August 28, 2012

1261 words 6 mins read

Review: Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Roughly a month ago I got my hands on the new(ish) Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook. It’s a fairly long name a device I lovingly nicknamed the “Dellbook Air”. Yes, it’s a Dell, but it is a MacBook Air clone, a fairly good one at that. My review is going to cover the usual features I do and don’t like, along with a fair number of comparisons to the 2011 MacBook Air model (Sorry, I don’t have a 2012 Air to compare with yet).

== Case / External ==

If you take out the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook, cover the logo, and set it on a table — everyone will simply assume that you;re using a Macbook Air. This isn’t necessarily because the Dell looks identical to the Mac, but the top covers are both clad in aluminum, though side by side you will notice that the Dell is several shades darker. That is where the aluminum covering ends for the Dell, as the rest of the machine is covered in a black rubbery plastic of some sort. The bottom, sides, keyboard and mouse are all made out of this same grippy material. In every case except for the trackpad, I really like this (I’ll talk more about that later).

Again, not something you’d notice until the two machines are sitting on top of each other but the Dell is actually a little bit smaller than the Air. Both of the machines are 13” based on their screen size, it just happens that the Dell has no bezel around the screen, it is edge to edge glass. Being smaller is cool, but this edge to edge glass means that every time you open the Dell, you’re getting finger prints on the outer edge of the glass. If you’re OCD about keeping your screen/computer clean like I am… it’s slightly irritating. For a slightly smaller machine, it’s not a bad trade off.

== Keyboard ==

One of the things on the Dell Ultrabook I like a great deal more than the Mac Air is the keyboard. As previously noted the keys have a slight rubbery feel to them, making them slightly more grippy. Additionally the keys have a fair amount more spring to them than the Air. As someone who loves to stab the keys, having a little more spring and cusoning in the keys is fantastic. Of course it’s still a chicklet keyboard, so there is only so much that can be done. Like the Air, the keyboard is backlit. Unlike the air, we PC users get proper Function keys, with an Fn optional for handy functions like screen brightness (notable, there is a dedicated mute key).

== Mouse / Trackpad ==

The trackpad is really the one place where the Dell XPS falls down. It has a rubbery coating like everything else… which makes it slightly more grippy than your run of the mill smooth plastic and a lot more grippy than a nice glass touchpad from a Mac Air. That really isn’t the big problem with the touchpad to me, I can get used to any surface type. the issue is palm detection… the Dell’s sucks. Yes, it does prevent me from moving the mouse around by palming the touchpad, but it does so by disabling the touchpad while you type. It doesn’t just disable it for a certain amount of time, it disables it until it detects the touchpad hasn’t been touched for at least half a second (or so). So if you’re like me and can keyboard ninja like a master and add the mouse simply to get maximum efficiency… you end up with a lot of time spent pushing a touchpad around without anything happening on screen.

This “feature” of disabling the mouse, while functional for regular typing (like say this blog entry) does not work for keyboard ninja-ry. It drives me up a god damn wall. I mean, shank someone level of irritation. I know I’ve had other machines that I’ve had many issues with the mouse jumping around while typing because of palming the touchpad… but frankly I’d much prefer a Mexican jumping mouse to a post-Iraq deployment mouse. So far, haven’t figured out how to turn this “feature” off.

== Screen ==

The screen is crisp and clear with good brightness. The max resolution is 1366×768, putting you into 720p territory. The keybased brightness adjustment is in visible steps like most machines (Vs the Mac’s gentle ramp down/up), but the automated software does a nice job of gently ramping up and down. Frankly though, I do not like the built in combination of screen brightness management on the Dell since it a bit over sensitive and ramps up and down on me too much. My solution was to simply turn off the auto adjustment since I almost always want my screen on max brightness, unless I’m in bed. I’m smarter than the software, sorry.

== Built in crapware ==

Most Windows PC’s have so much crap pre-installed on them that it nessesitates a full reformat and re-install of a machine before I’lll deem is safe to use. The Dell Ultrabook, surprisingly, didn’t come with that much on it. I removed a few Dell tools (like their backup software) but otherwise I’ve used the machine as it came out of the box.

== Performance ==

One of the reasons I wanted this Dell XPS over a Mac Air was the power. For example, the Dell has USB 3.0 which the Mac Air (2011) did not, of course Apple has now rectified that issue. Additional the Dell has a nice 1.7ghz Intel i7 with a fairly significant turboboost. They could get away with this because there is more proper cooling in the Dell (which mean fan vents on the underside, which I don’t mind in the least — I generally want/need that power at my desk). Sadly the Dell has basically been either matched or one up’d by the 2012 generation of Macbook Air’s. The Dell does a 5.7 on the Windows Experience Index, which is limited by desktop graphics performance.

== Summary (tl;dr) ==

I really like the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook in theory. For the internals, it is a nice machine and was faster than the equivalent MacBook Air. The exterior is well textured and slightly smaller than the equivalent 13” MacBook Air. The screen should give you no troubles at all, as long as you turn off the software management. At the end of the day, there is only one sticking point with the “Dellbook Air”… that is the touchpad. Maybe I’ve gotten spoiled by the sexy glass touch pad’s from Apple devices, but the Dell touchpad really gives me a hard time. The slight rubbery (non-slip) texture is not well suited for a touchpad. More importantly the palm detection and touchpad deactivation sucks for a keyboard ninja like me. The one time I passed the Dell off to a friend, they got caught by that touchpad issue too.

Maybe for some, the touchpad will be “no big deal”, which is good because it means Del will sell more units and put out another version with that flaw fixed. It really drove me up a wall (as you can tell) so for now I’ve given up using the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook on a regular basis. While I wrote this blog entry, as is my policy, on the Dell — I did the finishing touches on a MacBook Pro w/ Retina (Review coming soon!). Sad, I really had high hopes for the Dell.