Dell’s XPS 13 ultrabook

Lately I’ve been changing things up a bit. For several months I used a little Lenovo ThinkPad X220 running Windows 7 and had a great experience — it felt rock solid and responsive, with fantastic battery life. Then I switched to a MacBook Pro, and now that I’ve gotten used to it, I actually find it more or less a wash between the two (sorry, Apple fanboys).

So it was with considerable excitement that I decided to take my first ultrabook, the Dell XPS 13, for a spin. As you know, ultrabooks are the Wintel world’s answer to the MacBook Air.

The Dell XPS 13 came in a classy black box, the kind in which you’d expect to find an expensive modern board game. Not just the Ultrabook, but the whole box containing the power supply and old-fashioned paper manual slipped neatly into my backpack — nice packaging.

The inevitable Air-versus-Ultrabook comparison

Opening the box I was greeted by a striking laptop shell — aluminum on top and carbon fiber on the bottom — sufficiently thin and pretty to elicit an “ooh” from several people I showed it to. Inside the XPS 13 clamshell, rather than continuing the aluminum theme, Dell surrounds the keys with a black surface coated with what it aptly terms “soft touch paint.”

Predictably, the XPS 13 is not quite as thin as the 13-inch MacBook Air, sloping from 0.71 to 0.24 inch as opposed to the Air’s winsome 0.68 to 0.11 inch. But the Dell shares the Air’s minimalism, omitting DVD and memory card slots and providing just two USB ports. The XPS 13 also has a noticeably smaller footprint: 12.4 by 8.1 inches as opposed to 12.8 by 8.94 inches. Both laptops weigh just under 3 pounds.

As for the aesthetics — well, in a beauty contest between Round Rock, Texas, and Cupertino, Calif., I think you know the outcome. But arguably, the coolness delta between the two laptops is small. You also pay for the Apple ego boost — or the privilege of using OS X, if you prefer: In their default configurations, the XPS 13 costs $999, while the 13-inch Air costs $1,299.

Both come with 128GB solid-state drives, 4GB of dual-channel DDR3 1,333MHz main memory, and Intel Core i5 processors with 3MB of level 3 cache. If you’re picking nits, the XPS 13’s i5 runs at 1.6GHz, while the 13-inch Air’s i5 runs at 1.7GHz. Again, these are default configurations, so you have other options at higher price points.

It’s a Windows world

Despite Dell’s obvious attempt to imitate the Air, cross-platform comparisons go only so far. From my standpoint, the real benchmark is my fondly remembered Windows 7 machine, the ThinkPad X220, which has an MSRP of $1,529 but can be bought at this particular moment on the Lenovo website for around $900 — and includes 320GB of spinning disk, a zippy 2.3GHz i5, and a 12.5-inch screen.

The XPS 13 has a slightly larger 13.3-inch widescreen display, with a native resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels, powered by an Intel HD 3000 graphics controller. The image is clear and bright, although the Gorilla Glass surface is too reflective for my taste. As with almost every laptop these days, you’ll find a little cam staring at you from the top of the screen. With the default Dell Webcam Central software, the image produced is less sharp and color-accurate than that of FaceTime (the comparison had to be made).

The XPS 13 keyboard successfully imitates the spacing, backlighting, and tactile response of a MacBook keyboard, right down to the similar arrangement of special function keys along the top row, though you get both Backspace and Delete, of course. For what it’s worth, I prefer the arrangement, response, and textured feel of the ThinkPad’s keys to those of the Dell.

The XPS 13’s trackpad is MacBook-like, too. Must we, Dell? A trackpad that doubles as a mouse button and supports gestures makes sense for a MacBook, I guess, but not so much for a Windows 7 laptop. Call me a Philistine, but I want two real buttons.

One surprising note: The XPS 13’s audio isn’t bad for a laptop. Sound from the speakers bounces from under the unit and from a baffle near the screen hinge, and although I wouldn’t say you can actually hear bass notes, the midrange is stronger than usual. Strong stereo separation lends a nice sense of presence.

As for the XPS 13’s battery life, Dell says you can get “up to 8 hours and 53 minutes,” almost two hours longer than what Apple claims for the Air, but nowhere near what I experienced personally with the ThinkPad X220 (using the nine-cell battery option).

Lastly, I tested Dell’s claim that the system would come alive from a cold boot in 8 seconds. It turned out to be more like 15 seconds, but that’s still nice and quick.

Ultra style

How would I rate my first ultrabook experience? The XPS 13 is a fine, well-made, durable-seeming laptop. I feel uncharacteristically stylish using it. Yet personally, if it were my money, I would opt for a faster processor and a lot more storage — and I don’t care if that means a spinning disk.

You can argue that Ultrabooks are all about portability, but that’s clearly not the case. For example, the ThinkPad X220 may not be as thin as the XPS 13, but it’s only a tad heavier and roughly the same depth and width — though homely by comparison.

Yes, the real story here is style. I only wish that Dell hadn’t tried quite so hard to make the XPS13 so similar to the Air. The desperate yearning for the Apple glow is a little embarrassing. Has it ever been hip to buy a knockoff?

Or it may just be that the thin and shiny woo-woo factor is lost on me, but apparently not on a lot of other people. According to Dell, demand for the XPS laptops has exceeded expectations. At this writing, they’re back-ordered for about six weeks.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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