Dell XPS 13 (2012) Review

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Editors' rating:
The Pros

Attractive, compact design; Comfortable backlit keyboard; Smart Connect downloads data when notebook is asleep; Very fast SSD

The Cons

Below-average battery life; No SD card slot; Fan can get loud

Verdict

A gorgeous design, fast SSD and a backlit keyboard make the Dell XPS 13 a compelling Ultrabook.

When you're one of the last to enter a new category, you better make sure your laptop brings something fresh. Dell has done just that with its XPS 13 Ultrabook. Starting at $999, this 3-pound machine is one of the smallest of its ilk, and has some neat innovations, such as Smart Connect technology for downloading email and social networking updates when the lid is closed. Add to that a blazing-fast SSD and a great backlit keyboard, and you have the makings of a great ultraportable. Is this the best Ultrabook yet?

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Design

Dell XPS 13 LidMeasuring 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.24-0.71 inches, the XPS 13 is not only striking, it has a smaller footprint than most Ultrabooks and the MacBook Air. For example, the ASUS UX31 is 13.3 x 8.9 inches, although it's a slightly thinner 0.1-0.7 inches, and the 13-inch Air has a 12.8 x 8.9-inch footprint while measuring 0.11 to 0.68 inches thick. Only the new Samsung Series 9 comes close to the Dell's small size, at 12.3 x 8.6 x 0.4 inches.

Where other wedge-shaped Ultrabooks are either all metal (as with the ASUS UX31) or plastic (as with the Acer Aspire S3), Dell has gone in a different direction with the XPS 13. While the lid and the edge of the keyboard deck are aluminum, the bottom of the laptop is made of carbon fiber, which keeps it strong, thin and cool.

Dell XPS 13 BottomNot only are we glad that Dell didn't simply copy the Apple MacBook Air, this material makes Dell's notebook easier to grip.

On the inside, the edge-to edge Gorilla Glass display lends a degree of sophistication. We especially like the soft touch rubber coating on the magnesium keyboard deck, which feels very comfortable when typing, and is also cool to the touch.

Weighing 3 pounds, the XPS 13 isn't the lightest Ultrabook--that honor goes to the 2.4-pound Toshiba Portege Z835--but it's the same weight as the UX31. Overall, this is one of the best designed Ultrabooks out there, even if it's missing a key feature (see below).

Keyboard and Touchpad

Dell XPS 13 KeyboardOne of the better keyboards on an Ultrabook, the keys on the XPS 13 are large, nicely spaced and provide a nice amount of travel and snappiness. We liked that the backlighting on the keyboard raises up gently, a small but nice touch. It's also brighter than on the XPS 14, which makes the layout easier to see at oblique angles.

Like many notebooks, the XPS 13 requires you to use a function key combination in order to adjust settings such as screen and keyboard brightness as well as the volume. While you can reverse the function in the BIOS menu (press F2 as the system is starting up to access these settings), it's high time that these were made the primary function by default.

It seems like Dell is one of the first Windows-based notebook makers to finally figure out how to get mouse buttons to work as part of a touchpad. Not only is the touchpad a spacious 3.9 x 2.4 inches, but the Cypress TrackPad interpreted multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and three- and four-finger flicks quickly, smoothly, and correctly.

Ports

Dell XPS 13 PortsAlthough we understand there are space considerations with a notebook this slim, we were disappointed by the lack of an SD Card slot on the XPS 13. It's the easiest way to transfer photos from a digital camera, especially when you're on the go and don't feel like schlepping a USB cable.

The left side of the XPS 13 has the power jack, a powered USB 2.0 port, and a combo headphone and mic jack. The right side 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.

Webcam

Images from the 1.3-MP webcam on the XPS 13 were warm, and highlighted our skintones well, but lacked detail. Everything was slightly fuzzy, and our hair was an amorphous brown blob. The Dell Webcam Central utility let us add effects such as fun backgrounds and avatars, as well as adjust brightness and contrast.

The FastAccess Facial Recognition utility recognized our face and logged us into the system in about 5 seconds, which is nice, but no faster than entering a password.

Heat

After streaming a video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad measured a cool 79 degrees, the space between the G and H keys was 93, and the middle of the underside was just 90 degrees. All are below 95 degrees, the threshold we consider uncomfortable. However, the fan on the XPS 13 was noticeably loud, and would turn on at regular intervals.

Display

Dell XPS 13 (2012) MovieWhile it has a standard resolution of 1366 x 768, the 13.3-inch display on the XPS 13 is covered in edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass, which provides durability. While watching the trailer for "The Avengers," explosions were bright and firey, and we could make out details such as windows in skyscrapers and Iron Man's suit. Despite the glossy finish, viewing angles were fairly good, too. We could sit on either side of the notebook and still see the action on-screen comfortably.

However, the Asus UX31 sports a higher resolution of 1600 x 900 pixels, and the 13-inch MacBook Air (1440 x 900) also has a sharper panel.

Dell claims the XPS 13's display has a brightness of 300 nits. We measured its brightness at 232 lux, which beats out the Folio 13 (139 lux) and the Lenovo U300s (156 lux), but falls short of the Toshiba Z835 (260) and the UX31 (391).

Audio

Dell XPS 13 SoftwareThe XPS 13's speakers are fairly loud for such a thin design. Even better, the Waves Maxx Audio control panel went a long way in improving the sound. With the feature turned on, Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" everything from bass to midtones to treble got boosted. We liked that we could tweak the settings, too. The ASUS UX31 has more robust audio, but the Dell is one of the better sounding Ultrabooks.

Performance

The 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-2467M processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB SSD in the XPS performed well on our tests. On PCMark07, the laptop notched 3,521, which is about 1,200 points above average, and 400 points higher than the HP Folio 13, which has the same processor. The UX31 scored slightly higher, at 3,606. When writing this review, watching some HD movies and listening to music, the XPS 13 performed smoothly, without any hiccups.

The XPS 13 booted Windows 7 Home Premium in a quick 27 seconds; that's on a par with the HP Folio 13 and the Z835, and was about 20 seconds faster than the average. This machine also woke from sleep in about 2 seconds, which was also on a par with other Ultrabooks.

This Dell's SSD was one of the fastest we've tested, duplicating a 4.97GB folder of multimedia in just 37 seconds, a rate of 137.5 MBps. That even beats the MacBook Air (127 MBps), and is about 40MBps faster than the UX31.

The XPS 13 took 6 minutes and 57 seconds to complete the LAPTOP Spreadsheet Macro Test, in which we use OpenOffice calc to match 20,000 names with their addresses. That showing bests the ultraportable average by about 3 minutes, but is on the slower side for Ultrabooks. While it was faster than the Toshiba Z835 (11:36), the Dell was bested by the Folio 13 (6:44), the UX31 (5:50) and the U300s (5:05).

Graphics

The integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics in the XPS 13 scored 4,091 on 3DMark06, about 700 points above the category average, and blows past all other Ultrabooks with the same GPU, including the UX31 (3,761) and the Z835 (3,620). Still, don't expect much more than the ability to play high-def movies and moderate games. On our "World of Warcraft" test, the XPS 13 averaged 32 fps with the settings at default. That's certainly playable and on a par with the Z835 and the U300s. When we increased the settings to max, the XPS 13's framerates dropped to an unplayable 14 fps.

Battery Life

The XPS 13 lasted 5 hours and 46 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi on 40 percent brightness. This runtime is long enough to get you through a good part of your workday, but it's one of the shortest times we've seen from an Ultrabook. The next closest, the ASUS UX31, lasted about 15 minutes longer. The ultraportable category average is about an hour longer (6:46), and the HP Folio 13 lasted for an excellent 7 hours and 50 minutes.

Smart Connect

Dell XPS 15 ConnectA new Intel feature introduced in the XPS 13 is Smart Connect, which enables the notebook to remain connected to the Internet while in sleep mode. This means that you can continue to receive emails or updates from TweetDeck while the notebook is closed. Of course, this feature does negatively impact battery life, which is why you can disable this feature, or set the frequency at which the XPS 13 checks for updates from once every 5 minutes to once every 60 minutes. Overall, though, we really like Smart Connect because you can wake your notebook up and have the latest info at your fingertips.

After enabling Smart Connect, we launched both TweetDeck and Windows Live Mail, and then closed the notebook. After waiting for 15 minutes, we opened up the notebook again, and found that Smart Connect worked--for the most part. We saw the latest tweets in Tweetdeck, but only our email headers had been downloaded in Live Mail, which is more a function of that app's security.

Software

Dell XPS 13 SoftwareThere's not much in the way of preinstalled apps on the XPS 13, which we think is a good thing. A trial of McAfee Security Center, Microsoft Office 2010 Starter and Skype are loaded, but that's about it. Dell's utilities include the Dell Support Center, which lets you set passwords, back up your system, check to see if components such as the battery are performing properly and access tech support.

Configurations

Our $999 configuration of the XPS 13 (Core i5-2467M processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB SSD) is the starting model. Dell sells two other versions: For $1,299, you get a Core i5-2467M processor and a 256GB SSD, and $1,499 will get you a Core i7-2637M CPU and a 256GB SSD.

The XPS 13 comes with a one-year premium protection package that includes Accidental Damage, LoJack, In-Home and premium phone support. Check out how Dell fared in our annual Tech Support Showdown and Best & Worst Laptop Brands report.

Dell XPS 13 vs Ultrabook Competition

The two most formidable Windows-powered competitors for the XPS 13 are the Toshiba Portege Z835 and ASUS UX31. For $100 less, the Z835 offers a greater array of ports, an hour more of battery life, and a lighter (though larger) chassis. The $1,099 ASUS UX31 sports a sharper screen and better sound, but it's also bigger than the Dell and lacks a backlit keyboard.

Verdict

Dell XPS 13 VerdictFrom its stylish and compact carbon-fiber design to the backlit keyboard to its fast SSD, there's a lot to like about the $999 Dell XPS 13. Intel's Smart Connect technology is yet another plus, which will help you get right back to work when you lift the lid. However, the lack of an SD card slot and the below-average battery life detract from what is otherwise an excellent system. Overall, Dell has delivered a solid Ultrabook for $300 less than the MacBook Air. It should find plenty of takers.

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Author Bio
Michael A. Prospero
Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor
Michael A. Prospero has overseen reviews on Laptopmag.com since 2007, focusing on producing the most thorough and authoritative mobile product reviews. After receiving his Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia in 2003, Mike worked at Fast Company. Prior to that, he worked at The Times of Trenton, George and AlleyCat News.
Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-2467M
Operating System MS Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 4GB
Hard Drive Size 128GB
Hard Drive Speed n/a
Hard Drive Type SSD Drive
Display Size 13.3
Native Resolution 1366x768
Optical Drive None
Optical Drive Speed n/a
Graphics Card Intel HD 3000
Video Memory 384MB
Wi-Fi 802.11a/g/n
Wi-Fi Model Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230
Bluetooth Bluetooth 3.0
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 3.9 x 2.4 inches
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone/Mic
Ports (excluding USB) USB 3.0
Ports (excluding USB) Mini DisplayPort
USB Ports 2
Warranty/Support
Size 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.24-0.71 inches
Weight 3 pounds
Company Website www.dell.com