Dell Studio XPS 13 Review

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$1354
Editors' rating:
The Pros

Stylish design; Bright display with good viewing angles; Comfortable, backlit keyboard; Strong performance; Intuitive facial recognition software; HDMI and DisplayPort connections

The Cons

Relatively short battery life; Runs warm; Only two USB ports; Small touchpad

Verdict

This thin-and-light notebook offers very good performance, hybrid graphics, and a luxurious design.

It oozes style and has plenty of substance. The $1,354 Studio XPS 13, the 13.3-inch sibling to theXPS 16, has an attractive design, complete with leather details, white LED lights, and responsive touch controls, not to mention strong performance and switchable graphics to match. The short battery life will give highly mobile users pause, but you can easily upgrade to a 9-cell battery.

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Design

Like its predecessor theXPS M1330, the XPS 13 has a wedge shape that's both good-looking and easy to carry. However, at 4.8 pounds (versus 4 pounds), it's nearly a full pound heavier. The black lid has a classy gloss finish that picks up fingerprints easily. On one end is a metal strip that separates the plastic from a patch of black leather, which is easily the most luxurious detail on this notebook.

Then the design takes a funky turn. That metal strip extends onto the lower corners of the bezel, turning into hinges with visible screws. On the plus side, most of the other details hit the right notes: the touch-sensitive multimedia control panel, which glows white, was impeccably responsive, even to the slightest tap. Rings on the hinges also glow white, as do the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LED indicators on the front side of the notebook. Even the keyboard is backlit, although it doesn't have an ambient light sensor like Apple's MacBook line (this would adjust the backlighting depending on the surrounding light). And the screen, which is only 0.2 inches thick, is edge-to-edge glass.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The black keyboard has a wonderfully soft finish that feels comfortable. Dell makes good use of space: the keyboard extends almost from one end of the 12.6-inch-wide chassis to the other, so there's ample space for your fingers. The panel felt sturdy and didn't flex as we typed away. Best of all, the keys barely make any sound.

Our pet peeve is stiff touch buttons, so we appreciated how easy these were to press. Some might consider these buttons mushy, but we like them. Although the mouse buttons were large enough, the 2.5 x 1.6-inch touchpad, which had little friction, felt small. At the least, Dell had room to make it wider.

Dell Dock

Like other consumer Dell notebooks, including the Studio 15, the XPS 13 has the Dell Dock, a panel of large launch icons that looks eerily similar to the Apple dock. Unlike Apple's dock, however, which is also a repository for minimized documents, Web pages, and other windows, Dell's Dock only allows you to launch commonly used programs. To its credit, it's intuitively organized by task. When you click on the Photos icon, for example (which looks like a camera), you'll have the option of viewing and publishing photos or snapping stills.

Users can also customize the color and location of the dock, as well as drag and drop shortcuts into the dock. When you do so, the shortcut will disappear from your desktop, which has the effect of cleaning up your workspace. We recommend moving the Dock away from the top of the screen, its default location: it kept popping up as we tried to type in the address bar of our browser, or click on tabs.

Display and Sound

The 13.3-inch (1280 x 800), LED-backlit display looked bright when we watched an episode of Mad Men on DVD. Despite having a glossy finish, the screen has versatile viewing angles. We were able to tip the lid far forward and still watch comfortably, which bodes well for travelers who want to watch a movie while resting their laptop on the seat tray. We were able to watch from pretty oblique side angles, too, though at 180 degrees the screen became too reflective.

The stereo speakers are decent, delivering plenty of volume for watching a movie by ourselves in a quiet room. The music we listened to--Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs--was sufficiently loud but a bit tinny. Still, the system supports Dolby 5.1 surround sound, which comes in handy for connecting the XPS 13 to a home theater system.

Ports and Webcam

The XPS 13 has many of the ports you'd expect from a high-end notebook: HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA, FireWire, and a USB port that doubles as an eSATA connection. There's also an Ethernet jack, one mic, and two headphone jacks. The problem is, there's only one other USB port, bringing the total to two. Even on a more basic system of this size, one would expect at least three. It also has an ExpressCard/54 slot, an 8-in-1 memory card reader, and a slot-loading DVD drive.

The 1.3-megapixel webcam took bright, nicely colored still photos and videos. The VGA video had loud, accurate sound, with good brightness and colors. We noticed very slight latency around our mouth, but it wasn't distracting. In general, the Webcam Central software made the webcam easy to use (and the Dell Dock's Movies icon made it easy to find). The tabbed interface allows users to switch quickly between photo and movie mode, thumbnails of captures you've just taken appear on the bottom, and the resolution options appear in a drop-down menu.

Facial Recognition

The XPS 13 also comes with FastAccess facial recognition software. Of all the facial recognition-enabled notebooks we've tested, including theLenovo IdeaPad Y650, this had the fastest enrollment process we've seen. The enrollment program opens to the Vista login screen, has you select a user account, quickly scans your face, and--voil--you're finished. The first time we tried logging on after that, the webcam examined our face for less than a second before approving.

Switchable Graphics

Our configuration of the XPS 13 came with Nvidia's GeForce 9500M GE GPU. This Hybrid SLI setup includes switchable integrated and discrete graphics cards and 256MB of dedicated video memory, meaning that users can toggle better performance and increased endurance.

Toggling the two graphics options is as easy as selecting the battery icon in the system tray and choosing Power Saver or High Performance. You'll see an on-screen graphic indicating the switch is in progress; when it's done, Vista's circle will stop spinning. While this is going on, you have no control over the desktop. However, not having to reboot the computer to switch graphics or log off, as you have to with the MacBook Pro, is a relief.

The differences in graphics performance between the two cards was pretty stark: On 3DMark06, the XPS 13 scored 2,168 and 3,530, respectively, in Power Saver and High Performance mode. The XPS 13 steamrolls the average thin-and-light, even with integrated graphics enabled: the average score for 3DMark06 is 1,393. In fact, the XPS 13's integrated graphics scores are nearly identical to those of the 13-inch MacBook, which has an Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPU.

On our real-world tests, the XPS 13 delivered frame rate scores that were less than impressive. On Far Cry 2 with the resolution set to 1024 x 768, it managed 21.3 frames per second with the integrated graphics and 25.8 fps with discrete graphics. With the resolution set to 1280 x 800, it eked out just 9.9 fps and 9.5 fps, respectively.

Performance

As a high-end machine in Dell's lineup, the XPS 13 delivers better-than-average performance. Thanks to a 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 CPU and 4GB of RAM, it scored 2,672 on PCMark Vantage with integrated graphics, and 3,961 with discrete. The category average is 2,862. Apple's MacBook, which has the same processor, but 2GB of RAM, scored 3,093 on the same benchmark when running Vista in Boot Camp mode.

However, the 320GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive transferred a 4.97GB folder of mixed media at a rate of 15.9 Mbps, which falls short of the category average of 17.8 Mbps. That's surprising, given that most of the notebooks we test have slower 5,400-rpm drives. The notebook took 1 minute and 5 seconds to start up, which is slightly slow even for a Vista notebook. We have a feeling that bundled trialware (see the software section for details) has something to do with it.

That said, the XPS 13 felt zippy during day-to-day activities--faster, certainly, than lower-end machines we've tested recently, such as the Gateway TC Series. We had no problem navigating between six open tabs in Internet Explorer, responding to e-mails, watching a video clip, and perusing comments on our favorite blogs. When we clicked on another tab, the notebook was very quick to catch up and change the image on-screen. While doing this, we were also able to quickly download Handbrake and jZip.

When it came to heavy multitasking, the integrated and discrete graphics cards delivered similar results. The XPS 13 transcoded a 5-minute-and-5-second MP4 clip to AVI in 6 minutes and 31 seconds, and in 11:39 while zipping a 4.97GB folder in the background. When using discrete graphics, these times remained about the same, at 6:37, and 11:43, respectively. While that may sound like a long time, cheaper notebooks, such as the $749 HP Pavilion dv2, which runs on AMD's Yukon platform, took 22 minutes and 32 seconds to complete the same task.

Heat

In general, we noticed that the chassis, particularly near the display and battery, felt uncomfortably warm, even when we weren't using the notebook. At its hottest point, near the vent, the notebook measured as high as 105 degrees.

Battery Life and Wi-Fi

On the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the XPS 13's six-cell battery lasted just 2 hours and 42 minutes in power-saving mode. That falls far short of the category average, which is 4 hours and 16 minutes, and is 2 hours short of what the 13-inch MacBook gets. For extra endurance, buy the nine-cell battery ($80). The power brick itself is slim, at half an inch thick; it's a nice touch, particularly for people who intend to travel a lot with their notebook. Be warned, however: the brick, like the chassis, gets hot, even when the computer is idle. When the computer was idle, its temperature was 109 degrees.

The Dell Wireless 1515 Wireless-N adapter delivered throughput of 19.4 Mbps and 14.2 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively, which is slightly above average in the 15-foot category, but slightly below the 50-foot average.

Configuration Options

If, based on what you've read here, the integrated graphics performance sounds sufficient, you can save $110 by opting for an integrated-only GPU, Nvidia's 9400M solution, which we praised in our Apple MacBook review, among others. Interestingly, the LED-backlit monitor on our review unit comes with a 1.3-MP webcam; selecting the LCD display (a $125 downgrade) gets you a 2-MP webcam.

Although our unit had a 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 CPU, you can choose two faster models: a 2.53-GHz P8700 ($50) or a 2.66-GHz P9600 ($175). Users can add up to 8GB of RAM ($800), but once you get past 4GB you'll have to choose a 64-bit version of Windows to match. Aside from Home Premium, users can select Vista Ultimate ($150).

Our configuration had the base 320GB hard drive, but customers can also choose a 500GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive ($75) or as 128GB or 256GB SSD ($200 and $400, respectively). Finally, users can choose integrated mobile broadband options by AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless, which adds $125 to the total cost.

Software and Warranty

Like many other consumer notebooks, the Studio XPS 13 comes with its fair share of installed software, some of it trialware. Bundled programs include: Dell DataSafe Online (Dell's online backup service), Dell Video Chat (this is SightSpeed software, rebranded), McAfee Security Center, Microsoft Office PowerPoint Viewer 2007, Compatibility Pack for Office 2007, Microsoft Silverlight, Dell PowerDVD, Roxio Creator DE, and Windows Live Essentials.

All told, that's no so bad. There are no annoying browser toolbars, for example, and Dell even installed Adobe Air, so you can enjoy your favorite desktop apps, like TweetDeck, right out of the box. The Studio XPS 13 has a one-year warranty, including 24/7, toll-free phone support. To see how Toshiba fared in our annual tech support showdown, click here.

The Verdict

With a leather strip on the lid and switchable graphics, the $1,354 Dell Studio XPS 13 looks and feels like a luxury machine. However, with less than 3 hours of battery life, it's not for highly mobile users; it's a better choice for people who can deal with keeping the (thin) AC adapter handy. If you're looking in this price range, you should also consider the 13-inch MacBook, which is lighter, has an equally--if not sleeker--design, and better battery life. But for switchable graphics, face recognition, and more configuration options, stick with the Studio XPS 13.

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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600
Operating System MS Windows Vista Home Premium (64 bit)
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 8GB
Hard Drive Size 320GB
Hard Drive Speed 7,200rpm
Hard Drive Type SATA Hard Drive
Display Size 13.3
Native Resolution 1280x800
Optical Drive DVDRW
Optical Drive Speed 8X
Graphics Card Nvidia GeForce 9500M GE
Video Memory 256MB
Wi-Fi 802.11n
Bluetooth Bluetooth 2.1 EDR
Mobile Broadband
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
Ports (excluding USB) Firewire
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
Ports (excluding USB) DisplayPort
Ports (excluding USB) USB/eSATA
USB Ports
Card Slots ExpressCard
Card Slots 8-1 card reader
Warranty/Support One-year parts and labor/24/7 toll-free phone
Size 12.6 x 9.3 x 0.9 inches
Weight 4.8 pounds
Company Website http://www.dell.com