Apple MacBook vs. Dell XPS 13: Ultraportable Face-Off

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With the 12-inch MacBook (starting at $1,299), Apple has updated its fantastically light notebook with longer battery life and better Core m performance. In the Windows-powered Dell XPS 13 (starting at $799, $1,499 with touch), you get a 13-inch display in a 11-inch laptop's body — thanks to a crazy-thin bezel — a full-powered Core i CPU and more ports.

We put these minimalist marvels through nine rounds to crown a winner, and the XPS 13 came out on top.

  macbook_t_3 dell_xps_13_t_2
  Apple MacBook Dell XPS 13 
Price $1,299-$1,599 $799-$1,749
CPU Core m3, m5, m7 Core i3, i5, i7
RAM 8GB 8GB
Storage 256GB, 512GB 128, 256, 512GB
Display 12 inch (2304x1440 pixels) 13 inches (1920 x 1080 or 3200 x 1800 pixels)
Ports USB-C 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB-C, SD card reader
Webcam  480p 720p

 

Design

The MacBook Air is almost laughably light, weighing just 2 pounds. You almost can't believe it when you pick it up. However, the aluminum unibody design still feels remarkably sturdy. Even better, Apple offers multiple color options. This machine comes in traditional silver, but it's also available in space gray, gold and rose gold.

XPSvsMacBook_duo_table

The XPS 13 is a "design triumph" because of its InfinityEdge Display. The bezel around the screen is so narrow that it seems to float above the keyboard. The rest of the system is fetching, too, thanks to an aluminum bottom and top and carbon-fiber deck with soft-touch finish. The Dell is heavier at 2.6 pounds, but it's not much bigger or thicker (11 x 7.7 x 0.14 to 0.52 inches versus 11.98 x 7.88 x 0.33 to 0.6 inches). 

MORE: Best Ultrabooks to Buy Now 

The XPS 13's only design faux pas is its awkwardly placed webcam, which is in the lower left corner instead of above the screen. This can make for some unflattering selfies.

Winner: MacBook. This round is very close, but the MacBook's lighter weight and multiple color options give it the edge.

Ports

This round will be as short as the MacBook's list of ports. Apple equipped its laptop with a headphone jack and single USB-C port. It's a versatile port, but you can't juice your notebook and connect a peripheral at the same time without an adapter.

XPSvsMacBook_ports

The XPS 13 has everything I want in an ultraportable, including two USB 3.1 ports, a forward-looking USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 and an SD card slot.

Winner: Dell XPS 13. No trade-offs required here.

Display

The XPS 13 has an edge heading into this round for two reasons: It has a larger 13-inch display (compared to 12 inches for the MacBook), and the quad HD+ version has a higher resolution (3200 x 1800 versus 2304 x 1440 pixels) and touch capability. Apple doesn’t offer touch on its Macs. Dell also offers a lower-resolution 1080p model of the XPS 13.

XPSvsMacBook_display

I focused my head-to-head comparison on the touch-screen Dell, which has a higher resolution, versus the MacBook. When I watched the 4K trailer for Suicide Squad on both laptops side by side, the MacBook exhibited more red, while the XPS 13’s panel was more yellowish, but both displays are quite colorful.

XPSvsMacBook_gamut_v2In fact, both the MacBook and Dell reproduce more than 100 percent of the sRGB gamut, clocking in at 107 and 104 percent, respectively.

XPSvsMacBook_nitsBut while the XPS 13’s screen is technically brighter at 336 nits versus 327 for the Mac, the MacBook’s display is much less reflective, which results in wider viewing angles. The MacBook also benefits from better color accuracy, as its Delta-E rating of 1 beats the Dell’s mark of 3.1 (0 is perfect on this test).

Those interested in the cheaper nontouch, 1080p XPS 13, should know that its screen is not as bright (318 nits) or colorful (92 percent sRGB) as the MacBook's, and that its color accuracy is way off (Delta-E of 8.2).

Winner: MacBook. Dell's touch panel is sharper, but Apple's is less reflective and offers wider viewing angles.

Audio

This round was pretty close. Despite its diminutive stature, the MacBook pumped out loud and mostly pleasing audio when I listened to Maroon 5's Sugar and Jay Z and Kanye West's No Church in the Wild. However, the XPS 13 delivered clearer vocals and performed slightly better on the high end. When I had two fellow colleagues listen to both systems side by side, they liked both but preferred the low-end thump of the MacBook.

Winner: MacBook. It's only slightly better.

Keyboard and Touchpad

One of the biggest differences between the XPS 13 and the MacBook is ergonomics. While the Dell sports a more traditional touchpad and keyboard combo, Apple developed a new butterfly mechanism for its layout, which allows for a thinner design. The XPS 13's keyboard definitely has more travel. We're talking about the difference between 1.2 mm versus just 0.5 mm on the MacBook.

XPSvsMacBook_keyboard_v1

The result for the Mac is a keyboard that feels flat but delivers pretty speedy results. On the 10FastFingers.com test, I averaged 70 words per minute with six errors. However, I hit 73 wpm with four errors on the cushier Dell layout.

The new Force Touch trackpad on the MacBook delivers haptic vibrations instead of a physical click, but it feels more like the latter. Plus, you can pull off timesaving tricks with a hard press, such as previewing websites in Safari on search result pages, or pulling up a map within the Mail app by force-clicking an address.

The XPS 13's touchpad is smaller than the MacBook's at 4.1 x 2.3 versus 4.4 x 2.8 inches, but it's responsive and handles Windows 8.1 gestures well.

Winner: XPS 13. The keyboard's more comfortable feel is key.

Webcam

You're not going to FaceTime in HD on the MacBook, as it features a webcam with a resolution of just 848 x 480 pixels. The XPS 13 sports an HD webcam, but as mentioned above, it's awkwardly positioned toward the bottom left of the display, which means that other video callers will be looking up at your chin.

In a selfie I shot, the MacBook delivered more accurate colors, but there was noticeable grain throughout the image. The XPS 13's image had less grain, but oversaturated hues.

Winner: Draw. I don't really like either webcam.

Performance

The MacBook comes to this battle armed with a 1.2-GHz Core m5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage. (There’s a cheaper version with a Core m3 chip.) Both versions of the Dell XPS 13 we tested pack a 6th-gen 2.3-GHz Intel Core i5-6200U processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB PCIe x4 (aka NVMe) SSD.

XPSvsMacBook_geekbenchOn Geekbench, which measures overall performance, the Dell beat the MacBook, 6,374 to 5,906. However, the MacBook redeemed itself on our spreadsheet productivity test, which involves matching 20,000 names and numbers. Apple's notebook took 3 minutes and 11 seconds, compared to 4:28 for the XPS 13.

XPSvsMacBook_filetransfer_v3The MacBook also benefits from faster flash memory. On our file transfer test, the nontouch XPS 13 surprisingly delivered a faster transfer rate of 231 MBps than did the touch model (159 MBps). Both results are way behind the MacBook’s 355.9 MBps.

When it comes to potential maximum power, the optional Core i7 CPU on the XPS 13 will outgun the optional Core m7 chip on the MacBook.

Winner: XPS 13. The MacBook is faster in some tests, but the Core i5 chip in the XPS 13 is simply more powerful than a Core m5 CPU.

Battery Life

The MacBook lasts a long time on charge, given its slim profile. On the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 100 nits of brightness, the MacBook lasted 9 hours and 38 minutes.

XPSvsMacBook_battery_life_v2

The touch screen version of the XPS 13 lasted more than an hour less at 8:08. However, if you opt for the nontouch version with a lower-resolution 1080p screen, you'll get 11:54 of endurance.

Winner: Draw. The MacBook lasts longer than the touch XPS 13, but the nontouch Dell lasts considerably longer.

Value

The Apple MacBook starts at a premium $1,299, which gets you a 1.1-GHz Core m3 CPU, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage. You can step up to a 1.2-GHz Core m5 chip and 512GB of storage for $1,599 or spend an additional $150 on a speedier Core m7 CPU (it’s $250 more if you’re starting from the base $1,299 config).

Dell gives you a lot more options with the XPS 13. The starting $799 configuration comes with a Core i3 CPU, 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD, plus a nontouch, full-HD display. The XPS 13 Touch costs $1,499 and sports a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, along with a quad-HD screen. A $1,749 version includes an even faster Core i7 chip.

MORE: Best Laptops Under $500

If you want the best balance of battery life and performance, we’d recommend the $999 nontouch XPS 13 with a 1080p display, Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.

Winner: XPS 13. A lower starting price and many more configuration options make the XPS 13 a better value.

Overall Winner: Dell XPS 13

XPSvsMacBook_scorecard_v2

The 12-inch MacBook is strong in other areas. It's thinner and lighter, offers a richer display with less glare and lasts longer on a charge than Dell’s touch XPS 13. However, the nontouch XPS 13 lasts even longer. Ultimately, Dell wins this contest.There are a few key reasons the XPS 13 narrowly defeats the Apple MacBook in this face-off: It has more ports and more power, and its keyboard is more comfortable. For my money, I'd rather have a faster Core i5 processor and the ability to plug in more than one peripheral at once without a dongle. The Dell’s low $799 starting price also helps, though the XPS 13 costs just $100 less than the MacBook when similarly configured ($1,499 versus $1,599).

Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief on
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17 comments
  • ken woltz Says:

    Dell's XPS 13 big faux pas is it has no monitor which works with it. You can get a docking machine that is as big as the computer which does not work well. Check the blogs

  • RoyTyrell Says:

    For serious computer work I use a big beastly tower I built from scratch. 2 - 8 core xeon processors, 64 gb ecc ram, 2nvidea gpu compute engines... with 2 - 27 in 4 k monitors. I run a vm running rhl enterprise with sap erp, at least 3 instances of visual studio and a dozen other windows of tools, helpers and web pages.

    Point being - looking for the "most powerful, most capable" ultrabook is like asking which teenage anorexic supermodel can benchpress the most.

    Buy the one that works for minimalist tasks, that you actually like looking at and working on.

    Once you free yourself to do that you realize apple makes tge best laptops.

    Carbon fiber on a laptop? Seriously? I would be embarrassed to bring into a business meeting.

  • Joe Scripps Says:

    There are a number of these comparisons on the web these days. Many of them, including this one omit one extremely valuable feature of the macbook. That is the ability to run Mac OS and Windows on the same machine using Bootcamp. You buy the Dell and you're stuck with Windows. You buy the Macbook and you can have both MacOS and Windows 10. I'm not talking about Virtual either. Bootcamp is awesome!

  • Josija Says:

    Thank you very much for your review. It's very detailed.

  • Ruphus Says:

    Clearly written by an idiot with the MacBook being introduced as a MacBook Air. As a user of both operating systems (windows and OS X) I can say the new MacBook beats any other ultraportable laptop.

  • GVFori Says:

    It's an unfair comparison between them.
    A fair comparison would be against the macbook pro 13".
    You just took the cheapest of the macbook line for the test.
    Also the camera of the dell is shit compared to the macbooks. I don't know how can you not see that.

  • DaveW Says:

    The Dell is significantly larger and heavier than the MacBook. The weight of the MB was left out of the review, but I think it is 2 pounds. The Dell weighs 30% more and is considerably thicker. Both are great computers, but I'm not sure they are in the same category.

  • dellandmacuser Says:

    honestly the trackpad on the dell is garbage, that alone is almost a deal breaker. I use both computers regularly.

  • Edwin Says:

    I have to say I knew this guy was a Mac guy when he said that the keyboard was a draw. When you perform better on a different machine it gets the higher verdict. This is purely a BIAS review. Sorry to say this I was looking for a unbiased one.

  • Alex Says:

    I really think the 13" Macbook Pro with Retina is a better competitor.

    It matches specs well, and really gives up being half a pound heavier for being faster and better in just about every way (except that QHD+ touch display).

    The Macbook is a laptop for tablet users.

  • Kyle Joh Says:

    For $1299, you getting a Macbook that is barely much faster than the iPad Air 2. It has a keyboard and slightly larger display. The new Macbook is like a Chromebook just much more expensive.

  • daglesj Says:

    @Stephen I think the spec of the Dell is fine as it price matches with the Apple. You have to know if you have $1300 what you can get for that money. The Dell is better value. Also do the Aplle reviews include the pretty essential 4 years of Apple Care you'll need in the price because it's not possible to repair?

  • Stephen Says:

    I started off so excited to read this comparison but sadly it lost much of it's value fairly quickly. Not only did you compare Apples to Oranges, but you hand-picked the Orange. The Dell wasn't evaluated on it's own as configured - for example, it isn't the base XPS 13 model, but includes an upgraded quad-core CPU, better display and touch panel. Then in the performance and battery comparison you discount the effects. With the bigger touch screen enabled display the MacBook was the winner, but because the laptop is available [in a untested configuration] without the touchscreen the "win" for that category goes to the Dell? Why not compare a MacBook Pro to the XPS as configured? Or the MacBook to a base level Dell XPS? In the end the real winner was the laptop the author preferred (as given in the comments regarding the keyboard and webcam sections). Not truly a one to one all being equal comparison.

  • Jay Says:

    Can you do a comparison of the XPS 13 with the newest Retina MacBook Pro?

  • Alan Says:

    it's beautiful, but I returned mine. Wonderful Mac, but i have an 11" MB Air with an i7. The new MB studdered when playing videos; slow frame rate and audio and video not in sync. Decided to stay with my 2-year old MB Air with i7 processor. No video studder, and video and audio are in sync. Did a side-by-side test. if I didn't have the 11" MB Air, the new MB would be great. Retina display, light weight, long battery life are all good.

  • IloveLinux Says:

    What this article didn't mention is the start up problems reported for the new Macbook and Apples response to how to fix it. Distressing for a new $1,300.00 laptop.

    Key here is that the Macbook has a low powered M processor and one port. The Dell has a better processor a SD slot and USB ports. A user could add a 64gb or 128 SD card for more storage.

  • cashxx Says:

    Sadly I have to agree with the final verdict! Apple shouldn't be using anything lower than an i5! I do think the camera on the Macbook was better, but other than that the Dell is better for the money! Just so it lasts as long as the Macbook, I have always had good luck with the reliability of my MacBooks compared to many others around me with Dell Laptops. If Apple can get more USB-C Ports and match the graphics and CPU speed the Mac would be a better buy. Too bad we can't install OS X on that Dell!

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