Since its introduction in its current form, the Macbook Air has been one of the go-to laptops in the travel space for 4 years now. And why not? It was able to do thin and light, with decent battery life well before anyone else could do it (and market it) in a big way.
But it looks like the torch may finally be passing. The design that was once revolutionary is looking pretty old and boring by today’s standards, and the value that the “made for consumer” Air had versus the original, business minded Ultrabooks on the PC side (read: made for corporate customers at big corporate price tags) is all gone.
Last week we reviewed the new Dell XPS 13, our new top pick for travel notebooks / Ultrabooks. Today, we’ll compare it to the long-running champ, the Macbook Air 13. We’re spec-ing them out like this (our favorite setup for travelers and digital nomads):
Intel Core i5 Processor (5th Generation)
How the XPS 13 Stacks up to the Macbook Air 13 for Travel
We travelers have simple requests from our computers that enable us to work from abroad. We want something lightweight, with battery life for the work day, and now enough features that can handle all that our digital nomad lifestyles require. The Macbook Air and the Dell XPS 13 both fit the bill, but like clothes shopping after you’ve been working your beach body out, let’s look at which is the better fit here in 2015.
Size, Weight and Construction
While both are both thin and light, the new Dell XPS 13 is just a smaller machine… and in a race like this, smaller really is better. Every dimension squeezes down in the Dell, losing a couple of inches in depth and an inch in width compared to the Macbook Air, thanks in part to the thin bezels around the Dell XPS 13 display.
Height: 0.33-0.6″ (9-15mm)
Width: 11.98″ (304mm)
Depth: 7.88″ (200mm)
Weight: 2.8lbs (1.26kg) for touch
Macbook Air 13
Height: 0.11-0.68″ (3-17mm)
Width: 12.8″ (325mm)
Depth: 8.94″ (227mm)
Weight: 2.96 lbs (1.35 kg)
Both offer machined aluminum designs, but the gorilla glass that the Dell XPS 13 uses for durability puts it a step above.
Advantage: XPS 13
While Apple was out in front of everyone else when they released their high-resolution “Retina” displays on the iMac and the Macbook Pro a few years back, the high-res screen hasn’t made its way onto the Macbook Air, even with the refresh the model saw just a few weeks ago.
The 1440 x 900 display on the Macbook just doesn’t stand up to the competition these days. Even the iPad with a screen smaller than 10″ has been HD since early 2012.
It seems like every notebook (and certainly any Ultrabook that a traveler may look at) offers at least an HD (1080P) screen, and the Dell XPS 13 smashes that with QHD+ (3200 x 1800). The display on the XPS 13 is also a much higher quality IPS panel (offering better viewing angles and color reproduction) than the cheaper TN display on the Macbook Air 13. The XPS 13 just looks better, much better.
The XPS 13 also offers a touchscreen, which I’m still luke-warm about. I just don’t see much of an application with it on a notebook, though it made scrolling on a spreadsheet this morning a little more “fun” than I’m used to having with a spreadsheet. That sounds like a quotable.
Advantage: XPS 13
Keyboard and Touchpad
Both the Macbook Air 13 and the Dell XPS 13 offer nice “chiclet-style” backlit keyboards and large touchpads. For years, Apple has led the industry on touchpads, and while the new “Precision” touchpad on the XPS 13 is a great deal better than what we would see on other PC notebooks a few years back, the Macbook Air 13 is still a slightly nicer experience with gestures that just work, and an always smooth experience.
These new Precision touchpads have been in the works for years by Microsoft, and they are expected to be fully utilized in Windows 10 released later this summer. Until then, it’s a excellent touchpad compared to anything not on a Macbook.
(Note: Dell just sent out a firmware update for the touchpad on March 30th, 2015. We’ll update this section when we’ve had a chance to see if there is a performance difference.)
Advantage: Macbook Air 13
Ports & Connectivity
A smaller form factor means that manufacturers need to be very careful to include what we really need.
Dell XPS 13
USB 3.0 w/Powershare (2)
mini DisplayPort (1)
SDXC card reader
headset jack (multi use)
Macbook Air 13
USB 3.0 (2)
Thunderbolt 2 port (up to 20 Gbps)
SDXC card reader
Pretty much the same here. Both work with external displays, though you may require an adapter. Both the Macbook Air 13 and Dell XPS 13 offer support for the newest wireless standards. One small bonus is that the XPS 13 has Powershare on its USB 3.0 ports. That means that they can charge your devices (smartphones, tablets) up to twice as fast as a regular USB 3.0 port.
The Thunderbolt port on the Macbook Air 13 is sort of like Betamax. Technically superior when compared to USB, but like Firewire that Apple also tried to champion for years, it’s expensive and essentially dead in the water.
If you need extra ports like ethernet, HDMI etc, you’ll need an adapter/dongle. Dell offers a 4-in-1 adapter for travel that will get you a pair of USB 2.0 ports, ethernet, HDMI and VGA for $74.99. It’s small and pocketable. They also offer separate dongles around $30 each.
While Apple offers no combo adapter, they do sell dongles for ethernet, HDMI, and VGA for $29.99 to $34.99 each. And with many things Apple, you might be stuck buying a specific, often expensive Apple authorized adapter, as generic options may not be available, particularly abroad..
Advantage: XPS 13 (slight)
Both offer “all-day” battery life, which I think is a big win in today’s world, particularly if you’re trying to finish an article in a country with frequent power outages, or the beach bar doesn’t have a plug close by.
It’s worth saying that while working off of the battery gives you a level of freedom, one of the ways that they are able to squeeze out that extra juice to last you those extra few hours is by slowing the processor of your computer down. If you are working with things like video or photos, plugging in may improve performance.
As I mentioned above, while the Macbook Air once led the way in terms of design, they’ve fallen woefully behind. The Dell looks slick and modern in silver and black, and the near bezel-free “infinity” display makes the XPS 13 the new leader in terms of design. It looks new, it looks fresh, and it feels solid.
Advantage: XPS 13
I’ll be honest and say that this is going to come down to personal preference. If you use Windows, you’ll probably prefer to stick with Windows (XPS 13), and if you use Mac OS, you’ll likely want to stick with the Macbook Air 13.
Much of what we work on these days is in the browser, so the OS is making less and less of a difference every year.
Generally, warranty is a pretty simple process if you’re in the USA, Canada, or Europe. There will almost certainly be an authorized service depot near by, and after a quick phone call for troubleshooting.
The waters get murkier when you’re traveling outside of these places.
Apple lists its warranty as having “Global repair coverage,” with an asterisk beside leading to the fine print.
“Availability of each option depends on country in which service is requested and location of Apple Authorized Service Provider. Apple may also request that the customer replace components with readily installable parts.”
And that’s the rub. If you’re in a country without an Apple Store or authorized retailer (and that’s a lot), you’ll be out of luck.
Extended warranty is available with Applecare for up to three years (total).
For Dell, it’s also murky. They have Dell service contact numbers available in over 100 countries, and service centers in 160 countries, but how the warranty will work is a little up in the air. I received mixed messages from Dell Support on this on exactly how the process it will go. Essentially call the local number (or reach out on twitter) and then see what they say.
The good news is that you’ll almost certainly be able to get Dell qualified techs to work on your notebook if worse came to worse, but how you’ll have the navigate that process is a question I couldn’t get a clear answer on.
“A customer is entitled to a warranty, the terms do not differ by region or age of the system. Refer to Dell’s Basic Hardware Service Description for more details.”
Dell also offers next-day business service and also an accidental coverage plan that covers dropping, water damage etc at an additional cost.
But… What About the New Macbook?
Just a few weeks ago, Apple announced the new Macbook, a curious computer than sort of reminded me of the original Macbook Air, the one that seemed to compete with Netbooks, but at 4x the price. While it’s still listed as “coming soon” and we can’t get our hands on it yet, we’ve already been critical about the new Macbook’s lack of ports. Though the new fanless design of the Macbook is intriguing to us, we’ll just have to see how the performance stacks up. And while it’s lighter than the Dell XPS 13 (0.92kg vs 1.26kg), the width, length, and height are all a wash, with the Dell giving a larger 13.3″ touch-screen display instead of a 12″ display.
Apple is doubling down on the fact that wireless technologies will progress fast enough to rid us of our need for ports. But until all of my important travel gadgets like my cameras, external backup hard drives, and USB thumb drives go wireless, it’s just not a compromise I can even consider in 2015. I’m not interested in having a bag full of too many adapters.
The jury will be out on the new Macbook until it is released in the near future. But for travelers, I wouldn’t recommend waiting for it. At the moment, the only thing it has going for it over the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook is the weight.
Here’s what it comes down to. If you’re looking for a Windows notebook for travel, then the Dell XPS 13 is it, and if you’re a flexi-Mac user and you’re looking to get the best option out there, the Dell XPS 13 is it. It’s a better, fresher design in a smaller, more travel friendly package. This is the kind of notebook that could make you change teams.
That said, if you’re married to MacOS, then a Macbook Air 13 is going to be your only option these days, and a fresher Macbook Air likely won’t find its way onto shelves for another year or more.
** This article was updated with newer information about the Dell warranty process from Dell Support**
What laptop are you traveling with? Let us know in the comments below.
This Dell XPS 13 was provided to us for review by Intel and Dell.