Review: Dell's XPS 13 Ultrabook with Haswell

In the first major refresh of its XPS 13 models since the release of Windows 8, Dell equips its ultra-lights with Intel's fourth-gen Haswell processors, 1,920-x-1,080 full HD displays, a bigger battery, Intel high-speed wireless and a 10-point multitouch option. In an earlier review of the Dell XPS13 Ultrabook back in early 2012, the CRN Test Center reported that it was among the best Ultrabook-style laptops we had ever seen, and bore resemblance to Apple's MacBook Air. We still feel that way, but now that we've had our hands on the quad-code Haswell version, we're ready to let go of the prior model.

The XPS13 starts at $1,049 with an Intel Core i3, 128-GB SSD, 4 GB RAM and Windows 7 Home Premium. That's just 50 bucks more than a similarly equipped unit from the prior generation. Pricing tops out at $1,649 for a quad-core Intel Core i7-4500U 1.8GHz processor, 256-GB SSD and Windows 8.1 Pro running on 8 GB RAM, the unit we tested.

As one might expect, the Haswell-based Dell Ultrabook in benchmark tests moderately outperformed its 3rd-gen counterpart. This year's 1.8GHz Core i7 turned in a top score in Geekbench 2.3 of 8,765, placing it in fifth place in CRN's all-time list for laptops. The prior model's 1.7GHz Core i7 scored 7,457. That's an improvement of nearly 18 percent. In both cases, Windows was configured for maximum performance and any installed nagware was either disabled or removed before testing. The system cold-boots in about 10 seconds and returns from sleep in around two.

Where Haswell really shines, though, is in power efficiency. In our media playback test, Dell's current XPS 13 ran a continuously looping video from its SSD for a total of 6 hours and 45 minutes, compared with 3 hours and 12 minutes for the Intel Core i7- 2637M-based unit.

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The XPS 13 still measures 12.4 inches long by 8.1 inches wide, and is just 0.2 to 0.7 inches thick at the widest side of its taper. With touch, it weighs a feather more than 3 pounds -- and without a feather less. Chalk that up to its grippy carbon-fiber base, machined aluminum case and magnesium palm rest with a warm, comfortable texture. Its beautiful 350-nit LED-lit HD panel is protected by Gorilla Glass edge to edge.

Its 45-watt power supply includes an AC cable that's somewhat short at 32 inches, but more than makes up for it on the DC side with a thin cable that's more than 8 feet long and has a lighted power tip. There's also a cordless AC connector with a two-way swivel that allows the small power brick to stand upright in an outlet strip or sit flush against a wall outlet. Dell's TouchPad is a super-large 4 inches across by 2.5 inches up and down.

This year's XPS 13 is no longer challenged by viewing-angle issues thanks to an IPS panel with its near-180 degree range. The older XPS13 employed a less expensive TN panel. The XPS 13 still offers precious few ports. Along the left edge is a headset jack, USB 3.0 (up from last year's 2.0) and the power input. On the right edge is another USB 3.0 port, a mini DisplayPort port and a battery status button. We still don't like the power connector, which protrudes straight out of the left side and might as well have a "kick me" sign on it.

This year's Dell XPS 13 is available with Intel Core 13, i5 and i7 processors, Intel HD 4400 or HD 5000 graphics (Core i7 4650U only). All models also deliver a backlit keyboard, HD webcam with dual mics, and dual-band Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.0 through Intel's AC 7240 network adapter. A one-year warranty is standard. Dell's Haswell-based XPS 13 Ultrabook is a product recommended by the CRN Test Center.