Who does not dream of owning a personal computer (PC) that you can go anywhere with you and do just about anything you can with it. Let’s not kid ourselves here. The iPad and its Android and Windows siblings can only do so much. And unless you got an app that can do serious business work, you do need a PC that can do the odd video editing and all the document – word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and database what if scenarios. And again to be fair to Apple and gang, the tablet device ain’t cut for that kind of job

Unfortunately for geriatrics like me, lugging around a 2kg laptop and its accessories like battery charger, pointing device, DVD drive, external HDD and yes that travel-battered bag, can easily get you 6 kgs of arthritis-inducing pain very quickly down the line.

Enter ultrabooks – a new category of lightweight but powerful (aka better than the iPad and siblings) devices that can do just about anything a conventional laptop can do at price points reminiscent of top end netbooks. This review is about the Dell XPS 13 – a late entry by Dell in the fast becoming competitive category. According to Intel, ultrabooks are sub-US$1,000 computers that are lightweight (1.4 kg or less), 1.77 cm thin, offer decent performance (vs Apple Macbook Air) have sufficient charge to last five hours, comes with a SSD, and a 13” screen.

The Dell XPS 13 just makes it into the ultrabook category with it 13.3” screen, 1.4kg weight and measures 7mm at its thinnest and 18mm at its thickest. It flaunts a minimalist design that is representative of current industrial design trends for laptops. To be honest I am impressed with Dell’s approach to the design of the XPS 13. It is reminiscent of the Dell XPS 14z minus the bulk and heft that the XPS 14z suffers from. Dell purposely designed the XPS 13 for the corporate user with its Trusted Platform Module for BitLocker Data. Where the XPS 13 fails is in the pricing category – at least in Hong Kong where it retails for US$1,666. Of course Intel isn’t really policing vendors particularly vendors who buy its processors and chipsets.

The professional look starts with the machined aluminum outer shell Dell markets as Elemental Silver Aluminum. The underbelly is made of carbon fiber Underneath is a fiberglass while the jet black interior feels like a soft rubber surface. There are no ugly stickers anywhere on this ultrabook. The hinge is a nicely weighted and extends the quality-feel that comes as you caress the cold metal surface. The XPS 13 continues the tradition found on the 14z with its edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass panel. It also has a glass multi-gesture touchpad with integrated mouse buttons. The XPS 13 ships with isolation-style keyboards (aka Chiclet keys) proved comfortable when typing – although you need time to get used to the key positions. Like other ultrabooks, the keys are shallow but to its credit Dell made the keys slightly curved and backlit.

The test unit I receive came with an Intel core™ i7-2637M processor (yes, 2011 Sandy Bridge processor – sooo 2011), with 4GB RAM and 256GB SSD. Like most ultrabooks, the XPS 13 uses the integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics processor. As long as you don’t use this laptop for processor intensive graphics application, the XPS 13 should do most of what you’ve come to expect from a standard laptop.

The XPS 13 comes with one USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0 port and a headphone jack. If you want to connect the XPS 13 to an external monitor, you better have an adaptor because this laptop comes with a mini DisplayPort. Like other ultrabooks, the only way to connect the XPS 13 is via built-in 802.11n wireless and Bluetooth.

I almost forgot – the XPS 13 comes with a backlit keyboard.

WHAT I LIKE

One of the things l liked about the XPS 13 is its use of edge-to-edge screen – near zero bezel – creating the illusion of a smaller laptop comparable to a 12 or even 11 inch laptops. Apart from that there is nothing special about its 1366 x 768 pixel resolution and support for 720p high-definition videos playback.

With the exception of the very classy unibody (dare we day inspired by the Apple’s MacBook Pro and Macbook Air) design the only other feature I love about the XPS 13 is the charger. It is tiny compared to every Dell laptop I’ve ever had the pleasure of using or owning. In fact the XPS 14z I have at home comes with a brick that gets so hot you can use it to warm your sandwich (I tried that and it works).

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

It’s difficult to find something not to like with the XPS 13. If I have to be critical of the XPS 13 then I only have a few quibbles about the XPS 13 is the battery life. As with a lot of Dell laptops, battery life is disappointing – to say the least. I can’t for the like of me figure out why vendors overstate the battery life. What is their benchmark for declaring 5 hours of battery life? Everything, backlight, keyboard light, GPU, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc is off? Come Dell be honest when stating the battery life.

Finally, and for many consumers, the reason for buying an ultrabook is price. Yes, you get a reasonably powerful laptop with the ultrabooks compared to the netbook, but part of the allure of the ultrabook is the price. Intel set the suggested price point for an ultrabook at US$1,000. The low-end Dell XPS 13 comes with an online sticker of HK$12,999 while the top-end configuration ships for HK$14,999. At prices like this, the XPS series wants to price itself in the category of Sony or Apple.

CONCLUSION

Most vendors and sales people will tell you how light their laptops are. Ask them to show you the external charger and see how fast that brick turns into hot coal. Fortunately the XPS 13 doesn’t come with a “killer brick” charger although it does get warm relatively quickly.

UPDATED TECHNICAL SPEC (with Ivy Bridge Processor)

  • Windows® 7 Professional SP1 64bit Multi-Language(Traditional/Simplified Chinese/English )
  • 3nd generation Intel® Core™ i5-3317M processor (3M Cache, up to 2.6 GHz with TPM)
  • Microsoft® Office trial
  • McAfee® Security Center promo – 15 Months Version
  • 1-Year Premier Service with 1-year Accidental Damage Services and Oncall Subscription
  • 1 Year Dell Online Backup 2GB
  • 4GB Dual Channel DDR3 1333MHz Memory
  • Backlit English Keyboard
  • Intel® HD Graphics 3000
  • 256GB Solid State Drive
  • Intel® Centrino® Advanced-N 6230 with Bluetooth v3.0+HS
  • System Document(ENG/TCHI/SCHI/JPN/KOR)
  • 47 WHr 6-Cell Battery
  • Elemental Silver Aluminum and 13.3″ Hi-Def (720p) True Life (1366×768) WLED Display with 1.3MP Webcam

PRODUCT PHOTOS

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