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:
Graphics (Aero): 5.6
Gaming Graphics: 6.3
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):
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).