Dell Studio XPS 13

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The Dell Studio XPS 13 is a very good laptop. It could have been excellent, but Dell seems to have actually tried too hard in some areas, such as the laptop's design, and we feel it's backfired slightly.

In the beginning, Dell created the high-end XPS range, and saw that it was good. Years later, it created the Studio range — a slightly trendier alternative to its long-running Inspiron series. Dell then went and baffled the backside off everyone by launching the Studio XPS line, an alternative to the Studio and XPS ranges. Confused? We certainly are.

The Studio XPS 13 is available now for a starting price of AU$1,999. The model reviewed here, retails for AU$2,490.70.

The Studio XPS 13 is the smaller, 13.3-inch sibling of the Studio XPS 16. Like its big brother, it's a fairly attractive unit, but we're not convinced it's as stylish as the XPS M1330, Dell's other 13.3-inch XPS laptop, which we reviewed last year. We think Dell has tried too hard during the design process, using nearly every trick in the book of good laptop design — all at once.

The lid in particular is a busy, contrived mass of leather, brushed aluminium and plastic. These are all fine in isolation but together they're just a mess. It's almost akin to a car maker taking random body panels from Ferraris, Bentleys and Audis, welding them together and expecting perfection.

Dell has placed one of the primary exhaust vents at the back edge of the laptop, which, in our opinion, isn't a good idea. It gets partially obscured when the screen is open at a 90 degree angle, and is blocked almost completely when the screen is tilted back further. This, unsurprisingly, causes the laptop to get hot.

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There are plenty of really good things about the Studio XPS 13's design. The screen, for example, doesn't have a bulky, protruding bezel surrounding it — it's entirely finished in edge-to-edge "glass" (it's actually plastic), like you get on a MacBook.

We also really appreciate the fact that the keyboard and mouse selector buttons are backlit, which makes using this laptop in dimly lit rooms a doddle. Then there's the solid underside of the laptop, which has hollow vents in attractive patterns. Even the stickers on the laptop's bottom are neatly aligned in the centre. Well done, Dell.

There are a good selection of input/output ports on the Studio XPS 13. It comes with D-Sub, HDMI and DisplayPort video outputs; mic and twin headphone sockets, for sharing with a friend; and two USB ports, one of which doubles as an eSATA port.

The Studio XPS 13 is designed to be quicker and more efficient than the XPS M1330. It uses a range of "performance optimised" P-series Core 2 Duo CPUs, instead of the T-series "performance" chips used in the M1330. P-series CPUs have the advantage of a faster 1066MHz front-side bus (versus 667MHz to 800MHz on the T series) and a lower thermal envelope, meaning potentially longer battery life. Our sample uses the most potent core components available on the Studio XPS 13 — a 2.53GHz Intel P9500 CPU with 6MB of L2 cache, alongside 4GB of 1066MHz DDR3 RAM. Thankfully, Dell offers the option for a 64-bit version of Vista so you can use 4GB RAM and above effectively.

The Studio XPS 13's graphics solution is arguably the laptop's most interesting feature. The Nvidia graphics-based laptop benefits from the option of Hybrid SLI technology — first seen commercially on the Apple MacBook. In this arrangement, the laptop uses a discrete GeForce 9500M GPU, as well as a motherboard-integrated 9400M chip. The latter is used during everyday computing to power mundane tasks like looking at pictures, while the former kicks in automatically when the user requires more oomph. All this is displayed on a 13.3-inch, white LED backlit 1280x800-pixel display.

The Studio XPS 13 does well in the storage department. Dell provides the option of a 500GB, 7,200rpm drive on top of the 320GB standard, and like all the trendiest laptops, the Studio XPS 13 also gives you the choice of a 128GB solid-state hard drive. This offers considerable performance improvements in disk-intensive applications, at the expense of affordability and capacity. Our advice to the average user is not to bother, unless you've just won the lottery.

The Studio XPS 13 has 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi as standard, gigabit Ethernet and Bluetooth. The package is rounded off with an internal, slot-loading DVD rewriter, a 2-megapixel webcam, Microsoft Works 9, a six-cell battery and 2GB of DataSafe online storage for a year.

The first thing we noticed about the Studio XPS 13's performance was the fact that it gets hot — quickly. The metallic underside heats up rapidly, making it uncomfortable to use the device on your lap — particularly against bare skin. This is almost unforgivable in a modern laptop and, considering the amount of talk we've heard in recent years about laptop heat damaging testicles and causing infertility, we'd advise our male readers to be wary.

The laptop's raw performance is certainly impressive. It achieved 4801 in the PCMark05 test, less than the 5653 achieved by our test XPS M1330, which admittedly used a 2.4GHz Intel T7700 CPU. Graphics performance in the 3DMark06 test was significantly better though, with the Studio XPS 13 scoring a commendable 3556, indicating that it's far more suited to gaming than the XPS M1330, which clocked just 1448.

We're still running battery tests on the Studio XPS 13, so check back shortly to see how it fared away from the mains.

The Dell Studio XPS 13 shoots for excellence but comes up short. It's almost as if it's trying too hard in some areas, when less really would have been more. Having said that, it's worth checking out for its very strong performance, relatively solid build quality and wireless capabilities.