Today we're pitting the inspiration for Ultrabooks, the MacBook Air against the latest 13" Ultrabook to hit the market, the Dell XPS 13. They share similar specs, and as per the norm, the Windows Ultrabook is a few hundred dollars less expensive. That doesn't mean you get inferior materials and construction; quite the opposite: the Dell has superb fit and finish. It has a chic and durable casing of aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber with a Gorilla Glass display topping things off. Not bad for $999. The MacBook Air 13" starts at $1,299 and boasts one of the sexiest aluminum bodies on the market.
1. Specs and Horsepower
We're comparing apples to apples here. Both base machines come with a second generation Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5 ULV CPU and Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. The Mac is 1.7GHz while the Dell XPS 13 is 1.6GHz in base form, and that 100MHz isn't significant in terms of performance. Neither has a dedicated graphics option, and they offer the same graphics performance for photo editing, video playback and gaming. The machines score similarly in PCMark Vantage. Both have 4 gigs of RAM (not upgradeable) and a 128 gig SSD with a 256 gig option. Both are available with 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 CPUs. Dell gets a plus for shipping the XPS 13 with faster SATA 3 SSD drives vs. the SATA 2 hard drives used in most MacBook Air machines and other Ultrabooks (Asus also uses SATA 3 in Ultrabooks).
The base MacBook Air costs $300 more than the Dell. The top model Air costs $1,699 and $1,499 for the Dell. The top model of each gets you a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 ULV (same CPU), 4 gigs of RAM and a 256 gig SSD.
Winner: Dell XPS 13
Design and Materials
As the cliche goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I think most folks will agree that these are both very attractive notebooks. The Air has inspired imitators (Asus Zenbook we're looking at you the hardest) because it is so darned lovely, thin and perfectly tapered to make it seem even thinner than it is. Though Dell's XPS 13 lid is a little too clearly MacBook Air inspired, it's nonetheless one darned good looking aluminum lid. And Dell managed a smaller footprint than the Air and other Ultrabooks, no mean feat but a small boon for portability.
We give Dell points for their innovative carbon fiber bottom that wraps around the sides. It stays cooler than metal, is less slippery and looks awesome. We also give the Dell points for the edge to edge Gorilla Glass display. Both machines are put together with great care and have perfect seams, even surfaces and overall top construction. We like the soft touch black paint on the magnesium keyboard deck that feels more inviting under the palms than metal. Apple wins points back for thinness since it is thinner than the XPS 13. Both weigh 3 pounds.
Winner: Dell XPS 13 thanks to edge to edge Gorilla Glass, attractive use of various materials and a carbon fiber bum.
Keyboard and Trackpad
Some things never change, no matter how much we wish they would. Nothing beats the Mac's glass multi-touch trackpad, at least when the Mac is running OS X (the Windows drivers aren't as grand). The Dell XPS 13 is due for a Cypress trackpad driver update any day to improve its just passable multi-touch behavior. The keyboards are neck and neck: Apple makes an excellent backlit keyboard with great tactile feel and as much travel as you can squeeze out of such a thin design. But Dell's Chiclet keyboard is superb by Ultrabook standards. In fact, I like it more than some larger notebooks. The sculpted keys make for great tactile feel, there's a good deal of travel for a thin latop and tactile feel is excellent. I type like a wizard on the Dell, and I type like wizard junior on the MacBook Air. For the record, I'm a fast touch typist, and I type like Dumbeldore on the marvelous 14" Lenovo ThinkPad T420 and a dunce's apprentice on the Asus Zenbook UX31.
Keyboard Winner: Dell XPS 13 Trackpad Winner: MacBook Air
Easy winner here: the MacBook Air. It isn't just that it has a higher resolution display (1440 x 900 vs. 1366 x 768), but it has somewhat wider viewing angles and less glare. Both are gloss displays and neither is IPS, but you know Apple: they use top quality parts. The Dell's display is by no means poor, in fact we like it more than many other Ultrabook displays; it's just not as good as the MacBook Air's. Both have natural colors and are bright, and in fact the Dell XPS 13 has a brighter display.
Winner: MacBook Air
Now Throw This All Away
I can't stress this point enough: the MacBook Air excels when running Mac OS X. Apple wrote the drivers and tuned everything to work nice under their own OS. None of that care and feeding went into the Windows on a Mac experience. Battery life drops, the trackpad loses some of its glory and you won't see any performance tuned drivers for Windows. There are command key differences on the keyboards. It's not an unpleasant experience to run Windows 7 on a Mac, but it's not excpetional.
A year ago, there wasn't anything that could compete with the MacBook Air in the world of Windows, so we made concessions to carry it around in a Windows world. If you want to run Mac OS X--do it! If you want to run both operating systems and buy just one computer, then do it! And get the 256 gig SSD on the MBA so you have enough room for serious work in each OS. I own a 2011 MacBook Air (the one used in this video comparison) and I run Mac OS X on it. Now that there are plenty of fine Ultrabooks on the market, if you're really looking for a Windows machine, I'd suggest a Windows Ultrabook over the MacBook Air.
Here's our MacBook Air 13" vs. Dell XPS 13 Comparison Smackdown Video.