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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  • Dustin Sklavos - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    I had an A8Jm a loooooooonnnnnng time ago. If you're remotely interested in the history of Dustin's laptops (which he changes out like once a year because he can't settle on anything for too long):

    A8Jm -> HP dv6000z -> HP dv2000t -> ASUS X83 -> Dell Studio 17 + ThinkPad X100e -> Alienware M17x R3 + ThinkPad X100e
    Reply
  • rwei - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    So what you're saying is that you change machines SLIGHTLY more often than I do =/

    Oddly, though, for the first time, I have trouble seeing any reason why I'd upgrade for some time, other than hardware/battery wear (and I have 2 batteries for the Envy, so...). I game way less than before - besides, the Envy 17 is still potent enough for pretty much anything I throw at it - and I don't see anything on the horizon that would require more performance. That was not at all true when I owned the A8Jm. Even the x120e is plenty for browsing, video watching, and whatever else I'd do on the go. Only complaint about my current setup is that the Envy 17 -> Thinkpad x120e transition is really jarring with the $)*@ing bad screen on the x120e...I wish, so dearly wish, I could stick a "New iPad" screen on the x120e (time to get a dremel tool and soldering iron??). Would be just about a perfect device.

    The only thing I can think of that would make me upgrade is a Win8 tablet/notebook hybrid (which I partly bought a WP7 device in anticipation of), but I see that being at least 2 years out for reasonably mature hardware and a good software ecosystem.

    It's a strange thing that, these days, when (normal) people ask me "what computer should I buy", I can pretty much entirely discount the performance of the CPU as a consideration (barring Atom, and sometimes Zacate netbooks - "yeah, sure, that one's 60-150% faster, but who cares?!").

    AMD might be on to something with their new strategy.
    Reply
  • Hulk - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    Okay that's it. My 5 year old Inspiron with a half decent high resolution screen and a C2D at 2GHz is going to have to hold me until I can buy a relatively thin and light laptop (~1" thick and around 4lbs) with a good IPS screen.

    If I'm going to suffer I might as well suffer with my current lappy and save some money. I'll just put an SSD in it when the performance gets unbearable.
    Reply
  • bji - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    I'm with you. Except my laptop is a 7 year old Panasonic Y2 with a Pentium M at 1.6 Ghz, and I'm just holding out for a 15 inch Macbook Air, which I thought was supposed to come out Q1 this year but is completely MIA at this point. Reply
  • santeana - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    I've never been a fan of Dell. But if ever they had a good laptop, it was their XPS line. Great performance for the price they offered it at. Now, to see an XPS machine, supposedly a premium mainstream laptop going from a discrete graphics solution to an onboard HD3000 chip.... I dunno. Just doesn't seem right to me. Reply
  • c4v3man - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    XPS laptops have always been hit or miss. Exceptionally heavy, usually run somewhat hot, and questionable reliability. The best laptops are enterprise grade units and mobile workstations, such as Dell's Latitude's, their Precision Mobiles, HP's EliteBooks, and Toshiba's Tecra lines to name a few.

    It might be good for gaming, but not for much else.
    Reply
  • bhima - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    2 things Dell could have done to make this Ultrabook look better than the competition:
    1) a good MATTE screen. I do not understand why we still have glossy screens on mobile devices (except for phones because the gorilla glass is needed for protection), especially when all of the best screens whether desktop or laptop are all matte.

    2) Where is my Dell docking station jack? It may seem like a "little" thing, but having a Dell docking station and using a Dell laptop as your main computer is actually quite amazing. Having instant access to more ports, real keyboard and mouse AND a nice second display really solidifies the laptop as a capable primary workstation. When you are on the go, you hit one button and take your laptop off the dock. This should be on EVERY Dell laptop.

    These things would set it apart from the entire competition and would give people good reasons to choose this Dell over say a MacBook Air.
    Reply
  • Malih - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    The touchpad is basically what I'm complaining about today's laptops, specifically Windows laptops, Apple does really well in this departement.

    But I've seen the demo video in YouTube (/watch?v=mL_jasHqrVI) for the Synaptics Clickpad with WIndows 8 which seems to be quite sensitive and seems to tackle most issue I have with current touchpads,

    I just wonder whether they will release the Clickpad before Windows 8 release, perhaps coupled with laptops with decent graphics, like Trinity laptops (possibly).
    Reply
  • Stas - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    I'm really liking this laptop. Sexy, quick, Windows, 256GB SSD for <$1500. Too I wouldn't use one much. Between power of my desktop and portability of the smart phone, I'm hard pressed to justify hauling a laptop around. Reply
  • Stas - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    Too bad* Reply

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