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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.

The XPS 13's trackpad is very responsive, and it exhibits good palm rejection. I found the trackpad a little fiddly only when doing some multi-touch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom.

Too few ports
Where does the XPS 13 let you down? You can't add or attach much stuff to it. This laptop has just two USB 3.0 ports, and you get nada in the way of slots — not even an SD card slot.

You'll want to carry at least a USB thumb drive with you. And since there's no hardwired ethernet port, a USB-to-ethernet adapter will be essential for those times when your only Internet option is wired. Sony's VAIO Pro 13 is equally small, but its engineers managed to squeeze an SD card slot into its chassis. Dell gives you an LED battery-life indicator, instead. (Come on, Dell, it's simple enough for us to hit Fn+F3 to check battery life.)

On the bright side, both USB ports are the always-on type that let you charge your smartphone or other battery-operated gadgets even when the laptop is otherwise powered down. I'm also happy to report that the XPS 13 is outfitted with Intel's Wireless-AC 7260, a dual-band, 2x2 adapter that supports the 802.11ac networking standard and provides Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity.

PCWorld's opinion is that DisplayPort is superior to HDMI, and the only video output on the XPS 13 is a mini DisplayPort. But in my personal opinion, HDMI is the more consumer-friendly interface — and XPS is one of Dell's consumer brands. I'll leave you to make up your own mind about that. Dell does offer options to desktop-ize the notebook — including a $140 USB 3.0 docking station with both DVI and HDMI outputs — but I didn't evaluate its performance.

For such a small machine, the XPS 13's speakers delivered remarkably full and rich sound that seemed to emanate from the entire keyboard deck. To get a sense of their dynamic range, I played the William Tell Overture, a widely ranging orchestral piece. In the Prelude, the soft low-register strings sounded surprisingly lush, and the rumble of the tympanis full and almost percussive. The audio experience starts to suffer as you move up the register. In the Storm and Pastorale sections (the latter we know from Bugs Bunny cartoons) the blaring horns and the counterpointing horn, flute, and triangle sound like they're coming out of a can. You won't mistake this Ultrabook for a Bose Wave Radio, but it sounds impressive for its size.

Performance
The system also works well for video chats and shooting selfies. The screen-mounted 1.3-megapixel webcam works better than many 2-megapixel models I've seen, delivering video with few under- and over-exposed areas, natural peach-pink color on face skin instead of the florid reds that some cheaper cams render, and the video plays smooth with few or no jaggy pixels even when displaying over the whole screen. The pair of embedded mics flanking the webcam record clear crisp speech from three feet away, though I had to crack up the volume to hear the playback.

 

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