When I reviewed the Dell XPS 14z a few months ago, I had complained that after the spate of Ultrabooks flooding the PC market, a bulky machine just didn't seem to have the same appeal. Well, it looks like Dell has addressed most of the issues I had with the 14z in its new entrant Ultrabook: the 13z. A relatively late comer in the genre, I wondered how Dell's first effort would fare up to the competition.

The fair maiden

In impeccable packaging, the XPS 13 exudes class and style all the way. From the outside it looks like any other Ultrabook, but when I opened it up I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure, Dell's opted for the same aluminium casing we've seen on every Ultrabook since the Macbook Air, but this ‘machined aluminium' as the company calls it only applies to the lid. Open the lid and you'll find the carbon-fibre base, which is coated with soft-touch paint for a smooth, almost rubberised effect. The rounded edges of the screen and base shine with subtle chrome detailing.

The island-style, chiclet keyboard is well spaced out and is backlit – something the Lenovo U300s and Acer Aspire S3 lacked. The keys are responsive and had good tactile feedback, unlike the ASUS Zenbook and Acer Aspire S3, but I still feel the Lenovo U300s has the best Ultrabook keyboard on offer. The trackpad is roomy but not always accurate and in some cases a bit oversensitive, especially when it comes to vertical scrolling.

But the real beauty is strangely on the bottom panel. Dell's attention to detail is obvious here. The carbon fibre weave that's been all the rage on electronics extends all the way up to the sides. And unlike the XPS 14z's garish accents, this transforms the laptop into a truly classy machine. Dell has even covered up the ugly logos and stickers that embellish laptops with a thin, aluminium flap that fits smoothly into the base.

Weighing just 1.36 kg (a tad heavier than the Lenovo U300s at 1.32kg), the XPS 13 measures 6mm at its thinnest end and 18mm at its thickest. All in all, it's a pretty light laptop and won't cause the shoulder cramps that the 14z would have. My only gripe with the XPS 13 is the unsightly power adapter which comes with an even more bulky 3-pin plug. Given the thin profile of the laptop, I wouldn't want to have to lug around a power brick as heavy as this one. I guess Apple still scores hands down when it comes to miniaturising.

There's not much by way of ports: you get two USB ports (including a USB 3.0), a mini Display port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The battery indicator (a row of five LED lights which tell you how much battery you have) that was included on the XPS 14z remains a feature here. However, it is missing an HDMI port and SD card slot, something the other Ultrabooks featured.

Media and software

The XPS 13's 13.3-inch display incorporates a similar frameless design we saw on the XPS 14z. It's slightly narrower than the Lenovo U300s or Macbook Air, with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Sitting on top is a 1.3-meg webcam which comes with its own software for special effects and making videos. The HD screen has a resolution of 1,366x768 which is still not as high-res as the Macbook Air's 1,440x900 display. I played back a few high-definition episodes of ‘How I Met your Mother' and while colour reproduction was good, images weren't as sharp as I would have liked and there was noticeable pixelation.

What really impressed me though were the speakers. The volume is loud enough to fill a room and the speakers don't get muffled either. It's definitely good enough if you're watching videos on your own or with a small bunch and you won't feel the need to pull out external speakers as is the case with some of the competition.

The XPS 13 comes with a few pre-installed programs but they're not enough to clog the system, thankfully. Apart from McAfee Virus Protection, FastAccess Facial Recognition and Skype, there are a bunch of Dell programs too. These include Dell's Web Cam software and Dell DataSafe.

Performance

The XPS 13 is available in a couple of configuration options. The review unit I used had a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 -2467M processor, 4GB RAM and a 128GB SSD. Other options include the same chipset-memory combination with a 256GB SSD and a more high-end 1.7GHz Intel Core i7-2637M option with a 256GB SSD. I ran the NovaBench PC benchmarking test and got an average score of 490, which beats the Lenovo U300s' 473 and Acer Aspire S3's 476.

As far as Ultrabooks go, the XPS 13 was pretty standard on performance and I didn't notice any significant lags when multitasking or opening programs. Although Dell claims that the XPS 13 offers boot-up times of 8 seconds, on my timer it took the laptop 15 seconds to boot which is still pretty impressive and beats Lenovo U300s by 3 seconds. Waking up the laptop from sleep mode was almost instantaneous. Heat dissipation is quite effective and even though the laptop did warm up after an hour of usage, it was nowhere close to the lap-burning abilities of the Macbook Pro.

Our battery test on the XPS 13 gave us about 4 hours 47 minutes of usage on a full charge, which is just about average. The Macbook Air is slightly better at about 5 hours 30 minutes.

Our verdict

There are a lot of Ultrabooks in the market and picking the best from the lot is no easy task. Personally, I think the XPS 13 beats the competition in terms of design, outdoing even the ASUS Zenbook with its carbon fibre finish and weave-patterned panels. A good, springy keyboard, decent battery life and generally zippy performance are other factors adding to its appeal. The only areas where it is disappointing are in the average screen and trackpad, and lack of essential ports like HDMI and a card reader. Given its limitations, the premium price tag which exceeds the Lenovo U300s and Acer Aspire S3, but is cheaper than the ASUS Zenbook and Macbook Air could be a deciding factor for many.

Love: Professional and stylish looks, fast boot up time, good keyboard

Hate: Average screen, jerky trackpad, fewer ports

Rs 79,900 onwards

ketaki@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on April 4, 2012)
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