Dell XPS 13: Gray with MacBook Air envy

Using Dell's flagship Ultrabook isn't quite like driving a MacBook Air, but it's still a sweet ride

Lately I've been changing things up a bit. For several months I used a little Lenovo ThinkPad X220 running Windows 7 and had a great experience -- it felt rock solid and responsive, with fantastic battery life. Then I switched to a MacBook Pro, and now that I've gotten used to it, I actually find it more or less a wash between the two (sorry, Apple fanboys).

So it was with considerable excitement that I decided to take my first Ultrabook, the Dell XPS 13, for a spin. As you know, Ultrabooks are the Wintel world's answer to the MacBook Air. But there are no hard-and-fast specs for what an Ultrabook should be other than thin and light and cool-looking, so each manufacturer has its own interpretation.

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The Dell XPS 13 came in a classy black box, the kind in which you'd expect to find an expensive modern board game. Not just the Ultrabook, but the whole box containing the power supply and old-fashioned paper manual slipped neatly into my backpack -- nice packaging.

The inevitable Air-versus-Ultrabook comparison
Opening the box I was greeted by a striking laptop shell -- aluminum on top and carbon fiber on the bottom -- sufficiently thin and pretty to elicit an "ooh" from several people I showed it to. Inside the XPS 13 clamshell, rather than continuing the aluminum theme, Dell surrounds the keys with a black surface coated with what it aptly terms "soft touch paint."

Predictably, the XPS 13 is not quite as thin as the 13-inch MacBook Air, sloping from 0.71 to 0.24 inch as opposed to the Air's winsome 0.68 to 0.11 inch. But the Dell shares the Air's minimalism, omitting DVD and memory card slots and providing just two USB ports. The XPS 13 also has a noticeably smaller footprint: 12.4 by 8.1 inches as opposed to 12.8 by 8.94 inches. Both laptops weigh just under 3 pounds.

As for the aesthetics -- well, in a beauty contest between Round Rock, Texas, and Cupertino, Calif., I think you know the outcome. But arguably, the coolness delta between the two laptops is small. You also pay for the Apple ego boost -- or the privilege of using OS X, if you prefer: In their default configurations, the XPS 13 costs $999, while the 13-inch Air costs $1,299.

Both come with 128GB solid-state drives, 4GB of dual-channel DDR3 1,333MHz main memory, and Intel Core i5 processors with 3MB of level 3 cache. If you're picking nits, the XPS 13's i5 runs at 1.6GHz, while the 13-inch Air's i5 runs at 1.7GHz. Again, these are default configurations, so you have other options at higher price points.

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Test Center Scorecard
 
 20%20%20%15%15%10% 
Dell XPS 138810888

8.4

Very Good

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