Ultrabooks: Cutting Edge Technology
Small laptops with high resolution. What compromises do you actually have to make when you buy a super-thin 13 inch notebook?
Before ultrabooks became a broad trend in 2011, Apple’s MacBook-Air series was the lone standing winner in the “ultra-thin-laptop” category. Today, many competitors caught up with Apple, and maybe even surpassed them. In this test we take a closer look at three top models in the Ultrabook category. It will be a battle between Apple’s MacBook Pro 13, Dell’s XPS 13 & Asus’ ZenBook 13. We’ll take a closer look at the features that might help some popular current models stand out from the competition. Find out which model is the winner and justifies its high price.
Our Verdict: XPS 13 vs Macbook Pro 13 vs ZenBook 13
Ranking First: Dell XPS 13
- Very compact, noble Ultrabook
- Almost perfect processing
- Outstanding system performance
- Extremely long battery life
- Mirror-free, almost borderless 13-inch display
- Only 256 GB SSD capacity (in the test configuration)
- No USB-A connection (adapter included in delivery)
Solid victory with cutting edge technology
The American manufacturer Dell has achieved a coup in the ultrabook segment with the Dell XPS 13 2019 FHD: The 13.3 inch laptop achieves dream rates in our best list. The reason for this is the excellent performance in the test, the great mobility and the colorful Full-HD display. The Dell XPS 13’s configuration even turns out a bit too up-to-date. We lack many classic connections here. The device isn’t a bargain, but the price for the offered hardware is reasonable in any case.
Ranking Second: Apple Macbook Pro 13
- Powerful processing speed
- Top display
- Long battery life
- Giant touchpad
- Very expensive (very bad price-performance ratio)
- Not upgradable
Good performance for a high price
After first tests of the also new MacBook Air had already pointed to a slower SSD, we had to realize that this change apparently also affects the new 13-inch MacBook-Pro. While the base model from last year could still read 1,881 MBytes per second, the new version only manages 1,321 MBytes. The writing speed hasn’t changed, however. Both versions achieve about 500 MByte/s here.
It’s assumed that Apple has made cuts in order to reduce the costs of the entry level model. If you need maximum performance, you’ll have to resort to the more expensive model with four Thunderbolt 3 ports.
All in all, the testers largely agree that Apple has managed an okay-ish compromise between price and performance with the new 13 inch MacBook-Pro. We would even go so far and advise you to consider the small MacBook Pro as an alternative to MacBook Air because of its speed.
Ranking third: Asus Zenbook
- High processing speed
- WLAN-ac, Bluetooth 4.2
- Good illuminated keyboard
- Long battery life (6:33 hours)
- Extremely light (2.6 lbs.)
- Display with somewhat low color fidelity
- No upgrade options
- Under full load somewhat loud
Crushing the price-performance ratio
All in all, the excellent performance rates and the strong battery life paired with the favorable price of around 900 Dollar ensure that the Asus Zenbook 13 secures one of the top positions in our notebook best list and wins the “best price-performance ratio” Award.
The Asus ZenBook 13 tested here is the perfect mobile companion. The performance is on a solid level due to the current hardware. Despite the low weight, the battery life is sufficient for a standard user for a complete day. If the quiet mode is selected, the ZenBook is almost completely inaudible. Negatively, only a few small things stand out, like the unbalanced keyboard illumination and some software problems.
However, you get a very good product in view of the price. The entry level model with 8 GB Ram and 256 GB memory can be purchased for about 800 Dollar. Alternative laptops with this equipment and a similar battery life usually cost four-digit amounts.
In Detail: XPS 13 vs MacBook Pro 13 vs ZenBook 13
Case: Draw – Apple & Dell
Asus ZenBook 13
The current Zenbook 13 not only convinces with outstanding performance values, but also with an elegant design and an aluminium body. Moreover, manufacturer Asus has managed to keep the case’s overall height very slim: Thus, the device only reaches 0.7 inches at its thickest point when the display is closed. Overall, the dimensions amount to 12.4 inches in width and about 8 inches in depth. The thin notebook reaches a total weight of only 2.4 lbs. Thus, it is one of the lightest notebooks in our best list of notebooks starting at 500 Dollar. Similar to the HP ProBook 430 G6, Asus should have made the plastic frame around the display of its Zenbook even narrower in order to make the notebook look even more stylish.
The large multi-touchpad reacts pleasantly fast and supports all common finger gestures, so that you can work quickly and efficiently on the go. Even the mouse pointer stays in place when one of the two mouse button contacts is triggered. The same high quality is delivered by the keyboard, which has more than adequate stroke length and provides a very pleasant resistance, so you get excellent key feedback. For this reason, the keyboard is also perfectly suited for writing longer texts.
Dell XPS 13: As usual noble in every variation
With regard to workmanship and ergonomics, we can refer almost entirely to the explanations on the predecessor. The high-quality aluminium housing is excellently finished and reminiscent of the MacBook Pro with its matt and minimalist surface. The dimensions of the 13-incher are still minimal and are just 12 x 8 x 0.7 inches. Nevertheless, the thin case remains sufficiently stable and can hardly be twisted.
The XPS 13’s backlit keyboard shows that it can also be too much with the slimness craze, though. Like its predecessor, it is recessed into the C cover and has almost no stroke length. The keys don’t always turn out square, but have a larger width than depth. A lot of space has also been saved around the keyboard. The keys are unusually close to the display and there’s hardly any room for the palm of the hand to rest when writing. All in all, the keyboard feels strange despite the crisp counterpressure. In return, the touchpad is sufficiently large, isn’t sticky and reacts precisely and quickly to input. Only the relatively loud clicking can become annoying in the long run.
Apple MacBook Pro 13
Apple last updated the 13 inch Macbook Pro without touchbar in 2017. If you have an older Macbook and have upgraded, you won’t be disappointed – unless you really don’t care about the touch bar. The new 13-inch 1.4GHz Core i5 Macbook Pro offers an attractive performance boost over its predecessor, especially for software that takes advantage of multiple cores. Combine that power with the new features and you have a laptop that now feels like a true member of the Macbook Pro family.
Touch Bar on all Macbook Pro
Apple introduced the Touch Bar to the world in the Macbook Pro 2016, but did without it in the two cheapest 13-inch models. If you’re not familiar with the Touch Bar It’s a strip of touchscreen that replaces the upper row of function keys found on a typical keyboard.
The interface options displayed in the Touch Bar change depending on the application you’re using on your Mac. For example, if you’re in Safari, you can see buttons from your Favorites, and pressing a button takes you to that particular website. If you have multiple Safari tabs open, they appear in the Touch Bar and you can switch between them by pressing each one. The Finder, Mail, Maps, other Apple and third-party applications display interface options in the Touch Bar. That can be useful for navigating your Mac.
Or you may find the Touch Bar redundant. Many users would rather have the function keys than the Touch Bar because these keys are important for their daily use. But Apple lets you customize the Touch Bar to display the keys you want in the applications you use. You can also go to System Preferences for the keyboard and adjust the Touch Bar so that it always shows the function keys.
We can’t really decide whether to declare the Touch Bar very useful or useless, because every person uses their Mac differently. But we can say that we don’t usually use the Mac by tapping on the Touch Bar while looking at the screen. We just can’t bring ourselves to look at the Touch Bar and use its interface when the same options are available via keyboard shortcuts or a few mouse clicks. Especially developers complain that the Esc key is a bit out of place and doesn’t provide a tactile feel.
Winner: Draw – Dell XPS 13 and Apple MacBook Pro 13
Display: Apple takes it
Asus ZenBook 13
The display measures 13.3 inches and has a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels in Full HD. The maximum brightness was measured at 247.5 candelas per square meter and thus turns out a bit too dark. A value of more than 300 candelas would have been desirable in order to better compensate for possible light reflections. Also the chessboard contrast of 188:1 is at best average. But the viewing angle stability is absolutely ok. And also the color space coverage, which is 93.6 percent in the sRGB range and 74.2 percent in the AdobeRGB segment, is more than satisfactory for a notebook under 1,000 Dollar.
Dell XPS 13
That Dell also offers a 4K version of the XPS 13 doesn’t mean that the Full HD version is necessarily worse. On the contrary: The resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels is completely sufficient on the 13.3 inch screen in everyday use. Those who haven’t yet gotten used to a 4K display won’t miss anything in terms of sharpness. Thanks to the matt IPS panel and the high maximum brightness of 395 cd/m², the Ultrabook is even suitable for outdoor work. The brightness distribution turns out very good with 94 percent; we couldn’t detect any annoying backlight bleeding, i.e. overlighting of individual display areas. There’s also nothing to complain about in terms of viewing angle stability and color representation. The XPS 13 convinces with a natural, unaltered image and covers the sRGB color space to 99 percent and the Adobe color space to a good 76 percent. In return, the checkerboard contrast of 143 to 1 is not a peak value, but is still in the average. A touch screen isn’t available in this version, though.
Apple MacBook Pro 13: Top display
The built-in display is top: razor-sharp, very high-contrast and with good color reproduction. Somewhat surprising: The new display in MacBook Air 2019 is even more accurate when it comes to colour reproduction. Typical for Apple, the high-gloss surface of the display reflects quite clearly. That can be annoying in bright surroundings or with ceiling lamps.
Winner: Apple MacBook Pro 13
Performance & Equipment: XPS 13 wins by a hair
Asus ZenBook 13: Excellent performance, but moderate equipment
The heart of the Asus Zenbook 13 is a powerful Intel Core i5-8265U of the Whiskey Lake generation. This four-core processor was specially developed for notebooks and ultra-books and not only ensures sufficient power but also long battery life. In standard mode, the processor works at 1.6 GHz, but in turbo mode it clocks up to 3.9 GHz. On the one hand, the Intel UHD Graphics 620 integrated in the processor is used as the graphics solution, and on the other, an Nvidia Geforce MX 150 is used for more complex tasks. The latter has 2 GB of dedicated graphics memory. This graphics card solution offers more performance than the internal Intel UHD 620, but games like Battlefield 5, GTA V or The Witcher 3 can only be played with it to a limited extent. However, this extra performance has a positive effect on image editing, among other things. Intel’s UHD Graphics 620, on the other hand, doesn’t have its own graphics memory, but taps the 8 GBytes of RAM when needed. Unfortunately, this cannot be expanded.
Asus provides you with an SSD with a memory volume of 512 GBytes for the data. This should be sufficient for most applications and also provides enough speed when booting the Windows system.
Unfortunately, savings were made in the connectivity options. For example, you look in vain for a display port. For this you have the option of connecting an external monitor or beamer to the notebook via HDMI. You’ll find two USB 3.0 type-A ports and one USB-C 3.0 port in the USB ports. You’ll also look in vain for a separate Gigabit LAN port. However, this can be retrofitted with the included USB 3.0 adapter on RJ45 plugs. The device offers the 802.11ac standard for WLAN connections. Bluetooth devices in version 4.2 can be paired with the notebook. Moreover, the Asus Zenbook 13 has a micro SDXC card reader. You can connect a headset via a combo port for microphone/headphones. And Asus relies on Windows 10 Pro for the operating system.
Dell XPS 13: Ideally equipped for long time operation
The biggest differences to the predecessor are in the hardware used. Dell relies on the newest mobile CPU generation in the current XPS 13 variants. An Intel Core i7-8565U with a base clock rate of 1.8 GHz and a TurboBoost of up to 4.6 GHz is therefore used in the XPS 13 (9380-D8HNF). The CPU is supported by a fast 256 GByte SSD and 16 GByte LPDDR3 RAM with 2.133 MT/s (a high value for notebooks); a dedicated graphics unit is not available.
Thanks to this hardware, the everyday performance could hardly be better. For normal office and internet tasks, the XPS 13 doesn’t even run warm and even complex photo and video editing up to the 4K range is no problem for the device. Or expressed in numbers: The XPS 13 scores a proud 5,286 points in the benchmark test PCMark 8, where neither the current MacBook Pro (5,072 points) nor the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (4,582 points) can keep up.
Unfortunately, little has changed in the rest of the configuration in comparison to the predecessor: The Ultrabook has three USB ports of type C, of which two USB 3.1 Gen 2 and Thunderbolt 3 support, and one 3.1 Gen 1. You’ll search in vain for classic USB A ports. A suitable adapter is included in the scope of delivery, but it’s still quite cumbersome, since currently almost all hard disks and USB sticks still use the “old” standard. The same applies to external monitors: Models with HDMI or DisplayPort can only be connected to the XPS 13 via an adapter. Even the SD card slot has fallen victim to the slimming mania. Only MicroSD cards can be inserted into the device. The admittedly up-to-date, but not quite practical equipment is rounded off with a fingerprint sensor, WLAN-ac and Bluetooth.
In return, we can recommend the pre-installed power management software. It monitors the Ultrabook’s performance and power consumption in the background and automatically adjusts the performance to the current usage. Alternatively, even inexperienced users can influence these two factors thanks to various presets and thus control the performance in a more targeted way than is possible with the on-board resources of the pre-installed Windows 10 Home.
Apple Macbook Pro 13
The dual-core Core i5-7360U processor that was in the older entry-level 13-inch Macbook Pro has been replaced with the quad-core Core i5-8257U. For reference, the current Macbook Air uses a 1.6GHz dual-core i5-8210Y core, and the now defunct 12-inch Macbook uses a 1.2GHz dual-core m3-7Y32 core.
In single-core performance, the new Macbook Pro is about 10 percent faster than its predecessor. The results are similar when you compare the new Macbook Pro to the Macbook Air. An interesting note about the Core i5 processor of the new Macbook Pro: It has a 6 MB cache, while the old Macbook and the current Macbook Air have a 4 MB cache. This difference in cache could be one reason why the new Macbook Pro is faster.
The difference is much bigger when you compare the new Macbook Pro with the 12-inch Macbook, although the Core m3 in the Macbook was never known to be a racing pack, so the 30% difference is not surprising.
The new 1.4GHz Core i5 Macbook Pro is distinguished by its multi-core performance. It has twice as many cores as its predecessor, so it’s not surprising that it almost doubles the performance. The new Macbook Pro also offers more than twice the performance of the current Macbook Air, which has a dual-core processor.
Apple has also improved the graphics on the new laptop that drives the new True Tone Display. Apple has opted for an integrated Intel Iris Plus 645 graphics card, replacing an Intel Iris Plus 640. The 645 uses a 128 MB cache, a plus over the 64 MB of its predecessor, but shared with main memory.
Equipment winner: Dell XPS 13
CPU: Winner: Dell XPS 13
GPU: Winner: Apple MacBook Pro 13
Battery life: Easy win for Dell’s XPS 13
Asus ZenBook 13: Long battery life
The Asus Zenbook 13 delivers excellent battery life in terms of mobility. In our test, this even turns out significantly better than in our current top device, the HP ProBook 430 G6. Thus, the notebook lasts for about 7 hours and 24 minutes in office mode, while it even provides over 11 hours of battery life when playing videos. These are both outstanding values.
Dell XPS 13: Almost two working days without a socket
The endurance is also outstanding, as the new setup obviously manages with significantly less power than the 2018 version. This is the only way to explain why our test device lasts for more than 15 hours in the Mobile Mark benchmark, which simulates the working methods of a typical office user. Thus, you can cover almost two complete working days in battery mode. Easy win for Dell’s XPS 13.
Apple MacBook Pro 13:
We have a somewhat divided relationship to battery life. Here Apple specifies 10 hours and usually Apple’s specifications are pretty accurate, especially compared to other manufacturers. But this time not quite. With the same settings and the same applications as in the MacBook-Air test, we get about 8 hours of battery life, usually a bit more. But we didn’t reach the 10 hours, although our setup is not far from Apple’s “defaults” – and for MacBook Air it worked out fine. But maybe Apple will make the right adjustments with the release of the next macOS in summer to make the full 10 hours more realistic.
Winner: Dell XPS 13