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Macbook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Clash of the tiny titans

The Dell XPS 13 remains the darling of the ultrabook world, retaining its gold standard status after a December update that added Intel Skylake processor choices and USB Type-C ports. How does it stack up to Apple’s signature ultraportable, the Macbook Air? Let’s take a look.

While the XPS 13 is Dell’s flagship ultrabook, the Macbook Air is now taking a backseat to the mononymic Macbook, despite the latter’s less powerful processor. A revised model may be around the corner, or Apple may consolidate its laptop lines into two models again and to away with the Air entirely. But for the moment, it’s long battery life and more powerful 5th-generation Core processors make it a compelling choice against the sleek Macbook. For the purposes of this comparison, we’ll be looking at the 13-inch model.

Related: Dell XPS 13 (Skylake) review

Macbook Air 13-inch (2015)

air transparent

Dell XPS 13 (Late 2015)

Dell XPS 15 Image

Dimensions 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.11-0.68 (in) 11.98 x 7.88 x 0.33-0.60 (in)
Weight 2.96 pounds 2.70 pounds
Keyboard Full size, backlit keyboard Full size, backlit keyboard
Processor Intel Core i5-5250U  (3M Cache, up to 2.70 GHz) Intel Core i3-6100U Processor (3M Cache, up to 2.30 GHz)
RAM 4GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 4GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 6000 Intel HD Graphics 520
Display 13.3-inch LED-backlit display with IPS technology 13.3-inch LED-backlit IPS screen
Resolution 1,440 x 900 1,920 x 1,080
Storage 128GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage 128GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1
Ports USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2, SDXC card reader, headset jack USB 3.0, USB Type-C/Thunderbolt, SDXC card reader, headset jack
Webcam 720p FaceTime camera 720p widescreen HD webcam
Operating System Mac OS X El Capitan Windows 10
Battery 54-watt-hour 56-watt-hour
Price $999+ $799+
Availability Now Now
Review Coming soon 4.5 out of 5

Specifications

The XPS 13 enjoys the latest tech that Dell can shove into its tiny frame, even at the cheapest levels. The $800 base model uses a quad-core Core i3-6100U processor with a top speed of 2.3 GHz, which is actually slower on paper than the base model i5-5250, though benchmarks place them as roughly equal. Dell offers a $200 upgrade to the i5-6200U (at the same $1000 entry level as the Air) and a much pricier i7-6500U at the higher tiers. The only other option for the Air is the 5th-generation i7-5650U, and is pretty cheap at just $150 for the upgrade.

Both base models start at 4GB of RAM, though the XPS uses faster 1866MHz memory. Dell offers 8GB or 16GB of RAM at various stages, but the $999 8GB model is the sweet spot, since it’s paired to the i5 processor. The Air’s memory options top out at 8GB, a $100 upgrade. While both laptops start with a 128GB SSD, the Macbook Air offers a 256GB option in its pre-packaged $1200 model, with a 512GB drive being a pricey $300 upgrade. Dell will let you have the 256GB drive as a $150 upgrade, with 512GB offered only on the top-of-the-line i7 touch machine, which costs over $2000, and an even bigger 1TB SSD is available for an extra $400. Both laptops have completely sealed designs, so there’s no option for easy memory or storage upgrades later.

If the Macbook Air has a fatal flaw, it’s the screen. Though the IPS panel is serviceable, it uses the same dated 1440 x 900 resolution that the original Air launched with eight years ago. In contrast, even the base model XPS 13 offers a 1920×1080 panel, with an upgrade to an incredible 3200 x 1800 touchscreen available for $300.

Both machines use similar batteries at 54 watt hours for the Air and 56 watt hours for the XPS 13, though Macbooks tend to last longer on a charge, at least while running OS X. Apple hasn’t yet upgraded the Air with the same USB Type-C/Thunderbolt port from the newer Macbook, but since that means users don’t need adapters for standard USB 3.0 cables and Thunderbolt displays, that may be a plus. Dell gives you the best of both worlds with a USB Type-C/Thunderbolt 3 port and two USB 3.0 ports.

Winner: Dell XPS 13

Design

The Macbook Air hasn’t received a significant physical redesign since 2010, and it shows. Though it’s as thin and light as ever, it looks positively dated next to both the new Macbook and latter models of the Macbook Pro. It doesn’t help that the large bezels make it considerably wider and longer than the XPS 13, with its trademark “Infinity” display placing the latter into a truly tiny footprint. That being said, the Air is still very small for a laptop, and its extra weight (a mere quarter-pound) won’t make a huge difference in a backpack or purse.

Apple’s minimalist design sense remains timeless, but the lack of updates hurts the Air again in comparison with the XPS 13. The latter is a sandwich of carbon fiber surrounded by aluminum, and the screen’s Gorilla Glass covering is less susceptible to damage than the exposed matte panel on the Air. Both models use backlit chicklet keyboards and multi-touch touchpads, and Apple’s touchpads are generally held in higher regard than Dell’s. The extra space on the Air also allows the touchpad more room.

Though the Air is still thinner across most of the tapered body than the XPS 13, it’s slightly thicker at its thickest point. This, combined with the XPS 13’s dramatically smaller footprint overall, gives Dell the edge when it comes to extreme portability without sacrificing computing power.

Winner: Dell XPS 13

Availability

Dell scores the cheapest laptop in this comparison with its $799 Core i3 entry model – to get that price on a Macbook Air, you’ll have to go with a smaller 11-inch screen and weaker hardware. Upgrading both to 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and a Core i5 processor makes the XPS 13 cost $1150, versus $1300 for the Macbook Air, though the Dell’s default 1080p screen hurts it here. If a touchscreen is what you want, you can get the Core i5/8GB/128GB model of the XPS 13 with a 3200 x 1800 panel for $1300 – Apple currently offers only the default 1440 x 900 non-touch screen on all models.

The top-of-the-line XPS 13 is a whopping $2500, with the QHD+ touchscreen, 6th-gen Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a massive 1TB SSD. The most expensive model of the Macbook Air is only $1750, but it has to make do with the default screen, a 5th-gen Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage. A comparable XPS 13 costs only $1650, and still wins out with the sharper touchscreen and newer processor.

Winner: Dell XPS 13

Conclusion

The XPS wins out against the Air in every single technical category, including the Air’s lauded portable design. While it obviously can’t run the same OS X software that the Macbook Air can (and Apple’s software allows for dual-booting with an extra Windows purchase), it’s the clear winner if you want power. The fact that every configuration of the XPS 13 is notably cheaper, and that it offers a USB Type-C port, newer processors, and a massively improved screen, is technical overkill.

The Air is still the Apple laptop to get if you want longevity, as it lasts longer than the newer and smaller Macbook, and should be comparable (if not better) than the XPS 13 when running OS X. But it’s clear that in a fair fight, the XPS 13 wins this contest by a knockout.