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

By Christina Warren on at

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’ll bring tears to your eyes when your credit card bill arrives.

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 15-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, £1,449 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 (£1,000), the Dell XPS 13 (£1,1290), 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 few quid. And again if I want to rip my photos directly off my SD card like I can with the XPS 13. And yet another few quid 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

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 Civilization 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

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.

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

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 13-inch 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 starts at £899, a full £100 less than the Razer and £550 less than the MacBook Pro.

And 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