Apple MacBook vs. Dell XPS 13: Ultraportable Face-Off
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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
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).