The first Very Important Laptop of 2012 has arrived, in the form of the new Dell XPS 13. This is Dell's first ultrabook (an Intel designation for laptops with certain specs--essentially a Windows MacBook Air), and even though the company is a little late to that particular game, the XPS 13 nails a lot of what makes for a good ultrabook experience.
The first thing you notice about the XPS 13 is how small it looks. Dell claims this is a 13-inch screen in a chassis more like an 11-inch laptop's. In reality, it's not exactly that compact, but it is a bit smaller than other 13-inch ultrabooks. It falls right between the 11-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Air. Although, with the bigger screen and edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass over the entire display, it feels dense--when you pick it up for the first time, it's heavier than you expect.
And the comparison to the MacBook Air is an apt one, as this is the most Air-like ultrabook to date, more so even than the Asus Zenbook UX31. If not for the circular Dell logo replacing the circular Apple logo on the back, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference with the lid closed.
I played around with XPS 13 units late last year and again at CES 2012, but now that the final product is here in the CNET Labs, it's time for some more-substantial hands-on testing.
The keyboard is shallow but very pleasant to use, with soft, clack-free touch. The backlight is bright, but not overpowering against the all-black keys and keyboard tray. The glass touch pad is large, with a drag-free matte surface, but the tap sensitivity needed to be cranked up a bit for it to be usable.
At $999 for a 128GB SSD and Intel Core i5-2467M CPU, the XPS 13 is reasonably priced, although HP, Toshiba, and others offer similar specs for $100 or so less. Working in Dell's favor are the system's excellent build quality--the body is a mix of aluminum, magnesium alloy, and carbon fiber--and the smaller footprint.
One initial disappointment is the screen itself. While the 1,366x768-pixel native resolution is what you'll find in most 13-inch laptops, we've seen 1,600x900-pixel models recently, and the MacBook Air has a 1,440x900-pixel display (admittedly starting at $300 more). Edge-to-edge glass is always a look that I like, but the off-axis viewing on this display is poor. Dell is purportedly going to offer a higher-resolution screen in the near future, so hopefully it'll be an improvement.
The only other things that give me pause at first glance are the lack of an SD card slot--the 13-inch Air and most 13-inch ultrabooks have one--and the choice of DisplayPort instead of HDMI for the video output, which just isn't as universally useful.
The Dell XPS 13 is currently running our CNET Labs benchmark tests, so stay tuned for a full review.