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Dell XPS 13

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What's hot: Excellent build quality and top notch materials and components. Good backlit keyboard, works with large high resolution monitors, nice display. One of the best Ultrabooks on the market.

What's not: Fan can be boisterous when working the notebook hard, trackpad not the best.


Reviewed March 9, 2012 by , Editor in Chief (twitter: @lisagade)

Editor's Update, March 2013: Read our review of the latest Dell XPS 13 that replaced this model.

Not so very long ago, there was just one Ultrabook on the market, and it didn't run Windows, nor did it go under that Intel-invented moniker: the MacBook Air. Now we've covered Ultrabooks (13.3" super thin and light notebooks with Intel Core i Sandy Bridge CPUs and SSD drives) from Asus, Lenovo, HP, Acer and Toshiba. The Dell XPS 13 is late to join the Ultrabook party that started around the holiday 2011 season, but if you haven't yet picked up one of these svelte yet powerful machines, you'll be glad you waited to see what Dell brings to the table.

Dell XPS 13

What's Inside?

Intel created the Ultrabook concept, so they guide the specs. That means you won't see much variation among makers beyond display resolution and casing materials. Some ignore the Intel spec and use a conventional spinning hard drive rather than an SSD (Acer Aspire S3) to bring costs down, and others stretch the Ultrabook definition to 14 or 15"-- the Lenovo IdeaPad U400 and the upcoming 14" Fujitsu Lifebook to name two. Dell goes with the usual Intel Core i5 1.6GHz ULV CPU and a Core i7 ULV option, 4 gigs of RAM, a 128 or 256 gig SSD and a 1366 x 768 display. While some Ultrabooks started higher than Intel's hoped for $999 or under price tag (the Asus Zenbook UX31 comes to mind), Dell managed to get the XPS 13 in with a starting price of $999 while using premium materials. Display quality and build materials are manufacturers' two key differentiation points for Ultrabooks, and Dell definitely went to town with materials.

Build Quality and Materials: Superb

The Dell XPS 13 has an aluminum lid, a black painted magnesium alloy keyboard deck and a very cool looking and feeling carbon fiber bottom. Build quality, fit and finish and even the box are top notch. It makes a mockery of the HP Folio 13 sitting beside it on our desk; an Ultabook that costs just $50 less than the Dell but uses everyday design elements and plastics and ships in your typical HP cardboard outer box with foam retainers. Of course, looks aren't everything and the box is exciting for the first 10 minutes, but material quality and durability are rather important, so Dell competes nicely with the Asus Zenbook UX31 and the 13" MacBook Air, its two aluminum-clad chic competitors.

Dell XPS 13

The 13" MacBook Air and Dell XPS 13.

The XPS 13 weighs 3 pounds, which is average for Ultrabooks (the HP Folio is currently the heaviest at 3.3 lbs. and the Toshiba Portege Z830 the lightest at 2.5 lbs). It's 0.24" at its thinnest point up front and 0.71" at the rear. The laptop looks like a Dell when it comes to the black keyboard deck and fondness for curves. Happily, the over the top design elements like the shiny spiral hinge and weird speaker grilles found on the XPS 14z and 15z are gone. The lozenge-like aluminum lid is very attractive, though MacBook Air derivative. The tapered sides make for a slim look and feel, and the carbon fiber that covers the bottom and wraps around the sides looks and feels simply wonderful. It's got a soft touch feel, is grippy and has that checkered gray pattern that says carbon fiber (you know what I'm talking about, sportscar geeks).


Ports are rarely in abundance in Ultrabooks, and the XPS has a particularly small motherboard and chassis since Dell was trying to make a 13" machine with an 11.6" footprint (in reality they managed something in between). That means there's no room for an SD card slot or wired Ethernet, but you do get two USB ports (1 is USB 3.0) and a Mini DisplayPort that can drive huge monitors. The machine has Intel Advanced N dual band WiFi with Bluetooth and it has Intel WiDi to wirelessly use your TV as a second monitor if you have something like the $99 NetGear Push2TV.

Dell XPS 13

The left USB 2.0 port is quite close to the charging port, and we couldn't use one of our chunkier SD card readers with the charger plugged in. We switched to a smaller footprint card reader and managed just fine. The charger itself is the usual very compact brick and it uses a 3 prong plug like most Windows PC chargers. The Dell has a smart battery indicator on the right side: press it and the four LEDs will give you an idea of remaining charge even if the laptop is off.

Dell XPS 13


Deals and Shopping:



Dell XPS 13 Video Review



Display, Gorilla Glass

The display is covered in edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass, which is common on higher end smartphones and a few tablets, but is rarely seen on notebooks. The gloss WLED (white LED) display is very bright at near 300 nits, and it has good but not class-leading contrast with pleasing colors. Color saturation is good and natural looking--a plus for image editing. Viewing angles are notably better than the Toshiba Portege Z830 and HP Folio 13, and are on par or a bit better than the 13" Zenbook, though the Dell trails in contrast. The Zenbook is still the king for brightness, and the Toshiba display is quite bright, but the Dell is more than adequate for even very bright environments and is significantly brighter than most laptops in the sub-$1,000 category.

The only Ultrabook display that I like better than the Dell's is the MacBook Air that has even wider viewing angles and higher contrast. I'm not sold on high resolution 13" panels, having owned and used an Asus Zenbook UX31 for several months--it was hard on my eyes and I found myself increasing font sizes in Windows and apps, negating some of the benefits of the higher resolution. But if you're 25 with good vision, you might adore a higher resolution panel. Sadly, there are no IPS Ultrabooks, likely because that would significantly increase cost, but we wouldn't mind seeing it as an option for those willing to spend more.

Given the notebook's design where the display drops behind the bottom section when open, the display doesn't tilt back very far. We'd like 10 to 20 degrees more tilt to accommodate more viewing scenarios.

External Monitors: MiniDisplay Port Means Versatility and Power

We absolutely applaud Dell's decision to go with a Mini DisplayPort rather than HDMI because this allows us to drive big monitors that are higher resolution than 1920 x 1080 HDMI. Mini DisplayPort adapters of all kinds are available since Mac laptops have used them for a few years, and you can pick up $10- $20 Mini DisplayPort to HDMI or VGA if you need them. There are also DVI and dual link DVI adapters, though dual link DVI adapters are pricey. We tested the XPS 13 with our 30" Apple Cinema Display running at 2560 x 1600 connected as an extended monitor and it worked beautifully. Likewise you can use Dell's own UltraSharp U3011 30" and Ultrasharp U2711 27" monitors.

Keyboard: Good for Writers

The first crop of Windows Ultrabooks had abysmal keyboards. That's the price we paid for the uber-thin design that leaves little room for key travel. The Asus Zenbook's keyboard isn't a writer's dream, nor is the Toshiba Portege Z835's since both suffer from low travel and little tactile feedback. The Dell XPS 13's Chiclet keyboard is another story, with good key travel and tactile feedback. I obviously spend a lot of time writing and the keyboard has been a pleasure to use to write this review. The keys are relatively roomy given the 13.3" chassis, with an ergonomic shape that helps keep your fingers on the keys. The white backlighting is very even with little light bleed from the key edges. The HP Folio 13 comes in second: though it lacks the sculpted keys, it has good travel and feedback, even if the backlighting isn't as pleasing as the Dell's. For those of you considering the MacBook Air as well, it also has an excellent keyboard by ultra-portable standards.

By default, you'll need to use the Fn key to use keyboard quick settings for brightness, sound and more. If you'd rather not have to hit the Fn key for these settings keys on the top row, you can change it in BIOS.


This is one of the quicker Ultrabooks: though Intel mandates the hardware platform, we've seen some variation in performance among brands. The Asus Zenbook UX31 and 13" MacBook Air (technically not an Ultrabook since it doesn't ship with Windows) live at the high end of the speed scale. The 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M ULV Dell joins them, scoring 9850 on PCMark Vantage. There's a $1,499 1.7GHz Core i7-2637M option that also ups SSD capacity to 256 gigs, but we find the Core i5 suitably fast and the performance gains with the i7 not worth the 50% price premium. Instead we'd spend our money on the middle configuration that sells for $1,299 and upgrades to the 256 gig SSD. Dell uses very fast SATA 3 Samsung SSD drives, and our 256 gig configuration came with excellent the 6Gbps Samsung PM830 mSATA drive. Benchmark speeds were over the top in PCMark Vantage with a 40,575 score, which is twice as fast as the HP Folio's SSD drive. Nice.

The SSD ships with 4 primary partitions, though Windows Explorer will show only the C drive. There's a tiny Dell utilities partition, a 20 gig recovery partition, the C drive (212 gigs on our 256 gig model, approximately 80 gigs on the 128 gig model) and an 8 gig hibernation partition. Intel Ultrabooks that support Intel's Rapid Start feature use the hibernation partition to shave time off wake from hibernation times. It took our machine only 8 seconds to resume from hibernation and 15.6 seconds to cold boot from a shutdown. You can change the time it takes before the system hibernates using the BIOS' Rapid Start settings, and you can disable it if you wish to remove that partition. The machine also supports Intel's Smart Connect Technology (an Ultrabook feature from Intel that didn't make it to many models), which you can control in BIOS. It periodically wakes the machine from sleep and makes a network connection to update social networks and email (the screen doesn't turn on, so you won't see it working this bit of magic).

The laptop has 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM that's soldered to the motherboard like most Ultrabooks. That means RAM isn't upgradeable though the mSATA drive and wireless card are. Both the Core i5 and i7 are second generation Intel Sandy Bridge models with Turbo Boost 2.0. We probably won't see Ivy Bridge (third generation) Ultrabooks until Q4 of 2012.


Windows Experience Index:
Processor: 6.3
Memory: 5.9
Graphics (Aero): 5.6
Gaming Graphics: 6.3
Disk: 7.9

PCMark Vantage:

Dell XPS 13: 9850
HP Folio 13 (1.6GHz Core i5): 8936
Asus Zenbook UX31 (1.7GHz Core i5): 10,021
Toshiba Portege Z830 (1.8GHz Core i7): 9,938

Temperature and Fan

Our XPS 13 with the Core i5 runs at 45-55 Centigrade when doing office and web tasks, which is well below the 100 degree max allowable CPU temp. When playing 3D games, the CPU temp rises to the mid-60's, which is perfectly acceptable. With the initial BIOS release, the cooling fan was on frequently and was often loud, but with the A02 BIOS, it runs without excess noise. The notebook pulls air in from the bottom (be careful not to smother the air intakes) and exhausts it from the rear edge. The keyboard and deck do not heat up, and the bottom never got hotter than 92F (carbon fiber doesn't get as hot as metal bottomed laptops).

Wireless, Software and Warranty

The Dell ships with Intel Centrino Advanced N-6230 wireless and Intel 3.0 + High Speed Bluetooth. That's a good wireless card with dual band WiFi 802.11b/g/n, 300Mbps throughput, 2 antennas and support for Intel WiDi wireless display. Though we're sure Intel would like it if all Ultrabook manufacturers used Intel wireless, the percentage isn't that high: you'll find it on the Toshiba Z830 but not the Asus Zenbook or quick ship HP Folio 13-1020US model. The Lenovo IdeaPad U300 uses a slower Intel single band WiFi module. There's no built-in Ethernet, but you can use most any USB to Ethernet dongle on the market if you need wired networking.

Dell doesn't assault the machine with bloatware. You get the usual MS Office 2010 Starter Edition, various Dell utilities, better than average facial recognition software that works for Windows logon and websites, a month McAfee Anti-virus trial, Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 and Adobe Premiere Elements 9. Skype (Premium 1 year subscription) is pre-installed, along with the Zinio magazine reader and the sad Blio ebook reader and store. Dell's Stage UI (a useful desktop launcher widget plus a custom Dell Stage video player and more) and a nifty Accuweather widget round up pre-installed software.

We don't usually discuss warranty and support in detail, but Dell has worked hard to turn around their tarnished reputation, and the XPS line ships with better than average coverage. Dell's XPS line of products include upgraded 24/7 tech support, which we took advantage of when we needed free system restore discs (the drivers disc, Adobe Premiere Elements 9 and Photoshop Elements 9 discs are in the box, but not the restore disc). The experience was quick, friendly and the reps spoke good English and didn't torture us with scripted questions. They also followed up by phone and email and sent the discs FedEx next day air. Dell also includes a year of accidental damage protection (spills, display cracks, surges and other accidental mayhem), a year of on-site service (if remote access can't fix the problem) and a year of LoJack (though the software was missing from our unit).


Dell XPS 13


Dell XPS 13


Dell XPS 13


Dell XPS 13


Dell XPS 13

Dell XPS 13

Graphics and Gaming

The Dell, like all 13" Ultrabooks, uses Intel HD 3000 graphics, which is more than adequate for everyday office apps, web, video playback up to 1080p and Photoshop work. For video editing, you're better off with a larger, faster full Core i5 or i7 notebook: using Windows Live Movie Maker and the included Adobe Premiere Elements 9, our Dell exported a 10 minute 1080p AVCHD video to 1080p YouTube format in 30 minutes. Video editing and adding effects was very responsive, despite slow export times.

Ultrabooks and their HD 3000 graphics aren't intended for 3D gaming and they can't touch midrange dedicated graphics cards, but we gave the XPS 13 a test with some fairly current and demanding 3D titles: Left 4 Dead 2, Mass Effect 2 and Crysis 2 (in order of difficulty). The Dell did great with Left 4 Dead 2, and managed 23-30 fps at native resolution in Mass Effect 2 with all effects turned off (it was playable). Crysis 2 is a hungry beast, and we saw 20 fps at native resolution, and that didn't improve much when we dropped down to 800 x 600 resolution.

Here's a short video of the Dell XPS 13 playing these games, with FPS showing courtesy of FRAPS, and game settings for each.


Battery Life

The Dell XPS 13, like all Ultrabooks, has robust battery life by notebook standards. In our tests with WiFi on and brightness set to 50% (a little too bright for low ambient light settings), the Dell averaged 6 hours on a charge. That's about the same as our 13" Asus Zenbook using the same settings, and shorter than the HP Folio 13 that sports the longest battery life at the expense of slightly lower performance and a much dimmer display.


The Dell XPS 13 has become one of our top Ultrabook picks. You really can't go wrong with most first gen Ultrabooks since they share similar specs and shoot for higher end appointments, but Dell has a winner with their combination of premium materials, excellent performance and great looks. The XPS 13 is extremely sturdy yet slim, uses innovative materials like carbon fiber and a Gorilla Glass display and is the most compact 13" Ultrabook so far. Dell uses premium parts like Intel Advanced N-6230 wireless and Samsung's fast PM830 SSD, while the competitors often go with lesser parts to keep costs down. This is a fast Ultrabook with a very good backlit keyboard and a pleasing display, even if we wish there were an IPS option. Recommended.

Price: $999 to $1,499

Web Site:


Related Reading:

Ultrabook Guide

Best Ultrabooks Rated

Dell XPS 13 vs. 13" MacBook Air Comparison

Dell XPS 13 vs. HP Folio 13 Comparison


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Display: 13.3", 1366 x 768 WLED backlit display. Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. Mini DisplayPort and Intel WiDi wireless display.

Battery: 6 cell, 47 WHr Lithium Ion battery (sealed inside). 45W compact world charger included. 5 LED battery charge level indicator on notebook's side.

Performance: Intel Core i5-2467M processor (1.60 GHz with Turbo Boost 2.0 up to 2.30 GHz). Intel Core i7-2637M processor 1.70 GHz with Turbo Boost 2.0 up to 2.80 GHz. Intel QS67 chipset. 4 gigs DDR3 RAM (not upgradable) and 128 gig or 256 gig SATA 3 6Gbps SSD drive (Samsung PM830).

Size: 0.24-0.71 x 12.4” x 8.1 inches. Weight: 2.99 pounds.

Camera: 1.3MP with dual digital array mics.

Audio: Built in stereo speakers ( 2 x 1.5W, 3W total), mics and 3.5mm combo stereo headphone/mic jack. Waves MaxxAudio 4 HD audio.

Networking: Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230 dual band WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 3.0 High Speed.

Software: Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit. MS Office 2010 Starter Edition, Adobe Premiere Elements 9, Adobe Photoshop Premier Elements 9, Skype, Zinio, Blio Reader, McAffee 1 month trial and various Dell utilities including Dell Stage.

Expansion and Ports: 1 USB 2.0 port, 1 USB 3.0 port, Mini DisplayPort and 3.5mm headset jack.



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