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Dell XPS 13: A small, sexy, and durable Ultrabook

W. Bryan Hastings | March 10, 2014
This third iteration of the Dell XPS 13 is definitely the best. It's a bit pricey at $1299 as configured, but that buys a sharp, nimble, and durable laptop with a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, an SSD, and a 13.3-inch touchscreen display. If you're considering an Ultrabook--or a 13-inch MacBook Air--this machine should be on your short list.

This third iteration of the Dell XPS 13 is definitely the best. It's a bit pricey at $1299 as configured, but that buys a sharp, nimble, and durable laptop with a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, an SSD, and a 13.3-inch touchscreen display. If you're considering an Ultrabook — or a 13-inch MacBook Air — this machine should be on your short list.

Inside the XPS 13's sturdy shell you'll find much the same silicon as in many competing 13-inch Ultrabooks, including a mid-range Haswell-class processor (specifically, a Core i5-4200U, with an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4400 GPU) and a128GB SSD. But this model comes with 8GB DDR3/1600 memory, instead of the more typical 4GB.

Small notebooks often feel cramped, but the more I use the XPS 13, the more I like it. Let's start with the new touchscreen, a rich 1920-by-1080 panel — protected by Gorilla Glass — that excels in nearly every way. The lid is astonishingly stiff, despite measuring slightly more than 1/8-inch thick. It hardly flexed at all when I gripped both sides and twisted. The same goes for the rest of the chassis, which is constructed from a blend of aluminum, magnesium, and carbon fiber.

When I used apps optimized for touch, such as Word, Excel, and Internet Explorer, touch commands worked smooth as silk even for multi-touch gestures like pinch-zoom. Display graphics and text are lively and crisp and very readable even when I looked at the screen from wide angles, both from the sides and from the top.

The display does have one glaring downside: It's very reflective. I was in a coffee shop one early morning, tapping away on the XPS 13, when the rising sun peeked over the rooftops behind me. The screen reflected so much light I could have used it as a mirror. I quickly changed seats.

Moving down to the island-style keyboard, I found a clean, spare layout in simple matte black trimmed in silver and gray. The backlit keys (with three brightness levels, including off) respond nimbly to the tap, provide adequate tactile feedback, and offer the right amount of friction — neither too slippery nor too tacky. That, plus the shallow dimple in the center of each key helps me land my fingertips on the keys I want, ultimately minimizing typos. Your office- and seat-mates, meanwhile, will appreciate keyboard's soft muted clicks.

Still, I needed to adjust to this keyboard. Dell scrunched the six rows of keys down into four inches — that's at least a quarter-inch shorter than most. The company's engineers pulled this off by compressing each individual key by one sixteenth of an inch from top to bottom. I also found the Caps Lock key to be wider than typical, and since you don't need to press hard to trigger a keystroke, I found myself unintentionally typing in all caps. Fortunately, Dell embedded a blue LED on the key to alert me when it's been activated. Finally, as a writer I often use the Home and End keys to quickly navigate documents. The XPS 13's keyboard forces me to press three keys at the same time to use those functions.

 

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