My quest to find the ultimate ultrabook started because of back pain. I realised that carting around a heavy laptop in my handbag was not only tiring, it was making me a prime candidate for scoliosis. In an effort to avoid becoming permanently lop-sided, I knew that a regular laptop was no longer an option while I was on the go. And considering I use so many cloud-based services to access files and applications (Twitter, Facebook, Google Docs, Gmail, Evernote, Flickr, Picasa and so on), it’s not like I needed the grunt and hard drive space I once did when my data was housed on my computer.
Hence the search for the perfect ultrabook. Something sleek, light and handbag-friendly.
You might think this would be a relatively easy process considering that computers are becoming increasingly homogenised. I thought I would narrow down my choices based on a few key criteria (size, battery life, processing power) and then pick one based on price and aesthetics. (Yes, one wants to look good while one types!)
In the end it came down to a duel.
In one corner was the sleek, sexy, and super compact 11-inch MacBook Air. I’ve had my eye on one of these ever since best-selling author Kate Forsyth used one to present a course at the Sydney Writers’ Centre.
In the other corner was the newest kid on the ultrabook block, the Dell XPS 13. My first ever netbook was a white Dell (affectionately known – and still used – in our office as “The Baby Dell”), so I was keen to see if the Dell XPS 13 was going to cut it.
As I’ve been travelling extensively for the past six weeks, I tested both intensively, using them as my day-to-day computer for three weeks each. So, the results …
The handbag test
This is simply where an ultrabook should fit easily into your handbag, and is light enough so that you don’t give yourself a hernia picking it up.
More importantly, you can walk several city blocks and travel on planes without cursing the deadweight you’re lugging around (otherwise known as my Old Laptop).
Both the MacBook Air and the Dell XPS13 passed this test with flying colours.
The “Do I look cool with this gadget?” test
Some women covet other women’s Gucci heels. Others will kill you for your Christian Louboutin shoes. While I do appreciate both these things, I’m more likely to have gadget envy than shoe envy. Yes, it’s true. I not only want my gadgets to be functional, I also want them to look good.
And there is no doubt that the 11-inch MacBook Air is … just adorable. This is fundamentally due to its size. It’s small, it’s cute, and it just looks good. The 13-inch MacBook Air has never tempted me at all. And it doesn’t even come close to eliciting the same kind of “Awwwww” factor as the 11-inch.
You won’t get that “Awwwww” factor from the Dell XPS 13 either. Instead, for me, this ultrabook has a decidedly grown-up retro feel. I fell in love with the font used on the keys as soon as I opened it. It reminded me of WarGames, the 1983 movie starring a very young Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, about a computer hacker who compromises the US Defence system and almost starts a global thermonuclear war. This was an iconic movie during my formative years and not only inspired my crush on Matthew Broderick but also a romantic fascination with technology that exists to this day.
I’m pretty sure the Dell XPS 13 designers had no idea their choice of font would stir an emotional connection to a seminal point in my childhood but – believe it or not – I smile whenever I look at those keys.
However, ultrabooks cannot succeed on fonts alone. So in the overall “Do I look cool with this gadget?” test, the 11-inch Air wins in the cuteness stakes.
The cafe test
When I’m on the road, I tend to work well in cafes. If I’m in an unfamiliar city, I certainly prefer them to soulless hotel business centres. I can sit with my cappuccino and focus productively on my work with my computer in front of me. I’m in a bubble that’s my mobile office. When I break from my focused trance I can tune back into the always familiar sounds of a coffee machine or the smell of warm fresh bread.
Now, I don’t consider myself one of those Starbucks table-hoggers who spend all day in a cafe because they are too cheap to rent an office. Sure, after I’ve consumed morning tea, I might linger for a bit to upload a blog post or email my office but I don’t overstay my welcome.
So, while testing the MacBook Air, I was shocked to find that I had to leave cafes (on multiple occasions) because I had run out of battery power. You might be wondering why I didn’t simply plug the unit into an electrical outlet at the cafe. Well, when you’re only heading out for tea and bikkies, you don’t expect that you have to bring your chunky power source along as well.
The first time I saw the words “You are now running on reserve battery power” flash at me aggressively on the screen, I thought: “WTF?” I blamed myself. I mustn’t have charged the unit properly. The second time it happened I thought I must have lost track of time and lingered too long. Feeling guilty, I gave the cafe staff a massive tip before rushing off to plug into power.
The third time I ran out of juice at a cafe, I thought I was going crazy. Or that my watch was playing tricks on me. So I figured a more controlled timing test was in order …
The Biggest Loser test
Picture this. I’m watching The Biggest Loser. (Yes, I’m addicted.) It’s a one-hour show that starts at 7.00pm.
At the start, the Air (which was fully charged) displayed 4:45 (4 hours 45 mins). Okay, that’s close enough to the 5-hour battery life it proclaims.
During the show, I tweet, read some emails, and when 7.30pm rolls around, the Air says I have 1:39 remaining. Again, WTF?
Somehow, in 30 minutes, I had lost 3:24 (3 hours and 24 minutes) of battery life while performing lightweight work like Tweeting. I was beginning to feel like Justin Timberlake in In Time, where time is currency and everything in life has to be done really fast because you never know when your time is up.
(Aside: My latest gadgets all appear to subscribe to the same theory. Last week, I bought the Dyson DC35, a handheld vacuum cleaner. Little did I know that it would take 3.5 hours to charge so that I could use it for a grand total of 15 minutes on normal; and only 6 minutes on high. Needless to say, I clean my house very quickly.)
Even more perplexing, I noted that over the remaining half hour of the show, the battery time remaining fluctuated randomly from 1:39, back up to 2:09, then back to 1:15. Go figure. Now the Air was playing with my mind …
I didn’t actually test the Dell XPS 13 on this one because I knew that the tougher test would be …
The long haul flight test
Regular readers will know that I recently went to Austin, Texas for the South by South West Interactive Festival. Of course, I didn’t even bother packing the Air. If it wasn’t going to last the duration of one-hour reality TV show, it sure as hell wasn’t going to cope over the Pacific Ocean.
I received a review unit of the Dell XPS 13 the day before I was to fly to Texas. So I packed it into my bag and was ready to hit the ground running with it.
After the consistently premature power expiration of the Air, I was pleasantly surprised that the Dell had staying power. It lasted the flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, where I spent one night before heading to Austin, Texas. When I got to my hotel in Austin, it was still charged to 39%.
Sure, I wasn’t working on it every step of the way (after all, there are movies to watch on the inflight entertainment system!). But any time I was inspired to write part of my book, pen a blog post or read from the Kindle for PC, I pulled it out, opened the cover and it was ready to go.
I honestly did not expect it to come close to its 8-hour battery hour claim. (My estimate is it’s a little over 7 hours). In fact, from a risk management point of view, I actually brought my Old Laptop, just in case. However, in my three weeks away, I didn’t have to use my Old Laptop once (except when I was doing some isolation tests in a hotel room which had a dodgy wifi connection and I wanted to locate the problem.)
The conference presentation test
Last Friday, I ran two sessions at the Digital Parents Conference in Melbourne. One was a “Blog to book” session (45 minutes) and the other was a Writing Workshop (90 minutes). I knew that if I loaded my slides onto the Air, the power could give at any second. It might have lasted through the first session but, if it’s performance in cafes was any indication, I was likely to be left high and dry without any slides in the middle of my next one.
So the answer was easy. Or so I thought. I loaded the Dell with my PowerPoint slides but then realised that both ultrabooks are so skinny that they need an adapter to plug into a standard VGA cable. Which I didn’t have. So I risked scoliosis again and brought my clunky Old Laptop. Ugh.
(Remember, these units are thinner than the contestants on Australia’s Next Top Model so there is also no room for an ethernet socket or DVD in either of them.)
The desert island test
Ultimately, with the exception of battery power, they both perform well in terms of processing speed and overall usability.
I will note that Apple Mail on the Air appears to have a bug in it and it has to be restarted on a regular basis. And where the trackpad’s swipe functions are seamless on the Air, they are not quite as smooth on the XPS 13.
So what would be my recommendation?
Well, if I was a supermodel on a desert island about to shoot an gorgeous editorial with a photographer and I wanted to look pretty cool, then I would go for the 11-inch Air.
However (just in case you haven’t noticed), I’m not a supermodel. So if I was actually stranded on that desert island and needed a computer I could use to help me survive for longer than the time it takes to sip the juice from a coconut, then my vote is for the Dell XPS 13.