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Hands On: Dell XPS 13 and 15 review

Dell's souped up Windows 8.1 laptops have big ideas

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Our Early Verdict

For

  • Haswell
  • Classy design
  • Light
  • Decent keyboard
  • 1080p screen
  • Swappable battery

Against

  • Few ports

Let's face it - if Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air was human, few would blame it for having an ego of Kanye West-sized proportions after being copied for years by sub-par imitations.

Recent efforts to emerge from the Windows camp, however, indicate that rival manufacturers are edging ever closer to making desirable alternatives with their own distinct personality and style.

Dell's updated XPS 13, which improves upon last year's model in almost every way, is one of those, and could be one of the most enticing Windows 8 Ultrabooks yet.

It looks good, feels light yet sturdy and provides tons of battery life, so what's not to like? Not much, as it turns out - a feat replicated by its larger 15-inch sibling - Dell's revamped XPS 15.

Design and display

Portability is the name of the game with the XPS 13, which packs the goods into a carbon-fiber body that's roughly the same weight as Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air (2.99 pounds, versus the Air's 2.97 pounds).

The display is a full-HD panel (1920 x 1080) that features a 800:1 contrast ratio with an optional touch screen for navigating Windows 8.1's UI and apps.

We were surprised at just how compact the XPS 13 feels. It's snug without feeling compromised, with a full-size chiclet-style keyboard providing satisfying travel and comfort thanks to slight curvature on the keys.

Dell XPS 13

You could sling it into a bag and take it on the road to whip out for tackling serious documents, though we would almost certainly opt for a protective case to safeguard the magpie-attracting metallic trim of its outer shell.

It's a small detail, but we also enjoyed the futuristic "font" used on the keyboard numbers and lettering, which doesn't add any practical value but does lend it a sort of "down with the kids" style (yo).

Specs and build quality

Though not entirely unexpected, the XPS 13 benefits from the inclusion of Intel's fourth-generation Haswell processor, which felt nippy as we prodded around its Modern UI and opened any programs we could lay our hands on.

Our XPS 13 was a pre-production machine, which may explain why we could detect slight flex in its carbon-fiber body at the edges. We're not ones for jumping the gun though, and will reserve judgement for when we put the final model through its paces.

Dell says you'll be able to squeeze around 10.5 hours' battery life out of the machine's removable cell, though a spokesperson tells us that will vary slightly depending on whether you opt for the i3, i5 or i7 version.

Connectivity

If there's one thing that rankles us slightly about the Dell XPS 13, it's a lack of ports. Granted, this has always been a caveat of the modern Ultrabook, but we would at least expect a few USB 3.0 ports.

Instead, it provides one USB 3.0 port, one standard USB 2.0 port, a MiniDisplay port and a headset jack - there's no SD card slot to be found here.

Dell XPS 13

Interestingly, Dell is offering to ship a developer version of the XPS 13 in Europe that comes with Ubuntu Linux pre-loaded.

Overall, it's shaping up nicely and could cause Apple a few headaches. We should see what what the Cupertino-based company's response is when it likely refreshes its MacBook Air and Pro lines next month.

Dell XPS 15

Some are saying that 15-inch laptops are going the way of the dodo, but Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina and now Dell's XPS 15 are proving that bigger can mean even more beautiful.

The XPS 15 is stylistically similar to the XPS 13, with a matte casing that's twinned with aluminum trim around the edges. It also features a roomy trackpad and full-sized chiclet-style keyboard.

Dells XPS 15

Ultra, sharp

It's the screen that really stands out though - an UltraSharp 15.6-inch Quad HD (QHD)+ touch 16:9 display that crams in 3200 x 1800 pixels (276 PPI versus the MacBook Pro with Retina's 227 PPI, if you were wondering).

We're well accustomed to Dell's impressive 16:10 UltraSharp desktop PC monitors, so we're not surprised that a laptop to bear the brand would serve up a similarly desirable visual feast.

Dell XPS 15

Inside, Dell is giving you the option of loading the XPS 15 with up to a 1TB SSHD drive with a 32GB SSD cache for ensuring fast boot times. Alternatively, you can opt for a 512GB SSD, though that's likely to ramp up the cost.

Like the XPS 13, it packs Intel's Haswell processor (up to a Core i704602HQ CPU) with an Nvidia GeForce GT750M graphics chip with 2GB RAM.

We found tinkering with the machine to be smooth and lag free, which is exactly what you want whether taking it on the road or using it as a desktop replacement. Obviously, it's not quite as portable as its smaller sibling due to its added weight (total of 4.44 pounds) and larger dimensions.

Dell XPS 15

Dell recently announced that the XPS 15 will be available on Oct. 18 in the U.S. and select countries around the world starting at $1,500 (about £924, AU$1601) from the company's site. The updated XPS 13 will be available in November with a starting price of $1,000 (about £616, AU$1,067).