Dell's XPS 13, a next-gen ultrabook

Looking to knock Apple's MacBook Air from its pedestal, PC manufacturers have been launching an array of high-end, superslim laptops over the past several months. Called ultrabooks (a term coined by Intel), these new laptops feature low-voltage Intel Core chips and emphasize long battery life and fast boot times.

Dell's entry into the ultrabook sweepstakes, the XPS 13, was announced in early January but just started shipping on February 29. It was worth the wait.

Many of the specs of the Dell XPS 13 are similar or identical to those of the Acer Aspire S3 or Zenbook UX31, two earlier ultrabooks that I recently reviewed (Ultrabooks hit the shelves: Acer Aspire S3 vs. Asus Zenbook UX31). However, after using it for three days, I'm convinced that it marks the beginning of a second generation of ultrabooks that offer a better balance between performance and battery life than those that debuted in late 2011. Things will, no doubt, speed up this summer when the latest Ivy Bridge processors are incorporated into ultrabook models. For now, the current chips do just fine.

At 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.7 in., the XPS 13 is fractions of an inch smaller than both the Acer Aspire S3 and the Zenbook UX31. On its own, the XPS 13 weighs 3.0 lb.; if you add in the AC adapter, that goes up to a still-reasonable 3.6-lb. travel weight. One inconvenience: It uses a three-prong plug, which means travelers may need to also carry a two-to-three-prong adapter.

The system has a nicely balanced feel, and the soft rubber coating on the base and wrist rest invites the touch. The style of the XPS 13 is modest and elegant, from the understated aluminum lid to the black carbon fiber base and magnesium wrist rest. I preferred it to, say, the glitzy silver case of the Asus Zenbook UX31. There are several stylish design details throughout, such as the stainless steel model ID plate underneath; it flips open to reveal the Windows product key and the system's Dell service tag number.

The full-sized keyboard features comfortable 18.7mm keys that are backlit, although the space bar doesn't light up. There are multimedia controls at the top row of the keyboard, including keys for adjusting and muting volume.

At 4.5 in., the XPS 13's touchpad is one of the largest around, but it lacks separate right and left buttons; instead, you tap the left or right side of the keypad for left and right clicks.

I looked at the basic $999.99 model of the XPS 13 equipped with Intel's Core i5 2467M processor that runs at 1.6GHz but has Intel's TurboBoost technology to increase its speed up to 2.3GHz when needed. It also comes with 4GB RAM and a 128GB solid state drive (SSD). Dell also sells a version with the same CPU and a 256GB SSD for $1,299.99, as well as a $1,499.99 version that has a 1.7GHz Core i7 processor and 256GB SSD.

An impressive display

The center of attention is the system's 13.3-in. flush-mounted display, which (according to Dell) is bonded to the lid to save weight and uses Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. It is powered by Intel's HD Graphics 3000 technology, which comes with 64MB of dedicated video memory and which can use up to 1.6GB of system RAM.

The 1366 x 768-resolution display is very bright and clear. Above it is a 1.3-megapixel webcam with dual microphones.

At a Glance

Dell XPS 13

Dell

Price: $999.99 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 128GB SSD), $1,299.99 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 256GB SSD), $1,499.99 (1.7GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 256GB SSD)

Pros: Beautiful design, strong performance, Trusted Protection Module, backlit keyboard, USB 3.0 port, battery gauge

Cons: No HDMI or VGA ports, no SD card reader, 3-prong power cord, battery not replaceable

As is the case with other ultrabooks, the XPS 13's assortment of ports is minimalist, to say the least. There is one USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0 connector, an audio jack and a Mini DisplayPort connector. There is no flash card reader, VGA port or HDMI port. (Dell sells an optional $30 DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter if you want to connect the XPS 13 to a projector or TV.)

Like most ultrabooks, the XPS 13 lacks an Ethernet connection; it does offer 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. While the system has been designed with consumers in mind, it can fit into the corporate landscape with a Trusted Protection Module (TPM) that has a dedicated cryptographic processor to secure and streamline remote access.

Like other ultrabooks, it doesn't have a replaceable battery, which could be a problem on a long flight or a day away from a power outlet. The XPS 13 does have a feature that is lacking in most notebooks these days: a built-in battery gauge. A five-element LED array on one side of the system provides a crude but useful idea of how much battery life remains.

Along with Windows 7 Home Premium, the XPS 13 comes with a variety of programs, including facial recognition security software and a 15-month subscription to McAfee Security Center. Dell includes a one-year warranty; extending it to three years of coverage adds $300.

Test results

To test the performance of the Dell XPS 13, I used PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0. The software exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2D and 3D graphics and memory; it then compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.

The Dell XPS 13 scored an impressive 1,182.7 on PerformanceTest. That's 20% better than the result I got from the AcerAspire S3 and slightly behind the one I got from the Zenbook UX31 in High Performance mode.

I also ran Maxon CineBench 11.5 to measure graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes that stress the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports scores for processor and graphics performance; I averaged the results of three runs. The XPS 13 blew away both of the other systems with results of 1.93 on the processor test and 9.53 on the graphics test.

To measure battery life, I used Passmark's BatteryMon. I fully charged the system and set the power options to keep the system from going to sleep or the screen from dimming. I connected a USB thumb drive containing six videos to the system and set Windows Media Player to shuffle through the videos continuously while the software charted the battery's capacity. I reported the average of two runs.

When I tested the XPS 13's 6600 mAh battery, I found it was able to power the system under those trying conditions for 4 hours and 19 minutes. This should translate into more than a full day of stop-and-go use.

Conclusions

Dell's XPS 13 is a rarity these days: a reasonably priced computer that is thin and light yet does everything well. Of the ultrabooks I've tested so far, it's the one to beat.

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More about: Acer, Apple, ASUS, ASUS, ASUS, Corning, Dell, Dell Computer, Intel, Maxon, McAfee, McAfee Security, Microsoft, Topic
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