Small Business Notebook Review: Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

by Paul Ferrill

Even without a CD/DVD drive, Ultrabooks are gaining acceptance in the business world. Does the Dell XPS 13 meet the on-the-go computing needs of today's mobile workforce?

With its compact size, light weight and effective battery-saving features, Dell's XPS 13 epitomizes the lean efficiency of the Ultrabook category. The XPS 13 provides the processing power and memory to take on pretty much any task a road warrior might throw at it. This combination of size and power makes it a great choice for any small business owner or workforce looking to lighten the travel load without compromising on capabilities.

The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook's Standard Equipment

A real lightweight, the Dell XPS 13 tips the scales at less than 3 pounds and measures a svelte .71 inches at its thickest point (at the hinge), making it the perfect size to slip into a small briefcase or bag. As with every Ultrabook, the trade-off for this lightweight and size is the absence of a built-in CD/DVD ROM drive.

Processor options come down to either an Intel Core i5-2467M or Core i7-2637M with 4 GB of memory standard. Which one should you choose? Go with the Core i7 if you need to run applications like video editing or heavy-duty number crunching. You'll also want the beefier processor if you plan on encrypting your hard drive, as that process is computing-intensive.

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Figure 1: The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook.

The operating system, Windows 7 64-bit Home Premium Edition, is standard fare on many Ultrabooks today. You'll want to upgrade the OS if you need things like the Windows XP mode (virtual PC), the ability to join the system to a Windows domain, or to encrypt your disk using Bitlocker. The first two require Windows 7 Professional, and you'll have to get the Ultimate edition for the disk encryption.

Speaking of disks, you have two basic options including either a 128 GB or 256 GB solid state disk. The smaller drive is probably fine for most people, and you can always connect an external USB disk if necessary.

Retail prices start at $999.99 for a Core i5 (1.60 GHz) processor and go up to $1399.99 for the high-end Core-i7 (1.70 GHz).

Minimal External Port Options

The XPS 13 falls a bit short when it comes to ports, with only one USB 2.0 port on the left-hand side and one USB 3.0 port on the right-hand side. A headphone jack plus the power port also reside on the left-hand side. The right-hand side includes a DisplayPort jack (to attach an external monitor) and a push-button power indicator that lights up a row of five tiny white LEDs to let you know how much battery you have left. 

Dell has included this feature with other laptops, and it lets you quickly see the condition of your battery without turning the system on. That could save you a few minutes when you're trying to decide whether to drag out the power supply for one more charge.

One extra note about the USB 2.0 port: it includes a Dell feature called Powershare that lets you charge USB devices – such as a phone – while the laptop is turned off. That should come in handy on an extended flight when you need to charge your phone and can't do it any other way. It's basically a trade between draining some of the battery in return for having a usable phone.

Roomy, Multi-Gesture Touchpad

The XPS 13 provides a good-sized touch pad that's roughly 3.9 inches wide and 2.2 inches deep. Fingers easily slide across the flat black surface, which is clickable everywhere except near the innermost edge. There's a faint hint of a short line in the middle near the outside edge to indicate distinct areas for right- and left-mouse click actions. Palm rejection works well when typing documents, as does multi-finger mouse control for things like click-and-drag.

Multi-finger gestures, such as two-finger drag, let you scroll up and down long pages in a document or Web browser. In Windows Explorer, three-finger swipes to either the left or the right go forward and backward to previous Web pages.

Four fingers take the place of Alt-Tab on a keyboard – swiping down toward the outside of the case switches to the next task in the list. Swiping up with four fingers brings up a dialog showing all currently running applications. Swiping left or right brings up the 3-D viewer.

Gestures bring a new set of things to remember, but they also potentially change the way you accomplish familiar tasks in a positive fashion. Once you get the hang of using a gesture, it becomes more a part of your normal activity in much the same way as a keyboard shortcut.

The larger touchpad area makes it easier to accomplish gestures – such as the one with four fingers. The bottom line is the XPS 13 touch pad lets your fingers handle tasks that previously required you to move your hand to the keyboard.

Keyboard and Screen

The Dell XPS 13's keyboard contains all the standard keys arranged in a typical fashion with dual-purpose arrow keys on the bottom right edge. If you plan on using this keyboard for reading navigation, you'll need to use two hands to accomplish page-up or page-down. The same goes for the Home and End keys when you're editing text.

Maybe that's not a big deal for everyone, but if you do a lot of reading or text editing it might be a pain to get used to. One nice touch: the backlit keys come in handy in low-light situations like when they dim the lights on an airplane.

Function keys have dual uses with the first priority set by default. The specialty functions, including keys to increase/decrease the screen brightness and sound, come behind them. You can configure the function key behavior using Windows Mobility Center.

Launch Windows Mobility Center by right-clicking on the battery icon and selecting that option.  You can also adjust the keyboard backlight brightness using the Windows Mobility Center app. You have to use the Fn key (lower left corner) to access the alternate usage. The Pg up, Pg Dn, Home and End keys are under the directional arrow keys and require the same Fn key for them to work.

Managing Battery Life

The XPS 13 sports a six-cell, 47 watt-hour battery with a suggested max usage of up to eight hours. As with any other Ultrabook, the battery life numbers vary widely with use. The default power profile is set to "Balanced," which will not give you the power savings of automatic screen brightness and dimming control.

 Expect to get more like five hours of normal use, which is an improvement over most laptops. For watching movies with brightness all the way up, you'll get a little more than three hours –not quite enough to watch two full-length movies on that cross country flight.

The Dell-customized default Power Plan sets the times for dimming the display, turning the display completely off and putting the system to sleep to 2, 5 and 15 minute increments. The Microsoft default power saver plan is 2, 2 and 10 minutes. If you right-click on the battery icon, you’ll see a number of choices including Dell Extended Life Battery options, Power Energy Smart savings and Desktop Mode Battery charge mode.

The Desktop Battery Charge mode will attempt to intelligently charge the battery when the power level is above 50 percent in an effort to extend the life of the battery. That feature is not enabled by default, so you’ll need to change the setting if you plan to use the extra feature.

Bottom Line

The Dell XPS 13 is a comfortable Ultrabook to use in all types of situations. It's light and small, so it won't take up much room in your briefcase or backpack. The keyboard is usable with the exception of a few keys, and the palm rejection on the touchpad is excellent. It is missing some features like a wired Ethernet port and HDMI that could make it a non-starter for some folks.

Paul Ferrill has a BS and MS in electrical engineering and has been writing about computers for more than 25 years. Publications he's written for include PC Magazine, PC Computing, InfoWorld, Computer World, Network World, Network Computing and Information Week.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Oct 9th 2012
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