Before you even set eyes on Dell's new Studio XPS 13, its minimalist black packaging sets the tone; open up the cardboard lid and you'll spy tantalising black felt. When you're spending this much money the foreplay is welcome.
Indeed, slip the XPS 13 from its bag and it's hard not to be impressed. Dell's previous 13.3in XPS - the M1330 - was a delightful portable, but the XPS 13 makes it look scruffy by comparison. The wedge construction is sleek and sees the XPS 13 taper from 38mm at its rear to 23mm along its front edge.
At 2.19kg it isn't light, but that heft comes with sublime build quality. Grip the Dell between both hands and it's in a different class to most - flex-free and crafted with an almost obsessive attention to detail. The lid, for instance, is shod in three different materials - two-thirds gloss black with the final third combining an aluminium flourish and a soft leather strip, which makes for a convenient handhold.
Underneath there's more evidence of the obsessive attention to detail: rather than the usual mishmash of plastic, Dell has crafted the belly of the XPS 13 from a single piece and enlivened it with subtle criss-crossing. Not only does the single panel make it easier to get at the components beneath, it also perfectly fits with the rest of the design.
Inside, anodised aluminium sweeps around the edges of the chassis and surges upwards from the illuminated XPS-branded hinges, while the keyboard is flanked top and bottom by gloss-black strips. Press the power button and the row of touch-sensitive buttons along the keyboard's top edge gleams to life - a trick repeated by the backlit keyboard and the trackpad buttons when the ambient lighting demands it.
Look beyond the XPS 13's sterling build and fine design and there's plenty more to like. The keyboard's square keycaps maintain the crisp lines, and they're comfortable to type with. There's plenty of travel and a soft but positive action to each key that makes for a lovely feel under the fingers. We weren't so keen on the trackpad's squishy buttons, but they're not deal-breakers.
The 13.3in display disappoints with its 1280 x 800 resolution, but quality is good, with LED-backlighting providing even brightness. Colour reproduction is a tad cold, but the wide viewing angles and sheer punch are a suitable riposte. Plus, you can hook up a proper TV to the VGA, HDMI or DisplayPort outputs.
Another recent technology inside the XPS 13 is Nvidia's Hybrid SLI. It comes with Nvidia's 9400M G integrated graphics chip, as well as a 9200M GS discrete chip that kicks in only when gaming requires it. With both chips combining their power, the XPS 13 dispatched our low-detail Crysis benchmark at 41fps; cranking up the settings pushed it too far, but there's enough grunt for high-resolution gaming on older titles.
For everyday tasks, the Intel 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo P9500 and 4GB of DDR3 memory produced a fine 1.33 in our benchmarks. It's an impressive showing for such a compact laptop, and the 128GB SSD keeps Vista feeling snappy.
It's a shame then, if not entirely a surprise given all that power, that battery life isn't one of the XPS 13's strong points. Sitting idle with all power-hogs (such as the draft-n WLAN) disabled, it expired after just 3hrs 19mins.
Granted, not many consumers can afford to spend $3000 on a laptop, but even so the XPS 13 is a real temptation. Tweak the Dell's specification, though, and things improve. Swapping out the 128GB SSD for a 320GB hard disk saves $640, while dropping to a 2.4GHz P8600 as well will get you an overall price of $1999. It still isn't cheap, but at that price the XPS 13's power, poise and portability is enough to tempt us.