Tech Throwdown: 2018 Macbook Air Takes On The Dell XPS 13
Photo: Timothy A. Clary / Contributor (Getty Images)
Apple’s newly announced 2018 MacBook Air is officially available for purchase. As one of the most popular families of laptops in the world, should you buy it?
Welcome to Tech Throwdown, a new regular feature here on Mandatory’s Gear channel where we compare tech to help you spend your money more wisely. Today we will compare Apple’s brand new 2018 MacBook Air to its greatest rival, the Dell XPS 13. Both of these laptops are well-regarded among laptop users, but only one will come out on top.
For this comparison, we’ll pit the Dell XPS 13 with its standard configuration offered at $1,110 against Apple’s equivalent machine at $1,199.
Apple has long been regarded as the standard-bearer on display quality, particularly when it comes to devices equipped with its Retina display. While that reputation largely holds true in 2018, Dell has managed to catch up and in some ways succeed Apple.
This year’s 2018 MacBook Air is the first of its kind to come equipped with a Retina display, even on its $1,199 model. Not only is it just as brilliant as you may remember from previous years, but it delivers a 227 pixel-per-inch density with a 2,560 x 1,600 resolution across a 13.3-inch screen, making cat GIFs glisten like beach water. The glossy finish that extends across the bezel presents a luxurious tone that Apple fans have used to make people with other laptops feel bad about for nearly a decade.
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The XPS 13 combats that firepower with two SKU options: a 1080p screen and a 4K UHD screen. The 1080p option falls just short of what its competitor offers, albeit at a lower cost, providing pricing options that consumers on a budget will benefit from.
However, the 4K UHD option is a clear winner in this category. Not only does it provide more pixels per inch than the Retina screen, but a wider band of color and brightness production resulting in a level of detail never before seen in a laptop of this category. The only problem is this is a $400 option that places the XPS 13 in MacBook Pro territory. The option is nice, but unreasonable for most consumers.
As usual, Apple has opted for a slightly underperforming Intel Core I5-8210Y CPU despite the high-cost entry point of the 2018 MacBook Air — Apple sure likes using older hardware. It is capable of handling just about any application or bloated NSFW website you could throw at it, but what you’re getting is going to be noticeably slower than virtually any other laptop in the price range.
The XPS 13, for example, runs with an Intel Core i5-8250U at 3.4 GHz. In many cases, this means that loading applications will take seconds longer on the 2018 MacBook Air, seconds that you could potentially use to learn how to play a valuable instrument like the tuba.
Apple makes up for this ever-so-slightly with a better performing SSD. On that topic, the 2018 MacBook Air has the fastest storage of any laptop ever released in this price range. It’s multiple times faster than what the XPS 13 comes with, allowing you to move files around like a computer-age gunslinger. Even then, the difference in CPU computing power is much more impactful.
Outside of that, both laptops come standard with a satisfactory 8GB of DDR4 that can be upgraded for a few bucks.
Winner: Dell XPS 13
Six years ago there wasn’t anything in the laptop market that came even close to the design of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. These days, the competition has closed the distance through heavy iteration, making Apple fans everywhere sweat.
The XPS 13 is a perfect example of this with its extremely thin bezel, high-quality materials, and finger-friendly keyboard. Jumping between the two, there’s virtually nothing to complain about. You could toss both of these laptops into the Louvre Museum and watch sightseers gaze at them as they do with Van Gogh paintings.
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But when you look a little closer, there’s no denying that the 2018 MacBook Air is a little better. Its touchpad is larger and more responsive, its shape is sexier, and webcam placement more optimal. By this time next year Dell will have probably matched Apple after nearly a decade of hard-fought battles, but for now, Macbook continues its reign as king of design.
Winner: 2018 Apple MacBook Air
Apple has been bombarded by negative reception during recent years as it’s continued down a rabbit hole of minimizing ports. While the minimalism has helped the 2018 MacBook Air achieve an admirable 0.61 inch in thickness, the Dell XPS 13 manages to outperform it ever-so-slightly at 0.6 inches.
So what’s the real benefit, then? There really isn’t one. The Dell XPS is not only thinner, but it also has way more options when it comes to ports. While the 2018 MacBook Air only offers two Thunderbolt 3 ports, the Dell XPS 13 matches that and then some, tossing in USB-C, DisplayPort, a card reader, headphone jack, and Noble lock slot. Funny enough, you could argue that what Dell includes is disappointing when compared to prior generations, let alone Apple’s depressing two-port solution.
This isn’t just a battle of numbers. The Dell XPS 13’s inclusion of a USB-C port means that you have three ports to directly access a variety of plug-and-play options and you’ll also avoid having to buy a Thunderbolt 3 to USB adapter. Oh, and that headphone jack means you don’t have to rely on wireless solutions when listening to Nickelback. Dell walks away with a big victory here.
Winner: Dell XPS 13
The battery life of both the 2018 MacBook Pro and XPS 13 are comparable, with most deviation depending upon what specs you define. Pricing is also roughly the same, with Dell offering a wider range of options including an $899 base configuration that we don’t recommend since it doesn’t even have enough RAM (4GB) to run Minecraft while browsing YouTube.
The biggest detail to consider is the operating system. While you can technically install whatever you want, the 2018 MacBook Air is built with OSX in mind while the XPS 13 comes with Windows 10 Home. Outside of the difference between ports, this is the element that will have the most profound impact on your user experience, so your purchasing decision should probably most come down to whether or not you’re invested in Apple’s ecosystem.
Make no mistake, both of these laptops are at the top of their class. Priced similarly, both the 2018 MacBook Air and XPS 13 are phenomenal laptops that sit at the entry point of upper echelon laptops, the kind of laptops that will last you years and make you appear sophisticated while sipping Frappuccinos at Starbucks.
Yet, when it comes down to it, the XPS 13 is simply better as a complete product. Its design and display are similarly elegant with the added benefit of way more ports and specs that aren’t already dated on release day. For this reason, XPS 13 gets the nod.