We’ve watched on with approving nods at Dell’s evolution from business friendly box shifters to cutting edge designer of consumer tech. The sheer style of much of today's XPS range of laptops is like finding a Prada suit under a pile of George clothing at Asda.
Which bodes well for its latest model, the Studio XPS 13. It's a thin sliver of portability with a large keyboard that makes it feel big for a 13incher, and a skinny LED backlit screen that helps to keep the weight down to something comparable to a similarly sized MacBook.
Taking on the MacBook
It feels obvious, but there's no avoiding the inevitable Apple comparison. Dell has even gone as far as designing its own desktop dock to sit on top of Windows Vista.
This handy app lacks a little finesse but is one of the best pre-installed versions we've seen – although we'd recommend all Windows users check out the excellent RocketDock instead.
Other than the OS, how does it compare to the MacBook? Pretty favourably at first. At the same price point, the Studio XPS 13 has a faster processor, twice as much memory and can be hooked up to a TV with its built-in HDMI adaptor, so doubles up as an entertainment centre well.
There's not a lot to choose between the screens – both are fairly low-res but bright, although Apple just shades it as there's a definite blue tinge to the Dell. With only one USB port on the XPS, the MacBook is better connected too.
The killer feature for the Dell, though, is two NVIDIA graphics chips in Hybrid SLI configuration. Like the MacBook Pro, you can switch the machine to 'Performance' for gaming, say, and the faster 3D processor kicks in. Flick it back to 'Power saving' and the low-voltage chip takes over to extend the battery life.
Graphics don’t deliver
That's the idea, anyway. Unfortunately, the two graphics chips in question are the GeForce 9200 and the 9400M, which means 3D performance when both are running is only slightly better than the 9400M-equipped MacBook. You'll get a lot of games playing smoothly, but Crysis will still chug along at 15 frames per second in native resolution.
Worse yet, the Apple machine gets much longer battery life – around 5-6 hours compared to 2.5-3.5 hours here – from the mid-range chip without the extra internal part.
The real kicker, though, is that design-wise this is nowhere near as nice as previous XPS machines – a real step backwards, in fact. Against the Apple's gorgeous aluminium unibody, the Studio XPS 13 looks cheap and overdesigned.
Three different materials are used on the lid: a soft leatherette, a silvery band and a glossy black panel – all plastic. It feels flimsy and the needlessly complex hinges prise apart too easily.
Of course, holding the Dell up against the Apple may not be entirely fair, but there is one other 13in laptop out there that offers everything the XPS 13 has and more, but costs significantly less. It's lighter, better built and has better battery life too. It's the XPS 13’s predecessor, the XPS M1330. D'oh.