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There have always been trade offs when it comes to making the perfect travel laptop for the traveler and digital nomad crowd.
Lightweight, battery life for the work day, and now enough features built in that you don’t need to carry a bag full of dongles to make it all work (like the recently announced Macbook).
I’ve been working with an Asus UX302 Ultrabook for the past year which, I must say, at 3.1lbs (1.5kg) and 18mm thin has been pretty great for travel. In fact, it’s been around so much in the past year that it should probably have its own passport and NEXUS pass, and hiking boots.
I’ll be comparing it to the brand new Dell XPS 13 I’ve been using for the past couple of weeks. We reviewed the original Dell XPS 13 a few years ago, and at the time it was one of our top picks, so I was eager to give the brand new model a go.
Let’s get into it.
They Shrunk the Best of a Laptop to Make the Dell XPS 13
If you’re carrying a laptop around the globe, you know that every inch and every pound count. It’s one thing when you’re taking a laptop from home to the car to the office, and another when you’re hauling it on airplanes, through train terminals, and to and from co-working spaces (or sweet cafes on the beach).
The Dell XPS 13 is smaller than all other 13″ notebooks on the market, and really you have to see it to see how much of a difference it makes. In fact when it’s switched off, you would probably think it was an 11″ notebook, it’s that small.
But open it up (the hinge is a little tight and doesn’t open with one hand) and power it on and you’ll find the screen (which is a stunning Sharp QHD+ display) reaches almost edge-to-edge. The bezels are less than 1/4 inch (5cm) which make the Asus look (at more than 1/2″ on the sides and nearly 1″ on the top) look massive.
In some ways, it looks like a baby compared to the Asus, especially when you put the Dell *inside* the Asus like I did, and it’s still shorter.
That screen is worth diving in to more. At a bright Quad HD+ 3200×1800, it’s really impressive. The Asus is still a respectable 1920×1080, but the scaling in Windows 8.1 works better on the Dell XPS 13 I found.
Both offer strong Gorilla Glass on the screen which is great for durability, and both are touch screens, though I’m still not sold on using the touchscreen on a laptop. Maybe the upcoming Windows 10 release later this summer will change that.
Finally, the viewing angles, are great on both, something I didn’t like about the first generation XPS 13 a few years back. Thanks for listening Dell!
The Dell XPS 13 shaves off some weight as well, running in at 2.8lbs (1.26kg). It’s noticeable, but barely. If you’re moving around much, you’ll definitely want to pack an Ultrabook or other lightweight notebook. The days of carrying around 4-5lbs beasts are over.
The keyboards are both the chiclet, and backlit. This is really important for the road warrior on those overnight flights. You won’t find a number pad on any of these smaller notebooks, and the Dell XPS and the Asus are no different. But you’ll get everything that you need, without being scrunched for space.
The trackpads are both good, not too small that it’s awkward, but not too big that your wrist lands on it.
The chassis for both is made of aluminum, but the XPS 13 feels much more solid. It really feels like they packed everything in here perfectly. The screen of the Asus, which is Gorilla glass on both sides, has some flexibility in it that the Dell with its aluminum back does not.
Also the XPS 13 has a carbon fiber palm rest, which regulates the temperature better than the Asus. I’ve had to keep my palms off of the Asus when I brought it in from cooler temperatures or using it in during cool mornings because it was too chilly, and it does warm up, though not to the point of being uncomfortable.
But Can the Dell XPS 13 Work All Day?
One thing I’ve loved about the Asus is the fast Intel Core i7 processor (4th generation). The extra power comes in handy when working in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop in particular. The downside has been the battery life.
The Asus has a power management system called Power4Gear which when plugged in, gives full power. When unplugged however, it really dials back the processor to save battery life. This is most pronounced in the beefier photo managing programs mentioned above, but also results in a laggy experience in Chrome.
I often force it to the higher power mode while on the battery because of this, which cuts down my battery life from ~6 hours to ~3.5 or so.
Fortunately, the Dell, with the newer 5th Generation Intel Core Processor handles power much better. My regular workflow of writing, research, and photography gave me 7-8 hours on the Dell XPS 13, without the lag I found on the clocked-down Asus. That’s all day for me.
It does a much better job of managing power than the Asus, and Dell has obviously made battery life a priority without sacrificing all of the performance that the Asus does when unplugged from the wall.
I’ve admired the charger for the XPS as well, with a small and simple design that shows that it’s not just an afterthought. The Dell has a soft cable that wraps around the charger making it a slim and easy pack, and the power plug that flips out and moves from horizontal to vertical which is great for plugging into surge bars.
The Asus has an awkward square brick, and no cable management system. This had led it to coming unplugged from time to time as it sticks out from the wall, and the cable comes out after that. I find myself wrapping up the cable and attaching a velcro strap to keep it manageable in my bag.
If you’re in the market for a portable battery pack, the Dell Power Companion could help kill two birds with one stone. It will extend the battery life of the laptop by up to 4 hours, and has a couple of USB plugs for charging your other devices. It’s 12000mAh supply would charge the average smartphone about 4 times as well.
Particularly great is that it charges with the Dell XPS 13 power cable, meaning faster charges (~2hrs) than you get from a typical battery power pack. It also daisy-chains with the laptop, so you can charge the power pack, while charging your laptop at the same time. It’s really slick.
Features of the Dell XPS 13 for Travelers
Sure, a small laptop is great, but not if you need to pack a host of adapters and dongles to do your work. This was one of my pet peeves with the original XPS 13 a few years back, and I’m happy to say that the new Dell XPS 13 fixed all of those problems.
The slim design fits 2 USB 3.0 ports (with Powershare to charge your smartphone and tablet quickly), an SD card slot (a non-negotiable on a laptop as far as I’m concerned), and a multi-purpose headphone jack for headphones, mics, headsets, or even a line output.
For video, it includes a mini display port, which if you’re often giving presentations, might be a bit of a drag. The larger Asus has all of the above, plus a full-sized HDMI port.
The Dell XPS is for the Traveler and the Road Warrior
Thank you to Dell for listening to my feedback (it was me, right?) and fixing all of my qualms of the previous XPS 13 which launched in 2012. Best in class screen, battery life, and design make the new Dell XPS 13 the clear winner for travelers and digital nomads.
It’s finally like all of the things you wanted in a laptop, and actually in a size you can be happy carrying around.
The model we tested, with an Intel Core i5 processor (5th generation), 256GB SSD, 8GB memory, and QHD+ touch-screen display is the one I would recommend as the sweet spot for price vs performance. It’ll run you $1399 directly from Dell, but you can check Amazon and maybe save a few bucks. Highly recommended.
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.