Hands-on: Dell's XPS 13, a next-gen ultrabook

Dell's new XPS 13 ultrabook offers a great balance of style and performance at a reasonable price.

Looking to knock Apple's MacBook Air from its pedestal, PC manufacturers have been launching an array of high-end, superslim laptops over the past several months. Called ultrabooks (a term coined by Intel), these new laptops feature low-voltage Intel Core chips and emphasize long battery life and fast boot times.

Dell XPS 13
Dell XPS 13

Dell's entry into the ultrabook sweepstakes, the XPS 13, was announced in early January but just started shipping on February 29. It was worth the wait.

Many of the specs of the Dell XPS 13 are similar or identical to those of the Acer Aspire S3 or Zenbook UX31, two earlier ultrabooks that I recently reviewed (Ultrabooks hit the shelves: Acer Aspire S3 vs. Asus Zenbook UX31). However, after using it for three days, I'm convinced that it marks the beginning of a second generation of ultrabooks that offer a better balance between performance and battery life than those that debuted in late 2011. Things will, no doubt, speed up this summer when the latest Ivy Bridge processors are incorporated into ultrabook models. For now, the current chips do just fine.

At 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.7 in., the XPS 13 is fractions of an inch smaller than both the Acer Aspire S3 and the Zenbook UX31. On its own, the XPS 13 weighs 3.0 lb.; if you add in the AC adapter, that goes up to a still-reasonable 3.6-lb. travel weight. One inconvenience: It uses a three-prong plug, which means travelers may need to also carry a two-to-three-prong adapter.

The system has a nicely balanced feel, and the soft rubber coating on the base and wrist rest invites the touch. The style of the XPS 13 is modest and elegant, from the understated aluminum lid to the black carbon fiber base and magnesium wrist rest. I preferred it to, say, the glitzy silver case of the Asus Zenbook UX31. There are several stylish design details throughout, such as the stainless steel model ID plate underneath; it flips open to reveal the Windows product key and the system's Dell service tag number.

The full-sized keyboard features comfortable 18.7mm keys that are backlit, although the space bar doesn't light up. There are multimedia controls at the top row of the keyboard, including keys for adjusting and muting volume.

At 4.5 in., the XPS 13's touchpad is one of the largest around, but it lacks separate right and left buttons; instead, you tap the left or right side of the keypad for left and right clicks.

I looked at the basic $999.99 model of the XPS 13 equipped with Intel's Core i5 2467M processor that runs at 1.6GHz but has Intel's TurboBoost technology to increase its speed up to 2.3GHz when needed. It also comes with 4GB RAM and a 128GB solid state drive (SSD). Dell also sells a version with the same CPU and a 256GB SSD for $1,299.99, as well as a $1,499.99 version that has a 1.7GHz Core i7 processor and 256GB SSD.

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Ultrabooks: Features*

Dell XPS 13 Acer Aspire S3 Asus Zenbook UX31
Processor/Speed Intel Core i5 / 1.6 GHz - 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 / 1.6 GHz - 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 / 1.7 GHz - 2.7GHz
Measurements 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.7 in. 12.6 x 8.5 x 0.7 in. 12.7 x 8.8 x 0.6 in.
Weight 3.0 lb. 3.0 lb. 3.1 lb.
Screen size 13.3 in. 13.3 in. 13.3 in.
Resolution 1366 x 768 1366 x 768 1600 x 900
Graphics processor Intel HD Graphics 3000 Intel HD Graphics 3000 Intel HD Graphics 3000
RAM 4GB 4GB 4GB
Storage 128GB SSD 20GB SSD, 320GB HD 128GB SSD
Ports 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, audio, Mini DisplayPort 2 USB 2.0, HDMI, audio 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, micro-HDMI, audio, VGA (w/adapter)
Wireless 802.11n, Bluetooth 802.11n, Bluetooth 802.11n, Bluetooth
OS Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium
Warranty 1 year 1 year 2 years
Price range $999.99-$1,499.99 $799-$938 $1,049-$1,111.54
*Review units - other specs available
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