Dell XPS 13 review: MacBook Air fanboys, look no further for your rumored unicorn

At a Glance
  • Dell XPS 13 2015

    PCWorld Rating

    Dell's XPS13 shoehorns a 13.3-inch monitor into the body of an 11-inch laptop.

As PC fan boy No. 42, I cannot lie: Apple’s MacBook Air 11 has had us whupped. It’s slim and light, offers great battery life, and damn—the $900 price tag of the entry-level configuration just can’t be beat by most PC vendors.

PCs are all about great performance at low, low prices, right? Oh, the burn!

Well, I’m here to tell you that the MacBook Air just lost all its luster. Dell’s sexy new XPS 13 just rolled into town with a list of features that eerily sound like every MacBook Air rumor story you’ve read on CultofAppleRumorMongering.net for the last few months.

Dell’s new ultralight is essentially the storied-but-not-yet-released MacBook Air unicorn that every Apple fan wants, but just can’t have. (At least not yet.)

The XPS 13 has Intel’s latest Broadwell U CPU; 8GB of DDR3/1600; an M.2 SSD; great battery life; and a sexy aluminum-and-carbon-fiber shell. Then there’s the real star of Dell’s show: a 13.3-inch, practically bezel-less display. Most manufacturers would have settled for an 11-inch display in a body this size (see Apple’s current MacBook Air lineup for evidence).

The XPS 13 body itself is just 12 inches by 7.8 inches. It's 0.6 inches at its thickest.

dell xps13 3 Gordon Mah Ung

Small indeed: Dell’s new XPS13 with a 13-inch screen on top of a Mac Book Air with a 13-inch screen.

Put the XPS 13 next to the vaunted MacBook Air 11 and the MacBook Air 13. Give all three laptops a nice, long stare. It looks like someone took the display from the MBA13 and put it into the MBA11. Except Apple didn’t do it—Dell did it, and then posted “first” on the Internet.

Beautiful screen in a tiny space

The real burn for Apple users, though, will be the panel in the XPS 13. Dell offers base 1920x1080 and high-res 3200x1800 versions.

For people who think only in Retinametrics, that’s a pixel-per-inch count of roughly 276. The 13-inch MacBook Air, with 1440x900 display, is 128 ppi. The 11-inch model actually offers slightly more Retinameters of 135 ppi. But even the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro Retina's high-res screen is but 227 ppi.

Both sizes of XPS 13 display are superior to the MBA in technology as well as resolution. The MacBook Air models use mere TN screens (albeit better examples of the genre), while the XPS 13 uses IPS. For anyone who does color-critical work such as photo editing or design, TN can’t beat IPS. The XPS 13 I reviewed also includes 10-point touch. 

Ultrabooks aren’t known to offer very bright panels and usually hover in the 300-nit range. The 2014 ThinkPad X1 Carbon I used for comparison, for example, is rated at 300 nits, and I measured it at about 259 nits smack-dab in the middle. The XPS is rated at an eye-searing 400 nits, and I measured 399 nits. 

xps 13 4 Dell

The Dell is small enough to fit in an interoffice envelope.

The screen is very impressive, especially when you consider the space Dell is working with. I didn’t notice any serious banding issues nor backlight bleeding, and lighting was fairly consistent. One thing I did see was a three-inch by one-inch, mustache-shaped discoloration when looking at a uniform white screen with the brightness up. That may be a defect in this particular review unit. The company said other units don’t exhibit the same phenomenon.  

There is a tradeoff to the near-zero bezel, though: There’s no room for the 720p webcam. Instead, Dell puts it in the lower left corner of the XPS 13. Your videoconference colleagues will see part of your hand while you’re typing, as well as a great view of your wattle. It’s not pleasant.

camera PCWorld

The camera on the XPS 13 is placed on the lower lefthand corner of the panel, which leads to up-wattle shots and occasional fingering.

The XPS 13 is also the first official laptop we've seen with Intel’s new Broadwell U, outside of CES. 

The short and skinny of Broadwell U is that it’s Intel’s 5th-generation Core i CPU and uses the company’s 14nm die process. The end result is the promise of better battery life and somewhat better CPU and graphics performance. 

I’ll delve little deeper into Broadwell U’s performance in an upcoming story. Meanwhile, I compared the XPS 13 to an older, Haswell-based Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

In our Handbrake test, we take a 30GB 1080p resolution MKV file and transcode it to a far more manageable size for viewing on an Android tablet.

dell xps13 2015 handbrake 0.9.9

Despite having a lower Turbo Boost clock, the XPS 13 pulls ahead of the Lenovo X1 Carbon by a good margin.

The XPS 13 easily outruns the older X1 Carbon in this pure CPU test. One thing to keep in mind when comparing the two, however, is the Core i5 5200U in the XPS 13 actually has a lower-rated turbo frequency of 2.7GHz, compared to 2.9GHz for the Core i5 4300U in the X1 Carbon. During my tests though, the XPS 13 actually ran at 2.5GHz, while the X1 Carbon ran in the 2.17GHz range. 

dell xps13 2015 pcmark8 home conventional PCWorld

We initially were confused by the performance of the Broadwell chip in PCMark 8 until we realized the much higher resolution was hurting performance.

Due to an apparent bug in MobileMark 2014 that BAPCo is looking into, I’m not using the performance score from the suite. Instead, I ran PC Mark 8’s Home test on both laptops. The XPS 13 and its Broadwell U once again came out on top.

dell xps13 2015 3dmark icestormextreme PCWorld

The better graphics core in the Broadwell U helps keep it ahead of the Haswell U in the Lenovo.

The last benchmark chart I’ll put you through is 3DMark’s Ice Storm Extreme, which measures graphics performance. Again, the Broadwell U in the XPS 13 offers a nice improvement over the older X1 Carbon, but gamers shouldn’t get their hopes up. You won’t be playing Far Cry 4 at the panel’s native resolution anytime soon.

Perhaps the most important feature in a laptop today is battery life. To determine that I used BAPCo’s new MobileMark 2014 benchmark. The test uses popular real-world applications such as Chrome, Office 2013, Photoshop CS6, and Premiere Pro CS6 to perform various tasks at 150 nits, which is a reasonable brightness.

MobileMark 2014 is unlike most mobile benchmarks in that it measures only the response time and actually allows a laptop to stop and pause. You don’t, for example, type for seven hours straight in Word. You type, pause, use your phone for a few minutes and then go back to typing. Then you task-switch to email. MobileMark actually lets the laptop’s screen dim or blank out before resuming a task. MobileMark 2012 remains the industry standard among OEMs for testing, so we’re actually a little ahead of the curve now. 

It’s also worth mentioning that the battery in the XPS 13 is rated at 52WHr, which is actually a reduction from the previous XPS 13, yet it offers better battery life.

dell xps13 2015 mobilemark 2014 batterylife PCWorld

MobileMark 14 is perhaps the most realistic test for measuring actual office productivity battery life around and the Broadwell chip delivers in battery life. Keep in mind, the XPS13 also has a larger battery too.

Our MobileMark 14 run in Office-drone tasks puts the battery life at 10 hours for our configuration. The XPS 13 with the 1920x1080 screen without touch actually ups the battery life another four hours, to nearly 15 hours of use. If you’re looking to go off-grid even longer, add Dell’s PowerCompanion battery brick so you can charge the laptop much as you would your phone.

As with the badly placed camera, Dell made one other dubious choice with the XPS 13: the keyboard design. Dell crams the important keys (function keys don’t count to me) in a space about 10.5 inches wide and 3.53 inches deep. Travel is rated at 1.3mm.

dell xps13 6 Gordon Mah Ung

The one big compromise you’ll make is a slightly compressed keyboard in the XPS 13.

The Lenovo X1 Carbon's four rows fit into a spacious 11.3-by-3.6-inch box. Even the MacBook Air 11, which is physically a bit smaller than the XPS 13, gives the keyboard 10.75 by 3.5 inches.

To see whether the smaller keyboard would impact my typing, I took an online test on the X1 Carbon and the XPS 13. I typed at 72 wpm on the X1 Carbon and 70 wpm on the XPS 13, producing six errors both times. On a full-sized Corsair K60 mechanical keyboard, I hit 88 wpm. The keyboard on the XPS 13 is tolerable, but definitely a compromise. 

The trackpad appears to be made by Synaptics and I had no complaints. Despite the cramped quarters, my palms didn't cause cursor jump, but there was also no way to adjust palm rejection on the XPS 13.

One final spec to mention in the XPS 13 vs. MacBook Air battle is the SSD. The XPS 13 uses an M.2 SSD, but it conforms to the SATA portion of M.2 and thus isn't a true PCIe drive. I saw sequential reads and writes in the 450MB/s range. That's decent, but PCIe-based storage devices like in the MacBook Air can reach close to 800MB/s.

Dell said it has plans to release a PCIe-based SSD for the XPS 13 soon. Before the Apple crew stars to crow though, I should mention the M.2-shaped devices in the Haswell-based MacBook Airs aren't actually M.2—they're a custom, proprietary design, so you can't just upgrade using off-the-shelf parts.

dell xps13 5 Gordon Mah Ung

The XPS 13 is easily an early contender for the best Ultrabook of the year, and it’s only January.

In the end, I honestly have few complaints beyond the compressed keyboard and odd camera placement. The XPS 13 gives you good performance and great battery life in an incredibly compact and solid-feeling package. Even the pricing is almost reasonable. This model with its 256GB SSD, 8GB of RAM and QHD+ touchscreen costs $1,400. If that’s too rich, Dell really takes a shot at Apple with its base model. That XPS 13 comes with a 1920x1080 non-touch IPS panel, 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM. At $800, it packs components a magnitude better than the MacBook Air 11's, and it’s $100 cheaper.

Few Mac users may cross over to the light side, but at least there’s finally a PC with better specs and a better price in the world. Which is the way it’s supposed to be.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Dell's XPS13 shoehorns a 13.3-inch monitor into the body of an 11-inch laptop.

    Pros

    • Large screen in small real estate
    • QHD+ resolution screen
    • Entry-level model is $800

    Cons

    • Compressed keyboard
    • Weird placement for camera
Related:
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.