For Windows 8, Dell has made over its XPS 13 with a 1080p display and Intel Ivy Bridge processor, while leaving the chassis untouched -- and why not? This Ultrabook (starting at $999, $1,599 as configured) has an attractive aluminum and carbon fiber design, and crams a 13-inch screen into a chassis the same size as many 12-inch notebooks. What's more, our configuration features a relatively spacious 256GB SSD that offers blazing performance. Is this the Windows 8 Ultrabook to get?
Editor's note: Our version of the XPS 13 shipped with an Intel Core i7-3517U processor, which will not be offered by Dell. The next closest configuration will have a Core i7-3537 CPU, which should offer marginally better performance.
It has the same design as last year's model, but we're not complaining. The Dell XPS 13 has an aluminum lid, but a carbon fiber bottom, which is attractive, and stands out from other ultraportables on the market. Inside, the magnesium deck has the same black soft-touch finish as before. A thin strip of aluminum, running along the outside, frames the whole deck nicely.
The XPS 13's size and weight is the same as before, too, measuring 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.24-0.71 inches and weighing 3 pounds. That's in the same size range as the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (12.35 x 8.6 x 0.75 inches), but that system weighs 0.57 pounds more. The ASUS Zenbook UX31A is slightly larger, at 13.3 x 8.9 x 0.44-0.66 inches, but also weighs 3 pounds. However, the Acer Aspire S7-391, which has a touch screen, measures 12.7 x 8.8 x 0.46 inches and weighs just 2.8 pounds.
Keyboard and Touchpad
As before, the XPS 13's keyboard was a pleasure to type on; the large island-style keys are slightly concave, allowing our fingers to rest comfortably, had a good amount of travel and snappy response. We also like that it's backlit, allowing us to work in darkened conditions.
Like the rest of the deck, the 3.9 x 2.4-inch glass touchpad has a soft-touch finish. It was easy to press the integrated buttons with our thumb, and interpreted Windows 8 gestures accurately.
For 2013, Dell boosted the resolution on the XPS 13 to 1920 x 1080, up from the 1366 x 768 panel on last year's model. Watching the 1080p trailers for "The Fast and the Furious 6" and "Star Trek: Into Darkness," the chrome of cars gleamed, Starfleet uniforms and explosions were vivid, and we saw almost no artifacts in the darker scenes, from the depths of space to the streets.
We do wish the XPS 13 had a touch screen. Its edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass display certainly lends invites that sort of interaction. More than once, we found ourselves trying to swipe the Windows 8 interface.
The XPS 13's average brightness of 329 lux is about 100 lux brighter than the XPS 13 from last year as well as the category average. It outshone the Acer S7 (215) as well as the Mac (313 lux), but was no match for the ASUS UX31A (423 lux).
Using Waves MaxxAudio 4 technology, the dual 1.5-watt speakers in the XPS 13 pumped out powerful sound, as good as what we heard from last year's model, and on a par with the UX31A.
The Dell Audio control panel allows you to select from several presets: music, movies, voice, gaming and MaxxSense, which automatically picks what it thinks is the best setting. In this control panel, you can also choose presets for the dual microphones: Noise suppression, echo cancellation and microphone focus.
Ports and Webcam
No real changes here: The right side of the XPS 13 has a mini Display Port, a USB 3.0 port, and a button and four LEDs that show the battery level. We don't see why that last feature could have been an SD card slot instead. The left side of the XPS 13 has the power jack, a USB 3.0 port, and a combo headphone and mic jack.
We really wish Dell would add an SD card slot to the XPS 13, especially when a system as slim as the Acer S7 can accommodate one.
Using the Windows 8 camera app, we could take up to 720p videos using the XPS 13's 1.3-MP webcam. While video quality is suitable for video chats, we found images lacking detail, and even in a well-lit room, observed a lot of visual noise.
After streaming a movie at full screen for 15 minutes, the XPS 13 kept its cool. The touchpad measured just 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the space between the G and H keys was 86 degrees, and the middle of the underside was 80 degrees. The area by the vents on the bottom reached 99 degrees, but we never felt the notebook was too uncomfortable.
In our configuration of the XPS 13 is a 1.9-GHz Intel Core i7-3517U processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. On PCMark 7, the Ultrabook notched a score of 4,780, higher than the ultraportable average of 3,436, but about 200 points lower than the Acer Aspire S7-391 (4,948) and the ASUS UX31A (4,989).
On Geekbench, the XPS 13 scored 6,822, which is 1,100 points higher than average, and on a par with the Acer S7 (6,824), and a little less than 100 points higher than the MacBook Pro (6,760). However, the ASUS UX31A scored 6,903.
The XPS 13 booted Windows 8 in just 12 seconds, no doubt due to its 256GB Samsung 830 Series SSD. However, it was matched by the Acer S7's time of 10 seconds, although that system has two 128GB SSDs in a RAID array. The MacBook Pro's 128GB Flash memory also took just 12 seconds.
On the LAPTOP Transfer test (duplicating 4.97GB of multimedia files), the XPS 13 took 31 seconds, a rate of 164.2 MBps, about double the category average of 83 MBps. However, the Acer S7 was almost twice as fast as the Dell, clocking in at 318 MBps, and the Mac checked in at 196 MBps. The ASUS' SSD notched a comparatively anemic 51 MBps.
To test everyday performance, we also timed how long it took the XPS 13 to match 20,000 names and addresses in OpenOffice. The Dell took 5 minutes and 13 seconds to complete the task, which bested the average by nearly two minutes (7:08). The Acer S7 had almost the exact same time, at 5:12, and the ASUS UX31A finished in 4:59.
Aside from everyday tasks such as watching videos and playing mainstream games, don't expect too much from the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics in the XPS 13. Its score of 670 in 3DMark 11 was about 50 points less than the category average (725), but on a par with the Acer Aspire S7 (657), and much better than the ASUS (594).
In "World of Warcraft," the XPS 13 averaged 33 fps with the effects set to good and the resolution at 1366 x 768. The Acer S7 fared slightly better at these settings, averaging 41 fps, on a par with the category average of 42 fps, and the UX31A averaged 52 fps. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which also has integrated graphics, averaged 36 fps at 1432 x 894, which is the closest equivalent resolution.
When we cranked up the resolution to its native 1080p, the XPS 13's average dropped to 25 fps, which is on the edge of playable. At these same settings, the ASUS UX31A averaged 36 fps, and the Acer averaged 30 fps; at its native resolution (2560 x 1600), the Mac averaged 21 fps.
On the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi), the XPS 13 lasted 5 hours and 50 minutes, which is 10 minutes less than the category average of 6:02, but almost identical to the Windows 7 version, which lasted 5:46. By comparison, the MacBook Pro lasted 7 hours and 38 minutes, and the Acer S7 lasted 4:10, but 9:17 with its extended battery (a $150 option). Running Windows 7, the ASUS UX31A lasted 6:28.
Dell will offer four configurations of the XPS 13. The base model costs $999, and will have an Intel Core i5-3337 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, and a screen resolution of 1366 x 768. The other three models all have 1080p displays and 8GB of RAM; a $1,299 version will have an Intel Core i7-3537U processor and a 128GB SSD. The $1,399 model will have a Core i5-3337U processor and a 256GB SSD, and the top-end $1,599 model will have a Core i7-3537U processor and a 256GB SSD.
Software and Warranty
Dell keeps things pretty light in terms of third-party software on the XPS 13. Aside from the standard Windows 8 apps -- Maps, Weather, Internet Explorer, etc. -- the only third-party apps Dell preloads include Kindle, Amazon, a trial of McAfee SecurityCenter and Skype.
The XPS 13 comes with a one-year limited hardware warranty, premium phone support and in-home service following a remote diagnosis. See how Dell fared on our annual customer support showdown.
We're glad that Dell updated its XPS 13 with a faster processor, 256GB SSD and a full HD display. We also continue to love the compact design with soft-touch finish. However, $1,599 is a lot to spend for a Windows 8 notebook that doesn't offer touch or an SD Card.
Although it doesn't offer as much battery life (unless you upgrade to the optional slice), the Acer Aspire S7-391 has an even thinner and lighter design than the XPS 13 and includes a 1080p touch screen. The ASUS Zenbook UX31A has the same CPU as this Dell, 4GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a 1080p display, but costs $300 less. And if you're not wedded to Windows, you can pick up the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display for $100 more than the XPS 13. While heavier, the Mac features an even higher resolution display, more ports (including an SD card) and longer battery life.
Overall, the Dell XPS 13 is a very nice refresh of the original, but other ultraportables offer more for your money.