Inspired by the wedge shape design of a MacBook Air1, the Dell XPS 13 features the same tilt-back hinge design of every Apple portable since the first white iBook. on the left you can find a power connector, USB 3.0 port, and a headphone jack. on the right a mini displayport connector, another USB 3.0 port, and a five stage LED battery meter. Missing are Thunderbolt and SD card slot, 13 inch MacBook Air users take for granted. Along the front of the laptop is a single white LED that shines when the laptop is awake, or pulses when the laptop is asleep2. The same anodized aluminum that has made the exterior of Apple devices iconic is featured in the frame and the lid of the XPS 133, but Dell choose to differentiate its laptop with a soft touch black plastic palm rest, and carbon fiber bottom. The whole package fits together nicely, but lacks the solid feeling of Apple’s unibody design.
A full sized Chiclet style keyboard plays homage to Apple’s keyboard designs from the past four years, fiber optic backlighting and all. Just above the row of Apple inspired media keys, the Dell XPS 13 sports a thin pane of Gorilla glass that extends past the display’s black bezel to meet the border of the laptop lid at every edge. This gives the Dell XPS 13 the illusion its screen is larger than it really is, and the notion that it is a close cousin to Apple products such as the MacBook Pro, iMac, and iPad.
Inside you will find the same third generation Intel Core processor, the same Intel 4000 integrated graphics, and the same super fast SSD found in Apple’s MacBook Air. Depending on the operating system the XPS 13 gets equivalent battery life to the 13 inch MacBook Air, but by being a PC misses out on the chance to run Mac OS X.
At first glance the Dell XPS 13 looks like an Apple copycat of the highest regard and lowest reputation, but after a couple of months with this laptop I am happy with many of the decisions Dell has made in spite of the obvious Apple reference design.
The Dell XPS 13 features a 1366 x 768 resolution display that is easier to see than the 1440 x 900 resolution of the 13 inch MacBook Air. Its 16:9 ratio gives the XPS a slightly smaller profile than the 13 inch Air, while weighing the same 2.99 lbs. As you can imagine movies look great on the Dell XPS 13, but long documents and contextual menus suffer from the reduced screen height. I find it interesting that Dell decided to include the extra weight of a glass covered display on their ultra portable laptop, while Apple did not.4
The soft touch plastic coating applied to the Dell XPS 13’s palm rest and carbon fiber bottom may not fair as well over time as the anodized aluminum of the MacBook Air5, but I like how it differentiates the laptop from other MacBook look-a-likes.6 Instead of four rubber bumps, the Dell XPS is supported by two long rubber ridges. The ridges give the Dell XPS slightly more height, but I like how it can still fit into a slip case designed for the 13 inch MacBook Air. The ridge closest to the hinge gives the XPS a little extra grip when it is being held along its spine.
The Dell XPS 13 might contain many of the same components as the MacBook Air, but in one way it is more compatible. Due to the Dell’s legacy BIOS architecture it is easier to put alternative operating systems on it than any EFI equipped Mac. Since I use my XPS for Linux this is a big selling point for the XPS 13, which even has its own developer flavor of Ubuntu called Project Sputnik. VMWare, VirtualBox, and Parallels might be a valid solution to this problem for most users on the Mac, but if you want to boot into a legacy operating system full time it is hard to beat the compatibility of a Dell.
You get what you pay for, and that saying rings true for the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook. It may not exhibit the same luxury as the 13 inch MacBook Air. It is missing features like a high resolution screen, SD card, and glass trackpad. It can’t run Mac OS X, and its power supply, although small, is not wall mountable like Apple’s. Despite those flaws it offers an alternative choice with some features non Mac users might appreciate. Normally $999 for the base model with a 128GB SSD, it is cheaper than the equivalent MacBook Air, and since new models have been introduced, the Dell XPS 13 “Classic” configuration can now be found for as low as $749.
The Dell XPS 13 is a good machine for the money, and a great alternative to the Mac if you plan on experimenting with different operating systems. It might not be the premier ultralight laptop computer in its class, but at two thirds the price of a comparable 13 inch MacBook Air you will not feel cheated. I only wish Windows, Intel stickers, and the cursed Windows key, were not part of the price tag.
When the XPS 13 is closed it is strange to see the Dell logo on an otherwise Apple looking computer. ↩
I appreciate the extra durability of the Gorilla glass display despite the additional glare. Maybe Dell made up for the weight with the XPS’s ultralight carbon fiber construction? ↩
I miss the durability and sensitivity of the MacBook’s glass trackpad. The Dell’s trackpad is made of soft touch plastic. ↩
The carbon fiber bottom keeps the XPS 13 cooler than competing laptops made entirely out of aluminum. ↩