"So you have a MacBook Air," a man sitting next to me on a flight from New York to San Francisco says to me as he gestures at the laptop stuffed in my seat pocket. I don't actually have a MacBook Air, at least not on the flight, but he isn't the first person in the last couple of weeks to mistake Dell's new ultrabook for Apple's ultrathin laptop.
The ultrabook -- a term coined by Intel to describe a new category of thin and light Windows laptops -- bears a striking resemblance to Apple's MacBook Air in both physical design and features. And that's exactly the point, except Dell's charging $300 less for similar features.
Thanks to Intel's push, the XPS 13 is the fourth ultrabook to be released in the last couple of months. They look to go toe-to-toe with Apple's leading laptop, with a thin design, fast boot times, and promises of long battery life. (Toshiba, HP, Acer, and Lenovo have all released ultrabooks in the last couple of months.) However, where the others have fallen short -- notably on the balance of price, design, and quality -- Dell has a very strong shot at succeeding. Or it would, if the XPS 13 just didn't have three distinct pain points – its trackpad, screen, and battery life.
That fellow sitting next to me didn't just mistake the XPS for an Air because it's so thin -- 0.7 inches thick at its thickest point. It also has tapered edges and the entire top lid is covered in a similar silver aluminum. The laptop sure does look incredibly similar to the Air from some angles, but there are some distinct design differences, notably under the lid.
Dell has used a 13-inch display with a very thin frame, which gives the laptop a smaller footprint than Apple's 13-inch Air and lets it weigh 2.99 pounds (the Air weighs 2.96 pounds). Because it's so thin, there's no room for a DVD drive, but the XPS 13 does have two USB ports, a headphone jack, and a MiniDisplay port for hooking up an external display. It is disappointing that there is no SD card slot, which always makes it much easier to get your photos onto a computer. (Apple, which had none, added an SD card slot to its current model of the Air.)
While the screen does have a shrunken frame, it isn't a great quality display. It has lower resolution than the MacBook Air and the viewing angles are quite limited. That means I wasn't able to see what was on the screen when it was pushed back slightly in my airplane seat, or from the side when I wanted to watch a quick video clip with my friend.
The most surprising thing to me during testing was how extremely well built the laptop is. While Dell has typically released very plasticy machines, the XPS 13's mix of aluminum, magnesium alloy, and carbon fiber makes it not only one of the best made Dell laptop I have seen in years, but one of the best on the market.
Another major difference in design comes with the black rubbery palm rest and trackpad. I really preferred the feel of the surface to the metal on other laptops, but the trackpad itself is where the XPS begins to suffer from some usability issues. Dell has integrated the mouse buttons into the trackpad, the way Apple and several Windows laptop makers have. But the navigating experience is not as smooth as it is on Apple's laptop and can be fustrating. For example, using two fingers to scroll is jumpy, and while pointing and clicking works decently, I noticed the cursor mistakenly jumping or getting stuck at times.
On the other hand, the keyboard is extremely comfortable. The rounded keys are backlit, which allowed me to type this review right from my dimly lit seat on the back of the plane. It would have been nice, however, if the shortcuts for volume, screen brightness, etc. along the top keyboard row didn't require you to hold down the Function button.
The $999 model of the XPS 13 has a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid-state hard drive. The drive is much faster than typical hard drives, booting the laptop in just 28 seconds and letting it resume from sleep in just four. I found both of those features to be incredibly useful when I needed to get online right away at an airport or as soon as I got the office.
On top of that, the laptop is very fast once you are up and running Windows 7. Everything was very responsive as I simultaneously wrote this review in Microsoft Word, checked a number of websites in the Google Chrome browser, and listened to music in iTunes. Dell has done a nice job not polluting the machine with trial software. In fact, out of the box, the only thing that appears on the desktop on the screen is the Recycling Bin shortcut.
But one's satisfaction doesn't last long enough because of a weak battery. In typical use, I only got about five hours of battery life, which wasn't quite long enough to get me through the entire flight from New York to San Francisco. In a more rigorous test, where I looped an HD video, I got four hours and seven minutes of battery life. The MacBook Air lasts over six hours on similar tests and in general use.
I also noticed that the fan on the machine can get very loud at times. While it kept the bottom and keyboard cool, the fan interfered with a video I was watching.
The XPS 13 is extremely well built, the keyboard is very comfortable, and it's very thin and light. And for $999, it's certainly a good value for those looking for an attractive and fast Windows 7 laptop. But the aforementioned glaring issues really do hold it back from being the best thin and light laptop on the market. If you want a better trackpad and screen and longer battery life, you'll probably want to have the MacBook Air in that seat pocket, even if it costs $300 more.