Best Laptops 2018: Google Pixelbook Vs. MacBook Pro 13 Vs. HP Spectre 13 Vs. Dell XPS 13 (Review)
Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell all offer solid new versions of their flagship 13-inch models. And Google has entered the fray with its Pixelbook. I’ve been using all four. So which one comes out on top?
(Note this is an update to a previous post and adds the Google Pixelbook because of its significance in 2018. Changes have been made throughout, including a change to the rankings. And note that biometric and keyboard notes are at the bottom.)
The configurations that I’ve been using are: The late-2017 Google Pixelbook with a 1.2-GHz Intel Core i5-7Y57 (7th Generation) 8GB of memory and 128GB of storage. The late 2017 HP Spectre 13 with 8th Generation Intel quad-core processor (Core i7 855oU), 8GB memory, 256GB of storage. The late 2017 version (9360) of the Dell XPS 13 with the same 8th gen Intel quad-core processor and a config of 16GB/512GB. And the mid-2017 13-inch MacBook Pro with 7th Generation Intel processor (Core i5 rated base speed of 2.3 GHz), 8GB of memory, and 128GB of storage.
I’m going to rate the laptops on six key metrics in order to keep the comparison as concise as possible.
At 2.45 pounds, the HP Spectre is the second lightest (after the Pixelbook) and uses both machined aluminum and carbon fiber. The design is impressive because it squeezes a quad-core processor into an impossibly-thin 0.41-inch thick chassis. And it’s definitely a looker.
The Dell XPS 13 is about 2.7 pounds and its tiny display bezels and weaved carbon fiber palm rest give it a distinct look.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro is just over 3 pounds but it’s built like a tank with its sturdy all-aluminum construction.
The 12.3-inch Pixelbook’s thinness (a tablet-like 0.4-inches) and weight (2.4 pounds — making it even lighter than the HP Spectre 13) make it a totable wonder (something I definitely notice when I put it in my bag). Despite this, the all-aluminum chassis feels very solid/durable.
Winner(s): HP Spectre and Google Pixelbook. The HP laptop is pushing the boundaries of ultra-thin industrial design but still delivers good (quad-core) performance. And HP redesigned the 2017 Spectre 13, using thinner display bezels, reducing the footprint. The Pixelbook is a stunningly thin design that can match anything the Windows and Mac world can throw at it. And it has become my go-to laptop for trips because it’s easy to tote around and has great weight distribution (an underrated metric, imo).
I’ll add that the Dell XPS 13 has become an icon for 13-inch laptop design with its thin display bezels and compact 12-inch laptop form factor. But the design is beginning to age a bit. When/if I get my hands on the redesigned 2018 Dell XPS 13 (model 9370) that may change.
The MacBook Pro still looks great and is also an iconic design seen in coffee shops and airports across the world.
Performance: I will focus on the biggest gap in performance. That is the gap between Spectre/XPS and the MacBook. In other words, HP and Dell have updated their offerings with the latest Intel 8th Gen quad-core. Apple has not: the latest MacBook Pro 13 uses 7th gen dual-core processors. This is a pretty big deal because, for the first time, svelte 13-inch laptops are able to tap into Intel quad-core performance.
Will the average consumer notice the performance gap between the 8th-gen Spectre/XPS and 7th-gen MacBook? Probably not. Will the more performance-conscious notice? Yes.
That’s the key takeaway for me. That is, the 8th gen quad-core feels faster (to me) and is a lot faster if you go by raw benchmarks. MobileTechReview is seeing a 40 percent jump in performance (7:40 mark in the video) for some operations. That’s big for a gen-to-gen comparison.
Winner(s): Both HP and Dell because they’ve gone quad-core while maintaining ultra-slim form factors with good battery life. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the MacBook’s 7th gen Intel processor a slouch. And on every-day tasks, it’s more than adequate.
And I’ll add that the Pixelbook — despite its very-low-power 7th gen Intel processor — is incredibly fast in day to day use with no lag. I’ve put it to the test running lots of Chrome tabs, a photo editing app, social media apps, and Microsoft Office/Word (now available on Chrome OS).
Battery life: It’s a close call between the Dell XPS (60 watt-hour battery), the MacBook Pro (54.5 WHr battery), and Pixelbook (41 WHr battery). Battery life is dependent on so many factors, so I’ll give a range.
Dell XPS 13: you could see 10-12 hours (i.e., all-day) if you keep a tight lid on things like screen brightness, video binging, and gaming. Otherwise, it could be a lot less (like 6 – 8 hours or less). And that applies to browsers too for all four laptops. Run a browser with lots of tabs open running background processes, and you’re going to take a battery hit.
MacBook Pro 13: could get you up into the 10-plus hour range. Again, that means keeping close tabs on power usage. If you don’t watch power usage, then you’re talking 6-8 hours or less.
HP Spectre (43.7 WHr): more than 6 hours, maybe 7 or more, depending on how much you task the processor and display.
Pixelbook: easily delivers all-day battery life, even with its small battery. With intermittent use throughout the day (totaling 4-5 hours each day), it has lasted for two days without needing a recharge.
Winner(s): Pixelbook and Dell XPS 13. Pixelbook: Chrome OS is essentially a mobile OS running on a laptop. Another way to put it: you get iOS/iPad-like battery life. The XPS excels at balancing fast quad-core performance with battery life. And that’s even with the QHD+ display (on the config I’m using). You’ll get even more battery life with the FHD display model (which I don’t have).
The MacBook Pro won’t disappoint. And HP does a commendable job considering how incredibly thin-and-light the Spectre is.
Display: Both the Dell XPS 13 and MacBook Pro have very-high-resolution displays. The XPS’ QHD+ touchscreen has 3,200-by-1,800 resolution and the MacBook has 2,560-by-1,600. Note that on cheaper configs, Dell uses an FHD display. The HP is a 1,920-by-1,080 FHD and now has a touch-screen as standard. Regarding color accuracy, I’m going to defer to reviewers (below) who have more expertise than me.
XPS 13: a few of the reviews I’ve seen (including Lisa Gade’s) say Adobe RGB and/or DCI P3 (see here for DCI P3) coverage is a bit lacking on the Dell. I’ll add that it’s something I don’t notice. I eyeballed (very unscientific, by the way) the XPS 13 against my very-accurate LG 27-inch UltraFine 5K display and saw little variation in color quality between the LG and Dell.
MacBook Pro: Apple is really good at making sure its displays are always top notch. The MacBook Pro DCI P3 rating is very high (good). And nits (brightness) is very high too.
HP Spectre: excellent. I’m not sure what HP has done with its 1,920-by-1,080 display but it’s probably the best FHD display I’ve seen on a 13-inch laptop.
The Pixelbook’s 12.3-inch 2,400-by-1,600 touchscreen display is bright and beautiful. Of course, “beautiful” is subjective and very unscientific. But my impression nonetheless.
Winner: MacBook Pro 13. The MBP wins for color accuracy and brightness and for offering a Retina high-resolution display as standard. Display technology is a religion for Apple and it shows.
Ports: the Pixelbook, XPS 13, HP, and MacBook Pro all do a decent job with ports considering how thin, compact, and light all the laptops are. They all have USB Type C Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.X ports (Type C).
For example, the HP Spectre’s bump on the back provides two Thunderbolt 3 USB Type-C and one USB 3.1 Type-C. The XPS 13 has two standard USB 3.0 (one w/PowerShare) and one Thunderbolt 3 USB Type-C. The MBP 13 (my low-cost config) has two USB Type-C ports.
The Pixelbook’s USB Type-C ports support 4K display output.
Winner: No vendor really stands out.
Price/bang-for-buck: this, for obvious reasons, is paramount for most people. After all, any vendor can charge a lot of money for a spec’d out laptop with a UHD display, fast processor, 16GB of RAM, and a big solid-state drive. The trick is hitting the sweet spot. That means a decently configured system at a reasonable price with good quality.
Winner(s): HP Spectre and Pixelbook. The Spectre with 8GB/256GB/8th Gen Intel quad-core Core i5 processor is priced at $1,299 ($1,399 with an Intel Core i7-8550U). For that, you get a fetchingly light laptop with a great display and good build quality. And it’s as fast as an ultra-thin laptop gets. The Pixelbook starting at $999 seems a lot for a Chromebook but, as I said above, this can go toe to toe with any Windows laptop or MacBook. It now runs all of the apps that I use on my Windows laptops and MacBook. So, that’s just not an issue anymore for me.
Overall Winners: Pixelbook and HP Spectre.
Pixelbook: A great 2-in-1 convertible design with instant-on, good performance, good battery life, and a beautiful display. Just as importantly, Chrome OS has arrived. True, it won’t run some popular applications. But I’m not going to go through a litany of apps not available on Chrome (like I used to do) because that’s not the case anymore. It runs virtually all of the apps I run on my Windows laptops and Macbook and runs Android apps, to boot. And I really like the Chromebook platform because it’s secure, stable, easy to use, and self-maintains. And Chrome OS is more like mobile operating systems such as Android and iOS — a refreshingly clean break from the old, creaky DOS/Windows/Mac platforms.
HP wins for being eminently totable (2.45 pounds) and squeezing an Intel quad-core processor into a thin-but-durable laptop. It’s costly to build an incredibly thin/light laptop that’s this sturdy. And the Spectre is drop-dead gorgeous. And it does not show fingerprint/body oil (compared to the XPS black trackpad and palm rest, which do). You also get very good audio*, an excellent 1,920-by-1,080 display, reasonable battery life, and a 256GB SSD. One drawback I didn’t like was the display hinge, which won’t allow you to tilt the display as far back as the XPS and MacBook displays can go. (The Pixelbook’s is a 360-degree hinge.)
The MacBook Pro 13 (mid-2017) is a very high-quality laptop and you can find one these days (discounted) for about $1,150 with a 128GB SSD, 8GB RAM, and Intel 7th gen processor. Up the SSD to 256GB, however, and the price jumps pretty considerably. Price and the absence of Intel’s latest quad-core processors are the only things holding the MacBook back. That said, it’s a laptop that you’d never regret buying (imo) and will last for years.
The Dell XPS 13 is also one of the best laptops on the planet but the fact that it hasn’t changed externally in years is a downside. Perhaps the redesigned 2018 XPS 13 9370 will breath new life into the XPS aesthetic.
Addendum – biometrics: The Dell XPS 13 comes with a fingerprint reader and the Spectre has facial recognition via Windows Hello. Both are essential and shouldn’t cost extra. You have to pay $1,799 to get a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar that has an integrated fingerprint reader. The Pixelbook has neither face nor fingerprint recognition.
Addendum — keyboard: With the goal of keeping the comparison as concise as possible, I skipped the keyboard. That said, I found no glaring problems with the keyboards/trackpads on the Pixelbook, XPS 13, Spectre 13, or 13-inch MacBook Pro. The only remarkably different keyboard is the MacBook Pro’s Butterfly keyboard, which has limited travel and the tactile feedback can be less than satisfying for some users. That said, I like the butterfly keyboards on the 12-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro but I may be in the minority.
*I didn’t include audio but the HP Spectre and MacBook Pro have the best audio.