Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Review
By on April 29th, 2012

There’s a new breed of laptops coming out in the market. Inspired by the MacBook Air, this new breed, known as “Ultrabook” strives at achieving a perfect balance of weight, performance and battery life. Dell has introduced their first set of such laptops, in form of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook. Let’s see how the Ultrabook performs.

Laptop Specifications:

  • Processor: SandyBridge based Intel Core i7-2637M CPU @ 1.70GHz w/ HTEM64TVT-xVT-d & AES new instructions ( CPU-z validation)
  • Main memory: 2x2GB DDR3 1333 MHz Dual Channel mode
  • SSD: Samsung PM830 mSATA
  • Sound Card: Realtek High Definition
  • Graphics Card: Intel HD 3000
  • WiFi: Intel Centrino 6230 802.11 a/b/g/n plus Bluetooth
  • Expansion & Misc ports: 2xUSB, 1xHeadphone out, 1xMini DisplayPort

Packaging:

The packaging was pretty good. The XPS 13 came in a laptop briefcase-esque carton, with lots of foam padding which offers shock protection. With the foam padding, the box gives you an impression that the Ultrabook is a lot bigger than it actually is.

Dell XPS 13 Box

Dell XPS 13

Inside the “briefcase” was the laptop enclosed in a plastic cover placed within a cardboard box. Present in the box was the XPS 13, an envelope featuring quick start guide, warranty & registration information and safety single page quick usage guide. The XPS 13 Ultrabook also came with a Windows 7 Professional SP1 Reinstallation disk, a drivers & utilities DVD, FastAccess Face Recognition software CD and Webcam central CD.

Looks, Build Quality & Weight:

Dell seems to have taken a lot of design cues from the MacBook Air. From the shape to the thickness to the tapering edges, the XPS 13 doesn’t have any unique design to distinguish itself from the MacBook Air. Not that this is a bad thing – the XPS 13 is amazingly sleek and very, very light. Heck even if you compare it with Google’s Cr-48, the pilot ChromeBook, the XPS comes out as the winner between the two in terms of weight. The top cover has a nice matte silver finish with a Dell logo. Unlike Apple and HP machines, the logo isn’t illuminated. The XPS 13 feels very good to hold and there’s no plasticky feel anywhere on the laptop. The bottom of the laptop has a nice rubber-style texture and helps in getting a good grip on the bottom of the laptop.

XPS 13 Unboxed

Connectivity options

To achieve the thickness that the XPS 13 has, Dell had to cut down on a considerable amount of expansion ports. For starters there are just 2 USB ports. Much like the MacBook Air, the XPS 13 also skips out the RJ-45 Ethernet connector. Also missing is the usual array of headphone/microphone jacks, eSATA, & VGA/HDMI ports. Amusingly, even though the XPS comes with the usual assortment of CDs and DVDs, Dell has skipped on adding a DVD drive to maintain the slim form factor. There’s a mini DisplayPort  which drives the output to external screens. Thankfully, Dell provides a USB-to-Ethernet cable and a mini DisplayPort-to-VGA cable, so you don’t have to worry about not being able to connect to a LAN or connect to a projector to show a presentation. Dell has confirmed that the set of cables will be available across all the models.

Keyboard & Touchpad

The keyboard is pretty good featuring chicklet style keys. The response of the keys is fantastic and makes it a pleasure to type on it. The keys are backlit for easy typing at night-time/low light conditions and there’s a dedicated key to switch off/on the backlight as you wish. The Function Keys as well as LCD brightness, Media keys share the same row, requiring pressing of the Fn key to activate the desired action.

Dell XPS 13 Keyboard

The XPS 13 keyboard also features a quick shortcut to enter the Indian Rupee symbol – pressing the Right Alt key and then hitting 4 results in the INR symbol being entered. Definitely a nice touch. Couple of negative points about the keyboard – the arrow keys are very tiny and cramped and will cause a lot of problems for daily use. To compound this, the arrow keys also serve as the Home/ Page-Up/ Page-Down/ End keys. So if you’re used to a regular keyboard and use the Home/End keys very frequently as I do, you will get very frustrated by this placement.

As good as the keyboard is, the touchpad is pretty bad. The touchpad is multi-touch capable and fits as a slightly recessed pool just below the space bar. While good in theory, in practice, the touchpad is an utter mess, with no proper response. Now, I own a HP Envy 14 which features a similar touchpad and I’m very comfortable with it. But in comparison to the Envy, the XPS 13′s feels really bad. The response is uneven and unpredictable. The cursor either skips too fast or just does not respond at all. Two-finger scroll takes some time to get used to, but is quite alright to handle. I believe a couple of driver updates to the touchpad should improve the touchpad’s response.

Audio Quality

The XPS 13 is powered by Realtek’s audio solution. The built-in speakers were fairly loud, but not spectacular. There’s only one 3.5mm jack for connecting a headphone, but if you’re looking at connecting a microphone, you’re out of luck. You’ll have to rely on the built-in mic which isn’t that bad, but then again, doesn’t perform as well as a standalone mic.

Display Quality

The XPS 13 comes with a 13.3″, 300 nit, 1366×768 resolution  screen.  The display though bright, has a very poor viewing angle; so if you’re looking at giving a presentation to a group of people, the ones sitting at wide angles are unlikely to see anything.

The XPS screen also comes with auto-brightness adjustment feature which automatically increases/reduces the screen brightness based on the ambient brightness. The Intelligent Display mode, as Dell terms it, is nice in theory and is aimed at improving the battery life. In practice, however, the auto-brightness kicked in way too often and became more of a hindrance than a feature.

The screen bezel also features a 1.3MP webcam and comes with face recognition software which can be set as the primary authorization setting. The face recognition software by FastAccess took about 8-10 times to “learn” my face(though I have to admit, the background lighting was dim, making it harder to distinguish) but once trained, face recognition worked very well and was much more preferable than having to enter the password.

Performance

Performance-wise, the XPS 13 was pretty good. With a Core i5 on the base system and a Core i7 on the top end model, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB/256GB SSD, the XPS 13 can glide through most tasks – be it multi-tasking with several open programs to virtualization. From a gaming point of view however, the XPS 13 lacks the firepower thanks to the Intel HD 3000 IGP. You’ll probably want to dial down the settings to low levels just to get the games running.
Some benchmarking results:

The real killer performance however, comes with the inclusion of the SSD. I’ve mentioned this to many a people – having a SSD instead of a traditional HDD makes a whole lot of difference. Everything is instantly faster – boot up, resume from sleep, opening new applications, switching between applications – it’s really difficult to move back to a traditional HDD-based system once you’ve gotten used to a SSD. This shows in the XPS 13 as well – closing the lid puts the laptop into sleep, and resuming it from sleep is virtually instantaneous.

The XPS tends to dissipate heat well, assuming moderate usage. The vents are closer towards the LCD hinge and work fairly well during normal usage. Load up a game or put it under heavy usage, however, you’ll want to move the Ultrabook away from your lap to avoid burn marks.

Battery Life

Ultrabooks are supposed to have pretty good battery life. However, I was fairly disappointed with the XPS 13′s battery life. Dell claims that the battery lasts for 8 hours, however a closer look at the fine print indicates that the 8-hour life is on a MobileMark benchmark on the i5 version. My real-world benchmark – using it as I would - extensive web browsing, media playing in the background resulted in the XPS 13 running out of juice in about 4 hours time. Curious to know how it’d perform under heavy loads, I ran Battery Eater after charging it to a 100%.

Dell XPS 13 Battery Eater

The result: the battery was reduced to 9% in about 2 hours.

Bundled Utilities & Other Miscellaneous Stuff

The XPS 13 comes with Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition, Dell Stage, Dell Webcam(which allows for screenshots & video captures, with various funky effects, integrated YouTube/Photobucket/Facebook/Box upload), FastAccess Face Recognition and McAfee Security Centre. At first boot, in addition to creating user accounts, you’re also prompted to take a picture for the face recognition software to work.

Dell XPS 13 Default Desktop

 

Pricing, Warranty And Availability

The XPS 13 is available in 3 different models/price points

  • Rs 79,990 – Intel Core i5, 2GB dual channel DDR3 memory, 128GB SSD
  • Rs 89,990 – Intel Core i5, 2GB dual channel DDR3 memory, 256GB SSD
  • Rs 99,990 – Intel Core i7, 4GB dual channel DDR3 memory, 256GB SSD
All three models feature a 3-year Complete Cover with phone support and on-site service after remote diagnosis.

Conclusion

The XPS 13 is a pretty neat Ultrabook. There are drawbacks – the touchpad and the battery life being the main ones, but these are dwarfed by the positives – the build quality, thickness and the weight.  If you’re on the lookout for an extremely thin, lightweight and well performing laptop, the XPS 13 is for you.

Pros:

  • Great looks
  • Good performance
  • Extremely lightweight

Cons

  • Lousy touchpad
  • Battery life not up to the mark
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Product Reviewed: Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Review By: Sathya Bhat
We take the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook for a spin.
Rated: 4/5
Author: Sathya Bhat Google Profile for Sathya Bhat
Sathyajith aka "Sathya" or "cpg" loves working on computers, and actively participates in many online communities. Sathya is a Community Moderator on Super User, a collaboratively maintained Q&A site which is part of the Stack Exchange network. Sathya also contributes to and is a Super Moderator at Chip India Forums. While not writing SQL queries or coding in PL/SQL, Sathya is also a gamer, a Linux enthusiast, and maintains a blog on Linux & OpenSource. You can reach Sathya on twitter.

Sathya Bhat has written and can be contacted at sathya@techie-buzz.com.
  • ashish chatterjee

    1. Simple question- Is it better than a Macbook Air?
    2. “Amusingly, even though the XPS comes with the usual assortment of CDs and DVDs, Dell has skipped on adding a DVD drive to maintain the slim form factor.” – :( . Why o why can’t people pay attention to details?

    • http://sathyabh.at Sathya Bhat

      1. Is it better? From a hardware POV, the Air’s definitely much, much better. From a software POV: That depends. I’m not much of a Mac guy & prefer Windows. So I guess it’s a tie?
      2. I know – I was baffled at that decision. Guess Dell wants us to do the juggling of getting the content from the optical media, to let’s say, a USB key.

      • ashish chatterjee

        IMHO Air is as good with software. Besides you can always multi-boot. :). So Air just wins!

        • http://sathyabh.at Sathya Bhat

          Win-win :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1200808263 Naeem Noor

    I’ll wait for the Macbook pro 2012.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=543508896 Sathyajith Bhat

      MBP and the XPS 13 cater to different segments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1200808263 Naeem Noor

    I’ll wait for the Macbook pro 2012.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=543508896 Sathyajith Bhat

      MBP and the XPS 13 cater to different segments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1200808263 Naeem Noor

    I’ll wait for the Macbook pro 2012.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=543508896 Sathyajith Bhat

      MBP and the XPS 13 cater to different segments.

  • russtafari

    So are there any PC laptops with similar features that outshine this one?

 
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