Dell's XPS 13 has been refreshed for 2014, adding Haswell power and a touch screen to the notebook's sleek, ultraportable design. Starting at $1,049 ($1,299 as reviewed), this 13-inch Ultrabook's comfortable, soft-touch deck and solid battery life make it a joy to use, and the crisp 1080p display doesn't hurt either. As long as you can live with one annoying flaw, there's no reason not to snatch up this Dell.
Dell hasn't made any cosmetic changes to the XPS 13 since last year's model, and it didn't need to. This slick ultraportable has an attractive and slim design, starting with a matte aluminum-brushed lid with a black Dell logo in the center.
The lid opens up to reveal a black, soft-touch deck, which was easy on our wrists when we typed on the notebook's contoured island keys. Like its big brother the XPS 15, the XPS 13 sports a carbon-fiber underside with a chic checkerboard pattern.
Measuring 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.7 inches, the XPS 13 has a smaller footprint than the HP Spectre 13t (12.8 x 8.7 x 0.59 inches), Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (12.6 x 8.8 x 0.51 pounds) and Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (12.8 x 9 x 0.11 inches). Like the Spectre 13t, the XPS 13 weighs 3.3 pounds and felt light in our hands. The ATIV Book 9 and 13-inch Air are a bit lighter, at 3.2 pounds and 3 pounds, respectively.
Ports and Webcam
The XPS 13's thin edges have just a few ports. The notebook's power input, USB 3.0 port and headphone jack are on the left, while you can find a Kensington lock and additional USB 3.0 ports on the right. As with last year's model, the XPS 13 lacks an SD Card slot, which may disappoint some people.
The notebook's 720p webcam is decent enough for video chatting, but don't expect highly detailed shots. Our skin color stayed true in our self-portraits, but our brown beard looked like a blurry mess, and we couldn't make out the small white dots on our blue shirt.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Typing is a breeze on the XPS 13, thanks to the notebook's generously spaced island keys. The concave shape of each key kept our fingertips comfy throughout long writing sessions, and provided a satisfying clicky feel. We typed a speedy 80 words per minute with a 1 percent error rate on the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor, which is much faster than our usual average speed of roughly 65 wpm.
The XPS 13's keyboard has a bright-blue backlight, though we didn't notice much light coming from the space bar and left Shift key.
The notebook's smooth, 4 x 2.5-inch touchpad has a small, gray line to separate the left and right click functions. The touchpad provided instant response when we pinched to zoom in to pictures, and it was just as easy to perform Windows 8.1 gestures, like shuffling through active apps and pulling up the Search charm menu.
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Dell added touch capability to the XPS 13's 13.3-inch FHD display, which packs the same 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution as last year's model. The XPS 13's resolution is the same as that on the Spectre 13t, but the ATIV Book 9 Plus has a sharper, 3200 x 1800p display. Apple's latest 13-inch MacBook Air, which has a 1440 x 900p resolution, is still playing catch-up.
The action-packed trailer for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" looked crisp and colorful on the XPS 13's display. We saw war-torn Nick Fury's facial scars in full detail, and the clips' many explosions popped off the screen with a rich, orange hue. The video's colors remained true at various viewing angles.
The XPS 13's display registered 315 lux on our brightness test, outshining the Spectre 13t (254 lux), ATIV Book 9 Plus (251 lux) and 13-inch MacBook Air (263 lux). The XPS' average brightness also trumps the 252-lux ultraportable-category average.
The XPS 13's bottom-facing speakers are loud enough to fill a small room, though we experienced mixed results when cranking a few songs at full volume. The rollicking snares and deep background chants of Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" sounded crisp on the Dell notebook, but the powerful lead vocals became a bit muffled as the song's intensity rose.
We had a similar experience with rock songs like Fall Out Boy's "The Phoenix," as the track's booming horns and guitars got diluted by canned vocals.
Dell's proprietary audio app uses Maxx Audio 3 technology to provide sound presets for movies, music, voice and gaming. If you're listening with speakers or headphones, you can adjust specific parameters, such as bass, treble and stereo.
Despite its adequate performance for everyday listening, the XPS 13 registered 74 decibels when playing a tone on our Laptop Audio Test. The Spectre 13t and the category average (both 84 dB) outperform the XPS 13's score.
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The XPS 13 can get a bit too hot for comfort. After streaming 15 minutes of HD video on Hulu, the notebook's underside reached a troubling 108.5 degrees Fahrenheit, which is well above our 95-degree threshold. The touchpad was a manageable 83 degrees, while the G and H keys were slightly toasty, at 95 degrees.
Aside from the touch screen, the addition of Haswell power is the biggest improvement to this year's XPS 13. Our unit came loaded with a 4th Gen 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-4200U processor with 8GB of RAM. In comparison, the Spectre 13t we tested packs a 1.6-GHz Core i5-4200U with 4GB of RAM, the ATIV Book 9 runs a 2-GHz Core i7-3537U with 4GB of RAM and the 13-inch MacBook Air sports a 1.3-GHz Core i5-4250U CPU with 4GB of RAM.
It took Dell's laptop 13 seconds to boot Windows 8.1, which is slower than the Spectre 13t (10 seconds), ATIV Book 9 Plus (11 seconds) and MacBook Air (10 seconds booting OS X Mountain Lion). However, the XPS 13 still started more quickly than the 16-second ultraportable average.
The XPS 13 was smooth in everyday use. We browsed in 10 different Chrome tabs while streaming an episode of "The Following" on Netflix, and experienced no stuttering or slowdown.
Dell's ultraportable scored 4,858 on the PCMark 7 performance test, just edging out the Spectre 13t (4,806) but falling short of the ATIV Book 9 Plus' score of 5,017. The category average is 3,947.
The XPS 13 scored 5,153 on the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance. This showing bests the ATIV Book 9 Plus (4,150) and the category average of 4,598, but it lags behind the Spectre 13t (6,436) and 13-inch MacBook Air (6,267).
It took Dell's notebook 5 minutes and 20 seconds to finish our OpenOffice spreadsheet test, which consists of performing a complex VLOOKUP operation across 20,000 rows. The XPS 13 was a bit speedier than the Spectre 13t (5:30) and 13-inch MacBook Air (5:33), and finished just a few seconds behind the ATIV Book 9 Plus (5:13).
To further gauge the XPS 13's capabilities, we measured how quickly the laptop could copy 4.97GB worth of multimedia files. The XPS 13's 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) delivered a file-transfer rate of 145MB per second, which is slower than the Spectre 13t (159 MBps) and the 13-inch MacBook Air (242 MBps), both of which also run on 128GB of flash memory. Still, Dell's notebook completed the test at a better rate than the ATIV Book 9 Plus' 128GB SSD (127 MBps) and the 114 MBps ultraportable average.
The XPS 13 comes with integrated Intel HD 4400 graphics, which is the same GPU used by the Spectre 13t and the ATIV Book 9 Plus. The 13-inch MacBook Air packs a slightly more powerful HD 5000 GPU.
The Dell notebook netted 30,332 on the Ice Storm Extreme graphics benchmark, beating out the Spectre 13t (24,835), ATIV Book 9 Plus (19, 511) and ultraportable average of 20,708.
The XPS 13 can handle some mainstream games, as long as you use lower settings. The Ultrabook ran "World of Warcraft at a smooth 45 frames per second on autodetect and 1366 x 768p resolution. The 13-inch MacBook Air (45 fps) and ATIV Book 9 Plus (46 fps) were similarly adept at these settings, topping the Spectre 13t (28 fps) and category average of 32 fps.
When we cranked the game's settings to max using the same resolution, the XPS played "World of Warcraft" at a slower 24 fps. Under these conditions, the XPS 13 outperformed the ATIV Book 9 Plus (19 fps), Spectre 13t (16 fps) MacBook Air (21 fps) and 16 fps category average.
Software and Warranty
The XPS 13 is fairly light on apps, packing standard Windows 8.1 selections such as Xbox Music and Bing Health & Fitness. Dell's offerings include Dell Backup and Recovery, My Dell, and Dell Digital Delivery, the latter of which allows you to instantly buy and download select PC programs.
As with most current Dell devices, the XPS 13 packs the Wyse PocketCloud app. This free program provides 2GB of cloud storage and allows you to access files on another computer remotely. If you upgrade to PocketCloud Premium ($7.99 for 3 months, or $23.99 for a year), you can access multiple devices and share files as big as 1GB. You can also use the free PocketCloud Remote Desktop app for iOS and Android to access your PocketCloud content on the go.
In addition to Dell's first-party content, the XPS 13 comes loaded with Intel Rapid Start Technology for fast boot times and Intel Smart Connect, which occasionally brings your PC out of sleep mode to keep your data fresh.
The $1,049 and $1,299 configurations of the XPS 13 come with one year of Dell Enhanced Support, while the $1,649 model includes a three-year warranty.
The XPS 13 is certainly travel-friendly, as the built-in 55-WHr battery lasted 8 hours and 38 minutes on the Laptop Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing. Dell's laptop outlasted the ATIV Book 9 Plus (8:06) and trumped the 6:42 ultraportable average, but it falls short of the Spectre 13t (9:04) and the 13-inch MacBook Air (11:40).
The XPS 13 starts at $1,049 with a Core i3-4010U processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, and a 13.3-inch, 1920 x 1080p, nontouch display. We reviewed the $1,299 model, which has a speedier Core i5-4200U processor, 8GB of RAM, the same 128GB SSD and a touch screen.
The maxed-out $1,649 version of the XPS 13 sports a Core i7-4500U processor, a 256GB SSD, and the same RAM and display as the $1,299 configuration. All models use Intel HD Graphics 4400.
To put these prices in perspective, Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air starts at $1,099 with a Core i5-4250U processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and Intel HD Graphics 5000. The Spectre 13t starts at $999 with a Core i5-4200U CPU, Intel HD Graphics 4400 and the same RAM and memory as the Air. A similarly configured ATIV Book 9 Plus has a retail value of $1,399, packing a Core i5-4200U processor, 4GB of RAM, Intel HD Graphics 4400 and 128GB of flash memory.
The latest XPS 13 improves upon last year's model in a number of ways, packing a beefier processor, touch-ready display and solid battery life, while keeping the sleek and slim build we loved. This ultraportable delivers solid performance for work and play, and the bright 1080p screen will satisfy your entertainment needs.
We still have some gripes with the XPS 13, namely its lack of an SD Card slot and tendency to run warm on the bottom. Nevertheless, if you're looking for an attractive and powerful ultraportable, Dell delivers with the XPS 13.