Which premium ultraportable laptop is better?

It’s no secret that Apple and Dell produce some of the most capable high-end laptops. Apple’s MacBook family has pushed the envelope for years in terms of slim, lightweight and stylish notebook PCs. Similarly, the Dell XPS lineup — particularly the 13-inch version — has been hailed as the best laptop on the planet more than once.

So how do you decide between the two? Neither is exactly cheap, but they’re both far from the most expensive options. The latest MacBook Air uses Apple’s groundbreaking M1 chipset, while Dell recently upgraded to Intel’s redesigned P-class CPUs.

Despite major hardware differences between Apple’s and Dell’s flagship ultraportables, the operating systems set them apart more than anything else. MacOS is routinely regarded as the most user-friendly, frustration-free experience in computing, although the constantly refined Windows 11 platform aims to dethrone it. 

Apple MacBook Air M1

The MacBook Air currently serves as the base model MacBook. In other words, it’s the least premium laptop Apple actively sells as new. But that doesn’t mean it’s a low-end notebook PC — not by any stretch of the imagination.

Along with the current MacBook Pro, the Air showcases the first chipset Apple’s in-house engineers have ever developed. It’s built around what’s called an ARM architecture, just like smartphone processors, as opposed to the x86 architecture that Windows PCs and older, Intel-based MacBooks use.

This M1 chipset is the first ARM microchip to reliably run a full-fledged laptop operating system, and it has some pros and cons. It has the potential for more efficient power use, although that depends on exactly how you use it. It has significantly more power than any previous ARM chipset, but it can’t quite compete with less-efficient x86 designs. 

Apple MacBook Air M1 pros

  • Sleek, stylish design: Unsurprisingly, the MacBook Air continues Apple’s legacy of great-looking laptops with light weights, slim bodies and a premium fit and finish.
  • User-friendly software experience: You won’t have to do much customization to get the most out of the MacBook Air and its macOS platform.
  • Better battery life than previous MacBooks: The efficiency of the M1 chipset means the computer uses less power than older models did for similar tasks.
  • Top-of-the-line display quality: Its high-resolution Retina-class display delivers pristine clarity and an impressively wide color gamut.
  • High-precision touchpad: MacBooks, including the M1 Air, consistently get top marks for touchpad performance.
  • Above-average microphone and speaker arrays: As usual, the latest MacBooks sound and record surprisingly well for such portable laptops.

Apple MacBook Air M1 cons

  • Processing power isn’t great: M1 MacBooks struggle to run the most demanding programs, such as advanced video editing software.
  • Limited input/output and external monitor options: The ARM chipset, while efficient, doesn’t offer the same kind of connectivity in terms of peripherals that x86 platforms offer. M1 MacBooks are inherently limited to just one secondary monitor.
  • Lack of support for 32-bit apps: The exclusively 64-bit nature of the microprocessor design prevents it from running legacy apps that Windows can usually handle with minimal issues.
  • No touchscreen options: Par for the course for Apple laptops, there is no touchscreen option on any M1 MacBook.

Apple MacBook Air M1

Apple MacBook Air M1

When picking a new MacBook, make sure to get one with plenty of storage for your needs, because it doesn’t have an SD card slot and is extremely difficult to upgrade. Sold by Amazon

Dell XPS 13

The XPS 13 does a great job upholding its long-standing reputation. It’s equipped with your choice of one of Intel’s newest, most interesting laptop CPUs. The 12th-generation P-class chipset consists of two to six high-performance CPU cores in addition to eight high-efficiency cores. It’s engineered to enable and disable these cores as needed to balance power usage and processing capabilities.

Unlike the most recent MacBooks, Dell’s XPS family lets you choose the perfect set of components for your needs. In particular, there’s a selection of high-quality displays ranging from Full HD resolutions to a nearly 4K OLED touchscreen.

Dell XPS 13 pros

  • High levels of performance: At the top end, the Intel Core i7-1280P delivers quite a bit of firepower. Even the midrange Intel Core i5 version packs a punch.
  • Premium keyboard: Unlike many laptops, Dell makes a point of providing a pleasant typing experience. There’s a moderate amount of key travel and just enough tactile feedback to enable the fastest, most accurate typing you’re capable of.
  • Excellent display options: The base model 1920 by 1200 display is good on its own, and the upgraded UHD+ and 3.5K OLED touch screens are about as good as they get.
  • Thunderbolt 4 connectivity: Thunderbolt 4 improves on its predecessor by guaranteeing enhanced compatibility and a minimum level of performance.

Dell XPS 13 cons

  • Relatively high price: It starts more expensive than the MacBook, and that costs gets even higher quickly as you look at more high-end configurations.
  • Merely average battery life: Despite the newly efficient CPU design, the MacBook edges out the XPS 13 in terms of battery life.
  • Some users report overheating issues: Its heat management is less than ideal. This means two things. One, the outside shell gets hot quickly, especially if you’re multitasking. That’s not really a functional problem — it means heat is, in fact, escaping the components effectively —but it can be uncomfortable. More importantly, poor heat management means the CPU and other components will throttle themselves sooner, which reduces performance at inconsistent rates. At least you don’t have to worry about stability, because the throttling basically ensures the internals won’t get damaged.

Dell XPS 13

Dell XPS 13

Ordering directly from the manufacturer gives you the widest range of configurations to choose from. Sold by Dell

Should you get the Apple MacBook Air M1 or Dell XPS 13?

If you want to get to work without ever worrying about tweaking settings or installing minor, helpful apps, the MacBook Air with its powerful macOS platform is the right choice. This is because macOS is tailored to deliver a convenient experience with minimal user input.

If you need peak performance, or if your workflow includes resource-intensive or any 32-bit programs, you’ll prefer the Dell XPS 13. Its highly capable hardware can run a huge range of software, both modern and legacy, and it’s available in several high-powered configurations.

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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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