for on a laptop like this one. The average resolution is acceptable, but the visual quality is harder to tolerate. When I moved off-axis to the left or right, colors shifted dramatically. When I opened the lid to the wrong angle, the contrast and brightness went haywire. When I looked closely at certain gradients, I could see the spaces in the grid of pixels. Ultimately this is a mediocre LCD panel covered with pretty edge-to-edge glass. It’s not a dealbreaker, just a disappointment.
The audio deserves special mention, if only because it may be the best sound I’ve heard from a 3-pound Ultrabook. It gets quite loud, and sounds fairly good, considering the design constraints on speaker size and placement. You’ll never get big bass or room-filling music from a laptop this small, but the loudness and clarity of the XPS 13’s speakers belies the tiny package they come in.
From a design perspective, the XPS 13 is a fantastic addition to Dell’s lineup, establishing a new bar that Dell should aim to clear with its future products. The laptop is attractive, solid, and fast. Battery life is good if you don’t go crazy with the screen brightness. Audio is better than you’d expect, and the keyboard and trackpad (after the driver update) don’t disappoint. With better display quality, it would be a slam-dunk. Unfortunately, the middling resolution, iffy color reproduction, and poor off-axis viewing leave a considerable stain on what would otherwise be a five-star product. Let’s hope that Dell releases a revised version this summer that carries Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips and a better display.