In and Around the Dell XPS 13

While Dell's Inspiron line hasn't seen a whole lot of excitement, their XPS line has thus far been an aggressive attack on the old prevailing notion of Dell as a budget mainstream vendor. The XPS notebooks we've tested have all been well-received, but Dell's entry in the ultrabook market is especially noteworthy: Dell will tell you they're trying to bridge the high-end consumer market with the professional market, but the XPS 13 proves they mean it.

The lid of the XPS 13 is a sheet of machined aluminum and probably one of the least flexible lids I've ever seen; it's the polar opposite of and a sharp contrast to the Sony Vaio Z2, which featured a lid that was ultra-flexible by design to avoid damage. The chintziest-looking thing about it is the glossy black Dell logo. Open it and you'll find very stiff hinges: a welcome find, ensuring there won't be any screen wobble in regular use.

I'm at the point now where I do have some reservations about the single glossy panel that covers the bezel and the screen, though. This is the same style you'll see on all of the Alienware notebooks, and while on the one hand it offers a uniform aesthetic that's pleasing on its own, on the other I've found that a glossy bezel is a fingerprint and dirt magnet. Having this single sheet really just exacerbates that issue. This is going to ultimately be a matter of taste. Where Dell does succeed, though, is having a fairly thin bezel surrounding the screen; much like the XPS 14z features a 14" screen in a 13" chassis, so the XPS 13 features a 13.3" screen in a 12" chassis. If you've ever felt like a bezel was just wasted space, you'll find yourself right at home here: the XPS 13 is very economical in its design, offering a larger screen than we'd normally expect in a notebook with these dimensions.

The silver trim around the keyboard area is one of the less comfortable aspects of the XPS 13's design, though. While it's attractive, it also has an unusually harsh edge that can potentially dig into your wrists depending on how you handle the notebook. The black, soft-touch-coated interior surface is incredibly pleasant to the touch, though, and a welcome deviation from most other ultrabooks. This along with the rounded chiclet keys on the keyboard and the smooth texture of the touchpad prove that Dell seems to have put real thought into how comfortable the XPS 13 would be to use.

That said, there are reservations. I was able to adapt to the XPS 13's keyboard reasonably quickly, but mushy keyboards with minimal travel will continue to be par for the course for ultrabooks due to the limitations imposed by the form factor. Unified touchpads aping the MacBook's design had their day in the sun for mainstream notebooks (and seem to have thankfully fallen by the wayside), but they persist on ultrabooks, and the one on the XPS 13 is problematic. If you're used to having separate touchpad buttons, you'll find the XPS 13 can have a devil of a time properly detecting when you want to use a button and when you want to just move your fingertip across the pad. This is a pervasive problem with this kind of touchpad design; Apple's systems don't seem to have the issues with it that PCs do. I have an Acer in house that has almost the exact same sensitivity problems.

Finally, the base (and much of the frame) of the notebook is carbon fiber, and that carbon fiber does a fantastic job of ensuring the surface never gets too hot to the touch regardless of how hot the internals may be running. It's comfortable and attractive, but the slight bump at the top belies what I think is a problem with how the XPS 13's thermals are engineered. A notebook designed to be this mobile pretty much begs to be used on your lap, but the only ventilation for the XPS 13 is just below that bump: a row of openings hiding the small cooling fan. Other ultrabooks I've seen have ventilated through the side and/or the back, making them more ideal for being used on your lap. Blocking that vent just by using the XPS 13 on your bed can cause CPU core temperatures to reach the mid-to-high 90's.

As a whole I like the design of the XPS 13 a lot. Personally I'm not entirely sold on the ultrabook class, but a discussion with Anand largely confirmed that I'm not really the kind of user these computers were meant for anyhow and if they don't appeal to you specifically, there's a good chance you're not either. That said, of the ultrabooks I've seen I've found the XPS 13's design among the most appealing. Dell's engineers clearly looked at the other ultrabooks on the market and the MacBook Air and asked themselves what could be improved from a design standpoint, and for the most part I think they've been successful. There's still room for improvement in terms of keyboard design and especially with the touchpad, and the cooling system probably needs to be rethought, but the XPS 13 is an excellent starting point.

Introducing the Dell XPS 13 System Performance
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  • piroroadkill - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    "AnandTech receives a notebook for review from a vendor not named Sony or Apple, and that notebook features a cut rate 1366x768 TN panel with poor viewing angles, poor color, poor contrast, and just poor quality all around."

    Yup. I also do take issue with the resolution, I think that 768 vertical pixels is a bit cramped, and that 1440x900 is the ratio and resolution we should be hitting on 13" screens.

    I have a 14.1" 1400x1050 machine at home, and that is just about right. I have a 15" 1920x1200 screen, and although it looks great, I do admit that the scaling issues we have in Windows as it stands, means that it can be a little uncomfortable to some (I found an issue where changing DPI even by a little made a piece of software unusable. Not just hard to use, unusable).

    Lets see some good quality 1440x900 panels in this size of laptop, what do you say, Dell?
    Reply
  • Cloudie - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    I totally agree; I have a Macbook Air 13 and the 1440*900 resolution is absolutely perfect for this screen size. I only wish the colour gamut and viewing angles were closer to level of the Macbook Pros or one of the other 3 or 4 notebooks on the market with decent screens. Reply
  • retrospooty - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    " I have a Macbook Air 13 and the 1440*900 resolution is absolutely perfect for this screen size."

    Yup, I had that on my Lenovo X301 back in 2009 and it rocked. This 1366x768 madness has to stop.
    Reply
  • apinkel - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    Couldn't agree more.

    I think the MBA is a bit over-rated simply due to lack of ports and the move to a non-user-replaceable battery (sadly most of the ultrabooks have followed apple on these two items) but the one thing that I am really, really jealous of is the screen on the MBA.

    I have an X301 right now and I really like it. I like the screen size/aspect ration/resolution, the keyboard which has better feedback then every ultrabook I've tried, great port selection (I work on other people's PC's and I have to have an ethernet port), excellent battery life with the optional bay battery and light weight. I do wish the X301 had the current generation of ultra low voltage cpus but for my usage I've actually been surprised at how well the 1.4ghz CPU has performed.
    Reply
  • Dug - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    You will have moved on to another computer a long time before the battery would need to be replaced.

    One thing I wish pc ultrabooks all had was a thunderbolt port.
    Reply
  • apinkel - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    I just back from a trip (last minute booking) where I had a 7 hour layover in an airport. Having a replaceable battery, even on a laptop with 5+ hours of battery life is handy to have.

    That said, the battery issue isn't a deal breaker for me. The lack of an ethernet port is.
    Reply
  • Guspaz - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    Few people even buy a second battery for their notebook, let alone carry one around. And even for the Macbook, you can always buy an external battery pack like the Hyperjuice and accomplish much the same thing, with the added advantage of not having to turn the notebook off while swapping batteries. It's what I do with my Toshiba notebook, even though it does have a removable battery. Reply
  • retrospooty - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    I know... I really wish they did an X310 and 320. WTF? Now Even Lenovo's newer 13 inch have 1366x768... gack. Reply
  • apinkel - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    I agree.. I was really disappointed with the screen on the X1. They put gorilla glass on it (why?... it's not a touchscreen, it adds weight and adds glare) and the resolution changed to 1366x768.

    The big downside to the 16:9 screens is that if you want 900 lines of resolution you end up with a resolution of 1600x900... and the dpi becomes to high to be legible for me.

    With a 13.3" screen and 1440x900 you end up with a dpi of 127... which is the sweet spot IMO.
    Reply
  • kjboughton - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    Couldn't agree more...

    I was recently looking for a cheaper notebook to replace an aging Dell m770 that I'd had from 2003 when I decided to try the Inspiron 14R.

    It's going back. The whole unit feels cheap but the 1366x768 TN panel from BOE-hydis is HORRIBLE. I can't stand using the notebook because of that. And to think that the $999 ~ $1499 XPS Ultrabook using a similar panel (albeit a slightly smaller viewing area) is astounding. Barf!
    Reply

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