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Review: A New Laptop from Dell Makes the MacBook Air Look Huge

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

If a psychologist grabbed you off the street for a word-association test, the results might go something like this.

“I’m going to provide some adjectives, and I want you to respond either ‘Apple’ or ‘Dell’ to each one. Whatever comes to mind. Are you comfortable?”

“Yes, doctor.”

“All right, then, let’s begin: Cheap.”

“Dell.”

“Luxury.”

“Apple.”

“Sleek design.”

“Apple.”

“Plastic.”

“Dell.”

Am I right?

Somebody at Dell must have gotten sick and tired of that rap, because the company’s new 2015 XPS 13 laptop represents the biggest design shift in laptops since the MacBook Air: Dell has crammed a 13-inch screen into the body of an 11-inch laptop.

How? By eliminating the fat border around the screen.

The beauty of small
This is an enormously important step, because this is the age of giant smartphones and tablets. Laptops are infinitely faster to type on, and they run much more capable software — but who’s going to haul around one of those two-inch-thick, sharp-edged black plastic boxes anymore? If laptops are going to compete, they’d better start approaching the sleek, thin, light lines of a tablet.

The Dell does.

The keyboard “deck” is made of carbon fiber, which looks great and, unlike the Space bar and other keys, resists fingerprints and grease. 

It also helps explain how this machine can weigh only 2.6 pounds (or 2.8 pounds if you want a touchscreen). That’s lighter than rivals like the Acer Aspire S7 (2.9 pounds), Toshiba Kirabook (2.9 pounds), Samsung Book 9 Plus (3.1 pounds), and, of course, the king of ultrabooks, the MacBook Air (3 pounds).

(“Ultrabook” is what Windows manufacturers call laptops in the same class as the MacBook Air. It means: Thin, light, attractive. Illuminated keys, but no other moving parts aside from a fan. No physical hard drive, but instead a solid-state drive, like a big flash drive. Minimal connectors — audio, USB, video output only. Battery sealed inside. In other words, a sleek, portable machine for writing, editing, and Internetting. Not so much for gaming.)

The Dell measures 12x7.9x0.6 inches. That’s smaller in every dimension than the Toshiba (12.4x8.2x0.7), the Samsung (12.6x8.8x0.5), and the MacBook Air (12.8x9x0.7). The Acer is a hair thinner, but it’s much wider and deeper (12.8x9x0.5).

Look how much smaller the $1,400 Dell (on the right) is than the MacBook Air ($1,200, no touchscreen but comparable specs):

Here’s the $1,400 Dell (left) next to the Acer Aspire ($1,200, touchscreen and comparable specs):

And the Dell next to the Toshiba Kirabook ($1,900):

Small and light are a big, big deal. The Dell weighs so little, I found myself having to check my bag visually to make sure I had it, since there’s no weight to give it away. 

And on an airplane tray table — dreamy. Go ahead, big fella, recline your seat. My laptop screen is so short, I can keep it fully open anyway. With room for a snack beside it.

On the edges of the XPS, you’ll find two USB 3.0 ports, a mini DisplayPort (for attaching a projector or external monitor), a headphone jack, and a row of battery-life-remaining lights, like MacBooks used to have. The side-mounted speakers sound just fine.

Windows 8.1 comes preinstalled, as do Skype and Dropbox — but no junkware. Well done, Dell!

More cutting edge
What’s even more extraordinary is that this Dell is among the first laptops on the market with Intel’s latest processor family (called Broadwell) inside. These are the fifth-generation i3 and i5 Core chips, which offer a tiny speed boost and improved battery life. All the rivals listed above still use last year’s fourth-generation chips.

What’s more more extraordinary is that, even with this record-breakingly small design, the top XPS 13 model ($1,300) is available with the highest-resolution screen on the market in a 13-inch laptop — an incredible 3,200x1,800 pixels. (The Lenovo Yoga 3 and the Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus offer that resolution, too.)

That resolution means you can edit high-definition video, seeing all the pixels, and still have room for toolbars and palettes. Or you can display gorgeous photos without being able to make out any pixels.

It also means that the text in some older Windows programs will appear the size of subatomic particles. Make sure your eyeglass prescription is up to date. There are also other workarounds, but you’ve been warned. 

As usual with Dell, you can pay for a dizzying array of options and features. Some examples: The base model costs only $800 — but that’s with a non-touch, lower-resolution screen (1,920x1,080 pixels), the slower i3 processor, only 4 gigs of memory, and a very small drive (128 gigabytes). Another $100 upgrades the processor to i5. Another $100 doubles the memory. By the time you get to the $1,400 model, you’ve got twice the storage (256 gigabytes) and a touchscreen with that super-high-res clarity (3,200x1,800 pixels).

Models with the fastest chip, the i7, are on the way, with prices up to $1,900.

The compromises
There are reasons people still buy pickup trucks, SLR cameras, and desktop computers, even though much smaller options are available; sometimes you need more space for important features.

On the Dell, you pay a price for the shrunken size in three ways.

First, with such a tiny screen bezel, there’s no room for a camera above the screen. So Dell has stuck it in the lower-left corner, which is a terrible place. Not only do you look shifty and distracted to your video partners, but they get an unflattering view up your nostrils, with the ceiling as the backdrop.

Second, the keyboard is slightly smaller than standard. It types well and feels good, its layout is excellent, and its function-key logic is reversed from most Windows laptops: You don’t have to hold down the Fn key to adjust volume, brightness, and the keyboard backlight. But those who are large of finger will require an adjustment period.

Third, the battery life is nowhere near the 15 hours that Dell advertises (11 hours on the touchscreen version). The labs at CNET, Laptop Magazine, and Forbes got 7 or 7.5 hours out of a charge. That’s typical of these ultrabooks, but nothing like the 11 or 12 hours you get from a MacBook Air.

(If you’re concerned, you can always spring $120 for the external battery pack, which Dell says gives you another 8 hours of life and also has USB jacks for charging your phone, tablet, or camera. Oh, and $60 will buy you another external box: It plugs into a USB jack and gives you jacks for Ethernet, VGA, and HDMI.)

Finally, longtime Pogue readers know that I consider the Windows 8 design a confusing disaster. It’s two separate environments, each running a different type of app: one designed for touchscreens, one for mouse and keyboard.

Anyway, if you decide to get the touchscreen version of the Dell and you plan to use the TileWorld interface — either in Windows 8.1 or in Windows 10 when it comes out — you’ll discover a downside of a screen with no border:  You’ll have trouble swiping inward with one finger, which is an important Windows TileWorld gesture. It’s possible with practice, and of course there are keyboard equivalents.

The future of thin
The Dell XPS 13 is at the vanguard of stunningly thin, smaller laptops, but more are coming. Lenovo plans to release a 1.7-pound 13-incher in May, so light that it might require a paperweight when working outdoors. And Apple is rumored to have a couple of updates for the MacBook Air — one that will add a Retina screen and the Broadwell processor, and another that will shed even more ports and connectors in exchange for an unbelievably thin, light body. And Dell is working on a 15-inch version of this no-border XPS, too, slated for late this year.

But the Dell XPS 13 is available now, and it’s a stunner. It’s a delight to use, its size and weight are transformative, and its design is sleek and luxurious.

Did I really just type that sentence about something from Dell? Where’s that psychologist?