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Dell XPS 13: A small, sexy, and durable Ultrabook

W. Bryan Hastings | March 10, 2014
This third iteration of the Dell XPS 13 is definitely the best. It's a bit pricey at $1299 as configured, but that buys a sharp, nimble, and durable laptop with a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, an SSD, and a 13.3-inch touchscreen display. If you're considering an Ultrabook--or a 13-inch MacBook Air--this machine should be on your short list.

We measured the XPS 13's performance using our all-new Laptop WorldBench 9 test suite. This machine's more-powerful sibling, Dell's XPS 15, is our new comparison system, so it earns a score of 100. The XPS 13's WorldBench 9 score of 69 indicates that it delivers 69 percent of the performance of the XPS 15, which we reviewed in December, 2013.

That's a very good score: It's better than the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro's score, and it's on par with Sony's VAIO Pro 13. The XPS 15 we're using for reference packs a Core i7-4702HQ, a 512GB SSD, 16GB of DDR3/1600 memory, and a discrete GPU — and it costs a kilobuck more than the XPS 13.

Gaming is another story. The XPS 13, which lacks a discrete graphics processor, falls far short in our Bioshock Infinite test. The reference XPS 15 machine, equipped with an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M, blitzed though the game with an ultra-smooth 44 frame per second (and that's with the game's resolution to 1920 by 1080 pixels with medium visual quality). The XPS 13 limped along at just 11 fps. If you want to play games, you'll need to dial the resolution way down.

Like most small notebooks, the XPS 13 comes with a non-swappable battery, and it requires more than three hours to fully charge. Several other reviews have published battery-life results of more than 8 hours, but we managed to squeeze only 5 hours and 46 minutes out of ours. When we pinged Dell about this discrepancy and explained our methodology, a company rep said "your test/workload is moderately heavier than the other publications you mentioned early on, and you're testing panel-brightness brighter than they do."

We think XPS 13 should be fine for watching a movie on a cross-country flight if you dial the brightness down a bit, and it should have plenty of juice if you just want to be productive in the air. It's worth noting, however, that Sony's VAIO Pro 13 delivered nearly an hour more battery life under the same test conditions. If you're wondering why the XPS 15 reference system lasted longer despite having a more powerful CPU, a larger SSD, and more memory, it's because our eval unit came with a 90WHr battery (the XPS 13 has a 55WHr battery).

The bottom line
The XPS 13 is thin and tough. When I shove it into my carry-on, I forget it's there until I need it. I don't feel it, and I don't worry about it. The only downsides: I'm casting around for a wall socket more often than I'd like, and its dearth of slots and ports drag it down a wee bit. And if you give a lot of presentations, need hard-wired ethernet, or carry a lot of files, you'll need to load up on dongles and a USB drive. But on the whole, it's a terrific little machine.


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