We've waited a long time for Dell's entry into the Ultrabook market, so was it worth the wait? The XPS 13 boasts one of the sleekest 13-inch form-factors out there, utilizing edge-to-edge damage resistant Corning Gorilla Glass bonded to the lid to fit a nearly bezel-free 13.3-inch screen into a notebook barely bigger than most 11-inch models.
Additionally, the base of the unit is made from a lightweight carbon fiber composite that makes it ideal for racing around the city in unsanctioned illegal street races (probably not, but more on that later).
It's hard to look at the XPS 13 and not think of Apple's MacBook Air. From the machined aluminum lid, to the tapered wedge-shape profile, there's more than just a passing resemblance. Of course, it's more compact and Dell has added a few extra accent touches like a shiny metal ring around the base, but let's be honest, they're fooling no-one.
Opening it up, you'll immediately notice that the lid is heftier than most other ultrabooks, a result of the combination of the thicker than usual aluminum used (it's nearly twice as thick as Apple's) and the heavy Gorilla Glass. While the hinges are smooth and solid, the notebook can be a bit tricky to open as there are no protrusions or cutaways to lift. Having said that, once you've got it, it can be opened one handed, thanks in part to the heavy lid.
We were disappointed that Dell opted for the standard 1366 x 768 pixels resolution display, missing out on the chance to impress us with a 1440 x 900 pixels resolution like the one found on the MacBook Air or even a 1600 x 900 pixels display like the ASUS Zenbook's (ASUS has in fact just announced a Zenbook refresh coming soon with full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels resolution). Furthermore, the XPS 13 display is really glossy, which can make it a pain to use in bright lighting.
On the other hand, the Gorilla Glass itself looks gorgeous and the screen really excels when viewed indoors. Colors are vivid and it's exceptionally bright - Dell's spec sheet says 300 nits, but it looks brighter. Even with the brightness set to 50% for our battery test, it was more than enough for comfortable movie watching. We're just dreaming about how it would have looked with a higher resolution.
Complementing the eye-pleasing display, audio on the XPS 13 is a notch above other Ultrabooks. Interestingly, the speakers are hidden under the keyboard which, thanks to the wedge shape, lets them blast directly at you. It's a clever design, made all the more better by the XPS 13's extra loud volume and a crisp, balanced sound. Of course, it doesn't sound extraordinarily better, but it was a little more distinguished from the run-of-the-mill Ultrabooks so far.
The interior of the XPS 13 features a nice, soft-touch rubberized finish over a magnesium alloy base. The finish both looks and feels great and delivers the best of both worlds: staying cool after prolonged use, without delivering that initial icy cold touch of bare metal.
The XPS 13 uses a full-sized, backlit, chiclet keyboard, with finger-friendly concave keys - the same type we saw on the XPS 15z . There's a generous amount of travel with the keys, which makes the keyboard a lot more usable than the often too-shallow feeling of some other Ultrabooks. The backlight LED glows a bright blue color, which looks especially nice in the dark and if you leave it for a few minutes it turns off automatically - ideal when you're watching a movie with the lights off and don't want the distraction of glowing keys right below the screen. Additionally, we noted that the lighted keys aren't bright enough to distract you and has just the right amount of glow. The top row of fucntion keys double up as multimedia controls, while the arrow keys also function as Home, End, Page up and Page down. In essence, the key arrangement is almost typical of this class of compact notebooks.
The trackpad is one of the larger ones we've seen on an Ultrabook, measuring 60x100mm, although it's still a tad smaller than the one on the MacBook Air (75x115mm). Dell states that it's made of glass, but we can't be too sure as it has more of a Teflon coated feel and it's not as smooth nor fast as other glass trackpads we've tried.
Like the trackpads on other Ultrabooks, it's a clickpad without any physical buttons. You can perform a 'two-finger click' to right-click, or alternatively, a small line divides the bottom left and right side for right-clicking. Pre-installed software allows for some pretty interesting gesture options, such as a downward 4-finger swipe to show the desktop. The trackpad is responsive, and the gestures work well, although they're not the most intuitive, and might take a bit of getting used to. Probably a smoother and larger trackpad would have aided it further. One additional feature of the trackpad is its palm recognition feature to thwart accidental trackpad inputs and thus does away with the need for a trackpad lock function.
If there's anything that holds the XPS 13 back, it is its minimalist approach to connectivity ports. Noticeably absent are HDMI, VGA, RJ-45 LAN ports, and a card reader. Almost every other Ultrabook has at least one of these four mentioned, making the XPS 13 one of the most sparse offerings out there. To its credit, you could say Dell had to make such a decision to help make the XPS 13 a much more compact notebook. After all, the mentioned ports are certainly good to have, but they are easily had via converter plugs and other USB-based accessories. In the end , you'll have to weigh the options if the lack of these ports would irritate your usage needs out of the box.