If you’re looking to buy a premium, lightweight 13-inch Windows laptop with top-notch build quality and a recognizable brand name, I bet you’ve been recommended at least one of the following two models: the Dell XPS 13 and the HP Specter x360 13.5. These two laptops are the cream of the 13-inch Windows laptop crop. They are expensive, light and pleasing to the eye.
But what exactly are the differences between them and which one should you choose? I have spent a lot of time using these two devices and I am here to help you. A brief spoiler: the Specter is probably the one I’d buy, as it has a number of advantages over the XPS (reflecting its higher price). However, it does have a considerable drawback that you should be aware of.
Okay, let’s get this part out of the way. You can currently buy a Specter x360 13.5 with a Core i7, 16 GB of memory and 1 TB of storage (the configuration I tested) for $1,434.99. A similarly specced XPS 13 has an MSRP of $1,449 but is currently discounted to $1,299 on Dell’s website. (The 1TB model of the XPS 13 can only be purchased with 32GB of RAM.)
That’s a difference of $135.99, which will vary as discounts change. However, that extra money is not completely wasted.
look and feel
This may be the difference between the XPS and the Specter that will impact your daily life the most. They have very different visual vibrations, and one cannot be confused with the other.
I prefer the look of the Specter. It is beautiful and sophisticated. The black model I have has gold accents around the trackpad, on the hinges, and in a few other choice locations, and while they’re subtle, they give the device a smooth C-Suite look. Where the Specter is designed to excel, the XPS is designed to blend in. It has a slightly stickier feel (although it’s not flimsy by any means) and a more generic aesthetic. It’s not ugly, but it wouldn’t look at me again if I passed by.
That said, there’s one more thing Dell’s chassis has going for it: it’s more portable. The Specter weighs in at just over three pounds, which is a bit heavy for modern 13-inchers. The XPS is almost half a pound lighter, and that’s a difference I feel when I carry both laptops in my backpack or bag.
The weight of the Specter has ultimately been the main reason I’ve avoided buying it myself despite loving everything else about it. It’s not heavy by any means, but I still like my netbooks to be a bit more comfortable to pick up and carry with one arm. As someone who travels to and from the office a lot, the XPS is much more pleasant to carry.
I also found that the XPS’s finish scratches more easily, while the Specter’s is much more prone to smudges from fingerprints.
video call experience
The XPS’s webcam isn’t great. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. My backgrounds were often quite wiped out when using it for calls.
The Spectre, while not amazing, is better. The image it produces is much less grainy and works best with bright backgrounds. It also has a physical shutter (controlled via the keyboard), which gives me peace of mind when I’m at home.
The Specter also comes loaded with a set of “beautification” features that HP calls GlamCam. There’s one that’s similar to Apple’s Center Stage and follows you if you’re on the move during your call. There’s a lighting correction filter, which never made much of a difference in my tests. There’s a hilarious “BRB Mode” that, when you activate it, “BRB” on your screen if…you get tired of your Zoom call and need to sneak off for a nap, I guess? And there’s an appearance filter that “touches up” your face. Whether it’s appropriate for laptop manufacturers to enforce these kinds of beauty standards should be had as a separate discussion, but if these effects are something you want, you can get them on the Spectre.
The Specter also has twice as many speakers as the XPS and sounds great, with crisp audio and solid bass. The XPS’s audio isn’t terrible, but it’s a notable notch, particularly in terms of volume. Sometimes I had trouble hearing my calls in public spaces when using that device.
HP wins here. The XPS has a 1920 x 1200 IPS panel, and that’s all you can get. If you want a higher-resolution OLED option, you’ll need to look into the more expensive XPS 13 Plus. That device actually has a much higher resolution OLED screen, but it also has an invisible haptic touchpad, a row of LED features, and some other weird stuff.
The Specter I have has a 3000 x 2000 OLED screen and is divine. There’s hardly any glare, even on the brightest possible settings. Colors are vivid and details sharp. I almost wish I didn’t have to send this unit back to HP because I have such a good time looking at it.
HP’s laptop also has a 3:2 aspect ratio, while the XPS is 16:10. I prefer both to the old classic 16:9, but the 3:2 gives you a little more vertical space and is one of the two I would choose.
This is where the Specter gets into trouble. I averaged just over four hours of continuous use from this OLED device. Even though it has a bigger battery than the XPS, the high-resolution display is greedily eating up battery life.
That poor battery life, while not necessarily unexpected given the screen resolution, is a significant problem for such an expensive device. It’s pretty much my only major complaint about the Spectre; if I could get, say, 10 hours, I’d seriously consider giving it a score of 10 out of 10. It excels in many categories, but the short lifespan makes it a hard sell for people who want to use it on the go.
The XPS fared much better here, averaging six hours and 42 minutes at the same workload. That’s not quite as good as XPS models of recent years, but it’s one of the best results I’ve seen on a recent Windows laptop. With Intel’s offerings these days, all-day battery life in my personal workload has become more of a luxury than a staple.
I don’t want to make a big deal out of benchmark scores on these two devices, as neither is really designed to be used for long periods of time under heavy loads. However, for people who want to know, the scores are above.
The Specter has a slightly more powerful processor than the one available in the XPS. The scores I got are similar but not exactly the same, with the Specter winning in almost every case. If you plan on playing games or exporting video like I did here, you can expect the Specter to be a bit faster. But if those are regular chores for you, none of these devices should be on your favorites list.
In terms of general usage in Chrome, Safari and such, I didn’t see a difference. For office workloads and home entertainment, both computers are fine, and I can’t stress this enough. One thing I did notice is that the Specter is quieter than the XPS. The Dell fans kicked in pretty easily, like after a couple of Chrome tabs, during my testing process. The Specter was cool and quiet during my use, with noise only apparent during intense benchmarking. If you don’t like fan noise, the Specter is the way to go.
Which one should you buy?
Ultimately, the Specter is a step up from the XPS in many important areas. It would be my unquestionable recommendation.
Except for the stinking battery life. Four hours is unfortunate for a device that costs over $1,000. And the difference between four and six hours could be the difference between needing or not needing to take the charger to a coffee shop, getting through a flight, or finishing a school day. That factor alone is a big plus for the XPS.
Despite that shortcoming, I still think the Specter offers better value for money. Its build quality and aspect ratio are quite unique in today’s landscape. I think it offers a package that’s hard to find from other manufacturers right now, and HP is innovating with this in a way that Dell hasn’t with this generation of old-school XPS. That gets me a little more excited about the Specter x360 this year.
That being said, I would like No Blame someone for going with the XPS because until HP figures out how to make a high-res OLED display work well with the 67Wh battery, that lower price and longer battery life are pretty enticing. While Dell’s machine isn’t all that exciting or flashy a product, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being a more pragmatic purchase for many people.