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Dell XPS 14 main review 1024
Dell XPS 14 main review 1024

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Dell XPS 14 review (2012)

Can a 4.6-pound ultrabook fly?

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Since the day the chunky XPS M1210 notebook morphed into the XPS M1330's sleek frame, Dell has almost always had a stylish laptop lineup to its name. Back in 2007, they were defined by brushed aluminum surfaces and ultra-thin LED backlit screens, and in 2010, they went to a black-and-silver design with distinctive port-filled corners and magnesium alloy decks. In 2011, the XPS 15z took a page from Apple's playbook before that was cool, and this year's XPS 13 could practically have sprung from a MacBook Air mold.

The new XPS 14, however, is not Dell's new MacBook Pro.

Looking at the expanses of black soft-touch rubber in the picture above and the carefully finished aluminum ring, you might easily infer that the XPS 14 is the powerful, heavyweight Pro to the XPS 13's Air. The truth is far more interesting, though. While the larger XPS 15 adds the standard-voltage processors, graphics, 1080p screen and slot-loading optical drive to take it into that territory, the XPS 14 is a different beast: it uses the ultra low voltage processors of a much smaller laptop, but also sports the hard drive, optional discrete graphics, full-size ports, and a bigger battery that just wouldn't fit into the tiny XPS 13.

In other words, it's an ultrabook, just like its little brother, but you can bring more and do more on the go. Does it deliver that dream? Read on.

Hardware

Hardware / Design

Paint it black

Let's get this out of the way: there's been a bumper crop of recent laptops that have taken cues from Apple, and the XPS 14 is among the guiltier parties. The entire lid and hinge looks like it was lifted from a MacBook Pro, with only a glossy black glass border around the screen to contrast from the finely finished aluminum. Similarly, the main chassis looks like Dell slapped a thin black slice of rubber on top of a MacBook Pro's keyboard tray. Save the SD card slot and headphone jack, all the ports are on the left-hand side, and the very curves Dell chose to cut into the corners of its clamshell chassis are the same ones Cupertino defined. Only the black rubber-coated magensium alloy base, with vents for speakers (fore) and heat (aft) feels uniquely Dell.

Silky smooth surfaces

If you've been following my laptop reviews, however, you know what I'm going to say: there are definite pros to carefully studying the way that Apple builds laptops.

For instance, the XPS 14's basic construction is absolutely top-notch: but for the glass screen and platter-based hard drive, I'd feel comfortable dropping it to the ground. The layout is spacious and comfortable, and there's an attractive minimalism to the design. The silver and black motif is striking, especially when you open it up for the first time, and the soft-touch rubber paint Dell slathers across exposed surfaces helps insulate your hands from heat and gives the laptop a luxurious feel at the same time. You'll also notice a lack of annoying stickers on the palmrests. Besides a Dell logo on the lid and an XPS logo up front, the only branding you'll see is tastefully etched onto a metal panel on the bottom of the machine, under which Dell also hides your Windows license key.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 13.2 x 9.2 0.81 4.6
Dell XPS 13 12.4 x 8.1 0.24 - 0.71 2.99
MacBook Air (2012, 13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.96
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 12.8 x 8.8 0.11 - 0.71 2.86
HP Folio 13 12.54 x 8.67 0.71 3.3
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 12.8 x 8.5 0.58 2.90
HP Envy 14 Spectre 12.88 x 8.7 0.79 3.79
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 13.1 x 8.8 0.7 3.8
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 14.0 x 9.3 0.58 3.51
MacBook Pro with Retina display 14.13 x 9.73 0.71 4.46

At 4.6 pounds heavy and 20.7mm thick, the XPS 14 is pretty hefty for an ultrabook, as you can see in the chart. It's thicker and heavier than the MacBook Pro with Retina display, which we included at the bottom of the chart. Still, there's a lot of battery in there, and you get a number of full-size ports. On the left side, there's a pair of USB 3.0 slots, a Mini DisplayPort, HDMI out, and a cleverly expanding Ethernet port that feels extremely durable. On the right, you'll find the 3.5mm headset jack and omnipresent Kensington lock slot, but also something that's a bit of a treat in the lighter laptop world: a full-size SD card slot just deep enough to let you keep a card embedded 24/7, but not so deep that you can't pop it out at a moment's notice with a single thumb. While we're touring the unit, you'll also note the return of the power / sleep / charge light right beneath the trackpad up front. There's also an extremely easy to miss battery indicator on the bottom of the unit, that lights up a series of five white LEDs to let you know how much charge is remaining.

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Keyboard / Trackpad

Keyboard and Trackpad

Above average inputs
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Dell hasn't changed its backlit chiclet keyboard design in a while now, and that's a good thing. The rounded, gently concave, slightly textured keys feel quite comfortable to the touch, and their springy scissor-switch action makes them quick and relatively quiet to type with, as well. They're still not exeptionally deep, so if you're not a fan of shallow keyboards like the one on the MacBook Air, you need not apply here. Still, I'm typing up this entire review on the XPS 14 itself, and the only issue I've run into is the same as on last year's XPS 15z: engineers seem to have placed some critical silicon component right beneath the WASD keys. When the machine is really cranking, or even just turned on for a while, that section tends to vent through the keyboard right onto your fingertips. While it's not burning hot, it did cause my left hand to sweat, and it's particularly annoying during games where WASD can be crucial inputs. Games can be problematic for a different reason, though... more on that later.

Dell has indeed switched up the trackpad, going with a Synaptics ClickPad Series 1.5 in place of the XPS 13's Cypress model, and it's not bad... but it's not necessarily a universal upgrade here. Two-finger scrolling is smooth, but physically clicking the mouse buttons on the pad to right-click and to drag content were both hit and miss. Also, the soft-touch rubber surface often caused my finger to skid when using it. Palm rejection works quite well, but the way Dell controls stray cursor inputs is a bit of a hack: as soon as you depress a letter on the keyboard, the touchpad mouse cursor vanishes. That's great for typing, but whoever made that decision apparently didn't think about whether XPS 14 owners might play games with the touchpad and keyboard alone: Whenever you hold down a letter (say, W, to walk forward) you lose your camera control. Oddly, inertial scrolling, pinch-to-zoom and rotate gestures are all turned off by default, but you can activate them (and they work fairly well) from a settings page.

Screen / Speakers

Screen and Speakers

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If there's any reason not to buy the XPS 14, it's probably the screen. 1600 x 900 resolution isn't bad for a 14-inch panel, much less one with 400 nits of brightness and a protective Gorilla Glass layer on top, but none of that makes up for the fact that this particular LCD panel has some pretty iffy viewing angles. Just like the display on the XPS 13, the angle at which you tilt it determines whether you're looking at an image whose colors are slightly inverted or washed out, and even if you're looking at the screen dead on, the images at the very top of the screen don't match those at the bottom.

On the plus side, Dell's speakers are pretty decent. They're located at the very front of the unit, under vents on the bottom of the machine, but between the no-name drivers and some WaveMaxx processing, they emit remarkably good audio for a laptop. It sounds perhaps a bit congested coming out of those chambers beneath the machine, but it's fairly loud and it even includes a little bit of bass — you can feel it boom through the palmrests if that's your thing.

There's nothing like a great screen, and this is nothing like a great screen
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Performance

Performance and software

The XPS 14 starts at $1,099 with a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB of memory, a 500GB 5400RPM hard drive and a 32GB solid state cache, as well as dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi... but only integrated Intel HD graphics. For $1,199, you can add a switchable 28nm Nvidia GeForce GT 630M GPU with 1GB of GDDR5 memory, or for $1,399, a 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U processor and 8GB of RAM. I tested the $1,499 configuration, which has all of the above, and despite one major glaring issue which Dell hopes to fix soon (more on that below), it was a fairly snappy experience.

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Running my typical load of several push email accounts, a series of auto-refreshing browser tabs and a couple of high-def 1080p videos simultaneously, I didn't feel any noticible drag on the system. A lack of bloatware might have helped that, too: while there's a copy of McAfee SecurityCenter that will ask you to renew your subscription, and the Bing Bar, too, it's a pretty clean Windows 7 install all told.

PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 10,227 P4,373
Dell XPS 13 10,242 P1,697
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 6,916 P2,402
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 8,269 P3,159
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 10,404 P1,693
HP Envy 14 Spectre (2011) 9,121 P1,526
Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 9,175 P5,650
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 10,134 P1,748

You'd never expect a 5400RPM hard drive to hold its own with the solid state drives in most ultrabooks, but it actually comes pretty close in some tasks. That 32GB cache made the system extremely responsive whether I was opening programs or flipping through images. Booting was slow: It took my review unit about 35 seconds to boot into Windows and 42 seconds to finish loading startup programs, but only about two seconds to wake from sleep. Oddly, it takes a moment longer to wake if you do so by opening the lid (the screen doesn't actually fire up by the time you've lifted it to eye level), but that's a minor nitpick at best.

Boot Resume
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 35 2.2
Dell XPS 13 17 1.8
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 25 2.7
HP Envy 14 Spectre 24 2.0
Asus Zenbook UX31A 30 2.4
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, Sandy Bridge) 16 3.0
HP Folio 13 33 4.8
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 35 1.8
*All times measured in seconds

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What's not really a nitpick is the exceptionally problematic gaming performance on the XPS 14 I tested. Though the $100 28nm Nvidia GeForce GT 630M upgrade should provide enough muscle for low settings on the latest games and power through older titles (though not nearly as much as the GT 640M in the XPS 15), my results didn't bear that out. The system wheezed and chugged even on titles as old as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, to say nothing of our Just Cause 2, The Witcher 2 and Battlefield 3 real-world benchmarks. When I took a closer look, though, I realized there was some funny business going on: when the framerate was low, the CPU always seemed to be running at an abnormally low 800MHz, as if it were throttling itself, and yet when the CPU jumped back up to 2.7GHz or 3.0GHz on occasion, the framerate instantly jumped up as well.

I sent my system back to Dell for investigation, and Dell engineers confirmed it's not a fluke: there seems to be something wrong with the XPS 14, and Dell will be issuing a BIOS update to try to combat the issue. The company says it's not an issue that they're hearing about from the first wave of customers, but it's also apparently not unique to my machine. We'll be re-running all our benchmarks when we get a replacement unit. In the meanwhile, it's reason to be extra cautious if you intend to purchase one yourself.

Battery / Heat / Noise

Battery life, heat, and noise

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If you ask me, the most impressive part of the XPS 14 is the battery life you can get. Dell advertises up to ten hours for this particular configuration, and as always, those numbers aren't grounded in the real world... but I actually managed over five and a half hours of real-world use before I felt compelled to connect a charger. In fact, the XPS 14 ran 6 hours, 59 minutes on our Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of 100 popular websites and high-res images with the laptop's display set to 65 percent brightness. That's not the absolute best we've ever seen, but for a machine with a Core i7 processor and discrete graphics, it's pretty great, and two hours longer than the tiny XPS 13. If there's ever been a reason for a thicker ultrabook, a hefty battery like this 69Wh pack is definitely it. It's not user-replaceable, which could be an issue down the road, though.

I do wish I could say the same about noise and heat. While the XPS 14 runs fairly cool if you're just typing or browsing a few websites here and there, it can certainly heat up in a jiffy if you do more, and while the laptop's fan is barely noticible when the machine is cool, it will whine loud enough to be annoying when things heat up.

Leave the (chunky) power adapter at home
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Battery Life
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 6:59
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:10
HP Folio 13 7:07
Samsung Series 9 15-inch (early 2012) 6:01
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 5:46
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:34
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:33
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 5:27
HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012) 5:14
Dell XPS 13 4:55
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 4:32

Who would buy the XPS 14? Not the fashionista, seeking style and portability. Not the media junkie, who might want a optical drive and would definitely prefer a better screen. Not the gamer, who'd need more potent graphics, nor the student looking for something cheap. No, the XPS 14 is for the laptop buyer who wants a little bit of everything and the battery life to take it on the go. If they can manage their expectations, it looks like that's just what they'll get from Dell. At least, that's what they'll get if their machine doesn't include the annoying performance issue we saw. We'll be updating and possibly re-scoring this review as soon as Dell manages to squash it.

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