The MacBook Air and the Dell XPS 13 have long been fighting it out for the title of best ultraportable laptop. So, now that we've reviewed the 2020 updates to each of these titans of tech, we're putting them to the test of a round-by-round face-off.
The XPS 13 has long been known as the best laptop there is, and the Dell XPS 13 2020 is no different. However, the MacBook Air 2020 has gotten the new keyboard it needed and some much-welcomed tweaks to its price and value proposition. Is that enough to dethrone Dell? Let's find out.
- MacBook Air 2020 review: The best MacBook for most people
- Check out our Dell XPS 13 2020 review
- Just In: iPhone 12 release date leaked for all four models
This face-off isn't exactly apples to apples, as Macs and PCs have their own differences. Dell offers the XPS 13 2020 with a touchscreen option, and Apple's still yet to make laptops with touch screens.
The first-party services and third-party app ecosystems for each platform are also substantially different, with certain programs and features locking in users for the long haul.
But for those who would consider switching sides, our MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13 face-off packs everything you need to know about how the latest editions of these heavy-hitters stack up.
MacBook Air 2020 vs Dell XPS 13 2020: Specs
|Header Cell - Column 0||MacBook Air||Dell XPS 13|
|Screen||13.3 inches (2560 x 1600)||13.4 inches (1920 x 1200 or 3840 x 2400), with touchscreen option|
|Processor||Intel 10th Gen Core i3, i5 and i7||Intel 10th Gen Core i5 and i7|
|Graphics||Intel Iris Plus Graphics||Intel UHD Graphics, Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645|
|Storage||256GB to 2TB||256GB to 2TB|
|Memory||8GB, 16GB||8GB, 16GB, 32GB|
|Ports||2x Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports||2x Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, 1 microSD reader, USB-C to USB-A adapter included|
|Dimensions||11.9 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches||11.6 x 7.8 x 0.6 inches|
|Weight||2.8 pounds||2.6 (non-touch), 2.8 pounds (touchscreen)|
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Price
While the Apple Tax often rears its head, the MacBook Air can actually be a better value than the XPS 13 in some cases. Right now, the $999 entry-level MacBook Air not only costs $200 less than the $1,199 entry-level Dell XPS 13 — but similarly spec'd models compare favorably on price for Apple. Dell will eventually offer a $999 Intel Core i3 version of the XPS 13, but it's currently out of stock as of this writing.
When you customize the MacBook Air 2020 to match the Dell XPS 13, with a Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, the Air only costs $1,099. That's $100 less than the $1,199 XPS 13. The only asterisk is the performance gap, and I would bet that some people would rather spend the extra $100 for Dell's U-series Intel chip rather than stick with Apple's Y-series processor (see the Performance section of this face-off if you're not convinced).
Apple has done a lot of good to make the MacBook Air more affordable. Not only did it lob $100 off the starting price, but it also doubled the starting storage, from 128GB to a respectable 256GB.
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Design
The MacBook Air is still as sleek as it ever was, especially in Apple's Gold color option. The still-iconic tapered wedge of machined aluminum looks slightly different than its pre-Retina display models, but it's still recognizable. I recommend the gold because the two-tone combination of the Gold deck and black keyboard keys just pops a lot more than if you get a Silver and Space Gray version (though neither of those are inelegant).
The XPS 13 2020, on the other hand, is a marvel of engineering, and manages to improve on Dell's already impossibly sleek design language. This is thanks to Dell's InfinityEdge display, which shaves off nearly all of the bezel for a 91.5% screen-to-body ratio. Not only does this put the MacBook Air's bezels to shame, it makes the thinner iPad Pro bezels look kinda chunky. Plus, Dell even manages to fit a webcam into that tiny top bezel.
The XPS 13's aluminum exterior and arctic white interior pair for a super-clean look, but traditionalists could opt for the silver-and-black model if you want something more subdued.
And when it comes to sheer size and mass, the Dell XPS (11.6 x 7.8 x 0.6 inches, 2.6 to 2.8 pounds) is slightly smaller than the MacBook Air (11.9 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches, 2.8 pounds).
Winner: Dell XPS 13
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Ports
The Dell XPS 13 has the same ports problem as the MacBook Air — both pack dual Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, and no Type-A port.
But Dell makes a step to ease the pain by throwing in a USB-C to USB-A adapter. Plus, the XPS 13 has a microSD reader for expanded storage, which the MacBook Air does not.
Winner: Dell XPS 13.
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Display
The MacBook Air's screen is sharp, bright and colorful, but the XPS 13 gives you more options. For starters, Dell sells a touchscreen XPS 13, something Apple is still refusing to consider for its laptops — and, no, Sidecar mode with an iPad is not an acceptable alternative to a 2-in-1 laptop.
You can also buy the XPS 13 with either a 1080p screen for excellent battery life or a 4K screen for ultra high-definition resolution. The MacBook Air only has one display option, but we can't hate the sharp 2560 x 1600-pixel Retina screen, which is a good middle-ground between Dell's two options.
The Air also has Apple's True Tone display technology, which automatically adjusts the screen's white balance per ambient lighting. The Dell XPS 13 doesn't seem to need that to thrive.
By the numbers, the MacBook Air and XPS 13 are pretty close. Our colorimeter rates the MacBook Air's Retina Display as producing 113% of the sRGB gamut, which is pretty close to the 108% rating from the XPS 13.
On brightness, the MacBook Air's screen falls between both of Dell's displays, producing 386 nits of brightness. That's brighter than the 4K XPS 13 (301 nits) and dimmer than the 1080p XPS 13 (417 nits).
Winner: Dell XPS 13
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Keyboard and trackpad
The biggest news about the 2020 MacBook Air is that it finally has a keyboard we love. But, Dell has also stepped up the typing experience for the XPS 13 2020.
The new MacBook Air's Magic Keyboard is a joy to type on, with keys that feel great to click, and a scissor-switch design that's more trustworthy than the controversial 'Butterfly' mechanism that previous MacBooks relied upon.
That being said, the XPS 13's keys offer similarly satisfying feedback. Plus, Dell improves the experience with a soft-touch keycap coating and the XPS 13's textured, soft wrist rest, which makes typing extra-comfortable.
The XPS 13's keyboard is also edge to edge, which maximizes the laptop's real estate while providing a seamless look.
Both the MacBook Air and Dell XPS 13 offer large trackpads that enable speedy, responsive input. However, I wish Apple would let its trackpad actually click, and forget the Force Touch trackpad that just simulates a click with haptic feedback.
Winner: Dell XPS 13
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Performance
Both the MacBook Air and Dell XPS 13 feature 10th Gen Intel CPUs, but there's a big difference between them. Apple's decision to put less-impressive Y-series Intel processors in the MacBook Air puts that laptop at a disadvantage, as the XPS 13 rocks faster U-series chips.
Our XPS 13 review unit packs a speedy Core i7-1065G7 CPU and 16GB of RAM, which soundly (and predictably) trounces the Core i5-1030NG7 chip and 8GB of RAM in the MacBook Air 2020 we tested. We look forward to testing a Core i5 version of the XPS 13 to see how a more comparable model compares to the MacBook Air.
On Geekbench 5, an overall performance benchmark, the Dell XPS 13 pulled a strong 4,847, which towers over the MacBook Air's 2,738 score.
Similarly, the XPS 13 only needed 15 minutes and 40 seconds to transcode a 4K video to 1080p in Handbrake, which is a lot less time than the MacBook Air (27:10) required.
The Dell XPS 13 scored another win in gaming, even though it packs the same Intel Iris Plus graphics as the MacBook Air. On the Sid Meyer’s Civilization VI test, the MacBook Air only notched a 7, lagging behind the XPS 13's 18.7.
Winner: Dell XPS 13
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Battery life
The Dell XPS 13 doesn't completely dominate the MacBook Air on battery life — though it still impresses. On our battery test (web-surfing at 150 nits) the 1080p XPS 13 lasted 12 hours and 39 minutes, which beats the MacBook Air 2020 (9:31) by more than 3 hours.
Expect much less endurance if you buy the 4K UHD Dell XPS 13, which made it only 8 hours and 14 minutes. This dip in battery life is predictable, as 4K screens take more juice to power.
This is why I prefer the MacBook Air's Retina display. It's not 4K, but it gives you better resolution than 1080p, as well as battery life that's pretty damn good too.
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Audio
Apple's first win of this fight arrives in the audio section, as its speakers get loud without any issue. The good news for both sides is that these smaller machines produce more volume than they have any right to.
When I listened to The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights" and The Arctic Monkey's "Do I Wanna Know?" I was able to fill my loft with sweet, clear sound without any muddling, and the latter had a solid amount of growl in the guitars.
But when Tom's Guide editor-in-chief Mike Andronico listened to Four Year Strong's
"Crazy Pills" on the Dell XPS 13, it "sounded muddy and blown out at max volume."
Winner: MacBook Air
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Software
I'm not here to re-stoke the operating system wars. Windows 10 and macOS are both pretty good operating systems, though each has its own quirks and flaws.
Windows, for example, has been the staging ground of way too many update flaws to keep track of over the last years, and it loves to push updates often. Both Microsoft's and Apple's operating systems support lots of third-party software, though Windows has an edge when it comes to gaming (not that you'll be playing high-end titles on the XPS 13).
The latest macOS Catalina software supports some iPad apps and benefits from Apple Arcade support, but its Sidecar feature for extended screen space is still no answer to touchscreen Windows 2-in-1s. Still, macOS is a better choice for folks already tied into Apple's ecosystem, as you can easily sync files and services between your iPhone, iPad and Mac.
MacBook Air vs Dell XPS 13: Verdict
|Row 0 - Cell 0||MacBook Air||Dell XPS 13|
|Design (10 points)||8||10|
|Ports (5 points)||4||5|
|Display (15 points)||13||15|
|Keyboard and trackpad(15 points)||13||15|
|Performance (10 points)||6||10|
|Battery life (15 points)||13||13|
|Audio (5 points)||5||4|
|Software (5 points)||4||4|
|Value and price (20 points)||17||17|
|Overall (100 points)||83||93|
The MacBook Air 2020 shows that Apple's willing to adjust to user feedback, fixing its keyboard and lowering the starting price. Only time will tell if Apple will give its MacBook Air U-series processors, or if it will reserve them for the MacBook Pros. But with just the right mix of performance and price, the MacBook Air 2020 is the best MacBook for most people.
Meanwhile, the Dell XPS 13 is like Omar from The Wire: the king of the game. The InfinityEdge display is killer, its 1080p battery life is phenomenal and its keyboard makes for excellent typing.
As for the future? Apple is expected to release MacBooks with ARM processors, which could drive their battery test scores into the sky. But for now, the Dell XPS 13 2020 is the best ultraportable around.