Late last year, before CES, we had the opportunity to check out Dell's then-upcoming entrant to Intel's nascent ultrabook market, the XPS 13. Dell has been refocusing their XPS line with an eye on sophisticated notebooks that straddle the line between the consumer and business classes, while at the same time emphasizing slimmer, more powerful machines. Thus, the XPS 13 seems like a natural fit both for their XPS line and for the ultrabook category.

While manufacturers like ASUS, Toshiba, and Acer have been apt to more closely ape the Apple MacBook Air aesthetic that Intel is arguably appropriating for ultrabooks, Dell's XPS 13 is a different creature, and when we saw it in 2011 it  felt like the ultrabook to wait for. Now it's here; was it worth the wait?

Internally, the Dell XPS 13 doesn't seem to have any more going on than any of the other Sandy Bridge-based ultrabooks. Dell will be updating the XPS 13 with Ivy Bridge as those chips become available, but it looks like with the delay we'll be enjoying our Sandy Bridge ultrabooks just a bit longer.

Dell XPS 13 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2637M
(2x1.7GHz + HTT, Turbo to 2.8GHz, 32nm, 4MB L3, 17W)
Chipset Intel QS67
Memory 2x2GB integrated DDR3-1333
Graphics Intel HD 3000 Graphics
(12 EUs, up to 1.2GHz)
Display 13.3" LED Glossy 16:9 768p
CMN1338
Hard Drive(s) 256GB Samsung mSATA PM830 6Gbps SSD
Optical Drive -
Networking Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230 802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth 3.0
Audio Realtek ALC275 HD Audio
Stereo speakers
Single combination mic/headphone jack
Battery 6-Cell, 11.1V, 47Wh (integrated)
Front Side -
Right Side Battery test button
USB 3.0
Mini-DisplayPort
Left Side AC adaptor
USB 2.0
Mic/headphone combo jack
Back Side -
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
Dimensions 12.4" x 0.24-0.71" x 8.1" (WxHxD)
316mm x 6-18mm x 205mm
Weight 2.99 lbs
1.36kg
Extras Webcam
SSD
USB 3.0
Bluetooth
Ambient light sensor
Backlit keyboard
Warranty 1-year limited
Pricing Starts at $999
As configured: $1,499

Spec-wise, the Dell XPS 13 is nothing impressive for an ultrabook and nothing we haven't seen before. The Intel Core i7-2637M is a capable enough processor, sporting two hyper-threaded cores, 4MB of L3 cache, and a nominal clock speed of 1.7GHz (able to turbo up to 2.5GHz on two cores or 2.8GHz on just one core). Attached to it is Intel's HD 3000 integrated GPU with 12 execution units that can run all the way up to 1.2GHz. 4GB of dual channel DDR3 and Intel's QS67 chipset round things out.

The two more interesting points of the XPS 13 are the SSD and the notebook's connectivity (or lack thereof). Dell opts to use Samsung's 830 series SSD in an mSATA form factor, taking advantage of the  SATA 6Gbps connectivity of the controller. Samsung rates the SSD for up to 500MB/sec in reads and 350MB/sec in writes, not stellar but in line with (or even a little better than) the SSDs used in some competing ultrabooks.

Unfortunately, Dell's XPS 13 features arguably sub-Apple MacBook Air-level connectivity. Just two USB ports (one 3.0, one 2.0), the headphone/mic combo jack, and a mini-DisplayPort jack are all you get. While I wasn't expecting wired ethernet (a feature that materializes only every so often on ultrabooks), Dell doesn't include the SD card reader that most other ultrabooks enjoy. You can also use an adaptor to go from mini-DisplayPort to HDMI, so you can probably split the difference on that one. Honestly it's the lack of a card reader that stings the most; this is something that can certainly be remedied by just buying a separate USB one, but when competing ultrabooks all integrate one, why eschew it here?

Thankfully, you do get USB 3.0 connectivity (always appreciated), and Dell includes an ambient light sensor that can be used to dynamically adjust screen brightness as well as detect when to turn on the keyboard backlighting. It's mostly adequate, but the lack of a card reader stings a little when many consumer and even prosumer level still and video cameras use SD cards.

In and Around the Dell XPS 13
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  • r3loaded - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    All these bandwagon-jumping ultrabooks are soon to be rendered irrelevant by the upcoming Asus Zenbook UX21A/UX31A. Both will feature a 1920x1080 IPS panel as an upgrade option, immediately placing it above and beyond almost every other laptop in terms of display quality. Reply
  • ZekkPacus - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    Thing is, a good panel shouldn't be an upgrade option. These devices are premium products - this ultrabook as reviewed is a $1500 machine. For that kind of cash, I want a 1440*900 IPS panel AS A MINIMUM. Reply
  • retrospooty - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    I know, it sucks too, because this is a really nice laptop outside of the crap screen. Reply
  • mmaestro - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    Agreed.

    What manufacturers don't seem to realize is that a large part of consumers' perception of quality is to do with the screen. It is, after all, the thing you spend all day staring at, and so if it's crap, it's what you'll notice. This is IMO why Apple has such a perception of quality to do with their products: They don't compromise on their screens, they use absolutely beautiful panels. Until other manufacturers try to compete with that then they'll carry the perception that their product is substandard. It's stupid, and this should be obvious. Yet next to no one seems to realize this.
    Reply
  • fuzzymath10 - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    I think in the price categories people focus on, screen quality is not very important. Seems like more cores, more GBs of RAM, more TBs of space (SSD loses out here where it shouldn't), more inches of LCD are what sell.

    Also, while high res displays have been an option for ages (my Dell Inspiron 8500 from 2003 has a 1680x1050 display which was a $100 upgrade from 1280x800, and another $100-150 got you 1920x1200), it did also cost me $2500. If we say that's $3000 today, we have many high res options at our disposal.
    Reply
  • ThreeDee912 - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    Apple seems to focus a lot on the things people actually interact with the most, like the screen, trackpad, keyboard, and battery, as well as build quality. The actual specs are balanced. Not excessively powered that it kills the battery, but now so crap that it makes things feel sluggish. It makes sense, and this strategy seems to be working well.

    It's somewhat like the megapixel (and now optical zoom) wars. There's a lot more to cameras then the spec sheet.
    Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    It's not an Ultrabook, but Apple is rumored to be releasing a 2880x1800 notebook soon (2nd quarter this year is what I read), a notebook with closer to a tablet screen AND 16:10. I'm not a fan of Apple the company, but that's a head-turner for me, and it's the first time I've considered Apple in the running for a purchase since the Lisa (which was just dreaming back then as there was no way I could afford one).

    As far as I'm concerned, 16:9 is exponentially worse as screen size goes down; 16:10 or 4:3 should be what notebooks and smaller screen have.

    ;)
    Reply
  • makaronen - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    I created an account here just to applaud Dustin Sklavos in summarizing the annoyment I feel about PC manufacturers and the useless screens they put in premium laptops. A good screen in every high end laptop with stable viewing angles and high contrast should be a minimum as ZekkPacus puts it!

    Asus UX31A will hopefully be a game changer and a VERY late wake-up call for PC manufacturers...
    Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    Wow it cant do anything without going to 80 celcius? lol what a piece of trash. Is that really what you get for $1000? What can this steaming pile of trash do that a $500 notebook cant do? Reply
  • Rinadien - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    ummm.... weigh less than 3 lbs??? Reply

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