Despite the continuing decline in PC hardware sales, the business-class ultrabook market continues to be a hotly contested battleground. There have been some killer releases in the last year – most notably Apple's reinvigorated MacBook Pro – but Dell's venerable XPS remains an industry stalwart.
Can Apple's new darling topple the mighty XPS? We put the two devices head-to-head to find out if Apple has the power to challenge the king of enterprise hardware.
We chose the 15-inch versions of both laptops, because although both are available in smaller, lighter models, there's a lot to be said for a fast, 15in workhorse for those who need to do serious work.
Design and appearance
Dell hasn't refreshed the XPS range for a while, which means that the XPS 15 is already at a slight disadvantage compared to Apple's brand-spanking new, fresh off the assembly line MacBook Pro.
This is immediately apparent when you put them side-by-side; the XPS 15 isn't an overweight machine by any means, but the MacBook Pro makes it look positively flabby. There's a clear difference in thickness between the two machines, and though it's only a couple of millimetres on paper, it feels decidedly pronounced in the flesh.
Whether you prefer the design of the MacBook Pro or the XPS 15 is largely a matter of style these days - in terms of functionality and build quality, there's not a huge amount between them. Both machines are absolutely stunning, and neither would look out of place in even the most cutting-edge boardroom.
Overall, however, we'd go for the XPS over the MacBook Pro. While Apple's smooth, minimalist silver chassis is undoubtedly gorgeous, it's now been aped by so many other manufacturers that it doesn't feel as exciting or special as it once did. It's still a classic design and the absolute pinnacle of production values, but it's no longer particularly eye-catching.
The XPS, on the other hand, is unlike any other laptop on the market. While the lid has the same aluminium finish as the MacBook, its lines are sharp and angular rather than gently rounded, and the screen (which we'll talk more about later) is virtually edgeless. It's also got matte-black fittings set into a carbon fibre keyboard surround. All of this combines to make the XPS look sleek, unique and dangerous in a way that the MacBook just isn't.
One slight hiccup, however, is that the XPS doesn't have a cut-out section or raised lip for easy opening. While you wouldn't think that makes much of a difference, it actually leads to Dell's device being noticeably more awkward to open than the MacBook. It's an irritating oversight, and one that knocks points off an otherwise superbly designed machine.
Verdict: XPS 15
Keyboard and trackpad
Dell has fitted the XPS 15 with an excellent keyboard and trackpad. The keys are responsive, offering a decent travel depth and good, crisp feedback. Similarly, the trackpad is sensitive, with a smooth matte finish that makes gliding your finger over it very easy. Put up against any other laptop, the XPS would win this category by a country mile.
Unfortunately, the XPS is not up against any other laptop. It's up against a MacBook – a family of devices that consistently feature best-in-class inputs. It's fair to say that the MacBook Pro represents Apple's best trackpad and keyboard combo to date, too.
The new butterfly key switch mechanism, first seen on the refreshed 12in MacBook, has been further refined and it's the best laptop keyboard we've ever seen. There's virtually no travel depth - which is usually a negative – but on the flip side, you need barely a whisper of actuation force to trigger a keystroke. It will probably require you to modify your typing style slightly, but once you have, you'll find your fingers dancing over the keys like a concert pianist.
Another small but important element is the individual keys' different sizes. The MacBook's keys are around 15% larger than the XPS 15's, and all directly adjoin each other, leaving virtually no gaps in between. This makes typing noticeably easier, with your fingers having to travel shorter distances in order to reach the correct key. It's also much more aesthetically pleasing when compared to the XPS's noticeably gappy keyboard.
Similarly, the MacBook's Force Touch trackpad dwarfs that of the XPS, providing a surface area that's almost 50% bigger. This makes both standard navigation and touch-based gesture shortcuts much easier and providing a generally more pleasant usage experience.
Verdict: 15in MacBook Pro
Touch Bar and touchscreen
Of course, we'd be remiss to talk about touch controls without mentioning Apple's newest, shiniest feature, the MacBook Pro's OLED Touch Bar. The Touch Bar comes as standard on every 15in MacBook Pro, so those who prefer traditional function keys will be out of luck. Not to be outdone, the XPS 15 follows the more traditional route of providing a touchscreen option – although it's only available on the most expensive model.
Having a touchscreen is essential for 2-in-1s and convertibles, but it's less useful for traditional notebooks. You're most likely to use it for navigating menus and the like, rather than any deeper interactions. While it does make the XPS easier to use in cramped environments, it's not all that convenient in general, day-to-day use, as it requires lifting your hands off the keyboard.
Paradoxically, we feel the Touch Bar – despite being much smaller and more limited – is actually more practical for a standard laptop. It replaces the function keys, which means it's conveniently placed for interacting with while typing, and its actual use cases are handy and well thought-out: as well as shortcuts for things like volume and brightness, context-specific actions will also appear on the Touch Bar, such as prompts asking if you want to save your work when you close a document.
It won't make a huge difference to the way you work right away, but the beauty of it is that over time, it will subtly make many of your interactions faster and more efficient. After using it for a few weeks, you'll find that it makes much more sense in practise than the XPS 15's touch panel.
Verdict: 15in MacBook Pro
The most striking element of the XPS 15 is its InfinityEdge display – a panel with virtually no bezel around the outside of the screen. Not only does that reduce the device's footprint while still maintaining the 15in screen size, it also makes the display appear more eye-catching, and impressive as hell. Once again, the XPS looks striking and unique, while the MacBook Pro does nothing unexpected.
The XPS is matte-coated too, which means that screen glare – especially from harsh office lighting – is all but entirely eliminated. However, the matte finish has the unfortunate effect of leaving colours appearing somewhat muted. We also thought that it caused a small amount of distortion, making images seem very slightly fuzzier than they should have been.
Aside from this, there's little to complain about when it comes to resolution - most models come with a 1080p Full HD panel, which is more than sufficient for working, watching movies or browsing the web. A touch-enabled 4K version is also available, but we feel it's an unnecessary level of overkill on a 15in laptop. It's just going to put a massive strain on your machine's battery life in the name of a barely-perceptible increase in resolution.
It's also worth noting that the 4K panel is the only touch-enabled one, which means if you want touch interactions, you're going to have to shell out for an expensive screen, too. Given that touch controls on a laptop are almost as pointless as 4K, we would recommend sticking to the more cost-effective 1080p model.
Moving onto the MacBook Pro, Apple has (unsurprisingly) bagged a winner yet again. The company's laptops routinely carry best-in-class displays, and the MacBook Pro's Retina screen is no exception. Contrast, brightness and colour accuracy are all as good as you could hope for; it's a genuinely spectacular screen across the board.
Apple's ultrabook trumps the XPS in just about every display category – it's around 40% brighter, with a much higher contrast ratio and punchier, more vibrant colours. While Dell's screen is far from a let-down, it just can't keep up with the MacBook Pro.
Verdict: 15in MacBook Pro
Ports and features
It's here that the XPS gets a serious advantage. While Apple has taken the decision to go all-in on Thunderbolt 3 ports, the Dell XPS retains a pleasingly wide variety of inputs, including an SD card reader, an HDMI output, two USB 3.0 slots with powershare and a Thunderbolt 3 port.
This puts the XPS squarely ahead when it comes to business use-cases, especially when it comes to hot-desking or mobile working. Rather than having to shell out on new monitors, docking stations and peripherals, managers can outfit their workforces with XPS units safe in the knowledge that all their existing equipment will integrate with no issues.
That's not to say that Apple's choice to go Thunderbolt-only isn't without merit, however. Because Thunderbolt can handle both power and data transfer, connecting all your desk equipment to a dock means that you only need to use one cable to connect to the MacBook itself, making it much easier to rapidly switch between desk-based and mobile work.
On balance, however, it's the XPS that wins here – if only for the sake of convenience. We've had a couple of issues with the MacBook's lack of ports, such as being away from our dock and needing to retrieve some data from a flash drive - a simple task rendered infuriatingly difficult by its Thunderbolt-only configuration.
Verdict: XPS 15
Next: Specs, performance, battery life and overall verdict.