(Pocket-lint) - It has for some time been a source of great irritation to us that PC manufacturers just don't seem able to produce computers that look as impressive as Apple's MacBook Air. Ultrabooks provided something of an improvement in the situation, but even these thin and light machines were never as beautiful, nor were they as well designed, ergonomically.
But now Dell has popped on the scene with its XPS 13, and when we got it out of the well-designed box and handled its smooth, metal surface we did a little dance. A dance, if you will, of joy and relief that finally a Windows laptop could offer us the desirability that has been lacking for so long now.
First class styling
It might seem gushing, but the XPS 13 is a joy to hold. In fact, once you've unpacked it, you'll probably want to hold it a lot, and sometimes - and we really mean this - caress its smooth metal lid. This is something that, in the past, only Apple laptops could inspire from us.
But this lovely design isn't the only thing on which Dell has taken its cue from Apple. This machine has very little in the way of connectivity - something that garnered Apple considerable criticism when the Air launched. There are just two USB sockets, and only one of them supports USB 3. Aside from that, you'll find a DisplayPort socket and a combined headphone and microphone jack.
And that's it. Apart from the power connector - but that really doesn't count.
It's hard to say how we feel about this dreadful connectivity. Our gut reaction is that we simply don't care, that the design and beauty of this laptop makes up for its lack of socketry. Then we snap out of the haze that Apple has managed to hypnotise us in to, and we realise that it is a little bit annoying not to be able to use an Ethernet connection without an adaptor.
But the flipside to this is that we don't usually plug our laptops in to Ethernet cables anyway. It's entirely too much hassle, and it detracts from the pleasure of having a portable computer.
We miss a full-sized SD card socket too, and that hurts a little more, as it means we'll have to carry a card reader around with us to manage photographs and video - something we do an awful lot of. In many ways, we think Dell should have ditched the battery meter, and put an SD card socket in there instead. Although we have no idea if that's possible, given the tiny proportions of this machine.
Screen and sound
As with 99 per cent of Ultrabooks, the screen on this XPS 13 is driven by Intel integrated graphics. That means you'll get a solid, but uninspiring performance. Gaming is pretty much out of the question here, but that's unlikely to bother the people buying this machine.
The screen is covered in a glossy glass. This is a bit of a disaster for using it in bright conditions, but it is usable. There are some Ultrabooks that use matt screens, and this is good if you use your machine outside a lot, but for most of us, it's not a massive issue.
The LCD panel behind the glass is top-notch though. It might be only a 1366x720 panel but the colours are spot on and there's plenty of detail. We really enjoyed looking at it and movies and TV shows look superb with that high contrast - thanks in part to that glass cover.
We streamed movies in both 720p and 1080p over our network using Plex. They looked utterly fantastic, and the detail in both was delicious. It's worth pointing out that the i5 processor in our machine handled the high-quality video with ease. Proving, to some extent, that the faster core i7 is perhaps unnecessary.
We plugged in a pair of our high-end reference headphones to get the measure of the sound on the Dell. We felt that audio was a little whispy and trebbly to start with, but a quick check in the control panel told us that the Realtek soundcard was applying some daft sound effects. Once disabled, sound was much more balanced and a pleasure to listen to.
The built-in speakers are, as you'd expect, less than impressive. They do the job though, and for video conferencing and the occasional YouTube clip are more than adequate.
The available hardware choices for the XPS are quite small, which is a good thing. As of now, you can get two i5 machines with either 128 or 256GB SSDs and 4GB of RAM each or you can opt for an i7 with a 256GB SSD and 4GB of RAM.
There's also not a huge amount of difference in price. The entry-level machine is £950, the mid-range £1150 and the high-end £1300. Interestingly, if you buy now, Dell will give you £100 cashback for trading in a old laptop when you buy the mid-range and £150 for the top of the range. That makes the 256MB i5 only £50 more than the 128MB i5, and for us, this is the upgrade you want to go for.
The keyboard on the XPS is the now ubiquitous raised island type. These are nice, on the whole, to type on, and the Dell is no exception. The keys are a little smaller than we'd like in an ideal world, but they are positive and travel well. They are also backlit, which is useful when you're on a night flight and want to get work done, without turning on an overhead light.
The trackpad is also very slick and, unlike so many similar devices, works really well indeed. We found minimal frustration with two-finger scrolling or tapping the two, subtle, buttons at the bottom of the pad. This all works well, although the friction is more than on the glass trackpad you'd get with a Mac.
This is all good, because plugging in a USB mouse would be bothersome on a machine that has only two USB ports.
It's always a challenge to tell you what battery life you'll get out of a laptop. If you turn the screen brightness down and don't do much more than typing, then we're sure you'll see five hours.
The problem is, in normal light we found that we needed to turn the screen up quite high to really see it. This is partially because of the reflective screen, but we also didn't find this laptop as bright as others we've used - including Dell's 15z.
Stream a bit of 1080p video with the screen turned up, and we're confident you'll see somewhere around the two hour mark. Keep the power saving mode turned on, and while you might see lower performance - perhaps say goodbye to 1080p playback - you'll almost certainly see a much improved battery.
As with most Ultrabooks, you can't replace the battery easily while on the road, so if you need more capacity, you might need to look elsewhere.
Usually, we have to get quite cross with Dell about the software it installs on its machines. Here though, the company seems to have been a little calmer than usual. There are the usual face recognition, virus and data backup options, but not much more than that. You get 15 months' McAfee protection included, after which you can uninstall and use the brilliant Windows Defender instead, which is completely free. In fact, you could even do that straight away, as it's less intrusive than McAfee's leaden nonsense.
Overall, this is a streamlined machine that's a quick to use as it is pretty to look at.
This is the best Ultrabook we've seen. It might have a daft numberof connections, making it ever so slightly impractical, but for us, it captures what the whole Ultrabook thing was supposed to be about. And that was the little skip of the heart people get when they look at a MacBook Air.
The fact is, Windows 7 is a terrific operating system. It and OS X are hardly rivals anymore, they're equals. The struggles between the Mac OS and Windows are over, they're just different ways to do the same job. PCs don't do bluescreen as much as they used to, and Macs aren't stuck in the mire of incompatibility that hampered their popularity. Now, it all comes down to how sexy the hardware is.
And this hardware is very sexy.
If you're buying one, then you might want to spend money on a big SSD, rather than on a fast processor. This laptop isn't really about speed, it's about style, but it would be handy to store more files on it, especially with photos and video taking up so much space. We really found the Core i5 to be powerful enough for everything we wanted to do with it, and as nice as the i7 would be, it's not entirely necessary.