Dell has been busy showing off a whole fleet of new computers recently, from the enormous XPS One 27 to the bright pink, family-friendly Inspiron 17R. This time it's the turn of the XPS 14 -- a new 14-inch addition to the ultrabook category that aims to provide serious power from a slim and portable body.
Inside my review model is the latest Intel Core i5 processor, a healthy 8GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. That base configuration will set you back £1,029 from the Dell store, but like most of Dell's products, you can configure it to be more powerful. The top model packs an Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB solid state drive for £1,529.
Design and build
Dell might not be the first tech company that springs to mind when you think of stylish products, but it's clearly hoping to change your mind with some of the tweaks in its latest line-up. Outwardly, the XPS 14 is a thin and sleek slab of aluminium with square edges and minimal styling.
It might look very sleek but it's far from original. The simplistic all-metal chassis is extremely reminiscent of Apple's MacBook Pro, which has clearly been referenced at the design stage. Dell's XPS One 27 took a similarly large handful of design cues from Apple's iMac, so if mimicry is the most sincere form of flattery, then Apple must be blushing a deep shade of scarlet right now.
Whether you like the aesthetics of the XPS 14 depends on whether the stark designs of Apple's kit appeals to you. Judging by the huge popularity of the MacBooks though, it's safe to say there's a few fans out there. I found it to be very attractive and it manages to look both stylish and professional, making it well suited to one of those fashionable East London offices where everyone has ironic hair.
At 20.7mm thin, it's ever so slightly thicker than Apple's new 15-inch MacBook Pro, which comes in at a super-slender 18mm. It might be chubbier than Apple's offering but it's still very slim and will be considerably easier to slide into a bag than beefier machines like Dell's own Inspiron 15R. The metal casing feels extremely well built, with no flex found anywhere in the chassis.
The base of the XPS is made from black, rubberised plastic, which isn't quite as nice as the metal on top but it's very sturdy. It really seems like a laptop that's built for a tough life on the road, being shoved into bags and plonked carelessly down on train tables.
Around the edges you'll find two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, a DisplayPort, an Ethernet port, HDMI-out and a headphone and microphone jack.
Keyboard and trackpad
Under the lid, things become rather less MacBook-ish. The keyboard tray and wrist rest dispense with the metal, replacing it with a black, rubberised material. It's quite pleasant to stroke although it's likely to show up scuffs, fingerprints and grime easier than the metal portions.
It's the same keyboard found on the XPS 14Z, meaning you get a large helping of rounded, isolated keys with a rather odd font. That might not be a massive issue, but I can't help but feel the XPS would look a little more suave with a classic typeface.
It's reasonably comfortable to type on, although the glossy coating means your fingers can slide over them a little too easily, which I found resulted in a few more mistakes than normal. It's a small issue though, and I have no doubt you'd get used to it after an hour or two of typing. The keyboard is backlit too, so you can keep on typing way into the night, or in an aeroplane when the cabin lights have been dimmed.
The trackpad is particularly big and has been given a rubberised feel, rather than offering an all-glass pad, as seen on ultrabooks like the Asus Zenbook or Apple's MacBook Air. It's clickable though so there's no space taken up by separate buttons. I found it to be very responsive and comfortable to click, which helps make fast web browsing that bit more enjoyable.
As the numbers in the title hint at, the XPS 14 offers a 14-inch screen. If you want more space to play with, opt for the 15-inch XPS 15 instead -- although you will find it slightly less portable.
The glass stretches from edge to edge so there are no unsightly plastic bezels cheapening up the place. It's Gorilla Glass by Corning, which is the same toughened material used on the front and back of the iPhone 4S, so expect it to be particularly resistant to accidental knocks.
The display itself offers a resolution of 1,600x900 pixels, which is above average for a 14-inch model. For a top-priced machine like this, I'd accept nothing less. You won't be able to enjoy full 1080p resolution video at its best, but it will cope with 720p footage, no problem.
The screen is very bright and extremely bold, which makes watching TV shows and YouTube videos particularly delicious. I found it to be tastily sharp, making my favourite YouTube clip of all time sparkle. The only downside is the glossy coating is quite reflective, which could prove awkward under harsh office lighting or in direct sunlight.
My review model came packing an Intel Core i5-3317U processor clocked at 1.7GHz, along with 8GB of RAM. The chip is from Intel's latest series, known as Ivy Bridge, which promises considerably improved graphics over its Sandy Bridge predecessors.
I booted up the PCMark05 and Geekbench benchmark tests to see how it compares to other ultrabooks and was given scores of 8,536 and 6,749 respectively. Those are very satisfying totals and put it easily up with the top-performing ultrabooks. By comparison, it beat the Lenovo IdeaPad U410's healthy 6,774 score on the PCMark05 test.
I found the XPS 14 to be a very capable machine, with heavy multi-tasking and demanding tasks like photo editing handled well. I fired up Adobe Lightroom 4 and the XPS 14 was able to edit even high-resolution photos without much delay.
I kindly asked it to encode my 1080p video into 24 frames per second H.264 video, which it managed in a very healthy time of 9 minutes 20 seconds. If you need your laptop to tackle media applications on the go, this machine is certainly worth a look.
There's also an Nvidia GeForce GT630M graphics card with 1GB of VRAM on board, which will help out with the gaming side of things when you just can't stand looking at another spreadsheet. On the 3DMark06 test, which looks at a GPU's performance, the XPS 14 racked up a very impressive 7,639.
I loaded up Dirt 3 and sent my car hurtling through the sumptuous-looking Finnish countryside. When played at full resolution and with the graphics settings on high, the XPS 14 maintained a frame rate of around 20fps, which is just below what would normally be considered playable. It's a good effort though, and most ultrabooks won't achieve that level of graphics grunt.
When I dialled the settings back and knocked the resolution down a little, it kept an average frame rate of around 30fps. This jumped to 36fps in the less intense areas, which made the game very playable. It won't handle the latest shooters like Crysis 2 on full resolution but it will comfortably tackle less demanding titles, so long as you knock the settings down.
In general, I found my XPS 14's power to be excellent -- easily capable of tackling office tasks without breaking a sweat. If you need more grunt from your laptop, opt for the Core i7 model -- it'll cost you an extra £100 but it could be worth it. The top model packs a Core i7 processor and uses solid state storage, which is much faster than the hard disks found in the other models. So any tasks that involve a lot of reading and writing of individual files -- such as video editing -- will be handled better. Although it will cost you an extra 500 quid.
The Dell XPS 14 Ultrabook brings a simplistic metal style that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's spent much time with an Apple MacBook. It's packing the latest Intel processors and a healthy helping of RAM, which makes even the base model a powerful machine.
It doesn't come cheap, but if you're looking for performance on the move and don't want a chomped apple shape on the front of your laptop, the new XPS 14 is definitely worth checking out. Also weigh up the excellent Samsung Series 9 for around the same price.