The Dell XPS 13 (L321X) and Samsung Series 9 (NP900X3C-A01AU) Ultrabooks represent what's great about slim, mobile computers. Both are 13.3in models with superb build quality and looks, and both can be used to tackle everyday computing tasks (and more) with ease. But which one should you go for? The clear winner in most people's mind is the Samsung Series 9. It already has an Intel Ivy Bridge-based processor and it doesn't have a ridiculous price point considering it's positioned as being somewhat of a luxury product. However, the XPS 13, despite being a little older, is an Ultrabook that has a lot of innovations: it's the first model in the space to feature Gorilla Glass in front of its screen, not to mention carbon fibre in its body, and it has more of a business leaning.
The Dell XPS 13 was the first Ultrabook released this year that really got heads turning in our office and there wasn't a single person who didn't like it. The only problem that came up during conversation was the lack of ports. The XPS 13 doesn't have a lot going for it in this department: one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port, mini DisplayPort and a headset port. The Series 9 offers much better connectivity, for consumers at least. It has everything that the XPS 13 has, but it includes a micro HDMI port instead of DisplayPort, it has a built-in SD card slot, and it ships with a dongle that provides a Gigabit Ethernet connection (Dell sells an optional USB-based Gigabit Ethernet adapter). Both laptop have dual-band Wi-Fi and both feature Bluetooth.
Verdict: The XPS 13 has more of a business focus, which is why is has DisplayPort instead of HDMI, for example, but it doesn't have what it takes to be better than the Series 9 in this arena.
Once you take a look at the Series 9's screen, you will fall in love with it. It's a panel that features wide horizontal and vertical viewing angles, and it possesses a lot of brightness and great contrast. It's perfect for watching movies and working on photos — and you don't need to constantly adjust the tilt to make things look right. Not only that though, it has a slightly higher native resolution than many Ultrabooks: 1600x900 compared to 1366x768.
The XPS 13 has the latter resolution and it's a much different screen to the Samsung's. Primarily, it features Gorilla Glass in front of the screen, which makes it a lot more durable than other models on the market. It looks smart and provides a decent quality for photos and videos, but its viewing angles are not in the same class as the Samsung's screen.
Verdict: With better colours, a higher resolution and wider viewing angles, it's no contest: the Series 9 wins this easily. That said, there aren't many current laptops that have as good a looking screen as the Series 9.
Dell's XPS 13 came out before Intel released its third generation Core CPUs (formerly codenamed Ivy Bridge), but don't hold that against it just yet. Its CPU is a Core i7-2637, which has a TPD of 17W and a speed of 1.7GHz. It put up decent numbers in our benchmarks, with the toughest test, DVD-to-Xvid file conversion, taking 1hr 5min.
The Samsung Series 9 has come along in the Ivy Bridge era, so its third generation Core i5-3317U CPU is just as good as the Core i7 in the Dell. It's a CPU that also has a 17W TDP, not to mention a 1.7GHz speed. It just doesn't have as much cache. In the same video conversion test, the Samsung was 3min quicker.
Verdict: The Series 9, with its Ivy Bridge-based Core i5 CPU wins this one, but the performance of the Core i7 isn't too shabby at all.
Both Ultrabooks have solid state storage, and both sets of storage are fast. The Dell features a more enticing capacity of 256GB, while the Samsung has a noticeably smaller 128GB. In CrystalDiskMark performance tests, both drives performed similarly, recording well over 400 megabytes per second (MBps) in the read task, and well over 200MBps in the write task. However, when it came to duplicating data, the larger SSD in the Dell recorded a much faster rate of 163MBps compared to the Samsung drive's 44MBps.
Verdict: By virtue of size and performance, the Dell XPS 13 wins the storage round.
Samsung's Series 9 has a highly integrated design in which the memory chips are soldered onto the motherboard itself. It can't be upgraded and it's limited to 4GB. It's also fast memory at 1600MHz. The Dell XPS 13 also has the same capacity as the Samsung, and also isn't upgradeable. At 1333Mhz, it's slower memory, which means the Samsung has more performance in this area.
Verdict: Both have the same memory capacity, but the Samsung wins because its memory is faster.
This is no contest. The third generation Intel Core processor's integrated graphics are much improved over the second generation Core processor's graphics, and this was shown in our benchmarks. The Dell's Intel HD 3000 graphics got 3380 in 3DMark06, while the Samsung's Intel HD 4000 graphics recorded a much zippier 5167.
Verdict: Samsung wins this because the graphics in Ivy Bridge are superior to Sandy Bridge.
Size and weight
Looking at both Ultrabooks, it's plain to see that they have a thin-and-light design that will make them easy to transport to and from the office on a daily basis. However, at only 14mm thick and weighing 1.2kg, the Samsung beats the XPS 13 in this contest convincingly. The XPS 13 weighs in at 1.4kg and it only just conforms to the Ultrabook thickness standard of 18mm for 13.3in models. In fact, it's closer to 19mm when you count the rubber feet on the base (as we did with the Samsung, too).
Verdict: The Series 9 is both lighter and thinner than the XPS 13.
Now this is usually a point of contention because how much life you can get out of these Ultrabooks will depend on what type of work you do with them. In our standardised rundown tests though, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video, both laptops recorded similar times. However, it was the Samsung that won out, recording a running time of 3hr 39min compared to 3hr 27min for the Dell. This is despite the Samsung having a 40 Watt-hour battery compared to the Dell's 47 Watt-hour battery, and also a higher maximum screen brightness level.
Verdict: Samsung gets this one.
Here we will examine the keyboard and touchpad of both units. Both are pretty good, but there are noticeable differences.
The keyboards are backlit and provide a nice landscape for typing at night, with the Samsung offering a more subtle light than its counterpart. The keyboards are both sturdy and don't bounce when they are hit, and both have a near identical layout with half-height arrow keys that perform double duty as page keys. However, the Samsung just felt much more comfortable to type on, perhaps owing to the shape of the keys, which is a little squarer. We like the backlight implementation of the Samsung as well, which is more subtle and controllable by the ambient light sensor that is built into the Ultrabook; the Dell has a more conventional backlight timer.
Both notebooks feature large touchpads. The Samsung's is 98x68mm while the Dell's is 100x62mm. Both offer ample space for multi-finger gestures and both feel smooth. We had some problems with the Dell's touchpad that could not be resolved by downloading the latest driver at the time of testing. The Samsung's pad worked fine for us, even though it felt a little sticky at times. Basically, we didn't have to go searching for driver updates to make the touchpad usable on the Series 9, it pretty much worked well straight out of the box.
Another area of differentiation is in the cooling solutions. The XPS 13's fan could get quite loud during stressful workloads, making it an annoyance in a quiet room. By contrast, the Series 9's fan system was barely audible during the same tasks and they didn't even spin when the system was idle. The Dell also got a little warmer than the Samsung.
Verdict: With a better touchpad, more comfortable keys and much quieter performance, the Samsung wins this.
The newer Samsung Series 9 is clearly the better Ultrabook, not only because it features the latest processor technology, but also because it feels more comfortable to use and, of course, is thinner and lighter. Both laptops can be purchased for a similar price between $1500 and $1600 with the only clear advantage for the Dell being its larger solid state drive.
If you're in the market for an Ultrabook though, and have been tossing up whether to go for the XPS 13 or the Samsung Series 9, we think you should definitely go for the latter unless you have specific business needs such as DisplayPort and a dock facility.
Do you own either of these laptops? Let us know what you think of them in the comments below.
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