Dell designed the XPS 13 as a premium Ultrabook to show off what it can do with the format. It does that with style. You won’t find a better Windows 8.1 clamshell laptop. This is the first Dell PC Iíve been excited about in a long time.
For a while it looked as if traditional Windows laptops were a thing of the past. The main mobile computing action moved to smartphones, tablets and hybrids.
Microsoft muscled in on the territory with its Surface and laptop-like Surface Pro tablets. Meanwhile†Apple MacBook sales took off.
Dellís XPS 13 addresses everything you didnít like about conventional Windows laptops. Well, almost everything. Itís lightweight and slim. It has a 13-inch screen but is smaller than my 13-inch MacBook Air and as powerful as a MacBook Pro.
Dell sent me the NZ$2500 top-of-the-line model with an Intel i7 processor, 256GB of solid state storage and 8GB of Ram.
Bright, sharp, glorious display
From the moment I opened the box it was clear this is special. The display is glorious with 3200 by 1800 pixels. Itís bright and sharp. Too bright at times. On a night flight†I worried about waking fellow passengers and tried to dial the brightness down. I couldn’t find out a quick way to do this, so ended up closing the computer down.
On the positive side images look great and, for the most part, text is easy to read. Weíll revisit this point later.
Thereís a lightweight aluminium frame with almost no gap between the edge of the screen and the edge of the lid. Thatís the bezel in laptop-maker jargon. The small bezel means the case is about the size of other computer makersí 11-inch models. In practical terms it means it fits on a tray table on a business class flight.
One curious aspect of the tiny bezel is the webcam isnít in the normal spot at the top of the screen.
This was noticeable the moment I powered up the computer because Dell uses facial recognition software to replace the traditional Windows password. The camera looks for your face, then asks you to centre your image. I had to hunt for the camera, located under the screen on the left to get this to work.
Intel i7 processor
Dellís processor choice is interesting. The Intel†i7 is fast by any standard. It is fan-less which makes for a quiet computer and uses Intelís Broadwell design, which means better battery life.
Better than what? Dell says you can get 11 hours from the XPS 13. That may be true†if you crank down the screen brightness and donít overtax the chip. I found it lasted about nine hours, enough for a normal dayís work if you donít push it.
If I sat and worked non-stop the battery would fade after a few minutes more than six hours. Thatís less battery life than I get from an 18-month-old MacBook Air, but still good considering the grunt inside the box.
Dellís keyboard is good enough for most work. The keys are smaller than I like and I found typing is a touch more cramped than is comfortable. Sometimes the keys donít feel as if they move enough. However, Iím sure I could adapt if this was my main computer. The touchpad is excellent, the best Iíve seen in a Windows laptop.
Touchscreen are something you love or hate. I get fingerprints on my MacBook Air screen after spending time on a touchscreen computer, but for the most part I find I get wrist pains lifting my hand from the keyboard to point and touch the display.
My only serious niggle with the XPS 13 isnít Dellís fault. Windows 8.1 still struggles to use high-resolution screens sensibly. Often apps donít scale and you find yourself staring at microscopic type. Thatís something I donít see on a Mac with a Retina display.
Dell has managed to overcome all the things that annoy me about Windows laptops. This one is small, light, powerful, has a great screen and day-long battery life. For all these reasons it gets three thumbs up.
Even so itís not the right machine for me. Although if I was planning a move back to Windows Iíd consider this ahead of the Surface Pro 3 purely because of the better keyboard and trackpad.
Most of the time I use a word processor and a browser. These apps donít require i7 grunt and the battery life trade-off that entails. There are days I need the 10 hours or more I can squeeze from my MacBook Air.