The MacBook Pro 13 with Retina and Dell XPS 13 are two laptops that have set the bar that all other competitors leapfrog over to considered to be among the best of the best. Both are 13-inch systems, both sell for around $1,299, and both offer excellent battery life. Now, thanks to Dell’s excellent refresh of the XPS 13, its only natural to pit these top-tier notebooks against one another. While we love both of these systems, a king must be crowned; there can only be one!
Apple’s latest MacBook Pro looks like, well, a MacBook Pro. The chassis is exceptionally sturdy, the aluminum unibody has a premium feel, and the elegant exterior provides plenty of class. However, it’s also another iteration of a concept that we’ve seen from Apple for years, and because of that, it’s a bit dull.
Dell’s XPS 13, which is built from carbon fiber and uses an aluminum frame for reinforcement, looks a bit more unique. Soft-touch materials here provide a luxurious feel, and while the XPS 13 weighs about a half-pound less than the Mac, it’s just as sturdy. The bezel is a bit smaller on the Dell, too, providing the closest we’ve seen to a true edge-to-edge display on a laptop.
Keyboard and touchpad quality favor the Mac, but not by as much as you’d expect. Apple’s superior keyboard backlighting and Mac OS X multi-touch gestures can’t be matched by anything a Windows PC has to offer in these areas.
There is one area where Dell is significantly behind, however; connectivity. The XPS 13 has just two USB 3.0 ports and a mini-DisplayPort is the only video output. Apple’s entry matches the USB ports and has a trump card in hand to boot. That’s Thunderbolt, which can act either as a super-fast data connection or a video output. Both notebooks ditch Ethernet in favor of 802.11ac Wi-Fi, but the XPS 13 also lacks an SD card.
Performance: Mac wins
The Dell XPS 13 is no slouch, but its Intel Core i5-4200U CPU, which is clocked at 1.6 GHz and has a Turbo Boost speed of 2.6 GHz, is no match for the Mac. Apple’s entry packs an Intel Core i5-4258U processor with a base clock of 2.4 GHz and a Turbo Boost maximum of 2.9 GHz. Near-equivalent cores running at a higher clock speed mean better performance, no questions asked.
RAM is the only area where the XPS 13 beats what the Mac has to offer.
RAM is the only area where the XPS 13 beats what the Mac has to offer, as it sports 8GB. Meanwhile, for the same price, the MacBook has half of that. This is a minor victory at best, however, and upgrading the Mac’s RAM is less expensive than upgrading the Dell’s processor.
Display: Mac wins
Surprise! The Mac’s display is better. We almost wish this weren’t the case because we’re tired of heaping praise on the 2560×1600 Retina screen, but what else can we do? Apple has set a new standard of quality and no one has matched it yet.
With that said, the XPS 13 is by no means a bad display. In fact, it posted the best contrast ratio we’ve recorded, and the 1080p touchscreen is plenty sharp. We also enjoyed the Dell’s superb black level performance and absurdly high maximum brightness, traits that make it usable in almost any situation.
Some applications, icons and fonts look blurry, however, which has a lot to do with Windows’ difficulty when it comes to scaling the desktop and older programs. The high-resolution assets provided by Mac OS X for use with the Retina display result in exceptionally smooth and sharp images that look as if they’re projected onto the display rather than formed by pixels on an LCD panel.
Portability: Dell wins
When we reviewed the latest MacBook Pro 13, we were stunned by its long battery life. Peacekeeper, a demanding web browsing benchmark, required six hours and twenty-three minutes to eat through a full charge, one of the best results we recorded at the time.
Endurance has continued to improve, however, and the new Dell XPS 13 easily trumps the Mac by providing seven hours and forty-eight minutes of battery life in Peacekeeper. That’s nearly a full work day of continuous web browsing. Cracking the 10 hour mark isn’t difficult to pull off in real-world use either.
And don’t forget; the Dell is lighter and a hair smaller, meaning that it’s easier to lug around. The Pro is no slouch when it comes to portability, but it clearly loses out to the slimmer Dell XPS 13.
Price & Conclusion: Mac wins. Barely.
The final tally comes down to two for the Mac, one for the XPS, and a tie. Both systems, as reviewed, were priced at $1,299, so value doesn’t sway our verdict much in one direction or the other. This is the closest any PC notebook we’ve compared to Apple’s champion has come to defeating it, but the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina retains its crown.
Still, while the XPS 13 has lost this battle, we can’t call it a loser. By many measures, including display quality and battery life, it’s among the best Windows laptops we’ve ever tested. Bargain shoppers should take particular note of the $1,049 base model, which drops the touchscreen and has an Intel Core i3 processor, but retains the XPS 13’s excellent endurance and display.
If the XPS 13 were updated to a 2560×1440 display, and found some way to deal with Windows’ interface scaling issues, it just might have bested the MacBook Pro. As it stands, however, Apple’s notebook is still the king of the hill.
For now. (dun dun DUNNNNN!)