The Best 13-Inch Laptop Isn't Made By Apple

For years, the MacBook Pro was the weapon of choice for people willing to plunk down good money for a powerful laptop with slick design. That it's a staple of both hip coffee shops and design studios reflects just how elegantly it balances the needs of the aesthete and the power user. But when it comes to sleek, well-designed, powerful laptops, it's no longer the obvious choice. Nearly every laptop maker has a striking machine that will bring tears to your eyes when your credit card bill arrives.

AU Editor's Note: Pricing in the video above is US. Pricing within this article text itself has been updated to reflect Australian costs and links.

But not all fancy laptops slide cleanly into the basic MacBook Pro's slot. Some, like the flexible HP x360, are half tablet. Others, like the gaming-focused Alienware 13, are all chunk and power. And Microsoft's 13-inch Surface Book is a marvel of design and engineering, but borders on large and cumbersome.

We set out to find out if any computers could compete with the most basic model of the new MacBook Pro — the 13-inch $2199 number without the new gimmicky Touch Bar. Both Dell and Razer have laptops that measure up nearly perfectly, blending speed, quality, and design just right. We pitted similarly configured models against each other to see which is best.

For this comparison, our contenders (and the price of the configuration we tested) are The Razer Blade Stealth (from $1499), the Dell XPS 13 (from $1999), and a new Apple MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar). Our tests ranged from gruelling power showdowns to practical everyday web browsing. Some of the tests were downright ridiculous. No matter what you're planning to use your fancy laptop for, we've found the machine for you.

For the person who needs power and versatility

Image: Nicholas Stango/Gizmodo

The new MacBook Pro infuriated nerdy power users when it was revealed it had last year's processor — and perhaps more damningly, unlike the infinitely versatile Pros of the past, it had just three ports: the ubiquitous headphone port, and two Thunderbolt 3-backed USB-C ports. USB-C is a remarkably flexible port style, which is widely considered the future. It has many advantages, including high-speed charging and super-fast data transfer speeds, but the problem is that if you want to plug in your legacy monitor, a hard drive, your camera's SD card, or even your iPhone, you're going to need a dongle adaptor. If you've never had to do that before, Apple's minimalism looks more like a chore than a step towards the future.

In practice, the MacBook Pro's limited ports aren't so much a dealbreaker as they are a pricey inconvenience. It sucks to buy them. To mimic the additional USB-A ports on both the Blade Stealth and XPS 13, I'd need to drop another $20 or so. Add a little more if I want to rip my photos directly off my SD card like I can with the XPS 13. And another $10 or so if I want to send video to my TV via HDMI like I can with the Blade Stealth.

Sadly, there's no amount of money I can drop to replicate the Dell's best port — the proprietary power port. Having to hunt for a very particular power cord is irritating, but it also means a precious USB-C port isn't being used to charge the laptop as is the case with the MacBook Pro and Blade Stealth. That's a big deal for a power hungry power user.

Almost as big as actual performance. Here are the numbers, for those inclined to inspect them. We'll unpack them below.

Image: Gizmodo

Image: Gizmodo All three laptops have top-notch processors packed inside. The Razer Blade Stealth and the Dell XPS 13 both boast Intel's latest Kaby Lake i7 7500u processors. The MacBook Pro, meanwhile, runs on last year's higher wattage Skylake-based i5 6360u chip. This means they get through the majority of tasks at similar speeds. Unless you're really crunching numbers you won't notice a major operative difference between the three.

All three machines will render GIFs, make quick videos, and process massive spreadsheets at a similar pace. Though the MacBook Pro did outperform the two Windows devices when we batch processed 20 giant RAW photos in Photoshop. It also did better on the WebXPRT benchmark, which replicates day-to-day tasks you perform in your browser, like scrolling through tons of images on Facebook, or loading an adware-heavy website.

Where the MacBook Pro suffered, the XPS 13 excelled. It killed the competition on the Geekbench synthetic benchmark, and absolutely slaughtered the MacBook Pro when playing a game of Civilisation VI. That's doubly impressive because the the Dell XPS 13 we tested had a higher resolution screen — 3200 x 1800 versus the 2560 x 1440 found on both the MacBook Pro and Razer.

Winner: Dell XPS 13

AU Editor's Note: Pricing in the video is US. Pricing within this article text itself has been updated to reflect Australian costs and links.

For the person who watches tons of video on the go

In a constant race to differentiate themselves, Apple, Razer, and Dell seem to have settled on providing dazzling displays to run all the graphics rendered by their powerful computers. But pretty displays mean a major drain on battery life, particularly when coupled with a touchscreen such as that found in the Blade Stealth and the XPS 13 we reviewed (Dell also produces a model without a touchscreen).

The Blade Stealth reviewed, with a bright 2560 x 1440 display, never made it past seven hours on a charge. The more expensive 4K variant would fare even worse owing to the additional pixels in need of power.

Image: Gizmodo And other versions of the XPS 13 would actually fare better than the one we tested, provided you skip the touchscreen and go with a 1080p display instead of the vivid 3200 x 1800 display we tested. Still, our souped-up XPS 13 did stream movies for nine and a half hours when the brightness was set to just 200 nits, and an average of 10 hours when used as my daily laptop.

Yet if you want to watch movies and you want to watch them all day, or on a random 11-hour overseas flight, then the MacBook Pro is the way to go. When the brightness was set to 200-nits (about three quarters of the way) the MacBook Pro lasted over two hours longer than the competition.

But across three types of battery tests: streaming movies at a screen brightness of 200 nits, full brightness, and plucking away for an average work day, it was the Dell that did best. While the MacBook Pro is capable of the best battery life under optimal conditions, the Dell was the most consistent. If you dim your screen regularly get a MacBook Pro, if you never know what you're going to be up to, get a XPS 13.

Winner: Dell XPS 13

For the person who needs to do work

THe new MacBook Pro has a great keyboard and trackpad. A lot of noise was made about the new MacBook Pro keyboard...like, literally, it's noisy. I personally didn't notice an obnoxious click every time I pressed a finger to a key, and I've yet to be flogged by irate coworkers. But when it comes to actual pleasure and speed while typing the MacBook Pro definitely has an advantage.

The MacBook Pro handily beat the XPS 13 and Blade Stealth in a typing test. Though the XPS 13 had enough key travel to make each key press feel satisfyingly meaty. The Blade Stealth was a different story. While it the customisable backlit keys are a very neat rarity for a laptop in this price range and size, the mushy feel of each key press was irritating.

I was drawn to the MacBook Pro when I needed to edit my work as well. That's because the trackpad on the MacBook Pro is incredibly responsive and intuitive. There were no frustrating accidental highlights or drags across the page with the cursor. The XPS 13 and Blade Stealth were pleasant surprises on the trackpad front, operating nearly as well as the MacBook Pro, but the Razer's trackpad feels a little slick, and the rubber palmrests surrounding the Dell's can be distracting.

Winner: Apple MacBook Pro

The champion

Dell XPS 13 Each of these computers will give you a satisfying computer experience. Nerds will nod approvingly when they see the garish green Razer logo and hipsters will jerk their chins in your general direction when they see that shiny Apple one.

But the best 33cm laptop is an unassuming Dell. The Dell is a consistent machine with great battery life, and powerful guts that deliver when you need them to. It has the ports that matter, and it doesn't ask you to juggle cords just to charge.

It's just a damn fine laptop. When we reviewed the original XPS 13 back in 2015 we called it the Windows laptop to beat. That still stands.

Winner: Dell XPS 13

Video by Nicholas Stango


Comments

    I recently got rid of my Surface Book and bought a Dell refurbished XPS 13 for less than half the price and it has so far been amazing. It's tiny - it fits in a Thule sleeve designed for an 11" MacBook Air - it's light and it has everything most people would need. Mine has a 6th Gen Core i7 with Iris Pro graphics and it runs better than the Surface Book did with it's GeForce card. I deliberately went for the lower res 1080 screen. I miss the touch experience but I much prefer running at 100% than scaling everything so it was a worthwhile trade-off. I am really happy with it and it's nice having the security of a full 12 month warranty with next day, on-site service because when it arrived it had a busted ENTER key. They came out at 10:30am the day after I contacted them and put a new keyboard in it at work. Dell service is second to none.

    Last edited 22/12/16 12:21 pm

      May I ask where you sourced the refurb? Wasn't Grays online right?

        Dell have their own refurb store. Search for Dell DFO

    Does "power user" actually mean anything these days.

    You said "unless you're really crunching numbers you won't notice a major operative difference between the three."

    However you then go and compare a current more powerful, more efficient processor, to last years less powerful, less efficient one, based on synthetic benchmarks and how long the battery lasts. Kind of unfair.

      It would be unfair if Apple had offered the newest generation of processors and the article ignored that but let's face it apple dropped the ball big time. They're comparing this year's models across the board. Seems fair to me.

    I've got one of the 2015 models of XPS13 and the trackpad is pure garbage - worst I've ever used.

    Last edited 02/01/17 10:02 pm

    Just one question.. How smoothly will each of these laptops run over a longer period of time?
    I have a 6 year old MacBook Pro that is running the latest OS quite happily and has not failed me once in the time I've owned it despite a variety of regularly daily use. Previously I had a variety of top of the range windows laptops and I couldn't say the same thing of any of them.
    I don't like several aspects of the current MacBook Pro and I certainly don't consider myself an apple fan boy but I would buy another on the basis of previous long term experience.

    I have the Razer Blade Stealth late 2016, has been doing great until today Bluetooth died. It's just gone and it looks like its not just me (https://insider.razerzone.com/index.php?threads/razer-blade-2016-bluetooth-gone.14247/). It's annoying that things like this can get past all the reviewers who get stuff out asap then 1 month later customers deal with this crap largely uninformed (I'm not blaming reviewers its just hard to find this info). If I knew about this I would never have bought it.
    probably should have bought the XPS or the MacBook pro and a bag of dongles.

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