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Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
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Montreal
Dell’s previous efforts in the slim and light product space have been varied and numerous but they lacked focus. There were some great offerings like the Vostro V131 but others which ultimately fell flat. In an effort to rectify this situation, the new XPS 13 Ultrabook was introduced and like many of its forefathers, it pushes a high level of mobility but marries that with lead edge industrial design and top tier product protection.

Let’s start things off by focusing solely upon Intel’s Ultrabook platform. An Ultrabook is supposed to offer what many have been looking for in a compact notebook: affordability, great battery life, advanced connectivity options, the illusion of great performance though the use of an SSD and most importantly, a compact design that can easily be carted around just about anywhere. However, some manufacturers have strayed a bit too far off course for our liking and have released products the barely meet Intel’s minimum platform specifications or cost a small fortune. Dell’s XPS 13 on the other hand is what we would consider a poster child for the Ultrabook philosophy.


In an effort to appease casual users and performance oriented clients alike, Dell has paired up their XPS 13 line with a number of configurations, all of which offer very little in the way of flexibility. At the lowest end $999 price point, Dell includes an Intel i5 2467M low voltage processor, 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD. There are a few other configurations which substitute the i5 or a higher performance i7 processor and the SSD for a 256GB unit and if you want the best of the best, it’ll cost you an astronomical $1500. All of these come in the same chassis so the limited connectivity options you see above won’t change as you go up-market. Our unit came with the basic $999 layout though it can be found on sale from time to time for as little as $875.

As with many Ultrabooks, there are some tradeoffs here. The aforementioned limited I/O connectors are the most glaring difference between the XPS 13 and a full sized notebook but the limited capacity 128GB SSD may be a concern for some as well. We should also mention that Dell includes Bluetooth v3.0 within the Centrino wireless module rather than the newer 4.0 protocol. The difference between the two Bluetooth protocols boils down to range rather than features so most won’t notice much in the way of performance discrepancies.

To us, one of the most important features of this Ultrabook is the warranty which Dell includes. Much like their professional Vostro lineup, Dell has gone the extra mile by adding a year of on-site tech support (yes, a technician will really come to your house if the issue can’t be diagnosed over the phone) and North America-based phone support. To sweeten the pot, the XPS 13 also comes with one year of LoJack for Laptops and protection against accidental damage as well. In our opinion, this is one of the best warranties around since Dell is among a few manufacturers left that actually provides reachable customer service agents.


Like most other Ultrabooks, the XPS 13 is a relatively small notebook which weighs in at a mere 2.99lbs, making it highly portable. A machined aluminum top cover that’s been anodized a simple silver colour tops things off on the right foot. It feels great, won’t slip out of your hands at an inopportune time and doesn’t pick up fingerprints like so many other finishes.


In the past, we’ve remarked about how Ultrabooks typically fall into one of two categories: those with budget-focused, lackluster quality and others with high quality construction that are a pleasure to work with. With its nearly seamless construction and high strength exterior finishes, the XPS 13 clearly sets the benchmark in this category. Even when lifted with one hand while the lid was opened, it didn’t exhibit the slightest bit of protest or hint of chassis flex. In our opinion, this is one of Dell’s best built products to date.


Speaking of high quality, Dell has incorporated a magnesium palmrest with soft-touch paint which keeps blemishes and greasy palm stains to a minimum. This finish continues around most of the XPS 13’s flat surfaces and gracefully blends into the brushed aluminum frame.

Amazingly, the chassis rigidity doesn’t lead to an overly thick profile. At a mere 18mm with its small rubber feet and a 6mm body-only profile, this is one of the thinnest Ultrabooks available.


When it comes to the connectors on Ultrabooks, one can’t be picky since a slim chassis doesn’t normally allow for an extensive selection of I/O options. Dell has been extremely stingy though. One side houses a USB 3.0 port and a mini DisplayPort while the other has a USB 2.0 port with PowerShare (which can charge your devices when the XPS 13 is in standby mode, provided it is enabled in the BIOS) and a combo 3.5mm headphone / mic connector. That’s it.

The standard multi card reader is MIA which is (in our opinion at least) a big loss, making it impossible to back up your travel photos and seriously curtailing the XPS 13’s on-the-go usefulness. Unlike the ASUS 13z, Dell also doesn’t include a mini DisplayPort to VGA adaptor, though one can be purchased from Dell.com for a cost of $40. Do you want wired internet LAN? Forget about it since an adaptor isn’t available. There’s no HDMI port either which means a lack of outputs to a supporting HDTV unless your TV is one of the rare ones that include a DisplayPort input.


The XPS 13’s base is composed of a soft, rubber-like finish on top of the carbon fiber composite material. This makes it easy to hold, nearly impervious to scratches and it won’t just slip off your lap when in use. It is simply brilliant to hold and absorbs impacts quite well. Small integrated rubber strips further aid stability. There is also a ventilation grille located here which could cause a number of issues like a lack of fresh air when the XPS 13 is used on a soft surface and excess heat being directed at a user’s lap. In the temperature testing section, we’ll look a bit closer at this.

Finally, Dell has incorporated the required Windows 7 and Intel logos into a flush mounted aluminum panel which can be removed to view the Windows serial number. This is actually a great addition since it ensures the Windows activation number and Dell service tags will never be rubbed off.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Keyboard & Touchpad / Upgrade Options

Keyboard & Touchpad



Dell’s chiclet-style keyboard uses standard sized keys and features plenty of room for full sized Shift, Enter and Backspace functions. It is also spill resistant and has a dimmable backlight which is a great accomplishment for such an inexpensive and thin Ultrabook.

Typing on the XPS 13 is relatively easy but there are some latent problems that occur when trying to cram a full sized keyboard into a limited amount of space. Everything feels a bit claustrophobic as the keys haven’t been given much breathing room. This ultimately makes quick, accurate typing difficult. While there isn’t much key travel due to the limited amount of vertical space Dell had to work with, tactile feedback is within an acceptable range so touch typists will be more than satisfied.


The actual finish of the key surfaces leaves a bit to be desired since their slightly glossy faces tend to make fingers slip every now and then, regardless of the concave shapes. Had Dell gone with a slip-resistant finish, we would have been singing this keyboard’s praises.

As with many other Ultrabooks, the function and directional arrow keys have been downsized in order to maximize in other areas but this shouldn’t cause an issue for most users. We also like the fact that Dell located the Power button in a highly accessible location but eliminated its usual glowing LED. Instead the LED is integrated into the XPS 13’s front edge below the touchpad, ensuring it doesn’t distract your eyes from the screen.


For a notebook of its size, the XPS 13 has a fairly large Cypress touchpad but its excellent position ensures an errant palm won’t trigger unwanted cursor moves. Now before we go on, many of you know about how much we detest touchpads with integrated buttons. Typically, they act like a spoiled brat with A.D.D. and seem to have a mind of their own: tell it to do one thing and it does another. But not this time around.

Dell has found a way around the typical poor implementations by giving the touchpad a ton of real estate and distinctly separating the left and right buttons from the touch sensitive surface. Basically, in order to activate either button, you have to actually move your finger to the bottom surface and “click” on it. The tactile feedback really makes it feel like there are two physical buttons while maintaining the sleek look Ultrabooks demand.

The only problem we encountered with this touchpad was a reduction of sensitivity. Sometimes, we tried to double tap the touch-sensitive area and it wouldn’t respond. This was likely a byproduct of over-aggressive palm detection and can easily be resolved by using the included software suite. In addition, Dell rolled out some improved software for this Cypress touchpad about two months ago which seriously improved its performance. We highly recommend you upgrade since our review unit came with an older version.


Upgrade Options



The laws governing Ultrabook upgrading are quite simple: you can’t. In order to save as much internal space as possible, the components are frequently squeezed into place and at times are soldered onto the motherboard. In addition, the Dell XPS 13 features a near-seamless construction that doesn’t allow for easy access to internal components.
 

SKYMTL

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Screen & Audio Quality / Pre-Installed Software

Screen Quality



The XPS 13’s display is listed as “720P” but it is in fact a simple 1366x768 TN-based panel that uses an ultra glossy coating. Its design is actually quite stunning since it features an edge to edge glass construction without a perceptible bezel anywhere in sight, much like LG’s vaunted “Shuriken” displays which have yet to be used on Ultrabooks. There’s also a 1.3MP webcam with a stereo mic mounted in a dead center position.


The panel used on this Ultrabook is decent by TN standards with fairly accurate colour reproduction and passable contrast. You certainly won’t be using it for hardcore photo editing work but for movies, word processing and most other tasks, it does a good job. We did however notice somewhat limited brightness output. This could cause some issues when trying to view the screen in a bright environment where a higher range of backlight intensity needs to compensate for the reflective screen.

While we wouldn’t expect a high resolution IPS panel on a $999 notebook, the XPS 13’s $1300 and $1500 models should have at the very least included a 1600x900 display in order to bring them up to the competition’s standards. Many premium Ultrabooks include (or at least SHOULD include) higher resolution options, but this one doesn’t.


Once again, it looks like Dell used a better quality TN panel than most but that still doesn’t make this one appropriate for off-angle viewing.


Audio Quality


There really isn’t anything much to say about the audio experience offered by the XPS 13 since it is simply generic and in no way special. Some competitors have used B&O technology or a Beats Audio software wrapper to enhance (artificially or otherwise) the audio quality of their Ultrabooks but Dell has shied away from these higher end systems. We count them as unnecessary, cost inflating frills on a platform that’s meant to be as mobile as possible. If anything, we’d like to see a manufacturer add a simple, inexpensive headphone amplifier to their design, thus enhancing portable audio rather than speaker output.

Now that we’ve finished going thoroughly off course, let’s get back to the XPS 13. The sound pumping out through its two small integrated speakers is of the tinny, hollow variety typically associated with entry level notebooks and most Ultrabooks. It isn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination and it can be used in a pinch but don’t expect miracles here.


Pre Installed Software




All too many notebook manufacturers cram their best products full of unwanted, resource hogging bloatware, particularly in the popular Ultrabook category. Dell has been no stranger to this behavior since their Insprion 14z was loaded to the gills with unnecessary software that dragged down its performance in a number of key areas.

The XPS 13 on the other hand is something of an oddity. Instead of an endless list of pointless applications, our unit came with a mere smattering of pre-installed programs and when running at idle, it only featured 79 processes, consuming a mere 936MB of system resources. While nearly a gig of memory may see a bit extreme, this is actually one of the most scaled-down Windows installations we have seen to date. Not only will this extend battery life but it should also eliminate many of the annoying pop-ups that typically accompany a prebuilt system.

Unfortunately the pre-installed McAfee security suite is –as usual- a royal pain in the ass and should be deleted immediately. Now, we completely understand the need for a pre-installed security suite but the inclusion of an intrusive, resource hungry, bug ridden virus scan like McAfee should be avoided at all costs. There are plenty of highly regarded, resource-light, completely free programs out there (Microsoft’s excellent Security Essentials is one example) which do a better job and don’t need to be renewed every year.



As we mentioned at the very beginning of this review, Dell has equipped the XPS 13 with a one year subscription of LoJack for Laptops. Like its automotive cousin, this system allows you to track and partially control a lost or stolen notebook. In our limited testing, it actually worked quite well as the Ultrabook could be tracked using a simple mapping system and disabled with a remote command provided it was connected to the internet. Remember, this feature is hard-wired into the system and cannot be disabled through the Windows interface so unless the thief can access your password-protected BIOS, the unit can be easily found.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.







From one Ultrabook to another, there really isn’t all that much of a performance difference due to the limited number of low voltage processors that are used in this platform. With that being said, Dell’s entry holds its own in most tests.

Possibly the most important addition here is the integrated SSD. It accelerates system booting, program loading and shut down times, allowing the XPS 13 to feel much faster than its paper specifications make it out to be.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






Much like within the System Benchmarks, the XPS 13 really doesn’t stand above other Ultrabooks but it does provide balanced performance. Don’t expect to use it for quick file conversion or rendering tasks but for on the go transcoding and image editing, it provides adequate performance. You’ll just have to wait a while for it to complete a task.

Normally, we would ridicule this type of performance from a notebook but this is a sub-$1000 ultra portable so our expectations just can’t be as high since it is targeted towards a market that doesn’t require lightning quick processing.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / Network Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI or DisplayPort to a 1080P HDTV.




Typically, there isn’t anything to comment about in the Entertainment Benchmarks since every notebook we have come across has blazed through these tests. The XPS 13 is no different but we highly doubt anyone will be watching a 1080P movie on it since the included panel boasts a resolution of just 1366 x 768 and outputting a 1080P signal via HDMI requires an adaptor that hasn’t been included.


Network Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.



Dell aced this test, providing network detection and transfer that was head and shoulders above most of the other Ultrabooks we have tested. For mobile users that lean heavily upon WiFi connection points, this result is doubly important since the XPS 13 has demonstrated that it will have no problem picking up and remaining connected to nearly every WiFi point within range. The Bluetooth performance was also of top shelf quality with clear connection to a VoiP phone placed about 15 feet from the notebook.
 

SKYMTL

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Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11, DX10 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.





As with nearly all other Ultrabooks (other than the ones what many would consider to be too large like the Acer Timeline U M3) the XPS 13 certainly can’t be considered a frontline gaming machine. The integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics processor just isn’t powerful enough to drive the low resolution 1366 x 768 screen with sufficient framerates in even the most basic of games.
 

SKYMTL

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Temperatures / Acoustical Testing

Temperatures


Temperature testing is quite straightforward: we load the system with a loop of Far Cry 2 in order to stress the dedicated GPU (if there is one) while the CPU load is handled by a loop of WPrime 32M. Battery power is used during these tests. Temperatures are recorded with HWInfo and GPU-Z. Remember that this is a worst case scenario test so typical usage patterns will result in slightly lower temperatures.

Meanwhile, exterior temperatures are taken with a calibrated Fluke infrared thermometer at various locations on the notebook chassis. For comparison’s sake, we consider exterior readings of under 85°F to be perfectly suitable for on-lap usage while temperatures between 85°F and 95°F will start to feel a bit toasty. Anything above 95°F is uncomfortable and care should be given before placing it on your lap.



As with most other Ultrabooks, expect the XPS 13’s internal components to run at relatively high temperatures. However, this shouldn’t come as a concern since the CPU is perfectly happy running at anything under 95 degrees.



Exterior temperatures on the other hand may look relatively high but they aren’t all that concerning. On the top side there are some heat spikes but luckily, the higher readings are typically in areas far removed from your fingers and palms.

The XPS 13’s underside remains quite cool for the most part which is a testament to Dell’s engineering but there are a few hotter areas clustered around the rear exhaust vent. Just be aware that if this vent is blocked in any way will result in elevated temperatures across this Ultrabook’s chassis and could cause thermal shutdown.


Acoustical Testing


No one likes a loud laptop so in order to objectively determine acoustical properties, we use a calibrated decibel meter which is placed 16” away from the keyboard. A loop of WPrime is used to load the system and replicate a high usage scenario.

Any result under 35dB can be considered no louder than general background noise and usually won’t be noticed. Between 35dB and 45dB is still perfectly acceptable for notebooks yet will be much more noticeable than lower frequencies and likely won’t be heard over the noise of typing. Finally, we consider any result above 45dB to be unacceptable for a mobile device.



For the most part, this is a well mannered Ultrabook with a very low acoustical footprint but when pushed, it does produce a plaintive howl that may be low but it is very, very noticeable.
 
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SKYMTL

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Battery Life

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



With a 6-cell 47 Whr battery and a low voltage processor, Dell’s XPS 13 can easily hit 5 ¾ hours of battery life when used for web browsing and this can be stretched to an incredible seven hours with a combination of word processing and lower screen brightness. Getting through a long-haul flight with shouldn’t be an issue but don’t expect this stellar result to be repeated when transcoding or playing games.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
13,421
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Conclusion

Conclusion


The XPS 13 is something of an oddity in a market that’s quickly becoming a lynchpin in a so-called “post PC” world. Ultrabooks were originally conceived to be inexpensive, adaptable solutions that could be carried just about anywhere but typically, manufacturers have used them as flagship products which are anything but affordable for their intended clientele. However, as demonstrated in this review, even in its entry level $999 form the XPS 13 is an almost perfect all-round computing platform for anyone that’s searching for great battery life, ease of use and portability.

So what makes this Ultrabook so different from the immediate competition? The answer to that is actually quite straightforward: be it battery life, cost, a glut of pre-installed bloatware, scary hot exterior temperatures, a crappy keyboard or a combination of those points, every other model we’ve looked at so far tended to fall short in one way or another. The XPS 13 on the other hand can easily last for nearly six hours on a single charge (we actually pushed it to a stunning eight hours while writing this review), comes with one of the cleanest Windows installations we’ve come across in a long time, features a passable backlit keyboard, makes use of a surprisingly good touchpad and won’t burn your lap when used for extended periods of time. From its high strength palm rest to an underside that’s coated in a durable, scratch resistant finish, Dell’s choices here couldn’t have been better and highlight a sensible and well thought out design.

If we had to be picky and choose faults with the XPS 13, some items do stand out as culprits. There’s a disappointing connector selection which seriously curtails its usefulness for anything but word processing, web surfing and other basic tasks. For example, the simple lack of display outputs will also cause a particular amount of frustration if you’re trying to pass a signal on to a TV or projector. We also don’t appreciate the glossy screen on a notebook that will be typically used outside, in airports or brightly lit rooms but to be honest, we realize our crusade against reflective panels is like trying to hold back a tidal wave.

In many ways, Dell’s XPS 13 can be considered the quintessential Ultrabook. It takes all of the high points featured in competitors’ models while ignoring the faults and bundles them into an affordable, appealing package. Sure, there are Ultrabooks with higher resolution screens, marginally superior keyboards and a better connector selection but this is the first we’ve seen that comes dangerously close to perfection in every other aspect.


 
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