Dell’s ultra-compact MacBook Pro rival gets (almost) everything right.
F or a long time now, if you’ve been after the very best in slim, light laptops – with zippy performance that doesn’t deteriorate over time – you’ve had to turn to Apple. But the challenge from Windows machines is steadily growing, and Dell’s latest laptop, the XPS 13, aims to pull ahead of Apple.
From a design perspective, Dell has got it nailed. The laptop’s lid and base are finished in silky-smooth aluminium that feels stiff enough to survive a nuclear strike – or at the very least being sat on. The keyboard surround is clad in a soft-touch, carbon-fibre-effect plastic, and despite the bombproof build, the whole device weighs a mere 1.27kg. That’s a smidge lighter than the MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display, and even the 13in MacBook Air.
It outdoes the Cupertino crew on practicality too, with two long rubber feet stretching across the underside of the chassis, giving it a grippy footing on a desk or your lap. There’s also an LED battery-capacity indicator on the left edge, activated by pressing a button.
The keyboard is decent: it’s backlit, and has a light yet positive action. The touchpad is accurate and, for those who prefer clicking to tapping, the integrated buttons work without fuss.
The real attraction of the XPS 13 is its so-called infinity touchscreen, which sees the bezel reduced to a mere 5mm to the sides and above the screen, producing a machine that, in terms of its overall size, feels more like an 11in laptop.
Indeed, its dimensions of 304 x 200 x 20.7mm are closer to those of a MacBook Air 11in (300 x 192 x 17mm) than its real rival, the MacBook Pro 13in; Dell has done sterling work in squeezing the screen into less space. The Quad HD+ resolution of 3,200 x 1,800 means that content appears incredibly sharp. The screen is also exceedingly bright, reaching up to 385cd/m2, while the black level dips as low as 0.15 with the brightness settings pushed to maximum. Taken at face value, these numbers are extraordinary. However, the reality is somewhat less impressive: Dell employs aggressive dynamic contrast to brighten the display when the screen image is light, and to dim the backlight when the onscreen content is dark.
In fact, the XPS 13’s panel delivers a contrast ratio of 1,076:1. That isn’t necessarily what you’ll see, though, as the dynamic contrast can’t be disabled: essentially, you’re stuck with a screen that brightens and darkens noticeably when the content changes, something that’s annoyed some customers in the US enough to return their laptops. As a result, it’s impossible to use the Dell XPS 13 as a colour-critical photo editing tool, since you’re never certain of your black point.
It’s a huge shame, since elsewhere the Dell XPS 13 is a capable ultraportable. Every model in the range employs Intel’s latest 14nm Broadwell CPUs, from the entry-level $1,499 Core i5 model to the range-topping, $2,498 2.6GHz Core i7-5600U specification.
We were sent the slightly less expensive 2.4GHz Core i7-5500U unit for our testing, and it performed admirably, achieving an Overall score of 0.7 in the Real World Benchmarks. That’s a fraction slower than the Asus Zenbook UX303LA, which has the same CPU, but the difference is small enough to be academic. We’re none too keen on the rather whiny fan, though, which kicks in with great gusto as soon as you push the processor hard.
Still, it’s enough horsepower to run all but the most demanding creative applications, and the rest of the specification is up to the mark as well. There’s 8GB of RAM and a 256GB Samsung PM851 M.2 SSD for storage, which is reasonably quick, gaining sequential read and write speeds of 514MB/sec and 231MB/sec in AS SSD.
Where the new, super-efficient 14nm processor ought to make its presence fully felt is in battery life, but here we weren’t blown away. It lasted 11hrs 16mins in our light-use test.
Connectivity is disappointing, however, with only two USB 3 ports, a mini-DisplayPort out for video, an SD slot and a 3.5mm headset jack, plus no Ethernet port of any description. We shouldn’t complain when Apple’s latest MacBook includes only one USB Type-C connector, but wireless isn’t impressive either, with 2x2 stream 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LE, but no 4G.
This is a laptop that’s beset by little niggles, none more disappointing than the infinity display, which is meant to be the star of the show. If all you want is a fast Windows laptop with a bright screen, and colour accuracy isn’t of prime importance, it’s a fantastic piece of kit. But it isn’t all that we were hoping for.