Dell XPS 13 wows, but it could hurt your pocket

Dell’s XPS 13 laptop elicited a “wow” the first time I saw it. The jubilation was similar to seeing the first MacBook Air pulled out of a manila envelope in 2008.

Dell’s reputation isn’t based on building sleek laptops, but the XPS 13 is the company’s thinnest, lightest and coolest laptop ever. Dell has incorporated clever features to reduce its overall size, but the price tag isn’t quite so small: A fully loaded system could set you back more than US$1,000.

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Without a doubt, the laptop’s highlight is a surprisingly large screen in a thin frame. The 13.3-inch display has a very slim border, and that has helped fit the laptop into the same size frame as an 11.6-inch MacBook Air. Gone are the huge borders around screens—expect other PC makers to start doing the same to make laptops thinner and lighter.

During a short hands-on at CES, the XPS 13 felt very light to carry, not a burden in a backpack. When I replaced my Lenovo ThinkPad X230—which weighs about 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds)—with the XPS 13 for a few seconds, it felt like a giant weight was off my back. The XPS 13 weighs a tad more than 1 kilogram, which is light for a 13.3-inch laptop.

The laptop measures 15mm thick in the rear and tapers down to 9mm in front. The left side of the laptop has one USB 3.0 port, a mini-DisplayPort interface, a headphone jack and AC power. The right side has one USB 3.0 and an SD card slot. With the screen borders now minimized, Dell has put the standard high-definition webcam at the bottom of the screen. The lack of an HDMI port was a disappointment.

The unit I tested had a touchscreen with a resolution of 2,560 by 1,440 pixels. Images looked sharp and vivid, though light bouncing off the glossy screen affected visibility. I’m a fan of matte screens, but that option won’t be available with this laptop.

The Windows 8.1 OS ran swiftly, and applications like Microsoft Office loaded in a matter of seconds. The laptop was equipped with a fifth-generation Core i5 chip based on the new Broadwell microarchitecture. Dell has designed an all-new motherboard to fit into the small frame of the XPS 13, and Broadwell has helped reduce the size of the laptop.

Dell’s claiming 15 hours of battery life, which seems surreal for a laptop this thin. Laptop battery life barely extends beyond 10 or 11 hours, and Lenovo’s new ThinkPad X250 offers 20 hours on two batteries. Moreover, in a slide presented as part of a briefing on Broadwell, Intel gave 11 hours as a rough estimate for the battery life of the XPS 13. So only a full 15-hour test will prove Dell’s claims, but until then, count me a skeptic. Dell’s also offering an accessory that could extend overall battery life by seven to eight hours on top of the 15 hours it claims.

The starting price of $799 is attractive, even lacking a touchscreen, but the 128GB of storage at that price is not. It’s possible to tack on external storage through a USB 3.0 port, but I like data inside my laptop. SSDs can be expensive, and the laptop’s price shoots up along with storage capacity. The XPS 13 won’t have a hard-drive storage option, which could have bought prices down.

In all, a fully loaded laptop with the most storage and biggest touchscreen could cost more than $1,000. The XPS 13 has 802.11ac Wi-Fi and can have as much as 8GB of RAM.

Dell has said the XPS line is the testing ground for many of its new technologies, which then trickle into other laptops, like the Inspiron family. The XPS 13 points to a brighter future for Dell laptops.

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