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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Techterms.com defines a laptop as portable a computer that you can take with you and use in different environments. It comes with a battery allowing it to operate without being plugged into a power outlet. Laptops were originally lower powered versions of desktop computers but advances in manufacturing and industrial design engineering have enabled laptops to perform nearly as well as their desktop counterparts.

I’ve been in the IT industry for these 29 years and have worked on computers – desktops and laptops – for majority of those years. There was a time when I would be content working on a 10″ tablet (HP TC1100C) and for a while my ideal laptop, prioritizing on weight over power, was a 12″ laptop. When I turned half a century I realized that my priorities for laptops needed to adjust to my age: weight and size (real estate) of screen. I validated the latter last year when I bought a 14″ Dell laptop to replace by 8-year old iMac 15. Dick, our Dell 14z, was a beautiful machine powered by an Intel Core i5 Sandy Bridge with 8GB RAM. For much of my requirements – video editing and writing, this was the workhorse I will be needing for years to come (hopefully until the day I retired). Dick has one problem that I didn’t consider at the time we were buying it – weight. At 1.98kg, I was under the impression that 1.98kg or 4.356lb was acceptable weight to carry around. I was damn wrong! When you add the charger and carry bag, that 1.98kg easily jumps to 3.95kg – a lot of weight when you consider that you will carrying paper plus other stuff.

It used to be carrying 4kg of stuff on a backpack isn’t such a bad idea but as I said when you get passed the point of no return (50 years) even 3kg can easily weigh you down. So when the financial opportunity came to get a second laptop an ultrabook seemed the only viable option (at least for me).

Reading as many reports as I could muster and going through models from Lenovo, Acer, Asus, HP, Toshiba, Dell and Samsung, I was looking for a laptop that met my minimum criteria of weight (total weight of laptop + charger + bag) of 3kg and screen size of 14″.

The arrival of ultrabooks was just what I was waiting for. Intel’s ultrabook specifications meant I could look forward to a laptop that a screensize of at least 13 inch and weight of XX kg or less. For the record though I have to note that there have been lightweight laptops long before the ultrabook specification came about. Sony and Apple have been at the forefront of these lightweight computers. Apple with their under powered MacbookAirs (MBA) and Sony with their overpriced VAIO T series (followed by S and recently Z).

At the end of the day, my wallet went for a Samsung S9 15″ laptop for a number of reasons: 15″ HD screen, 1.65kg machine with a 0.32kg charger. It came with a black leather sleeve which was cool.

The S9 I bought is marked NP900X4C and is the third generation in the series. It sports the same fingerprint-resistant, bluish-gray aluminum unibody and tapered design. Measuring 356.9 x 237.0 x 14.9mm and weighing 1.65kg, the NP900X4C is sleek and light besting the HP Envy Sleekbook 6z.

Its its predecessor, the keyboard is shallow and takes getting used to. The NP900X4C comes with backlighted keys though, seriously, with 400-nit SuperBright screen, the backlighting feature is a mute point. It comes with a generous 109.22 x 73.66mm touchpad. The reviews I read report that Samsung has greatly improved the accuracy and performance of the trackpad on the NP900X4C but, in my view, it still much to be desired (I am using a Bluetooth mouse right now to get better at working on the S9). At least it supports multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and three-finger-swipe.

The NP900X4C comes with a 15-inch (diagonal) 1600 x 900-pixel matte display registering 368 lux on the light meter (a downgrade from the previous generation’s 399 lux – the higher the lux the brighter the screen). To be honest, the Dell XPS 15 offers a far better resolution at 1920 x 1080p display, while the Sleekbook 6z’s 1366 x 768. The average ultraportable sports a brightness of 232 lux.

The NP900X4C follows the tradition of many ultrabooks – bad sound reproduction, particularly in the subwoofer range but it manages to maintain accuracy even at full volume.

The NP900X4C, for the most part, runs cool to the touch except the upper-middle of the underside which can easily warm up to about 33 degrees Celsius. Thankfully it doesn’t get much hotter – compared to Dick, my Dell XPS 14z which runs well above 38.

The Apple MacbookAir was the first of these lightweight laptops to sport very few ports. Thankfully the NP900X4C comes with two USB 3.0 ports, a powered USB 2.0 port, a 4-in-1 card reader, microHDMI port, mini-VGA port (you need to spend extra for the Adaptor) and a combo headphone/mic 3.5mm jack. It also comes with a micro (10-100-1000) Ethernet port (thankfully an adapter is included). It comes with Intel® Centrino® Advanced-N 6235, 2 x 2 802.11abg/n (up to 300Mbps) with Widi support and Bluetooth V4.0.

The NP900X4C has a 1.3-MP webcam and can capture video at a maximum resolution of 1280 x 1024. The camera renders colors accurately and crisply.

The NP900X4C comes with the new Intel Ivy Bridge Core i7-3517U (1.90GHz, 4MB L3 Cache), 8GB RAM and 256GB SDD. Unfortunately, Samsung uses the slower SanDisk U100 SSD instead of the much faster Samsung mSATA drives in the second generation S9 – boooooo! Despite its choice of SanDisk SSD, the NP900X4C boots Windows 7 in just 23 seconds which is 20 seconds faster than the average ultraportable (45 seconds). The Dell XPS 15 boots at 46 seconds while the HP Envy Sleekbook 6z takes 43 seconds to boot Windows 7. Wake up from sleep mode is about 2 seconds.

Most ultrabooks sporting the new IVY Bridge CPU use the built-in Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip. Watching HD videos is fine with this graphics processor, just don’t complain when playing HD video games on this laptop.

The NP900X4C has a built-in 8-cell 62Wh battery and is expected to last about 7 hours.

The NP900X4C comes preloaded with Samsung Easy Settings which allows users to adjust battery settings, display and audio properties, keyboard backlighting and other settings. Easy Software Manager downloads and installs updates and drivers, while Easy Support Center can run checks on the notebook’s hardware to ensure that it’s running at optimal speeds. It also comes with Microsoft Office Starter 2010. If you want PowerPoint for free, download Star Office.

WHAT I LIKE

The S9 is, at the moment, the only slim laptop with a 15″ screen. Most ultrabooks out in the market follow Intel’s ultrabook specification of 13″ screen. To be fair Samsung never said the S9 series is an ultrabook. If you want to be strict about it, the Samsung S5 are marketed as ultrabooks.

For me, part of what attracts me to buy the Samsung S9 was the 15″ screen AND 1.65kg weight. Anything else is a bonus.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Price! This is an expensive unit. I bought it for US$1,666. This is already a discount from the suggested Hong Kong retail price of US$1,792. Samsung has never been competitive when it comes to price. I think it thinks that its brand is sufficiently at par with Sony to warrant the premium. Incidentally, the 13″ S9 retails for US$1,766 with 4GB RAM and 128GB HDD. This part confuses me as to how Samsung could charge so much for the smaller sibling when it competes with similarly configured machines at about half the price.

CONCLUSION

The Samsung S9 NP900X4C stays true to its marketing as a sleek, elegant machine with uncompromising build quality. If you are after price, choose either the Samsung S5 or Dell, Asus, Acer and so many other ultrabooks. Even Sony has its S series (the top of the line for Sony is the Z series). The Dell Inspiron 15R Special Edition and the Asus Zenbook UX31 are good machines to try out. When I first started on the path to get an ultrabook I was consider the Lenovo Thinkpad X230 and Carbon X1, the Lenovo ideapad U410 or U510, and Acer S5.

As for me, for better or for worst, I choose to buy the Samsung third generation Series 9 NP900X4C. It is my first Samsung computer and I am hoping that despite my early hesitation, I didn’t make a mistake with this one. At the very least I did not regret not buying a Macbook Pro or Macbook Air – that would be a bigger mistake for me.

I did mention earlier that I went through as much reviews of competitive laptops as I could get my hands on. I even went to the Wanchai Computer Mall to look at the ultrabooks available in the market. At the time there was no 15″ S9 available for me to look at. I was almost hooked on the 13″ Sony VAIO Z series because it was light and beautiful. But when I held the upper left and upper right corners of the lid, there was visible flexing of the screen. It was scary. It showed to what extent vendors were willing to compromise on the build to keep the machine light. That was enough for me to decide on the S9. The aluminum case, while contributes to the heft, also protects the expensive innards of this machine.

OTHER SITE REVIEWS
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The first thing you will say about this laptop is that it is not a 14″ laptop. Indeed the frame more resembles a 13″ and only upon closer look, and likely comparing with other 13″ laptops, will you realize where the magic (illusion) is coming from – the Shrinuken display. It reminds me of the new generation of Samsung LED TV monitors that are about an inch thick and close-to-the-end display panels.
The Dell XPS 14z ships standard with Core i5 but you can also order a Core i7 equipped laptop with a base memory of 4GB that you can upgrade to 8G. The test unit handed to me came with a Nvidia GeForce GT 525M graphics card for gaming and multimedia apps. I was pleasantly surprised that the XPS 14z stayed cool while editing a video or watching a DVD.
At a suggested retail price in Hong Kong of HK$9,999 (you can get it for HK$8,580 with 8GB DDR3 RAM in the States – don’t ask me why), this is one of the sleekest laptops I’ve seen in the market (except for the slew of super skinny ultrabooks coming in 2012). It comes in brushed aluminum frame that feels cool to the touch. Another feature that drew a bit of curiosity on my part and for which I had to adjust my typing sense a little bit is the keyboard. Dell termed it isolation-style keyboard, what is odd is the curved design of the keys – giving it a futuristic look and feel. The keyboard is flanked on both sides by speakers, making this an ideal multimedia and gaming platform. Most laptops have their speaker hidden on the side or underneath the chassis forcing you to strain your ears to listen to the sound. Not so with the XPS 14z.
Dell must must have learned something from the Thinkpad series as it claims this unit has a spill-resistant keyboard in addition to being backlit. I was reluctant to try it in the demo unit (I didn’t want the agency to get into trouble for this nor was I willing to pay for a demo unit at sticker price).
The XPS 14z comes with the standard features of a Core i laptop: 802.11n, Gigabit Ethernet and Bluetooth 3.0. There is also a 7-in-1 memory card reader. I thought it disappointing to only have a 1.3MP webcam despite the label of 720p. Thankfully it comes with a HDMI and Mini DisplayPort connections for hooking up a television, monitor or projector.
WHAT I LIKE
One of them best features of the XPS 14z is its build quality from the use of a super thin aluminum lid to a stylish isolation-style keyboard.
You may think I am being cynical (or picky) but I do love a large trackpad especially when you are dealing with a device that supports multi-touch. The XPS 14z comes with a very large touchpad reminiscent of the Macbook Pros and MacAir. although Dell added two dedicated buttons at the base of the trackpad – definitely better than the Mac design from this end. The pad itself supports multi-touch gestures.
To keep laptops slim most manufacturers skip the DVD drive. Its nice of Dell to give the XPS 14z a slot-loading optical drive despite its almost slim form factor. What I find weird about the XPS 14z is the fact that is the fact that it has a thickness of 22.86mm on paper but everytime I look at it, I swear its thicker than the 13″ Macbook Pro’s 24.13mm.
While we are comparing the MBP to the XPS 14z, I am happy that Dell chose to use a 7200 rpm HDD compared to Apple’s default choice of 5400 rpm drives. I also have to remind myself that the XPS 14z comes in at 1.98kg which is lighter than the 13″ MacBook Pro 2.04kg.
WHAT I DON’T LIKE
Most LCD screens suffer from a limited viewing angle and the XPS 14z is no exception. In fact I found the 45 degree vertical viewing angle to be quite narrowing and disappointing for a machine as solidly built as the XPS 14z. Dell didn’t design this machine for use on your lap.
Despite efforts to keep the packaging of the 14z as slim as possible (in fact a 14″ laptop in a 13″ body), I still found the XPS 14z to be quite heavy at 1.98 kg. This makes holding this laptop with one hand not advisable.
One of the things I found surprising and disappointing was Dell’s choice of handicapping the XPS 14z with just two USB ports, one of them being a USB 3.0.
ONE MORE THING
There is little not to like about the Dell XPS 14z. Its interesting how Dell managed to increase the screen size to 14 with its choice of Shrinuken display technology (giving it the cool edge-to-edge glass of the display is a classy touch).
Would I buy this laptop? Not really sure. I like the power of this unit but my decision is being weighed down by the perception that this is heavier, thicker, bigger than it should be. Plus there is Dell’s reputation for having laptops with inferior battery life. Reviewers give the XPS 14z at least four-hour battery life. If Dell were to give this XPS 14z 6 hours I would definitely consider it seriously. Afterall, who can say no to a slick brushed metal design?
OTHER REVIEW

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