While we can’t say that we universally liked Dell’s first attempt at an Ultrabook, the XPS 13 we reviewed about three months ago, we can quite confidently say that it earned our respect. Here was a smartly styled, sophisticated machine free of stickers and bloatware from a company that, let’s be honest, has delivered its share of each over the years. That machine was far from perfect, but it showed a purity of vision in design that you couldn’t help but acknowledge.
So where do you go from there? Why, you go bigger of course. Meet the new Dell XPS 14, successor in name only to a model that went out of production over a year ago. It is, as you might have guessed, an inch larger than the XPS 13 and so has more room for ports and pixels — but there’s more to it than that. In some ways this feels like a more polished machine than the 13 that came before, and it’s certainly faster but it, too, is far from perfect. Join us for a joyous exploration of why.
Look and feel
We were kind of blown away when unboxing the XPS 13. It was a sleek, finely hewn husk of aluminum nestled inside of a dark, sophisticated box. The attention to design was obvious in every facet of the thing — except for the decidedly low-rent power brick that came along for the ride. The feeling for the XPS 14 is, unsurprisingly, much the same, but this is not the 10 percent scaled-up clone you might be expecting.
It’s largely the same clean, simple visual language here. The lid is a similar aluminum design with the glossy, embossed Dell logo again stuck square in the middle and standing out as the least aesthetically pleasing part of this package. From above, then, this looks just like a bigger 13, but flip it over and things change.
Here, now, is a large rubberized pad upon which the laptop sits, surrounded by a slightly elevated soft-touch ring with slots on the front for the speakers and on the back for the (unfortunately noisy) CPU ventilation. It’s a far cry from the XPS 13′s über-cool carbon fiber bottom casing, its coy weave subtly exposed to the world. But, to be fair, while plastic and rubber don’t look anywhere near as cool as carbon, how often are you looking at the underside of your laptop?
The 14 does at least borrow the XPS 13′s metallic flap covering the Windows serial number and all the various numerals and certifications the product passed on its way to retail. This hides all the unsightly logos and stickers and makes for a much cleaner look.
The edge of the 14 is comprised of an aluminum ring punctuated throughout with ports, lights and the big hinge along the back. On the left, starting at the back, you’ll find a hole for that unsightly AC adapter, followed by Ethernet, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort and a pair of USB 3.0 ports. Turn to the right and there’s much less clutter, just a Kensington Security Slot, an SD card slot and a combination 3.5mm headphone / microphone jack. On the front, there’s just a single sliver of a light and nothing more.
It’s a reasonably healthy complement of ports, and we welcome the addition of the SD reader that was sadly missing on the XPS 13, but with all that room on the right we wouldn’t have minded another USB port or two. There’s certainly space. We also miss the battery charge indicator found on the 13.
The overall package weighs a healthy 4.6 pounds (2.1kg) and measures 0.81 inches (22.07mm) thick. It’s 13.2 inches wide and 9.2 inches deep (335.8 x 233mm). Those are the dimensions for the model we reviewed, packing 802.11a/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. Dell also offers Intel Wireless Display here, but should you need even more connectivity, there is a range of models offering WWAN connectivity which, interestingly, sport a “full-grain charcoal gray leather” lid instead of the anodized aluminum you’ll see in our photos.
Sadly, rich Corinthian leather is not an option, but you will have your choice of WiMAX, EVDO/HSPA, HSPA+ or Dell’s own NetReady prepaid service. Should you opt for any of these extended wireless options, you’ll be looking at an even heftier laptop, moving up to 4.88 pounds (2.2kg) and 0.91 inches (23.2mm) thick.
Keyboard and trackpad
Unsurprisingly, the keyboard here is more or less exactly what we diddled on the XPS 13. It’s an island-style layout with smallish, well-separated keys. They’re on the springy side and have good enough feel, but their size isn’t particularly well-suited for fingers that are of the larger size. Also, the ‘Y’ key has a very curious sound when depressed that almost makes the laptop sound hollow. We presume it isn’t, though we’ll leave that to iFixit to verify.
The ‘Y’ key has a very curious sound when depressed that almost makes the laptop sound hollow. We presume it isn’t, though we’ll leave that to iFixit to verify.
The trackpad is, again, much the same as on the 13. It has a tacky, soft-touch feel that isn’t nearly as pleasing to the fingers as the glass units manufacturers have been packing. It’s of the clickable type, with a single, short line on the bottom designating the space allocated for left or right clicking.
Nothing new there, but yet we found the overall feel and responsiveness to be much improved over our time spent swiping around in the XPS 13. Sliding and gesturing here is a far more pleasurable experience than it was on that machine. The overall experience still doesn’t match that of the class-leading Apple MacBooks, but it’s respectably close.
Display and sound
The 14-inch display here offers a fair number of pixels for a display of this size: 1600 x 900 to be precise. This, in a 16:9 orientation makes for a comfortable amount of screen real estate without creating a laptop too small to be comfortably used on the tray table of seat 36C. Of course, it would be more comfortable in seat 2A, but sometimes we all have to fly coach, and the XPS 14 is well-sized for that duty.
The display is bright enough to be used in sunny situations, too, showing respectable contrast; though color temperature gets increasingly cool the higher we crank that backlight. Viewing angles are more than adequate when the laptop is turned from side-to-side, but look at it from above or below and the contrast quickly falls to unacceptable levels. You’ll want to make use of that hinge to keep this non-IPS panel properly perpendicular.
To find out more, click the link below for the full review