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

March 2, 2012 06:20 AM ET

An impressive display

The center of attention is the system's 13.3-in. flush-mounted display, which (according to Dell) is bonded to the lid to save weight and uses Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. It is powered by Intel's HD Graphics 3000 technology, which comes with 64MB of dedicated video memory and which can use up to 1.6GB of system RAM.

The 1366 x 768-resolution display is very bright and clear. Above it is a 1.3-megapixel webcam with dual microphones.

At a Glance

Dell XPS 13
Dell
Price: $999.99 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 128GB SSD), $1,299.99 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 256GB SSD), $1,499.99 (1.7GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 256GB SSD)
Pros: Beautiful design, strong performance, Trusted Protection Module, backlit keyboard, USB 3.0 port, battery gauge
Cons: No HDMI or VGA ports, no SD card reader, 3-prong power cord, battery not replaceable

As is the case with other ultrabooks, the XPS 13's assortment of ports is minimalist, to say the least. There is one USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0 connector, an audio jack and a Mini DisplayPort connector. There is no flash card reader, VGA port or HDMI port. (Dell sells an optional $30 DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter if you want to connect the XPS 13 to a projector or TV.)

Like most ultrabooks, the XPS 13 lacks an Ethernet connection; it does offer 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. While the system has been designed with consumers in mind, it can fit into the corporate landscape with a Trusted Protection Module (TPM) that has a dedicated cryptographic processor to secure and streamline remote access.

Like other ultrabooks, it doesn't have a replaceable battery, which could be a problem on a long flight or a day away from a power outlet. The XPS 13 does have a feature that is lacking in most notebooks these days: a built-in battery gauge. A five-element LED array on one side of the system provides a crude but useful idea of how much battery life remains.

Along with Windows 7 Home Premium, the XPS 13 comes with a variety of programs, including facial recognition security software and a 15-month subscription to McAfee Security Center. Dell includes a one-year warranty; extending it to three years of coverage adds $300.

Test results

To test the performance of the Dell XPS 13, I used PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0. The software exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2D and 3D graphics and memory; it then compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.

The Dell XPS 13 scored an impressive 1,182.7 on PerformanceTest. That's 20% better than the result I got from the AcerAspire S3 and slightly behind the one I got from the Zenbook UX31 in High Performance mode.

I also ran Maxon CineBench 11.5 to measure graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes that stress the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports scores for processor and graphics performance; I averaged the results of three runs. The XPS 13 blew away both of the other systems with results of 1.93 on the processor test and 9.53 on the graphics test.

To measure battery life, I used Passmark's BatteryMon. I fully charged the system and set the power options to keep the system from going to sleep or the screen from dimming. I connected a USB thumb drive containing six videos to the system and set Windows Media Player to shuffle through the videos continuously while the software charted the battery's capacity. I reported the average of two runs.

When I tested the XPS 13's 6600 mAh battery, I found it was able to power the system under those trying conditions for 4 hours and 19 minutes. This should translate into more than a full day of stop-and-go use.

Ultrabooks: Performance

Dell XPS 13 Acer Aspire S3 Asus Zenbook UX31
High Performance mode
PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 1,182.7 986.7 1,280.10
CineBench 11.5 CPU 1.93fps 1.92fps 1.22fps
CineBench 11.5 GPU 9.53fps 7.79fps 5.51fps
Battery Life 4:19 3:14 2:59

Conclusions

Dell's XPS 13 is a rarity these days: a reasonably priced computer that is thin and light yet does everything well. Of the ultrabooks I've tested so far, it's the one to beat.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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