|Introduction & Specifications|
Technology marches to the beat of its own drum and the hard part is keeping in step with the rhythm. You may recall, for example, that we already reviewed Dell's XPS 13 Ultrabook a year ago, singing high praise for its edge-to-edge display, stellar battery life, and overall performance, which at the time was the best we'd seen from an Ultrabook. If we were to compare it with today's crop of Ultrabooks, however, we'd have to sing a different tune now that Ivy Bridge is pervasive in the market. Or would we? Dell went back and re-wrote the lyrics without changing the name of the song, which is our way of saying the XPS 13 Ultrabook we have for review is a refreshed model.
The biggest upgrade comes in the form of a much improved display. Dell's XPS 13 is now configurable with a Full HD 1080p display that not only offers a higher resolution than yesteryear's 1366x768 res, but it's also brighter (350-nit brightness) and boasts superior viewing angles (up to 178 degrees). It's just a higher quality panel all-around versus the 2012 model.
Inside the retooled XPS 13 is an Ivy Bridge foundation. Our model shipped with 3rd Generation Intel Core i5-3337U dual-core processor clocked at 1.8GHz (up to 2.7GHz via Turbo), 3MB of cache, and Hyper-Threading support. For a little extra coin, you can jump up to a Core i7-3537U chip, which is also a dual-core part but comes clocked at 2GHz (up to 3.1GHz via Turbo) and 4MB of cache. Both processors are rated with a 17W max TDP, so you shouldn't lose too much in the way of battery life by opting for the faster part unless you're pounding no it constantly with heavy workloads.
Otherwise, this is really the same XPS 13 as before, though the unit Dell sent us is a little better spec'd and has twice the amount of RAM (8GB versus 4GB), and of course it's running Windows 8. Are these upgrades enough to once again impress us? Let's find out.
One thing we need to note here is that we received a pre-production model from Dell with a 128GB solid state drive (SSD). Since then, Dell decided to upgrade this particular configuration to a 256GB SSD at no extra cost, so you're getting more bang for your buck (twice the amount of storage). Our benchmarks reflect the 128GB SSD, which we're told runs almost exactly the same as the 256GB SSD, but our evaluation will reflect the additional storage capacity since that's what end-users are receiving.
The other thing we should point out for those of you referencing last year's model is that the new XPS 13 features faster RAM (1600MHz versus 1333MHz) and improved graphics performance (Intel HD 4000 Graphics versus 3000). In short, there's more here than just an upgraded display.
|Software & First Boot|
Windows 8 has received a fair share of criticism for shoving the Modern user interface down users' throats, but underneath the hood, Microsoft made some impressive tweaks to the underlying code. Combined with a fast SSD, boot times are blistering fast. Dell claims its XPS 13 boots cold to Windows in 12 seconds, and we can confirm that's true. It's as close to the coveted 'instant on' scenario as we've ever seen, and it's even faster when waking from sleep mode (about 3 seconds).
Bearing in mind that this is a pre-production model, our system wasn't saddled with a bunch of bloatware. Most of what's installed hitched a ride with Windows 8. No third-party antivirus software or game trials came pre-installed, and to Dell's credit, that's more often the case than not these days with its XPS line.
For those of you who are curious, you can kick the tires with Microsoft's subscription-based Office 365 suite via a 30-day trial. Dell is the only major OEM offering an Office 365 Home Premium trial subscription with the purchase of a new PC, whereas its competitors are pushing Office 2013.
A monthly subscription to Office 365 Home Premium runs $9.99, or you can pay $99.99 upfront for an entire year. Subscriptions cover up to 5 PCs (or Macs) and include 20GB of SkyDrive storage and 60 minutes of Skype calls per month.
|Design & Layout|
From the press materials to the construction, it's clear Dell is trying to one-up Apple's MacBook Air. This machine features bonded Corning Gorilla Glass, machined aluminum, and carbon fiber construction.
Compared to the 13-inch MacBook Air, Dell's XPS 13 Ultrabook is a little thicker and ever-so-slightly heavier. It measures 12.4 inches (W) by 8.1 inches (D) by 0.24-0.72 inches and weighs 2.99 pounds, whereas the MacBook Air checks in at 12.8 inches (W) by 8.94 inches (D) by 0.11-0.68 inches (H) and 2.96 pounds.
The top cover on Dell's systems is precision-cut from a single block of aluminum and feels rigid at every corner. Dell went with a carbon fiber composite base that it says is every bit as strong as aluminum, but cooler to the touch and lighter. A ring of anodized aluminum wraps around the base like lipstick, adding to both the aesthetic and overall solid construction. It's arguably not as sexy as the MacBook Air, only because Apple's machine looks paper thin, but it's a fine looking Ultrabook with a premium look and feel. It also has rounded corners, so if you're a college student, the XPS 13 should slip into and out of your backpack without getting caught up on anything.
As you'll see further down the page, the XPS 13 utilizes a tapered design that is increasingly thin towards the front.
Dell's most proud of the XPS 13's new panel. Customers can now opt for a Full HD 1080p (1920x1080) display with twice as many pixels as a 720p screen. In case you're keeping count (and Dell is), that works out to 44 percent more pixels than an HD+ panel found on the 13-inch MacBook Air. It's not just about pixel count, though.
It's a brighter display than before, which Dell rates at 350-nits, and offers exceptional viewing angles at up to 178 degrees. Dell's not overselling the panel quality -- it's exceptionally bright at full bore, vivid, and easily viewable from multiple positions without significant degradation. Dell also claims the XPS 13's displays offers a 72 percent color gamut versus the 45 percent color gamut on standard panels. We weren't able to run screen through DisplayMate's tests, like we do with our monitor reviews, but subjectively, pictures and text looked crisp and sharp.
Sitting center below the keyboard is a glass touchpad with integrated buttons and gesture support. It's plenty large for this size Ultrabook, and if you learn the different gestures, it's easy to navigate Windows 8 like a boss. Swiping from the right side of the touchpad and towards the left, for example, brings up the Charms menu. When it works, anyway. It takes a little practice to get accustomed to the gesture response, which can be a bit finicky at times. Otherwise, it feels nice and soft to the touch.
Flanking the touchpad on both sides are magnesium alloy palmrests with soft touch paint. It has a rubberized feel similar to some smartphones that adds to the comfort level, with the added bonus of not attracting fingerprints and smudges the way glossy finishes do.
As for the keyboard, it falls just short of pure awesome. Dell nailed the spacing between keys, and the curved keycaps mold comfortably to your fingertips as you hammer out emails and documents. Plus, it sports a backlight! On the downside, the key travel is just a little too short for our tastes, and inherent to the 13.3-inch form factor, there just isn't room to squeeze in a numpad, not without squishing the other keys, anyway. Overall, Dell delivers a really nice typing experience
Our ports picture gives you a better glimpse of the tapered design that we touch on earlier. This allows the XPS 13 to remain relatively thin without giving up access to full sized ports towards the back, though it does rule out the inclusion of a built-in optical drive. With so much emphasis now on cloud computing, this won't be a problem for most users.
From left to right, you can make out the AC power port, USB 3.0 port with PowerShare, and the headset jack. Note that the USB 3.0 port is not color-coded blue, but it is indeed a SuperSpeed port.
Over on the right side is an LED battery gauge indicator that you can turn on or off, another USB 3.0 port without PowerShare (and also non-color coded), and a mini DisplayPort. It's a little curious (and disappointing) that there's no HDMI output, though at least the XPS 13 is Intel WiDi ready.
|SiSoft SANDRA, ATTO, & Cinebench|
|We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA suite (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth and Physical Disk Performance). All of the scores reported below were taken with the Dell XPS 13 running at its default settings with full performance mode enabled and the notebook plugged into the AC adapter.
SANDRA CPU Arithmetic and Multimedia Performance
SANDRA Memory and Physical Disk Performance
Interestingly, the XPS 13 benched slightly slower in Sandra's Processor Arithmetic benchmark than last year's model and higher in the Processor Multi-Media test, though it's important to note that differences in score could be attributed to different builds of Sandra. In other words, it's not advised to compared scores from an older version of Sandra to a current one.
Taken on their own merits, the benchmark scores are solid, if not expected. The real treat, however, is the disk performance, courtesy of a fast Samsung solid state drive.
Dell XPS 13 and Asus Zenbook SSD Performance Comparison with ATTO
Out of all the Ultrabooks we've tested, the speedy SSD in the Asus Zenbook still stands as the fastest storage subsystem (in this category) to date. How does Dell compare?
Asus Zenbook UX21
The Zenbook put up hellaciously fast read and write times that are more on par with a desktop SSD than a notebook system.
Dell XPS 13
Dell wasn't able to pluck the performance crown off of Asus, but let's not split hairs here. Both systems top 500MB/s in read performance, resulting in snappy real-world performance and fast boot times. On the write side of the equation, Dell's Ultrabook posted scores in the neighborhood of 260MB/s, whereas the Zenbook was about twice as fast.
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on the company's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads (CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.
Among comparable systems, Dell's XPS 13 scored in the top echelon where the top three performers are separated by only by less than half a point. You're not going to dive deep into CAD work on any of these systems, including the XPS 13, but it is nice to see the performance bump compared to last year's model. This year's version benched almost twice as fast in the OpenGL portion of the benchmark.
|PCMark 7, 3DMark 11, & Gaming|
|Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark suite, released last spring. It has updated application performance measurements targeted for a Windows 7 environment. It combines 25 individual workloads covering storage, computation, image and video manipulation, Web browsing, and gaming.
Dell's XPS 13 is able to pull away from the pack in PCMark 7 in large part because of the speedy SSD that serves as the primary drive. HP's system also uses an mSATA drive, but it serves as cache storage to the primary mechanical hard drive. The strong PCMark 7 score further reiterates that this is a fast and responsive Ultrabook.
Ultrabooks aren't designed for heavy gaming. Even so, it's good to know what to expect from any system you're thinking about buying. Although they may not be designed with gaming in mind, Ultrabooks can (and will) be used for light-duty gaming. To help you get a feel for the type of gaming performance you can expect from the HP Envy Ultrabook 6t-1000, we loaded a few gaming-related benchmarks to see just what it can do.
Even though the XPS 13 has a brilliant display with a Full HD 1080p (1920x1080) resolution, it's largely wasted for playing games since the system lacks a discrete GPU. You can get away with playing titles like Left 4 Dead 2 and other less demanding games, but by and large, cutting edge titles that push the limit will prove too much for the XPS 13 to handle.
To get another perspective on the IdeaPad Yoga 13's gaming capabilities, we fired up the "Ranch" demo in Far Cry 2. This FPS game features lush vegetation and plenty of explosions and graphical mayhem. For this test, we turned off AA and used a resolution of 1280x720.
An older title like Far Cry 2 drives home the point about gaming performance. In this test, we dial down the resolution to 1280x720, well below the XPS 13's native resolution, and disable AA altogether. Even so, the Intel HD Graphics 4000 has trouble keeping up.
|Let's face it, if you're shopping an Ultrabook, you're less concerned with gaming performance and more interested in what kind of battery life you can squeeze out of these featherweight systems. This is perhaps the most important metric, at least for some, and what we have below is one example of a worst case scenario and a more real-world scenario.
Battery Eater Pro is designed to stress a system until it curls up in a fetal position and waves the white flag. The XPS 13 held strong for just over two hours during this portion of the test, which is neither great nor poor. It's a fairly average score for an Ultrabook.
During our web browsing test, in which a custom webpage is continually refreshed, the XPS 13 fared much more impressively, staying alert for nearly 7 hours. That's a half hour longer than last year's model, and nearly as long as HP's Envy system.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Last year we said the Dell XPS 13 was the fastest Ultrabook we had tested to date. What about this year's refresh? Well, it didn't set records across the board in the Ultrabook category, but it did represent the form factor well with top-shelf performance in a number of areas, including PCMark 7, where it did take the top spot. In Cinebench, it ran with the front of the pack, and overall the system felt snappy, due in large part to the combination of a speedy SSD, an Ivy Bridge CPU, and Windows 8 running the show.
More than just a pretty face, the Dell XPS 13 is a peppy little machine. That's evident right from the get-go, as it takes a mere 12 seconds to boot into Windows 8. Microsoft deserves considerable credit for that feat, but so does Dell for pairing the operating system with a high-performance mSATA SSD from Samsung.
Speaking of Windows 8, a system like this really begs for touch support, and unfortunately you don't get that here. In lieu of that, the slick touchpad supports gestures, so you can still navigate Windows 8 like a boss, whether it's bringing up the Charms menu or cycling through open applications.
The only real weak point here is gaming, a real shame since the display is such high quality. Casual gamers will be well served, but if you're into triple A titles with cutting edge graphics, the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics engine isn't going to cut it for you.
Gaming aside, what you're left with is a well built Ultrabook that looks great, is thin and light, and performs exceptionally well in most areas. It's a little pricey at $1,400 (as configured), but it definitely delivers a premium experience for your investment.