The two biggest new laptops of 2020 are the Dell XPS 13 and Apple’s MacBook Air. Both have been updated with new features and designs, and you may be wondering which is the better option. I spent weeks with both devices, trading off the two laptops as my daily driver. Here’s everything you need to know about how these two laptops stack up against each other.
The Dell XPS 13 is the better buy
The XPS 13 and MacBook Air are both premium laptops. Neither represents the best value for the components that come inside. Instead, they package those parts in excellent build quality and world-class design. I prefer the stark white look of the XPS 13 and its ultra-thin bezels, but I won’t say the MacBook Air isn’t a looker. It hasn’t changed visually since its major overhaul in 2018, but the full aluminum unibody is pretty as ever — especially in Gold.
But let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat. Baseline price. Both companies have $999 starting models, but Dell has a performance advantage. Its newest base configuration has an 11th-generation Core i3 processor with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. The MacBook Air offers a 10th-generation Core i3 chip with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.
While the baseline MacBook Pro has the older CPU, it has a higher-resolution screen than the XPS 13. At 2,560 x 1,600, it has a sharper pixel density than what you get in other 13-inch laptops, including the XPS 13. Though the XPS 13’s 1,920 x 1,200 display is delightful and bright, the Air is noticeably crisper.
The XPS 13 has much more room to grow in the more expensive configurations. The XPS 13 can be upgraded with 32GB of RAM and the same 2TB of storage, while also featuring a 4K screen. Of the two, however, it’s the only PC offering a touchscreen.
Ultimately, when you max out both devices, the cost is only $100 more with the XPS 13. It’s worth the extra for the faster memory, newer processor, and higher resolution.
The Dell XPS 13 is the faster laptop
When you look at the price points where these two laptops intersect, the XPS 13 already has a steady lead. For example, the $1,299 price starts you with a quad-core 10th-generation Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD. The MacBook Air with the same starting price has a 10th-generation quad-core Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD.
While it’s true that the XPS screen isn’t as pixel-dense, the performance takes a huge leap. The XPS 13 is the most powerful 13-inch laptop I’ve ever tested. It offers raw strength that most laptops of this size don’t. In top-tier configurations like the Core i7, it even outperforms the MacBook Pro.
Apple originally touted its latest Core i5 MacBook Air as twice as powerful as previous models. But don’t be fooled — it’s a less powerful processor. With only 9 watts of power draw, it can’t keep up with the 15-watt Core i5 chips used in other XPS 13 configurations. A lower thermal profile means tighter restrictions on heat, and therefore, performance.
Will you notice the difference? Yes, though it depends on the workload. If your daily routine consists of Chrome, Spotify, Netflix, Slack, and YouTube, you likely won’t feel the disparity in processing power. Even with dozens of tabs and many applications open, the Core i3 MacBook Air will be unfazed. As I noted in the review, you can even pull up GarageBand or iMovie to do some light content creation.
But if you’re a photographer working with high-resolution photos in Lightroom, or an extreme multitasker looking to power multiple 4K monitors, the extra bandwidth of the XPS 13 is helpful.
It’s also the go-to choice for a laptop to travel with. The XPS 13 is both thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air, and thanks to thin bezels, has a significantly smaller footprint.
It will also last a few hours longer than the MacBook Air on a single charge to let you squeeze in some extra work on that long work trip.
There’s a caveat there, though. The MacBook Air will maintain similar battery life no matter what configuration you use. The XPS 13 will dip by a couple of hours once you equip it with the optional 4K screen. When upgraded, the XPS 13 is closer to the MacBook Air in battery life.
Windows, Mac, and Apple
The ecosystem is something to consider. There’s no question that iPhones, Apple Watches, AirPods, and MacBooks pair really well together. Having iMessage, iCloud, and AirDrop across all platforms is undeniably convenient. It’s what Apple has always done so well, and while you might hack together a similar solution with Windows apps — Dell’s Mobile Connect and Microsoft’s Your Phone Companion for Android) — it’s just not the same.
When you purchase Apple’s MacBook Air, Apple’s suite of applications also comes free. Microsoft’s Office suite is preferred by most, but you’ll need to pay extra to bundle that in with the Dell XPS 13. While neither the Mac App Store nor Microsoft Store will knock your socks off, Apple’s Mac Catalyst program is seeing more iPad apps ported over to the Mac. That could have some serious potential for the future of the Mac app ecosystem.
Most people strongly prefer MacOS or Windows. But today, there’s far less difference than there used to be. MacOS offers better trackpad gestures, while Windows has full touchscreen support. Windows has facial authentication for quickly unlocking the device, while Touch ID on MacOS can be used for things like payment and user profile authentication.
Both Windows 10 and MacOS are modern pieces of software supported by annual software refreshes and security updates. Neither receives the kind of development attention mobile platforms get, but in terms of stability, you can’t go wrong.
Apple MacBook Air vs. Dell XPS 13: Which should you buy?
In its latest iteration, the MacBook Air has a good keyboard (finally) and is appropriately priced. However, when you compare Apples to Dells at the $999 price point, the XPS 13 is the better deal despite the lower screen resolution.
But even as you push into the higher echelon of configurations, the Dell XPS 13 leaps ahead. It offers better performance, a more attractive design, and an excellent optional 4K display. XPS 13 models priced above $1,500 defeat not only the MacBook Air but also Apple’s MacBook Pro 13.