Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook vs Apple Macbook Air | Day 1

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Hey everyone, you may have seen the marketing hype in the last few days for the Dell XPS 13″ Ultrabook. Professionally, I have been using a first generation Macbook Air with Bootcamp running Windows 7 on it for a while now. Yes I know many Mac users might be upset by this. Too bad, Windows 7 is fantastic and far greater then OSX (let the comments begin).

History

Windows 7 on the MacBook Air:

Windows has never had a good notebook like the MacBook Air to run on (other than the Air of course.) The experience has been fantastic other than a few things that I can’t stand.

1) The FN key is where the Control key should be. It drives me nuts although I am just about used to it now.

2) The ALT key and the Windows Key (the command key for you Mac users) are swapped and in the wrong position. Thankfully I was able to reprogram Windows to swap them back. I wish I could have done the same for the FN and CRTL keys.

3) No backlit Keyboard. I could have used it many times. Apple has put this in newer MacBook Airs.

4) No grip on bottom. The Air slides all over the place, not unmanageable but not perfect ether.

The fact is I LOVE the experience I got from the MacBook Air. However I have wanted to get a non-Apple notebook for some time now. I work as a Windows IT Manager and I hate the elitist feel I get from owning the Air. Additionally, I don’t like the looks I get when I go to Microsoft Conferences. I also want to support the Windows OEM’s. I want to believe that freedom of choice yields better options.

Did Dell come through?  Read on………..

Unboxing

Packing

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First, I got to say my hats off to Dell. They finally got the packaging right. The outer box leads to an inner box that is high quality and even opens at a hinge.

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First Impressions

Well, its pretty nice. I was worried it would have a plastic, not so solid feel to the unit but thankfully it feels like a rock (that weighs almost nothing). The Aluminum edging gives it a very solid feel to the touch.

The keys are slightly rounded in the corners, I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing or not. But what is really nice is the plastic / rubber area around the keys. Its has a very nice feel to it.

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The touch pad seems perfect to the touch.

The carbon fiber bottom is really nice and in my opinion perfect. It’s a very nice touch and it has rubber strips that keep a nice grip on whatever its sitting on.

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Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook vs. MacBook Air

I will not be covering everything each notebook has. Instead I will be covering items of high contrast between the two. If I didn’t mention something it is likely because they are very similar.

Screen Resolution

The Dell has a smaller height and this smaller size means it had to lose some rather important screen real-estate vs. the MacBook Air.

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Due to its reduced size, the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook only has a 1366 x 768 screen resolution. The MacBook Air has an impressive 1440 x 900 screen resolution.

1366 x 768 puts this unit firmly in the Netbook consumer range not the pro-sumer Ultrabook range. In fact, Windows 8 minimum requirements will be 768. It is the lowest possible resolution that will be supported with the up and coming release of Windows 8.

Display Quality

One of the things that made me think Dell was focusing more on quality was the screen was covered in Gorilla Glass. That would be the same stuff on the iPhone, iPad, and other mobile devices.

Unfortunately though, the display behind that glass is awful. To a uneducated consumer I would think it would be fine, however anyone that truly enjoys or works in computing will notice the display is low quality. Image reproduction is terrible.

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook at any angle other then dead center is hard and almost impossible to see. Even then the colors are just okay.

The MacBook Air has a simply beautiful screen. The colors and contrasts are perfect at any viewing angle.

Additionally the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook has a much higher glare then the MacBook Air. Many people noticed it while sitting in my office which has dimmed lighting and tinted Windows. I can only wonder what outside in the light will look like.

Look and Feel

As I have said the Dell is smaller. I guess that could be a good thing. The only reason I can think why they did this was to make it less expensive (smaller screen) and to make it easier to use on a airplane (although I never had a problem with the MacBook Air).

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Here is a little side by side. Notice the additional length at the top and bottom of the units.

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Perhaps the Dell feels a little fatter on its underside.

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Accessories

The power adapter is kind of junky too. Maybe I am just spoiled by the MagLock adapter from Apple but given Dell had to create a new adapter for this form factor I was hoping they would come up with something a little more useful. At least provide a way to wrap the cord around it. However all we got was this:

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Battery Meter

I should point out there is a button on the side of the unit you can press to get the power level of the battery. This was a nice touch, good job Dell!

Speed

Not going to spend too much time on this but the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook with i5 and 256GB SSD is blazing fast. It is a pleasure tinkering on it. Things load just as fast as my i7 desktop with 8GB of RAM and a SSD.

Conclusion

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It kills me that Dell has taken so much effort to make this a quality notebook then turns around and dumps an inferior display in it. I am not just talking about screen resolution, the quality of image reproduction is just awful.  Maybe if you are used to Dell displays its not that bad but if you are coming from a MacBook Air (or any MacBook really) then you are in for a real shock.

Its also sad that Dell didn’t do more with the power adapter. It could have been much more functional.

Its not all bad though.  The rest of the unit really looks promising. I will mention that I am running into a lot of issues with finding drivers for Windows 8 (blog post about that to follow) but that shouldn’t be used when trying to decide to make the move.

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook has a good solid feel to it. I am going to use it over the next week and see if I can live with the few things I thought were not up to par. If not, however, its going back. Check back to see if I switch back to the MacBook Air or not.

Net Net…

If you can deal with the less then eye popping image reproduction, then this might be the right notebook for you. The price is great for what you are getting and its very fast.

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About Eric

My name is Eric Weintraub. I am an IT Professional with over 12 years of real world experience. I currently work as a Senior IT Manager for a large software company that develops products for Information Technology workers. Professionally, I love what I do and it shows in my work. Personally, I enjoy technology as a whole. Enterprise Technology, Social Media, and Mobile technologies are all things I follow. I also love to play golf, go snowboarding, cook, love to eat, and read. Also big on photography, check out my recent photography at http://www.ericweintraubphotography.com and also Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericweintraub/. As much as I don’t have a lot of free time, I always come across things that I believe could help others. I just wanted to be able to share what I find with others. Thanks for reading the blog, please setup a RSS feed and keep in touch! Eric Weintraub

26 responses to “Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook vs Apple Macbook Air | Day 1”

  1. Dmarque says :

    I understand that there is a new processor coming for the Ultra. It’s called the Ivy Bridge …….how long before this is available? I assume it will make the Ultra even faster but is it also any help withthe display issue? Your comments on the display give me pause about the Ultra. Considering waiting another year for the next gen Dell XPS Ultra with a 1400×900 resolution…..assuming it is in the works……If Dell wants to threaten Apple….it had better be!

    Mark

    • Eric says :

      So it has the sandy bridge cpu which is second gen i5. I got to say there is nothing wrong with the speed of the unit. I might even go so far as to say it would not be noticeable if the speed were improved. ts just the display is very underwhelming and in my opinion the resolution inst high enough to take it out of that “netbook” class of computers. Real shame, at this point I am 99% sure I will return it.

  2. victoria evans says :

    Thank you for the straight talk on Dell. My 6 month old Inspiron is just tootoo heavy in the backpack, so I’m on the hunt! I would appreciate if you would keep me on your list when you publish reviews. I wonder if new display same as inspiron? thanks! I will hold off on purchase, troubled by display quality info.

  3. Unknown says :

    I hear that Dell will be releasing an 8gb ram model??? This could mean ivy bridge and better screen.

    • Eric says :

      I sure hope so. That would be the ideal machine asumining the made the form factor slightly bigger to provide a higher resolution screen.

  4. Sebastien says :

    Thanks for the comparison. I’m a PC guy and photographer, I’ve been really looking for a Windows Ultrabook with a good screen. No such thing so far apparently. I have a Dell Studio XPS 1645, which has a fantastic RGB-LED high-gamut panel (discontinued since then), but is about 6.3 pounds and a bit of a pain. I work in IT so I could install Windows on a MacBook Air but I haven’t done my homework so far. You seem happy about it. Any other issues besides the keyboard layout? My photo files are large, I’m a bit concerned about running Adobe Lightroom with only 4GB, my current laptop has 8GB. I also have a 512GB SSD in my laptop, I assume I wouldn’t be able to slap it inside the MacBook Air, right?
    Thanks!

    • Eric says :

      I too am a photographer. I do all of my processing on a very powerful desktop with an Apple Cinema Display monitor (still running in Windows). However I have used Lightroom on the Air in a pinch before it and it worked fine. Lightrooms largest bottle neck is the hard disk, with the 256GB SSD on the Air you have that covered. They BTW don’t offer a 512GB on the Air. I would only recommend this for field editing and not a primary workstation. If this is a primary workstation then I would recommend something with a higher resolution which would put you in the heavy 14/15” machines. In that case you could go with a Macbook Pro. It’s what most professionals in the field use.

      On that battery, battery life is great, maybe not as good as in the Mac partition but I spend so little time in OSX (mostly to facetime my wife when I am out on business trips) I wouldn’t know the comparison that well. I get a solid 4.5 – 5.5 hours of real world heavy use from it. If I were to kill all non-essential programs, turn off the areo glass, and use the lowest brightness I bet I could get over 6+ hours with it. I take this unit on site or into endless meetings at work and never worry about the battery life.

      Hope that helps!

      -Eric

      • Sebastien says :

        Thanks. Yes, I do have a primary workstation I do my 5DMII editing on, this would be for field editing, vacation or photos likes the ones coming out of my Fuji X100/XPro1, which are half the size. Thanks again. The new Macbook Air revision should be coming soon, I’ll get one.

      • Eric says :

        Yeah I think that is a very good call. Hopefully it will have Ivy Bridge tech in it! Nice to see a fellow Canon guy 🙂

  5. Sen Xu says :

    Thanks for the post. I use a lenovo W520 and am looking for a smaller laptop for short trips that doesn’t require a full workstation. Currently I use a T420 which is fine but still it’s a full size laptop. I quite like the Air but didn’t pull the trigger due to the fact that I am going to be using windows on it, purchasing it with the bundled OSX is a bit not worth it. The XPS13 ultrabook looks like a good choice but the screen kills it for me (I very much enjoyed the FHD screen 1920X1080 on a 15.6″ screen and wouldn’t settle for something inferior).

    HP, Lenovo, Dell, all seems to fail to overtake Apple in the ultrabook round, I’ll probably just go buy an air then….

    • Eric says :

      Yeah you are right on the money, I just don’t understand why they wont clone the Macbook Air, and then improve on it. Instead they get close to it and say well people will buy this. I love my Macbook Air running windows although the keyboard is a little hard to get used too. No Delete key (FN + Backspace for that) and no way to right click drag without plugging in a mouse (which is very rarely a issue for me). Apple really did make the perfect hardware.

  6. James says :

    Seems rather an immature review without being objective. Seems like you liked nothing about the XPS 13.

    • Eric says :

      I would argue that there was a lot I did like about the XPS. In fact I liked practically everything other than the display, size of unit, and the power adapter. The thing that kills me the most is they almost had something great but then due to cost reasons toss in a netbook style display in there completely changing the function of a device like this. I really want Dell to come out with a Air Killer and for me that is what I am looking at this device to be.

  7. Paul Sitthipo says :

    I don’t understand why you think its OK to clone? Besides, they DID clone the MacBook Air 11″! Put it side and by side and you’ll see exact duplicate in the overall design, locations of all the ports, keyboard key size and location, trackpad size and location, screen hinge, curved corners, gorilla glass display (this one cloned with MacBook Pro), etc. Dell should be ashamed of being a copy-cat!

    • Eric says :

      Paul I would say they needed to be a copy cat. Apple really did get the Air perfect. I would also say Dell did make it slightly different by using the carbon fiber bottom and the rubberized top. Both things I think made a big improvement on the copy. However like I had said before the screen was too small and the body still a little to fat for my liking. In those case copying Apple could have lead to a PERFECT product.

  8. Joshua says :

    @ Paul “Good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” – Steve Jobs

  9. Arohn says :

    how about heat and noise?

    • Eric says :

      It runs ok until it starts working on something CPU intensive, then the fan kicks in and it starts getting uncomfortably hot. I wonder how Apple deals with that same issue with roughly the same hardware.

  10. Cindy says :

    It is now May. Did you switch back to the MacBook Air or are you sticking to the XPS? Is the display issue livable?

  11. Anderson says :

    “Due to its reduced size, the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook only has a 1366 x 768 screen resolution. The MacBook Air has an impressive 1440 x 900 screen resolution.” ?????

    Both are 13.3 inch screen.
    There’re two differences in the screen: the aspect ratio (macbook air is taller, while the dell xps is widescreen) and the dell doesn’t have a useless metal around the screen, the glass it’s almost 100% screen.

    Are you really a IT expert?

    • Eric says :

      Anderson, no need for insults (or trolling) to have a meaningful conversation.

      The resolution at 1366×768 isn’t high enough for the work tasks of most of the people I work with no matter what the physical size of the display is. 1440×900 is barely any better. Multiplying those two numbers along with the physical diagonal screen size gets you the Pixels per Inch (PPI). For example Apple states on some of the iPads to be a “rentna” display. What that really means is that PPI number is so high the human eye cannot perceive each individual pixel. This leads to far greater display output.

      The impressive part of the Apple display isn’t the 1440×900 (although 1440×900 starts to be a usable resolution), but rather the combination of two things. One is the sharpness that comes from a higher PPI. The other though, the real difference is in these two specific displays is the color reproduction and side angle viewing. The original XPS 13 display is not a very “good looking” display. Images seen side by side on both displays would be very noticeably different in quality.

      HOWEVER! Dell just announced they will be offering the XPS13 with a 1080p display (1920×1080) that offers best in class PPI and much greater image reproduction (color and side angel viewing). Anyone wanting a XPS13 should spend the extra money to upgrade to this display so they can see the unit in its full glory.

      Also as a last follow up, I am now using a XPS 12 which also has a 1080p display (and touch screen!). I finally was able to jettison the Apple and am enjoying Windows 8 on my XPS12!

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