Apple MacBook Air vs. Dell XPS 13

The MacBook Air has its charms, but is the XPS 13 unbeatable?

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

The Dell XPS 13 and the MacBook Air are some of the most iconic laptops ever designed. Taking them at face value, it might be a hard decision to make between the two. Prefer the ultra-slim bezels of the XPS 13 or the hard-as-a-rock build quality of the MacBook Air?

But there’s more to these two laptops than what can be seen on the surface. Here’s everything you need to know about how these two laptops stack up.

Design

how dell fixed xps 13 biggest flaw ces 2019 display
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Both laptops boast 13.3-inch displays and similarly compact designs this year. Apple continues to use a unibody aluminum construction on the Air this year, while the XPS 13 differentiates with an aluminum lid and carbon fiber palm rest. The Air’s 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.61-inch dimensions is within range of the XPS 13’s 11.98 x 7.88 x 0.6-inch measurements, but at 2.7 pounds, the XPS is slightly lighter than the 2.75-pound Air. The 2019 XPS 13 comes in silver or rose gold and “frost” exterior, while the Air is available in gold, silver, or space gray. It also features an easy to open top lid thanks to a new “variable torque hinge”

Despite sharing the same screen size, there are notable differences between Apple’s and Dell’s edge-to-edge glass displays. The MacBook Air ships with a non-touch Retina display with 2,560 x 1,600 pixels. The XPS 13 starts with a non-touch 1080p display that can be upgraded to a touch screen, though that particular configuration is not currently available. You can, of course, also jump up to the 4K option. Additionally, the XPS 13’s 16:9 aspect ratio makes it more suited for videos. Professionals may prefer the slightly taller 16:10 aspect ratio on the Air.

Compared to the 4K edition of the 2019 XPS 13, we found that XPS has better contrast and brightness than the Air, but they are nearly equal in color gamut and accuracy. The Air’s screen grabs the “Retina display” name, but takes a significant step back from the screen on the MacBook Pro.

If you’re looking at a laptop for productivity, the XPS 13’s keyboard gives it a big benefit. With the 2018 MacBook Air, Apple also redesigned the keyboard with its third-generation design with butterfly key switches. The result is you’ll find more shallow key travel on the Air compared to the XPS 13 and most other keyboards on the market.

To maintain its minimalist silhouette, Apple limited connectivity on the Air to just two Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C ports for power, data transfer, connecting peripherals, and handling display output, along with a single headphone jack. The XPS 13 offers a similar selection, of two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, a standard USB-C port, but throws in an SD card slot for good measure.

Performance

Apple MacBook Air 2018
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Although both laptops ship with Intel’s 8th-gen processors and share the same 1.6GHz base clock speed, the chips are quite different. The 2019 XPS 13 comes with options quad-core eighth generation Intel Whiskey Lake while the Air uses a dual-core Intel processor. Single-core performance is roughly the same between both notebooks. But XPS 13 delivers twice the performance of the Air in our benchmark tests.  The XPS 13 also took half as long to encode a 4K video sample.

Apple’s MacBook Air can be configured with either 8GB or 16GB of memory, and storage ranges from a 128GB solid-state drive up to 1.5TB. Dell offers similar RAM configurations, but SSD can go all the way up to 2TB.  Neither laptop comes with discrete graphics, as both the XPS and MacBook Air relies on Intel’s integrated GPU, but users can add an eGPU if they want more graphics performance. The XPS 13 comes with Intel’s UHD Graphics 620, while the Air comes with Intel’s slightly weaker UHD Graphics 617.

Both laptops can be used for 720p HD video calls, though FaceTime remains an exclusive experience to Apple hardware. To get rid of the awkward video angles which have plagued the XPS 13, Dell moved the webcam back up to its top bezel in the 2019 model of the laptop. It’s the thinnest webcam ever used on a Dell laptop and comes in at 2.5 mm in size.

To handle audio, the XPS 13 and Air both feature stereo speakers. The speakers are located on the sides of the XPS 13, whereas Apple uses an upward-firing design with speakers placed on either side of the keyboard.

Portability

Apple MacBook Air 2018
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Apple’s MacBook Air had long set the standard when it comes to all-day performance. Apple claimed that the Air can last for 12 hours of wireless web browsing or up to 13 hours of iTunes movie playback, but we found that Air only lasted for around eight hours in our web browsing test. With the new XPS 13, we reviewed the model with the battery-hogging 4K display. It only lasted us 6.7 hours when web browsing, and seven hours when looping a video. That said, we recommend the configuration with the standard 1080p panel, where you can expect it top what you get on the MacBook Air.

If you do need to take either laptop on the go, both are fairly mobile. The newest versions of the XPS 13 and the MacBook Air are both exactly 2.7 pounds, making them easy to care around one-handed or throw in a bag. The XPS 13 is slightly thinner at the biggest part of its wedge shape, while the smallest part of the MacBook Air’s wedge is thinner than the XPS 13’s.

To protect your data, both laptops rely on biometric security. Fingerprint-based Touch ID is standard on all MacBook Air configurations, while a Windows Hello fingerprint scanner is an optional feature on select XPS 13 configurations. Both laptops support enhanced workflow when paired with a smartphone. iPhone users will benefit from better hand-off and integration with MacOS on the Air, while the XPS 13’s downloadable Dell Mobile Connect app will give similar benefits to Windows 10 users who also carry an iOS or Android smartphone.

The XPS 13 is the better entry-level option

Dell XPS 13 2019 review (9380)
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Ultimately, the decision to go with an XPS 13 or a MacBook Air boils down to your investment in either the Windows 10 or MacOS ecosystem. If you’re an existing MacOS or iPhone user, upgrading to the MacBook Air may be a natural decision — you won’t need to re-purchase your Mac apps and Apple’s Continuity feature allows a seamless workflow between the Air and your iOS smartphone.

But if you’re looking for value, the XPS 13 delivers more performance for your money. There are no apples-to-apples comparisons in terms of configurations, but the $1,209 XPS 13 quad-core Core i5 model and 8GB of RAM is pretty close. That’s about the same price as the $1,200 entry-level MacBook Air — and considerably more powerful. Overall, it’s the laptop we’d choose every time.

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