Choosing between Mac and Windows isn’t easy, and it’s even harder when you’re deciding between two of the most striking ultraportable laptops on earth.
With the new 12-inch MacBook (starting at $1,299), Apple has created a fantastically light notebook with a vibrant Retina display and an all-new keyboard and touchpad. In the Windows-powered Dell XPS 13 (starting at $799, $1,299 as tested), you get a quad-HD, 13-inch touch display in a 11-inch laptop’s body — thanks to a crazy-thin bezel — and a fast Core i5 CPU.
We put these minimalist marvels through 10 rounds of battle to crown a winner, and the XPS 13 came out on top.
* Editors’ Note: There is a cheaper non-touch, full–HD version of the Dell for $999, but we opted for the touch quad–HD screen for this face-off.
The MacBook Air is almost laughably light, weighing just 2 pounds. You almost can’t believe it when you pick it up. However, the aluminum unibody design still feels remarkably sturdy. Even better, Apple has finally decided to offer color options. This machine comes in traditional silver but is also available in a more sophisticated space gray and a fun-but-not-too-blingy gold.
In our review of the XPS 13, we called it a “design triumph” because of its Infinity Display. The bezel around the screen is so narrow that it seems to float above the keyboard. The rest of the system is fetching, too, thanks to an aluminum bottom and top and carbon-fiber deck with soft-touch finish. The Dell is heavier at 2.6 pounds, but it’s not much bigger or thicker (11 x 7.7 x 0.14 to 0.52 inches versus 11.98 x 7.88 x 0.33 to 0.6 inches).
The XPS 13’s only design faux pas is its awkwardly placed webcam, which is in the lower left corner instead of above the screen. This can make for some unflattering selfies.
Winner: MacBook. This round is very close, but the MacBook’s lighter weight and multiple color options give it the edge.
The XPS 13 has an edge heading into this round for two reasons: It has a larger 13-inch display (compared with 12 inches for the MacBook), and it has a higher resolution (3200 x 1800 versus 2304 x 1440 pixels). Plus, only the Dell offers touch capability. But the viewing experience tells a slightly different story.
When I looked at the two screens side by side while watching a 4K trailer for Interstellar, the MacBook delivered more saturated color in Matthew McConaughey’s face than the XPS 13. Plus, the Dell kicked back more reflections, which proved a bit distracting.
On our lab tests, the MacBook‘s screen literally and figuratively outshone the Dell. Apple’s ultraportable has a brighter panel (353 nits versus 295 nits), and it’s more colorful, representing 101.8 of the sRGB color spectrum (versus 97 percent). The colors offered by the MacBook’s screen are also more accurate, as it registered a Delta-E score of 1.2 (lower is better), compared with 5.1 for the XPS 13.
Winner: MacBook. Dell’s panel is sharper but Apple’s is more vibrant, richer and has more accurate color.
This round was pretty close. Despite its diminutive stature, the MacBook pumped out loud and mostly pleasing audio when I listened to Maroon 5’s Sugar and Jay Z and Kanye West’s No Church in the Wild. However, the XPS 13 delivered clearer vocals and performed slightly better on the high end. When I had two fellow colleagues listen to both systems side by side, they liked both but preferred the low-end thump of the MacBook.
Winner: MacBook. It’s only slightly better.
This round will be as short as the MacBook’s list of ports. Apple equipped its laptop with a headphone jack and single USB-C port. It’s a versatile port, but you can’t juice your notebook and connect a peripheral at the same time without an adapter.
The XPS 13 has everything I want in an ultraportable, including two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot and a Mini DisplayPort adapter.
Winner: Dell XPS 13. No trade-offs required here.
Keyboard and Touchpad
One of the biggest differences between the XPS 13 and MacBook is ergonomics. While the Dell sports a more traditional touchpad and keyboard combo, Apple developed a new butterfly mechanism for its layout, which allows for a thinner design. The XPS 13’s keyboard definitely has more travel. We’re talking about the difference between 1.2 mm versus just 0.5 mm on the MacBook.
The result for the Mac is a keyboard that feels flat but delivers pretty speedy results. On the 10FastFingers.com test, I averaged 70 words per minute with six errors. However, I hit 73 wpm with four errors on the cushier Dell layout.
The new Force Touch trackpad on the MacBook delivers haptic vibrations instead of a physical click, but it feels more like the latter. Plus, you can pull off timesaving tricks with a hard press, such as previewing websites in Safari on search result pages, or pulling up a map within the Mail app by force-clicking an address.
The XPS 13’s touchpad is smaller than the MacBook’s at 4.1 x 2.3 versus 4.4 x 2.8 inches, but it’s responsive and handles Windows 8.1 gestures well.
Winner: XPS 13. The keyboard’s more comfortable feel is key.
You’re not going to FaceTime in HD on the MacBook, as it features a webcam with a resolution of just 848 x 480 pixels. The XPS 13 sports an HD webcam, but as mentioned above, it’s awkwardly positioned toward the bottom left of the display, which means other video callers will be looking up at your chin.
The MacBook delivered more accurate colors but there was noticeable grain throughout the image. The XPS 13’s image had less grain but oversaturated hues.
The MacBook comes to this battle armed with a 1.1-GHz Core M processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage. The touch version of the XPS 13 packs a beefier 2.2-GHz Core i5 CPU paired with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. On Geekbench, which measures overall performance, the Dell wiped the floor with the MacBook, outscoring it 5,653 to 4,631.
However, the MacBook redeemed itself on our spreadsheet productivity test, which involves matching 20,000 names and numbers. Apple’s notebook took 4 minutes and 33 seconds, compared with 5 minutes for the XPS 13.
The MacBook also benefits from faster flash memory. On our file transfer test, it delivered a rate of 254.5 MBps versus 154.2 MBps for the Dell.
Winner: XPS 13. The Core i5 chip is simply more powerful.
The XPS 13 has more advanced graphics, too. It features Intel HD Graphics 5500, compared with the HD Graphics 5300 card in the MacBook. We saw the difference on our World of Warcraft test.
The XPS 13 hit 35 frames per second with the effects on autodetect and the resolution at 1080p, while the MacBook mustered a not-quite-playable 27 fps at a lower resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels.
Winner: XPS 13. The GPU in the Dell has more muscle.
The MacBook packs a big battery into its slim frame. On the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi at 100 nits of brightness, the MacBook lasted 8 hours and 43 minutes.
The touch-screen version of the XPS 13 lasted more than an hour less at 7:24. However, if you opt for the nontouch version with a lower-resolution 1080p screen, you’ll get 11:42 of endurance.
Winner: Draw. The MacBook lasts longer than the touch XPS 13, but the nontouch version lasts 3 hours longer.
The Apple MacBook starts at a premium $1,299, which gets you a 1.1-GHz Core M CPU, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage. You can step up to a 1.2-GHz chip and 512GB for $1,599.
Dell gives you a lot more options with the XPS 13. The starting $799 configuration comes with a Core i3 CPU, 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD, plus a nontouch, full-HD display. The XPS 13 Touch we used for this face-off costs $1,299 and sports a 2.2-GHz Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, along with a quad-HD screen. A $1,599 version includes an even faster Core i7 chip and 256GB SSD.
Dell also offers a $999 customizable Core i5 version of the XPS 13, which allows you to choose your SSD and display.
Winner: XPS 13. We’ll take a faster CPU over more standard storage space in the MacBook, as well as more configuration options.
Overall Winner: Dell XPS 13 Touch
There are two key reasons the XPS 13 narrowly defeats the Apple MacBook in this face-off: It has more ports and it has more power. For $1,299, I’d rather have a faster Core i5 processor and the ability to plug in more than one peripheral at once without a dongle. The Dell XPS 13 also offers a more comfortable typing experience.
The 12-inch MacBook is strong in other areas. It’s thinner and lighter, offers a richer display with less glare and lasts longer on a charge. However, the non-touch Dell XPS 13 lasts even longer. Ultimately, the Dell wins this contest.