Apple MacBook Air vs. Dell XPS 13: Is there a new 13-inch laptop champ?

Apple MacBook Air vs. Dell XPS 13: Is there a new 13-inch laptop champ?
Sarah Tew/CNET

One rhetorical example I've used over the years is that a laptop is a lot like a pair of eyeglasses: It's practical and it's something most people can't live without. 

But at the same time, it's an immensely personal choice, combining the sometimes contradictory forces of budget, features and style. Like a pair of glasses, a laptop is often a big part of the image you present to the world, either in meetings, at coffee shops, or in class, so it's not only about who offers the most widgets for the least money, it's about which laptop is the right fit for you. 

For a long (really long) time, Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air was the undisputed champ. I used to call it "the most universally useful laptop you can buy." By that, I meant the $999 base model was the single laptop most likely to be the most useful to the largest number of people. It had the biggest overlap in its Venn diagram of potential owners and it had such an identifiable design that it became as much a statement piece as a work tool. 

But, time catches up with everyone and everything. Over the last few years of the Air's decade-plus lifespan, the basic design stayed the same. The low-resolution screen with its thick borders and generations-old CPU technology came to feel more and more dated. Meanwhile, newer laptops from Dell, HP, Acer and others looked and felt more modern and added new features, from touchscreens to USB-C ports. 

At long last, in late 2018, Apple released an entirely redesigned version of the MacBook Air, making it thinner, lighter, and yes, more expensive. It felt like a stripped-down version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and most importantly, shaved that screen bezel down to a reasonable size, pairing it with a high-res modern display.

But what about the Windows side of the fence? What was the best PC alternative to the Air? 

One of my favorite modern laptops is the Dell XPS 13. Since 2015, it's made waves by shaving its screen bezel down to mere millimeters, much like a high-end TV. The XPS still had a few flaws, and other laptops passed it by in design over the past four years, but the new 2019 version fixes almost all of that, and as I said in my review, "I had to look long and hard to find anything I didn't like" about the updated version. 

Now that I've got new version of the MacBook Air and the XPS 13, which one should be my default starting point for 13-inch laptop recommendations? 

Check out those sweet, sweet bezels...

Sarah Tew/CNET

Screentime 

We may not be living in a bezel-free universe, but we're certainly getting closer. The Air has been routinely mocked, and rightly so, over the past several years for it's high border-to-screen ratio. The new Air cuts that by at least 50 percent on the sides and bottom, although the top bezel is a little wider to accommodate a webcam. 

The XPS 13 is already the slim-bezel champ, and its sides are down to 4mm wide. The top bezel is slightly wider -- even more so than last year's version -- but it's a sacrifice to a good cause. The system's biggest historical knock has long been its webcam, which had been relegated to a spot below the screen, rather than above it. That led to an unflattering up-the-nose angle that made the XPS 13 less useful for Skype calls, YouTube videos or any other video-recording or streaming needs.

There's now a new XPS webcam that somehow fits into that very slim top border, thanks to a new lens design that's only 2.5mm high. That adds a bit to the width of the top screen border, but it's a fair trade-off.  

As far as the screen itself, Dell offers resolutions at the high and low end, and Apple falls right in the middle. The 13.3-inch MacBook Air display is 2,560x1,600 pixels. And, like all Macs, it's non-touch. Dell offers a non-touch 1,920x1,080-pixel version and a more expensive 4K touchscreen. Frankly, the 4K screen adds a lot to the cost, and runs down the battery quicker. My XPS preference would be a 1,920x1,080 touchscreen, but you can't always get everything you want. 

Faster, but does it matter?

When you say a laptop has an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor, that doesn't tell you everything you need to know. Even specifying that it's a current eighth-gen chip doesn't cut it. The MacBook Air has Core i5 and i7 processor options, but they're part of Intel's "Y" series of CPUs, intended for thin laptops. They generate less heat and use less power, so you get longer battery life. The flip side is they're not as fast as a standard laptop with a "U" series processor. 

In this case, we have the XPS 13's Core i7 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8565U vs the MacBook Air's 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8210Y. Even if you traded up the Air's Core i7 option or knocked the Dell down to a Core i5, the XPS 13 would still be more powerful, because it comes from a more full-power CPU family. 

That said the new MacBook Air never felt sluggish during my extensive use time. It's more than speedy enough for most people, allowing for web surfing, video streaming and social media, which is what we spend most of our laptop time doing. Want a mainstream CPU in a MacBook? Trade up to the 13-inch Pro.

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Dell XPS 13 (2019)

13833

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2018)

7870

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 CPU (multicore)

Dell XPS 13 (2019)

738

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2018)

253

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance
Sarah Tew/CNET

The key to great keyboards 

Let's get this out of the way right now. No one likes the super-flat butterfly keyboard on the current MacBook lineup. The aging pre-update Air was the last refuge of the traditional island-style keyboard. No more. In this new Air, you get the latest version of the butterfly keyboard, with a new membrane underneath to help keep dust from gumming up the keys. The truth is, the current Mac keyboards aren't as bad as their rep, but they're not great, either. 

Dell wins this round for a snappy keyboard with a great feel. The glass-covered touchpad is decent, but no match for Apple's best-in-class pads. 

Battery: More pixels, more problems 

MacBooks are no longer the automatic battery champs, and in fact, on our current list of long-life laptops, the highest-ranking MacBook is at No. 8. But against an XPS 13 with a more power-hungry Core i7 processor and a 4K display, the Air easily dominates in our streaming video playback test. That said, if you went with the non-touch HD-screen version of the XPS 13, it might be a different story. 

Video playback battery drain test (streaming minutes)

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2018)

646

Dell XPS 13 (2019)

509

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance
Sarah Tew/CNET

The coffee shop factor 

One of the biggest reasons we like 13-inch laptops so much is portability. No one wants a four-pound laptop pulling on their shoulders all day, or even a three-pound one. Both of these are light, at 2.75 lbs for the Air and 2.73 lbs. for the XPS 13. People (or at least PC companies) always talk about how thin their laptops are, but that's a fakeout. Once you get down to about 15mm at the thickest part of a laptop, it doesn't make that much of a difference, except for bragging rights. Lighter trumps thinner every time.

The XPS 13 and MacBook Air have both gone USB-C-only, with three and two ports, respectively. But the XPS 13 at least throws in a microSD card slot, too. Bothstill have headphone jacks. For now. 

We pitted a more-expensive XPS 13 against a less-expensive MacBook Air. The Dell, however starts at as little as $899, which is a great price for the build quality, design and those sweet, sweet thin bezels. That said, I wouldn't buy the entry level Core i3 model with just 4GB of RAM, it's just not worth it. Trade up the Core i5/8GB model (currently $1,209) and you've got a great MacBook Air alternative. 

Apple MacBook Air (2018)

Price as reviewed $1,199
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch 2,560 x 1,600 display
CPU 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8210Y
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz
Graphics 1536MB Intel UHD Graphics 617
Storage 1256GB SSD
Networking macOS Mojave 10.14
Operating system 802.11ac Wi-Fi Bluetooth 4.2

Dell XPS 13 (2019)

Price as reviewed $1,709
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch 3,820 x 2,160 touch display
CPU 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8565U
PC Memory 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz
Graphics Inte UHD Graphics 620
Storage 512GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi Bluetooth 4.1
Operating system Windows 10 Home (64-bit)

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