When it comes to finding the best laptop, there are so many potential contenders that it can be difficult to sift the best from the rest – which is why we've put together this guide comparing the latest Dell XPS 13 laptop with the new M1-powered Apple MacBook Air.
It means Windows vs macOS, of course, but there are plenty of other specs and considerations to take into account as well. We'll explain everything you need to know about these laptops, in a friendly and jargon-free way that won't leave your head spinning.
These laptops were both refreshed in 2020 from earlier models with the same name, which is why we sometimes refer to them as the Dell XPS 13 (2020) and the Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020) – just so it's absolutely clear which Dell and Apple laptops we're referring to.
Dell XPS 13 (2020) vs Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020): design and screen
While there are plenty of differences when it comes to the 2020 editions of the Dell XPS 13 and the Apple MacBook Air, there are also some similarities: both follow the design principles of previous models in their respective ranges, and both come with a 13.3-inch screen in a 16:10 aspect ratio (which fits more on screen vertically, making them good for browsing the web or reading documents).
Dell gives you the choice of either a 1920 x 1080 pixel or 3840 x 2160 pixel resolution, whereas your only option on the Apple laptop is 2560 x 1600 pixels: that covers pretty much all the bases between them. Both displays are sharp and bright and perfectly good for whatever you need to do with them, and the size means these are two very compact laptops as well – easy to slide into a bag or briefcase.
Specifically, the Dell XPS 13 measures 296 mm x 199 mm x 14.8 mm (11.7 inches x 7.8 inches x 0.6 inches), and comes with a premium-feeling carbon fibre finish. It's hard to complain about the build quality or the typing and trackpad experience on this laptop, as everything about the design and finish is superb, and you even get a choice of colours for the laptop – either black or white.
The Apple MacBook Air, meanwhile, measures 304 mm x 212 mm x 16.1 mm (11.7 inches x 8.3 inches x 0.6 inches), so there's not much in it at all between the two portable computers. With a starting weight of 1.23 kg (2.7 pounds), the Dell XPS 13 is slightly lighter than the Apple MacBook Air at 1.29 kg (2.8 pounds), but again there's not a huge amount in it. These are both ultra-compact, ultra-lightweight laptops.
Apple barely touched the design of the MacBook Air for the 2020 refresh – all the changes were internal – and to be honest there were no modifications necessary. The Apple laptop design remains iconic, with a typing and trackpad experience that's among the best there is. The laptop is fantastically finished with aluminium, and you get three different colours to pick from with this laptop: gold, silver, and space grey.
You probably want to know about ports too, and the M1-powered Apple MacBook Air for 2020 makes do with a 3.5 mm headphone jack, plus two USB-C ports that also function as Thunderbolt 4 ports and ports for charging your laptop. The Dell XPS 13 2020 features a 3.5 mm headphone jack, a microSD card reader, and two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, so there's not much to choose between the laptops here either.
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Dell XPS 13 (2020) vs Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020): specs and performance
Moving on to the internal specs and the resulting performance, and it's worth pointing out right at the top that both these laptops – like most laptops – are available in a choice of configurations, depending on how much power you need and how much you're prepared to spend. While we can talk about the specs available at the time of writing, it's always worth checking the latest options on the Dell and Apple websites.
When it comes to the Dell XPS 13, your options go all the way up to an 11th-gen Intel i7-1185G7 processor, a generous 32GB of RAM, integrated Intel Iris Xe graphics, and a maximum of 2TB in SSD storage – those are excellent specs, especially for a laptop that's so compact and light. It's going to be able to breeze through most tasks, unless you're really testing it with high-end games or heavy-duty video gaming.
Over on the Apple side, it's the internal specs that are the most notable feature of the 2020 MacBook Air: it's one of the first laptops to feature the new, custom-made Apple M1 chip as its processing unit, a piece of silicon which is attracting rave reviews for its performance and its low power consumption (the MacBook Air is completely fanless, by the way). For just about everything – again, high-end gaming is the exception – the M1 will serve you very well indeed.
Besides the processor, the other specs you can look forward to if you buy the Apple MacBook Air are 8GB or 16GB of RAM, and 256GB, 512GB, 1TB or 2GB of internal SSD storage – an ample selection for the majority of users. While the new M1 processor requires some older and traditional desktop programs to be emulated, we didn't notice any real issues or slowdowns in our testing.
Battery life impresses on the MacBook Air as well: we managed to eek out 14-15 hours between charges while using the laptop normally, and even pushing it with some mid-tier games only ; even intensive gaming can only knock the battery level down about 25% per hour. This is a laptop that you can take away from the office or the home and feel confident that you're not going to be searching for a charger by the evening (the M1 chipset really helps here too).
As for the Dell XPS 2020, it's way behind the Apple laptop in the battery life category – we only got between 5-6 hours of general use during our time reviewing the laptop. That was with the 4K screen though, and with the display at full brightness, so with the lower resolution display and/or some tweaks you can probably stretch the time between charges a bit further. That said, battery life is clearly an area where the Apple MacBook Air 2020 comes out on top.
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Dell XPS 13 (2020) vs Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020): price and verdict
It should be clear by now that these are two of the very best laptops on the market right now, which means you should be prepared to pay accordingly. The embedded widgets on this page should give you the very latest prices for the Dell XPS 13 (2020) and the Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020), but whichever one you decide to go for, you're probably going to have to do some saving up.
At the time of writing, you can buy the Dell XPS 13 direct from Dell for £949 / $799.99 and up, and the Apple MacBook Air direct from Apple for £999 / $999 and up. Again, it's worth emphasising that these prices shift a lot over time – especially in the case of the laptops Dell sells – and as you start to go up through the gears to the more powerful internal specs on these models, the price starts rising quite steeply.
It is fair to say that you can get the Dell XPS 13 for a touch less than the Apple MacBook Air if you get the basic editions, but at the higher price points there's really not much in it. Of course you have to factor in all the other considerations when you're comparing those prices, and what you get for your money – think about whether you're going to be able to carry on using your existing peripherals with your new laptop for example (if not, it'll cost you extra to upgrade them).
We haven't mentioned Windows or macOS yet, and while the two operating systems are both slick, intuitive and powerful, there are plenty of differences between them too. At this stage you probably have your favourite, and if you're more comfortable with either Windows or macOS then that's likely to make a significant difference when it comes to deciding whether the Dell XPS 13 or the Apple MacBook Air is the upgrade for you.
The M1-powered Apple MacBook Air is undoubtedly one of the laptops of 2020 and one of the best laptops full stop – it's been wowing reviewers in terms of its performance, and unless you have a particular affection for Windows or want to play some top-tier Windows games, it's very difficult to argue against it as the best laptop upgrade you can make right now. It even leaves out the Touch Bar, which is an extra gimmick that feels a bit out of place on the MacBook Pros.
However, the Dell XPS 13 is also an excellent choice for your next laptop: it's compact, it's powerful, and it's stylish. The XPS 13 is often at the top of the best laptop lists every year, and it's not difficult to see why. If you much prefer Windows on your laptop, or you prefer the Dell aesthetic, then this is also a great pick that we can wholeheartedly recommend. As always, shop around for the best price before you make a purchase.
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