Dell's New MacBook Air Rival: It's Pretty, But Pretty Weak [REVIEW]

dell xps 13 ultrabook

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

After all the hype surrounding Ultrabooks at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, we’re finally starting to see the new models trickle out.Ultrabooks are those thin and light laptops that are designed to compete with Apple’s MacBook Air. Most forgo traditional hard drives in favour of a solid state drive, which is similar to the storage found in your smartphone or tablet. That means Ultrabooks can boot up quickly and run for several hours on a single battery charge.

Dell just released one of the latest Ultrabook models, the 13-inch XPS 13. It’s pretty slick from the outside. With the XPS 13, we finally have some proof Dell can make an attractive product. But with the Ultrabook space becoming more and more crowded, the XPS 13 has to do more than just wow us with aesthetics.

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The XPS is one of the most attractive Ultrabooks I’ve seen so far. However, that’s probably because Dell borrowed liberally from Apple’s MacBook Air design. When the XPS is closed and viewed from the top, its footprint looks almost identical to the MacBook Air’s. It has the same rounded corners, the same wedge shape, and even the same type of hinge attaching the screen to the rest of the body. 

That’s not to say the entire design is a complete ripoff. When you open it up, you’ll see that the XPS has a few unique design elements. My eyes were immediately drawn to the display, which has an amazingly thin bezel. That means Dell was able to pack more screen in less space. Unfortunately, the display doesn’t look so great when it’s on. (More on that later).

The XPS’ body is covered in a black rubbery material that feels great to handle. I really like how the XPS’ silvery metallic outer shell contrasts with the black on the inside. Very sleek.

Another bonus: unlike other Ultrabooks, Dell didn’t try to cram too much keyboard into too little space by shrinking the keys. Instead, you’ll get a full-sized keyboard with plenty of room to type on. The only part of the keyboard I didn’t like was the weird blocky font Dell chose for the keys. It’s pretty tacky.

dell xps 13 ultrabookNot crazy about the font.

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

Overall, the XPS is pretty thin, yet it feels sturdy and well-built. That’s something you typically don’t see from Dell. While it’s noticeably thicker and heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Air, the XPS doesn’t feel like a burden to lug around.

So the XPS 13 is a great-looking device, but that’s only going to get you so far. The real question is: how does it stack up against the MacBook Air and other rival Ultrabooks?

When I first turned on the XPS 13, I was surprised to see it booted up in less than 20 seconds. It also wakes up from sleep mode almost instantly. That’s very impressive for a Windows machine and on par with the bootup time on my MacBook Air. Nice.

And the overall performance is great. The unit I tested was running on one of Intel’s i7 processors, the same energy efficient chip that drives many other Ultrabooks. It’s fast. And thanks to 4 GB of RAM, I never had the machine lock up on me. Everything was buttery smooth. You won’t have a problem running multiple apps or even doing some light video and photo editing.

But beyond the speed and performance, there are a few potential dealbreakers that come packaged with the XPS. 

First off, I wasn’t able to get even close to the almost nine hours of battery life Dell says the XPS can get. It was more like 5 hours at most. If I left the XPS closed in sleep mode, the battery would still drain in about a day. Compare that to the MacBook Air, which can go weeks in sleep mode without a charge. Ultrabook batteries are supposed to be better than that. It’s disappointing. And like other Ultrabooks, you can’t swap out the XPS’ battery, so you’re stuck with what comes in the box.

dell xps 13 ultrabook

Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider

Then comes the display. I was excited to see what it could do after I saw how gorgeous it looked with that thin bezel. But the display is just another disappointment.

colours are dull and washed out. It’s not bright enough. And worst of all, you can make out individual lines and pixels with the naked eye. For example, the circular Chrome browser icon looks like it’s made of a bunch jagged pixels along the rounded edge. Text on the web is just as pixelated and ugly. Video feels impossible to watch unless you’re in a very dark room.

It’s just plain bad. By the end of my time with the XPS, I was dying for my MacBook’s beautifully bright screen again. 

And now for the third and final abomination: the trackpad. Now, Windows-powered Ultrabooks don’t exactly have the best reputation when it comes to functional trackpads. The trackpad on Dell’s XPS 13 is worse than any other I’ve used to far. Scrolling with two fingers is clunky and just plain frustrating. If I accidentally nudged the edge of the trackpad with my palm while scrolling, it would wig out and stop in its tracks. 

It only got worse from there. Multitouch gestures barely register. Sometimes they’d work; sometimes they wouldn’t. Just trying to navigate the desktop became extremely aggravating.

Whatever software is driving the trackpad is just plain dumb. If Dell doesn’t fix the trackpad with an update, I’d have a tough time recommending the XPS to anyone. It completely ruins the experience.

Should You Buy It?
The XPS 13 is pretty. It’s powerful. It’s fast. It performs well. And it starts at $999.99, the same entry-level price for Apple’s smaller 11-inch MacBook Air. 

That’s a good value.

If Dell can get the trackpad working, the XPS 13 could be a decent device. But right now the Ultrabook suffers from a lethal combination of poor battery life, dull screen, and unusable trackpad. If you do buy it, prepare yourself for those drawbacks.

The screen looks pretty impressive when turned off.

The XPS 13 has the same hinge style as the MacBook Air.

When closed, its shape is nearly identical to the MacBook Air

It's thin.

Those lights indicate how full (or empty) your battery is.

Power, USB, and headphones jack.

Nice profile. Nice design.

The keyboard is comfortable to type on, but the font is very ugly. The trackpad is a mess to use.

Nice, large keys.

The display is pretty dull when turned on.

What's next for Ultrabooks?

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