Design and Build Quality
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.