Dell laptops of the last few years have been mostly...boring. Boring, and sort of cheap-feeling. It seems as though Dell was leading the charge in a "race to the bottom", producing inexpensive and bulky laptops that could be outfitted with a wide variety of upsell options like faster processors or bigger hard drives. Sometime last year, it seems as though the company caught on to what customers want these days: fewer confusing options, better design, and quality materials. The XPS 15z was the first laptop from Dell I had seen in a long time that really got it right, and the XPS 14z continued the legacy.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I first took hold of the XPS 13 (there's no "z") and found it to be even more impressive. Dell says it has been working on this design for at least a couple years -- since before there was an Ultrabook designation for laptops, though it certainly qualifies for that category.
The XPS 13 is as thin as most Ultrabooks at around 0.7 inches, tapering down to 0.24 inches. The main body is a mix of mag-alloy, and aluminum along the lid and keyboard deck, with a primarily carbon fiber body. This makes it quite rigid, while keeping the weight down to just a hair under 3 pounds.
The real feat here is the small width and depth of the laptop. Thanks to a bonded edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass display with an extremely thin bezel, the 13.3-inch screen fits into a chassis considerably less wide or deep than most 13-inch laptops. Dell calls it a "13 inch display in a 12 inch form factor", and that's not really hyperbole.
Dell is aiming for a number of advancements under the hood. You'll be able to get the XPS 13 with Core i3, i5, or i7 processors, a 128GB or 256GB solid state drive, and 4GB of RAM. Beginning with the XPS 13, all XPS laptops will be what Dell refers to as "welcome in the enterprise." That means it will support custom imaging and BIOS settings, BitLocker and TPM, and be eligible for Dell's enterprise support. You know, stuff IT managers look for. This may also be the first laptop to hit the market with Intel's Smart Connect technology, which periodically wakes up a sleeping PC to refresh network applications like email or Twitter.
From a brief hands-on with the system, I'm guardedly optimistic. Dell hasn't nailed down pricing yet, and pricing the XPS 13 out of the reach of regular consumers could be a real deal-breaker. My initial impression is that this may be best laptop Dell's made in years.
[For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2012.]