Dell's first ultrabook, the 13.3in. XPS 13, is a slim, sleek offering — a far cry from the more chunky notebooks the company often delivers. With preconfigured systems (all running 64-bit Windows 7 Professional) starting at £819 (ex. VAT) and customisation options available, it's a tempting prospect for the mobile professional. Dell sent us the mid-range model, a Core i5-based system with a base price of £989 (ex. VAT). The top-end Core i7 model costs £1,119 (ex. VAT).
The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook is a paean to neat design. Its thin profile tapers towards the front of the chassis from 18mm at the back to just 6mm at the front; when closed, the silver lid, dark underside and rounded edges are all very easy on the eye.
Dell's elegantly slim XPS 13 Ultrabook tapers to just 6mm at the front and weighs 1.36kg
The system's carbon fibre base has a slightly rubberised finish to assist with grip and a checkerboard grey/black patterning. In the centre is a silver metal rectangle, beneath which lies all the service information. The front of the base section has a small white strip that glows when the XPS 13 is being charged, is switched on or is hibernating.
The Windows and Intel branding is discreetly plced on the underside of the system, rather than plastered over the wrist-rest as garish stickers
According to Dell, the 13.3in. screen is squeezed into a footprint that's 'similar' to an 11in. notebook. That's stretching the point a little, but the XPS 13's footprint is certainly dainty at 31.6cm wide by 20.5mm deep. The Dell ultrabook's weight, at 1.36kg, is admirably light — although the Toshiba Portégé Z830 is even lighter at 1.2kg.
The XPS 13 is, for the most part, solidly built. If you try, you can indent the lid by pressurising it, and this could damage the LCD inside. However, there's nowhere near the degree of flex that worried us so much with Toshiba's Portégé Z830.
Open up the XPS 13 and you'll notice that the hinge pushes the lid section past the back of the base. This puts it slightly further away than a standard hinge design would, providing a little more area for the keyboard and trackpad.
This extra space has been used well. The wrist rest is deep, accommodating a large trackpad with embedded button areas — identified by pale, minimalist vertical lines. Despite being embedded into the trackpad, these buttons depress well: they don't go an awfully long way, but they do deliver a reassuring click.
The XPS 13 has a large touchpad with embedded buttons; the keyboard is backlit
The trackpad didn't seem to want to support multitouch actions, but reportedly poor responsiveness wasn't evident in our review unit and we had no trouble moving the cursor around the screen.
The keyboard is backlit, and you can disable the light using a Fn key combination. There's no light bleed around the keys if you're sitting in a fairly upright position at a desk, but you may see some distracting bleed if slouching in an armchair, for example. This is not as severe as we've seen on some notebooks, but could prove irritating on occasion.
The keys themselves are well spaced, very slightly concave and responsive, allowing us to reach our normal touch-typing speed with ease. The bottom row of keys is very slightly larger than the main QWERTY set, which is unusual but didn't cause us any typing trouble. The cursor keys are small and the Fn key row very shallow, but all are usable.
The only key or button that's not on the main deck is the on/off switch, which is offset to the left of the Esc key. It's so discreet as to be almost invisible. We approve of this minimalist approach, which presents the XPS 13 ultrabook as 'ready for work' without any unnecessary glitz.
The 13.3in. screen features edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass for strength and scratch resistance. We're not fans of its shiny, reflective finish, and it's very attractive to greasy fingerprints, but it does look nicer than screens that are embedded within their bezels.
The resolution is a standard 1,366 by 768 pixels: had Dell been able to better this, the XPS 13 would stand out more among the ultrabook competition. Maybe next time.
The aforementioned hinge system means that the screen won't tilt back much beyond 90 degrees from the keyboard section, which may disappoint some users. Viewing angles aren't great, either — especially in the vertical plane where there's a relatively narrow 'sweet spot'.
As we noted above, there are three preconfigured XPS 13 models available on Dell's UK website. We looked at the £989 (ex. VAT) mid-range version, which is powered by a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M processor with 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
The entry-level £819 (ex. VAT) model has the same CPU and RAM, but a smaller 128GB SSD. For £1,119 (ex. VAT) you get a 1.7GHz Core i7-2637M with 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.
All models run Windows 7 Professional 64-bit with graphics handled by Intel's CPU-integrated HD Graphics 3000.
The 1.3-megapixel webcam above the screen can shoot stills and video at resolutions up to 1,280 by 1,024. Dell's Webcam Central software includes facilities for sharing media to online resources such as YouTube, Facebook and Photobucket. You can also use the camera for face-recognition based login — something we've not seen on an ultrabook before. Although this is welcome, there's no fingerprint reader for more traditional biometric security. The webcam is flanked by dual array microphones, which helps with noise reduction in videoconferencing sessions.
Not surprisingly, the compact and slimline XPS 13 is rather short on ports and connectors. There are just two USB ports, USB 3.0 on one side and USB 2.0 (with PowerShare) on the other. There's also a Mini-DisplayPort connector and a microphone/headphone combo jack. Integrated wireless connectivity runs to dual-band Wi-Fi (802.11a/g/n) and Bluetooth (3.0), but not mobile broadband. An Ethernet port, however, is conspicuous by its absence.
Performance & battery life
The XPS 13's moderate Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 5.5 (out of 7.9) is due to the system's integrated graphics — the 5.5 score went to Graphics (Desktop performance for Windows Aero), with Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) managing a slightly better 6.1.
The remaining component scores were 5.9 for RAM (Memory operations per second), 6.3 for Processor (calculations per second) and an unimprovable 7.9 for Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate).
Unless you're planning to run graphically demanding workloads, the XPS 13 should perform admirably, with its fast SSD a particular highlight.
As with all ultrabooks, the XPS 13's battery is not removable. We tested battery life by setting it to play video from a USB stick continuously under Dell's 'battery management' power plan with Wi-Fi on. We got video playback for a respectable 4 hours 44 minutes under these conditions.
There's a battery status indicator on the right edge of the chassis. Press a small button and up to five small white lights are illuminated to indicate the level of remaining battery power. This is useful when the system is switched off, as you can easily gauge whether you need to plug it into the mains or not.
Sound quality is rather good, with a fairly loud top volume. Bass tones are reasonable, although you'll need to plug in a headset to get the best from the sound system.
The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook looks stunning, and has a good keyboard. However it's short on ports and connectors, and the display's resolution and vertical viewing angles could be better. This is a shame: Dell bided its time before entering the ultrabook arena, and we'd hoped to see a winning combination of features.