Apple MacBook Air vs. Dell XPS 13: An in-depth look at two great 13-inch laptops

The two biggest new laptops of 2020 so far are the Dell XPS 13 and Apple’s MacBook Air. Both have been updated with new features and designs, and you may be wondering which is the better option.

I’ve spent weeks with both devices now, trading off the two laptops as my daily driver. Here’s everything you need to know about how these two laptops stack up against each other.

The MacBook Air is more affordable

MacBook Air 2020
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

The XPS 13 and MacBook Air are both premium laptops. Neither represent the best value for the components that come inside. Instead, they package those parts in excellent build quality and world-class design. I prefer the stark white look of the XPS 13 and its ultra-thin bezels, but I won’t say the MacBook Air isn’t a looker. It hasn’t changed in the past couple of years, but the full aluminum unibody is pretty as ever — especially in gold.

But let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat. Price. The MacBook Air is currently more affordable, with a starting price of $999 (or $899 if you’re a student). The XPS 13 also offers a Core i3 $999 model, though it’s not currently available for purchase. Even when available, it’ll come with just 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD too, compared to double that on the comparable MacBook Air.

Not only does the $999 MacBook Air start with more memory and storage, it also has a higher-resolution screen. At 2,560 x 1,600, it has a sharper pixel density than what you get in other 13-inch laptops, including the XPS 13. Though the XPS 13’s 1,920 x 1,200 display is delightful and bright, the Air is noticeably crisper.

Of course, the XPS 13 has much more room to grow in the more expensive configurations. The XPS 13 can be upgraded with 32GB of RAM and the same 2TB of storage, while also featuring a 4K screen.

You can spend even more on the MacBook Air if you want (up to $2,249), but because of the performance limitations, your money won’t go as far.

The Dell XPS 13 is the faster laptop

When you look at the price point where these two laptops intersect, the XPS 13 begins to take a steady lead, as $1,200 gets you a quad-core Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. While it’s true that the screen isn’t as pixel-dense, performance takes a huge leap. The XPS 13 is the most powerful 13-inch laptop I’ve ever tested. It offers raw strength that most laptops of this size don’t. In top-tier configurations like the Core i7, it even outperforms the MacBook Pro.

However, the MacBook Air has a 10th-gen quad-core Core i5 processor as well, right? Yes. Starting at $1,250, this Core i5 model was touted as twice as powerful as previous models. But don’t be fooled — it’s a less powerful processor. With only 9 watts of power draw, it can’t keep up with the 15-watt Core i5 in the XPS 13. A lower thermal profile means tighter restrictions on heat, and therefore, performance.

Will you notice the difference? Yes, though it depends on the workload. If your daily routine consists of Chrome, Spotify, Netflix, Slack, and YouTube, you likely won’t feel the disparity in processing power. Even with dozens of tabs and many applications open, the Core i3 MacBook Air will be unfazed. As I noted in the review, you can even pull up GarageBand or iMovie to do some light content creation.

MacBook Air 2020 display
Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

But if you’re a photographer working with high-resolution photos in Lightroom, or an extreme multitasker looking to power multiple 4K monitors, the extra bandwidth of the XPS 13 is helpful.

It’s also the go-to choice for a laptop to travel with. The XPS 13 is both thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air, and thanks to thin bezels, has a significantly smaller footprint.

It will also last a few hours longer than the MacBook Air on a single charge to let you squeeze in some extra work on that long work trip. There’s a caveat there, though. The MacBook Air will maintain similar battery life no matter what configuration you use. The XPS 13 will dip by a couple of hours once you equip it with the optional 4K screen. When upgraded, the XPS 13 is closer to the MacBook Air in battery life.

Windows, Mac, and Apple

Then there’s the ecosystem to consider. There’s no question that iPhones, Apple Watches, AirPods, and MacBooks pair really well together. Having iMessage, iCloud, and AirDrop across all platforms is undeniably convenient. It’s what Apple has always done so well, and while you might hack together a similar solution with Windows apps (Dell offers a Mobile Connect app that can deliver phone notifications to your laptop), it’s not the same.

When you purchase Apple’s MacBook Air, Apple’s suite of applications also comes free. Microsoft’s Office suite is preferred by most, but you’ll need to pay extra to bundle that in with the Dell XPS 13. While neither the Mac App Store or Microsoft Store will knock your socks off, Apple’s Mac Catalyst program is seeing more iPad apps ported over to the Mac. That could have some serious potential for the future of the Mac app ecosystem.

Most people strongly prefer Mac or Windows. But today, there’s far less difference than there used to be. Mac offers better trackpad gestures, while Windows has full touchscreen support. Windows has facial authentication for quickly unlocking the device, while Mac’s Touch ID can be used for things like payment and user profile authentication.

Both Windows 10 and MacOS are modern pieces of software supported by annual software refreshes and security updates. Neither gets the kind of development attention mobile platforms get, but in terms of stability, you can’t go wrong.

Apple MacBook Air vs. Dell XPS 13: Which should you buy?

In its latest iteration, the MacBook Air once again has a good keyboard and is appropriately priced. That makes the $999 model an easy recommendation at that price.

However, once you push into the higher echelon of configurations, the Dell XPS 13 leaps ahead. It offers better performance, more attractive design, and an excellent optional 4K display. XPS 13 models priced above $1,500 defeat not only the MacBook Air, but also Apple’s MacBook Pro 13.

Editors' Recommendations

AMD vs. Intel