|Introduction and Specifications|
|For the longest while, Dell seemed perfectly content to continue producing notebooks with a minimalist design. Sure, they were perfectly up to snuff internally, but externally they lacked the more agressive lines and personality captured in some of the high-fashion machines from the likes of Alienware, HP and a few other boutique notebook makers. And then, the Studio line was born.
As we saw last fall with the company's Studio Hybrid small form factor desktop, Dell's Studio line of products is a breath of fresh air to anyone who remembers the company's tendency toward "beige boxes" from days gone by. The hip, modern look embodied by the Studio moniker has rubbed off on the new Studio XPS 13, a tight-fitting ultraportable with loads of style and plenty of power to go around, including a Hybrid SLI graphics engine. Without question, Dell has gone its own way with the Studio XPS 13. It's not trying to compete with the MacBook Airs and MSI X-Slim X340s of the world; instead, it's hoping to spark another trend and lead the way, which is exactly what Dell needs to be doing if they seriously hope to regain its place atop the PC notebook heap.
The 13.3" Studio XPS 13 is more than just a miniaturized version of the XPS M1530. It's a blend of portability, power and style, something that's rarely offered together in a form factor this small. Typically, users gunning for a 13" machine have to sacrifice extra power to get a machine that's thin, or they have to sacrifice style for a machine's that widely available at a reasonable price. Dell's attempting to do an awful lot within a single 13" notebook. We're going to explain just how well we feel they've succeeded, in the pages to come.
The model we received for testing is definitely geared towards multimedia related tasks and perhaps some light duty gaming. It came equipped with an Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2.4GHz processor, 4GB of DDR3-800 memory, a 320GB Seagate Momentus 7200.3 7200 RPM drive and a LED-backlit, widescreen, 1280x800 resolution LCD. Our unit was also equipped with an NVIDIA Hybrid SLI GPU system, with an integrated GeForce 9400M alongside a discrete GeForce 9200M GS. Together, they make up the GeForce 9500M system. Our Studio XPS 13 shipped with Windows Vista Home Premium, 64-bit.
Users looking for more power can opt for a 2.53GHz P8700 or 2.66GHz P9600 processor, 6GB or 8GB of DDR3 system memory, a 500GB 7200 RPM HDD or 128GB/256GB SSD drive, built-in WWAN Mobile Broadband connectivity (AT&T, Verizon Wireless or Sprint options), a built-in AVerTV NanoExpress TV Tuner and a larger 9-cell battery.
|Design and Build Quality|
|At 4.85 pounds (with the 6-cell battery installed), Dell's Studo XPS 13 isn't the lightest 13" notebook on the block. To be fair, it's not the heaviest, either. But frankly, we never expected a machine with an "XPS" label to be the lightest and slimmest in its class; what we did expect is for it to be amongst the most potent in its size class. If we're being candid (and of course we always are), we didn't grimace a single time when picking up the machine and lugging it about. Then again, you might consider us the sporting type. 4.85 pounds just didn't feel too heavy here, and the weight is delicately spread over the 12.56" x 9.3" x 0.88" - 1.35" body. Indeed, this ultrathin machine fits quite well in the ultraportable category, and it's tailor-made for churning out video clips and handling light duty gaming on airplane tray tables.
The two words that kept popping in our mind were: sleek and slick. The entire chassis is incredibly polished. From corner to corner, end to end, Dell's engineers went over this beauty with a fine-toothed comb to make sure every aspect -- no matter how minor -- was addressed. From the classy (as in, not overdone) silver accents to the stunning "edge-to-edge" WLED WXGA display, the design is simply top notch. The entire machine was incredibly solid and rigid, and never once did we get the feeling that Dell had cut corners in terms of build quality.
Of course, for a tested retail price of over $1500, we'd expect nothing less than excellence, but thankfully Dell has delivered. The port layout is well thought-out, with twin headphone jacks (a very, very nice touch) and the microphone input being front and center, along with the versatile 8-in-1 multimedia card reader. There are also four backlit logos up front: hard drive activity, Bluetooth activity, WiFi on/off and WLAN status. Dell also kept the amount of palm rest stickers in check, with just a Core 2 Duo and Windows Vista label placed over on the right.
On the right side, we're graced with a mini-FireWire socket, a slot-loading DVD writer, 54mm ExpressCard slot, a USB 2.0 compatible eSATA port and an AC adapter input. Unlike many larger machines -- but traditional for an ultraportable -- no connections at all are loaded on the rear; just a ventilation port for exhausting hot air. On the right side of the machine, you'll find a Kensington lock slot, VGA output, Gigabit Ethernet port, one USB 2.0 connector, DisplayPort and HDMI sockets. Our only major gripe here is the dearth of USB 2.0 ports. There is plenty of room on the unit's left side to add at least one, if not two extra USB 2.0 ports. We're also a bit perplexed by the choice to throw in VGA, HDMI and DisplayPort -- three ways to output, but only one dedicated USB 2.0 socket? It seems HDMI and VGA would have sufficed for now with so few DisplayPort capable screens on the market. And you never can have enough USB connectivity.
The machine's top and bottom are both world-class and downright gorgeous. The checkered pattern on the underside is definitely unique, while the high-gloss finish on the lid runs beautifully into an elegant strip of black leather that really sets this unit apart. Does it serve a real purpose? Of course not, but it sure makes the Studio XPS 13 one of the more stunning ultraportables we've seen. We can't help but note, however, that the high-gloss finish used on the top lid and around the keyboard / LCD panel is a fingerprint magnet. Make sure you photograph your unit (should you buy one) right away, because it'll never look the same without a good cleaning.
Speaking of the keyboard, we're struggling to decide if calling this the best keyboard we've ever touched on an ultraportable is too over the top. In all seriousness, we can't help but hand Dell a pocket-full-of-kudos for its work on the keys. The spacing is perfect, the texture is perfect and the travel is perfect. Heck, even the key positioning is perfect -- which is something many manufacturers get terribly wrong when given the space constraints present on a notebook this small. Also, the backlit nature of the keyboard earns it even more brownie points, adding the perfect (notice a trend?) amount of white light underneath to give you plenty of visibility when banging out a last minute project late at night.
We should also mention that the line of touch sensitive media controls just above the keyboard were easy to use and recognized inputs with precision. The two stereo speakers weren't anything to write home about, but they were absolutely adequate for listening in on music, game effects, etc. whilst on the run. Finally, we have to ding Dell a bit on the lackluster trackpad. As on with W90Vp, we're baffled by the omission of multi-touch here. We've said it before and we'll say it again here: if Asus can include a multi-touch trackpad on a sub-$400 netbook, there's no reason why a $1500+ performance machine should go lacking. Furthermore, the pad is way too small given the great amount of palm rest space that simply goes unused. Thankfully, the texture and response was right on, but we would've loved a wider surface to mouse around on.
To close, we will say that the right/left click buttons were our favorite on a notebook, ever. They have loads of travel, a very noticeable gap between the two and a great texture. If only we could transplant these mouse keys to every other notebook out there, we'd forget all about lugging around a travel mouse just to surf the web.
|Software and Accessories|
Accessory mavens will definitely feel underwhelmed when cracking open the elegant black box in which the Studio XPS 13 arrives in. Unfortunately, the only extras that Dell includes are a soft, almost velvet-like sheath to hold the machine in, a few pamphlets (Setup Guide, etc.), an AC adapter and a software booklet filled with restore discs and the like. No mouse, no kitchen sink -- just that.
On the software front, Dell does a commendable job of keeping the bloatware level at a minimum, with our machine booting up quite quickly and only having to load an unwanted McAfee Security Center and Dell Data Safe in the taskbar (outside of more "normal" applications like Bluetooth Manager). Our test rig came with Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit, Microsoft Works 9, McAfee Security Center, a Vista reinstallation DVD and a Studio XPS 13 drivers / utilities DVD.
As for pre-installed software, we found PowerDVD DX, Adobe Acrobat Reader 9, Microsoft Office PowerPoint Viewer, Dell Video Chat, Dell Webcam, FastAccess Facial Recognition, Roxio Creator DE, a few basic Windows games and Internet Explorer. Like we stated earlier, it's all pretty minimal.
|Dell's Studio XPS 13 managed to rack up a respectable 5.3 Vista Experience score, which even trumps the larger Lenovo IdeaPad Y530 by some margin. As predicted, the machine trudged through basic Vista tasks with ease, and we never even thought to disable Aero effects or the like. Sure, we noticed a few hiccups every now and then while trying to switch Firefox tabs while an application was installing. However overall, there was plenty of power and headroom to have an enjoyable experience within Vista.
Portability was exceptional. As we alluded to earlier, the size here really is ideal for those looking to downsize to an ultraportable without losing many of the amenities they've grown use to on larger machines. The WXGA panel fits the 13.3" WLED display perfectly, providing more screen real estate than your average netbook without straining your eyes. The gliding hinge to open the LCD moved to and fro with minimal effort, and it always stayed put once we had it adequately adjusted. Speaking of which, the recline angle on the LCD is superb; it folds nearly flat, ensuring that you'll be able to see your screen regardless of what tiny, cramped spot you get stuck in.
The display itself was bright, crisp and sharp -- perfect for watching video clips and tickling the retinas. Unfortunately, the high-gloss finish meant that we saw reflections of ourselves (and surroundings) 100% of the time. Eventually we forced ourselves to look through it, but those who are already in love with matte screens will likely not enjoy the look of this panel. It's completely subjective, sure, but we'd prefer just a bit less gloss if we had our druthers. If you're looking to expand your desktop while at home, Dell provides a copious amount of options. VGA, HDMI and DisplayPort sockets are all included, so most everyone should be taken care of.
All in all, we found the Studio XPS 13 to be a real productivity powerhouse. Switching applications was quick, and it never ground to a halt regardless of what we had going on. Even during our gaming sessions (which we'll touch on in more detail later), we were duly impressed with results given the diminutive nature of the notebook. We also appreciated just how easy it was to switch between integrated graphics only (the GeForce 9400M) and the Hybrid SLI system (9500M, which adds in the power of the discrete 9200 chip). Outside of having a dedicated toggle switch, it couldn't have been simpler. Users simply click through the Control Panel and adjust the setting from Highest Performance to Power Saving. Within 15 seconds, the GPU has been activated / deactivated and you can continue about your work. No reboots or logging off required -- nice!
Our only real complaint on a general level was the absolutely astounding amount of heat that the Studio XPS 13 generated. Even with Power Saving mode active, we managed to get the machine so hot that we were forced to use it on a laptop stand while sitting in front of the machine. Mind you, this was doing nothing more than typing, surfing the web and downloading a few files in the background. When we activated the Hybrid SLI system and fired up a demanding 3D title, the heat was so intense that we simply had to move the machine over to a table. Also of note, fan noise becomes noticeable whenever we launched into a game, though the machine's fan systems managed to stay mostly quiet in other scenarios. Honestly, we can't say we're too surprised here -- the Studio XPS 13 has a ton of horsepower in a really, really small shell. Lots of heat is just a byproduct of that combination. In most circumstances, we were able to compensate by using a laptop stand or table, but those who don't take kindly to hot-bottomed machines will want to steer clear of this lap burner.
|Test Setup and 3DMark 06 CPU|
The Futuremark 3DMark06 benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.
The Intel P8600 Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz processor in the Studio XPS 13 performs within expectations when compared to the 2.1 GHz processors used in the reference systems, beating both by a comfortable margin.
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage|
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Memories' Test Description:
Memories 1 - Two simultaneous tasks. CPU image manipulation and HDD – importing pictures to Windows Photo Gallery
Memories 2 - Two simultaneous tasks. GPU image manipulation and HDD – video editing using Windows Movie Maker
Memories 3 - Video transcoding – DV to WMV9 - Transcoding from DV (720x480p 35.38Mbps) to a portable player (SD WMV9 320x240p 1.0 Mbps). Uses two cores if available.
Memories 4 - Video transcoding – VC-1 to WMV9 -Transcoding from media server archive (HD VC-1 1280x720p 11 Mbps) to a portable player (SD WMV9 320x240p 1.0 Mbps)
This is one of the rare cases where we see the Studio XPS 13 fall behind our other two systems; given the exceptional performance in real-world use though, we're chalking it up as a fluke.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Hard Disk Drive' Test Description:
HDD 1 - Windows Defender
HDD 2 - Gaming
HDD 3 - Importing pictures to Windows Photo Gallery
HDD 4 - Windows start up
HDD 5 - Video editing using Windows Movie Maker
HDD 6 - Windows Media Center
HDD 7 - Adding music to Windows Media Player
HDD 8 - Application loading
In the Hard Disk Drive test, the Studio XPS 13 puts up some impressive results. The Seagate Momentus 7200.3 320GB Hard Drive easily dominates the others, even the X205 with a 7200 RPM drive.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Gaming' Test Description:
Gaming 1 - GPU gaming - Performing basic GPU (graphics processing unit) tasks utilizing PS (pixel shader) 2.0 and VS (vertex shader) 2.0 operations found in most 3D games using DX (DirectX) 9. This test utilizes SM(shader model) 3.0 (if available) performance optimizations which do affect visual quality.
Gaming 2 - HDD gaming
Gaming 3 - Two simultaneous tasks. Data decompression - Loading compressed level from hard drive and decompressing it into system memory. CPU gaming -Executing heavy AI path finding algorithms. Uses all available cores up to 16 cores.
Gaming 4 - Three simultaneous tasks. GPU gaming- Performing basic GPU (graphics processing unit) tasks utilizing PS(pixel shader) 2.0 and VS (vertex shader) 2.0 operations found in most3D games using DX (DirectX) 9. This test utilizes SM (shader model) 3.0(if available) performance optimizations which do affect visual quality. CPU gaming - Executing heavy AI path finding algorithms. Uses all available cores up to 16 cores and HDD – gaming
The Studio XPS 13's Hybrid SLI system wasn't quite powerful enough to pass by these discrete solutions, but remember, the XPS 13 has almost the same results in a 13.3" form factor.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Communications' Test Description:
Communications 1 - Three simultaneous tasks. Data encryption – CNG AES CBC. Data compression. Web page rendering – pictures - Opens a web page with many large pictures.
Communications 2 - Three simultaneous tasks. Web page rendering – favorites group parallel - Opens various news pages from IE Favorites in separate tabs and closes them one by one. Data decryption – CNG AES CBC. HDD – Windows Defender
Communications 3 - Windows Mail – searching - Searches mails for words in the message body, subject and sender.
Communications 4 - Two simultaneous tasks. Data encryption – CNG AES CBC. Audio transcoding – WMA to WMA - Measures audio transcoding performance in VOIP usage.
In the communications test the Studio XPS 13 once again beat out the competition by a decent margin. All in all, a very impressive showing.
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage (cont'd)|
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Productivity' Test Description:
Productivity Test 1 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Text editing 2. HDD – application loading
Productivity Test 2 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Windows Contacts – searching - search 2. HDD – Windows Defender
Productivity Test 3 - HDD – Windows Vista start up
Productivity Test 4 - 1. Windows Contacts – searching - Searches contacts. 2. Windows Mail – copying - Runs Message Rules. 3. Web page rendering – favorites group parallel - Opens various news pages from IE 7 Favorites in separate tabs and closes them one by one.
In the Productivity Test, we once again see the Studio XPS 13 take a commanding lead.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'Music' Test Description:
Music 1 - Three simultaneous tasks.Web page rendering – music shop - Opens music shop kind of content.Audio transcoding – WAV to WMA lossless. HDD – adding music to Windows Media Player
Music 2 - Audio transcoding – WAV to WMA lossless
Music 3 - Audio transcoding – MP3 to WMA
Music 4 - Two simultaneous tasks. Audio transcoding – WMA to WMA. HDD – adding music to Windows Media Player
Futuremark PCMark Vantage 'TV and Movies' Test Description:
TV and Movies Test 1 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Video transcoding – VC-1 to VC-1 - Transcoding from HD DVD (HD VC-1 1920x1080p 28 Mbps) to the media server archive (HD VC-1 1280x720p 11 Mbps). Uses two cores if available. 2. Video playback – VC-1 HD DVD with HD content - Playing HD DVD (VC-1 1920x1080p 28 Mbps) with HD (VC-1 1280x720p 7 Mbps) content.
TV and Movies Test 2 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Video transcoding – VC-1 to VC-1 - Transcoding from HD DVD (HD VC-1 1920x1080p 28 Mbps) to the media server archive (HD VC-1 1280x720p 11 Mbps). Uses two cores if available. 2. Video playback – MPEG-2 HDTV - Playing terrestrial HDTV (HD MPEG-2 1920x1080i 19.39 Mbps).
TV and Movies Test 3 - HDD – Windows Media Center
TV and Movies Test 4 - Two simultaneous tasks. 1. Video transcoding – VC-1 to WMV9 - Transcoding from the media server archive (HD VC-1 1280x720p 11 Mbps) to a portable player (SD WMV9 320x240p 1.0 Mbps). Uses two cores if available. 2. Video playback – MPEG-2 Blu-ray - Playing Blu-ray (HD MPEG-2 1920x1080p 48 Mbps).
Futuremark PCMark Vantage Overall Score Test Description:
The PCMark Suite is a collection of various single- and multi-threaded CPU, Graphics and HDD tests with the focus on Windows Vista application tests. Tests have been selected to represent a subset of the individual Windows Consumer Scenarios. The PCMark Suite includes a subset of Consumer Suite tests.
In the overall PCMark Vantage test, the Studio XPS 13 takes its rightful place atop the pile. Hands down, it's the most nimble of the bunch.
To touch on gaming performance, we chose two games that draw moderately on system resources, Half-Life 2 Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. We then ran a pre-recorded demo of each at the Studio XPS 13s default resolution of 1280x800 pixels and also at a lower resolution of 800x600 pixels. The resulting performance achieved is indicated in frames per second in the graph below, and we tossed in benchmarks from Lenovo's Y530 -- which includes a 256MB GeForce 9300M GS -- for reference. To clarify, all gaming benchmarks were done while in Performance Mode, which enables the Hybrid SLI system.
Before running the benchmarks we played the games at both resolutions. To play at the native resolution of 1280x800 we had to switch the layout to 16:10 so the 1280x800 resolution would show as an option in both games. At native resolution, the Studio XPS 13 couldn't quite keep up with the titles. We'd consider them "playable," but not enjoyably so.
However, there was a noticeable improvement playing at 800x600. Drop the resolution and image quality settings a bit further, and game performance obviously would improve even more. Of course, looking at an 800x600 image on a native WXGA screen isn't the most appealing thing, but it's better than not being able to play at all.
|Perusing through Dell's own information portal on the Studio XPS 13, you'll come up empty if searching for a specific battery life figure. Indeed, the company simply asserts that opting for a 9-cell battery (over the standard 6-cell) can "increase your hours of entertainment."
During our testing (shown above in minutes), we found the battery life of the machine to be somewhat underwhelming, but not embarrassingly so. With performance mode enabled (meaning that the discrete GPU was activated to assist the integrated set), we squeezed out just under 1.5 hours before Vista forced itself into hibernation. With Power Saving mode activated (which disables the Hybrid SLI system and uses the integrated GPU alone), we were able to get just under 2.5 hours of life.
Mind you, this test represents "normal" activity. Light web surfing, MP3 usage, typing, etc. -- if you did absolutely nothing else, we wouldn't be surprised to see the battery hold up for three hours. 2 hours and 21 minutes isn't awful for an ultraportable, but it's certainly not inspiring. If you think you'll need more than that per sitting, go ahead and invest in an additional 9-cell to pack alongside the stock 6-cell.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Frankly, the statistics don't lie. In almost every single benchmark, the Studio XPS 13 outperformed similar machines that typically had more room for cooling and discrete parts. Considering just how small this notebook is, we were blown away by the performance. No, it won't double as a bonafide gaming machine, but it will handle light duty titles if you're willing to scale back the resolution a bit. And of course, that's not the target audience for this product either.
All around performance was better than expected for a 13.3" ultraportable, as we really felt like we were working with a full sized machine at an ultraportable form-factor. Unfortunately, that luxury comes with a price: heat. The one glaring issue with this otherwise amazing machine was the amount of heat that was emitted from its underside while in use. As we stated before, it's not like this should be a shock -- loads of power + a small mechanical area = lots of heat buildup. Still, you should definitely be mindful of that before pulling the trigger. If you just want an ultraportable to type up Word documents and prepare PowerPoint presentations while flying to your next meeting, the Studio XPS 13 may be overkill. If you like to enjoy 720p multimedia, the occasional 3D title and tuning into OTA TV signals while having a notebook that's only 4.85 pounds and barely one inch thick, this is your rig.
Basically, you're going to have to accept the heat factor if you're demanding this much performance out of an ultraportable. And in our opinion, it's a fair price to pay for the amount of horsepower you receive. The little extras really add up to a lot: the display is gorgeous, the keyboard is marvelous to type on and the left/right click buttons are definitely amongst the nicest we've used. The trackpad could use a little work, and we wouldn't cry over seeing a few more USB 2.0 sockets, but overall we think Dell has a victory on its hands here. It should also be noted that we never managed to crash the machine or see any signs of instability -- a few hiccups here and there, but nothing more. The only real hesitation we have is with the price: starting at $1099, this is definitely no budget machine. As it stands, we can only recommend this for true perofrmance-minded folks who are willing to pay a premium for potency in a highly portable package. If that's you, however, you're in for a real treat.