[In-depth comparison] Apple MacBook Air (M1, Late 2020) vs Dell XPS 13 9310 – Apple really outdid themselves with this one



Michael Andronico
If you have ever wanted a productivity laptop that could keep up with the desktops, in terms of power, but are still portable to carry around daily, this comparison will put two of the best devices that fit that description to the test against each other.

One of them is the highly coveted, Apple MacBook Air, which brings unimaginable performance thanks to its M1 SoC. That power is paired up with a fantastic screen and a great design, which make it one of the most sought after laptops every year, especially by the regular consumer, which knows that when they buy an Apple product, they get the best available performance, without having to worry about specs.

On the other hand, we have the Dell XPS 13 9310. We have really taken a liking to the XPS lineup, as they have a unique silhouette that is recognizable from afar. In our opinion, there isn’t a better Windows high-end business or productivity laptop than one from the XPS lineup. There have been several improvements in the XPS laptops for 2021, mainly the specs, which now include support for the Intel Evo platform, bringing better performance and improved stability. This for sure will be a banger comparison that will polarise both the Windows and Apple fanboys.

Apple MacBook Air 13 (M1, Late 2020): Full Specs / In-depth Review

Contents

Retail Package

Inside the beautiful Apple box, which has the name of the laptop as well as an image of it, we find the laptop itself as well as the USB Type-C cable that is used for charging and the 30W power brick itself.

As for the Dell XPS 13 9310, its box is a lot better looking and a tad more stylish with its black lid and grey walls. It also has a debossed Dell logo. Inside the box, you will find some paper manuals, the 45W power adapter, a USB Type-A to Type-C dongle, and of course, the XPS 13 itself.

Design and construction

With both laptops being in the premium market, you are in for a treat, when it comes to the build quality. As with all Apple devices, the MacBook Air comes in an extremely rigid and very stylish aluminum unibody, with basically not flex to be seen. As for the XPS 13, Dell has taken the liberty to experiment a bit with the build materials, with the lid being aluminum, which is quite standard, but the base comes in two variants. If you order the laptop in black, the base is made out of carbon fiber, which is a great material, while the white one gets glass fiber, which is also quite durable. With that said, the laptop is quite durable but there is still some flex in the chassis.

As for the design itself, both of these laptops are very good-looking. The MacBook has a look that would appease the general public, implementing rounded corners and sharp edges, plus a multitude of color options that get the youngsters excited. The Dell XPS 13, on the other hand, has sharper corners and edges and is also a very stylish device, that we appreciate more.

The lids on both laptops can easily be opened with a single hand and the hinges operate smoothly. The bezels on the XPS 13 are much thinner than on the ones on the MacBook Air, with Dell bragging with the 91.5% screen-to-body ratio. On the top of the displays, you can find the webcams and privacy shutters, which are a staple or 2021 and more laptops should have them.

Keyboard and touchpad

Moving over to the input devices, the MacBook Air has a decently sized keyboard with large enough keycaps, clicky feedback, and surprisingly shallow key travel, but the typing experience is quite comfortable and satisfying. The keyboard lacks the TouchBar that is found on Pro models but still has the fingerprint reader. As for the touchpad on the MacBook, it has an adequate size a smooth surface, which allows for accurate tracking and gliding.

As for the keyboard and touchpad combo on the Dell XPS 13, the unit spans from side to side and has a long key travel, considering the slim profile of the laptop. Also, the feedback is clicky enough and the added fingerprint reader, which is embedded in the power button is a nice touch. The touchpad is just awesome and it offers a smooth gliding experience that is paired up with almost no latency, making for a great experience.

Cooling and I/O

The cooling solution that Apple has for the MacBook Air is a passive one, which means that there are no fans and no moving parts, making for an insanely silent machine. The M1 SoC is power-efficient enough so that the laptop doesn’t need the fans, to be cooled properly. The Dell, on the other hand, has an orthodox setup, which consists of one large heat pipe that is connected to two heat spreaders, which are then connected to a pair of fans.

I/O-wise, both laptops have a very poor setup. Both of them have two USB Type-C ports, which on the Dell XPS 13 have Thunderbolt 4 support. Other than that, you get an audio jack, and on the XPS 13, you have a MicroSD card slot, which is missing on the MacBook.

Specs sheet

Disassembly and upgrade options

Taking apart both devices is a fairly easy procedure. On the Apple device, there are ten Pentalobe screws, which hold the bottom plate in place. Take them off and pop the plate with a pry tool (preferably plastic, so you don’t scratch the panel itself), and you are greeted by the internal components of the MacBook Air. There isn’t much to be done here, as all of the memory, both RAM and storage is soldered onto the board.

Moving over to the Dell XPS 13, it uses eight of the better-known Torx screws. The procedure is the same as with the MacBook, but once you get access to the internals inside, you can actually swap a thing or two. While the RAM is soldered here as well, there is a single M.2 PCIe slot, for future storage expansion.

Display quality

Both of these machines are designed for productivity and one area where this can be seen clearly is the display. Both laptops feature a screen that has a 16:10 aspect ratio. In the case of the MacBook Air, you get a 13.3-inch QHD+ IPS screen with a 227 PPI pixel density and a pitch of 0.11 mm x 0.11 mm. The screen could be considered Retina when viewed from at least 38 cm (from this distance, the eye can’t distinguish individual pixels).

The Dell XPS 13, on the other hand, has two choices for a display. The one we have here is a 13.4-inch Full HD+ IPS panel and for the other, it has a UHD+ resolution and probably even better qualities than the FHD+ panel and the panel on the MacBook. Going back to the screen that we have, it has a pixel density of 169 PPI and a pitch of 0.15 mm x 0.15 mm. It can be considered Retina when viewed from at least 50 cm.

Viewing angles were fantastic on both devices. We offer images at different angles to evaluate quality.

The MacBook Air comes with its own display settings, which include a True Tone option, with changes the displayed image, according to the ambient light around the laptop, which it detects. Ultimately, the panel showed a maximum brightness of 415 nits in the middle of the screen and 410 nits across the entire display, which translates to a maximum deviation of 11%. When simulating a very bright ambient light, the panel showed a Correlated Color Temperature of 7160K, colder than the sRGB standard of 6500K, and 5260K, when the panel was tested with natural ambient light. The contrast ratio is also decent, sitting at 910:1.

The panel of the Dell laptop showed a maximum brightness of 544 nits in the middle of the screen and 514 nits across the entirety of the display, which calculates to a maximum deviation of 8%. The Correlated Color Temperature exactly matched the sRGB standard (6500K). The contrast ratio was nearly double that on the MacBook Air (1730:1).

Color coverage

To make sure we are on the same page, we would like to give you a little introduction to the sRGB color gamut and the Adobe RGB. To start, there’s the CIE 1976 Uniform Chromaticity Diagram that represents the visible specter of colors by the human eye, giving you a better perception of the color gamut coverage and the color accuracy.

Inside the black triangle, you will see the standard color gamut (sRGB) that is being used by millions of people on HDTV and the web. As for the Adobe RGB, this is used in professional cameras, monitors, etc for printing. Colors inside the black triangle are used by everyone and this is an essential part of the color quality and color accuracy of a mainstream device.

Still, we’ve included other color spaces like the famous DCI-P3 standard used by movie studios, as well as the digital UHD Rec.2020 standard. Rec.2020, however, is still a thing of the future and it’s difficult for today’s displays to cover that well. We’ve also included the so-called Michael Pointer gamut, or Pointer’s gamut, which represents the colors that naturally occur around us every day.

The yellow dotted lines show the color coverage of both the MacBook Air (M1, Late 2020) and the Dell XPS 13 9310.

In the case of the MacBook, it showed 100% coverage of the sRGB color gamut. As for the other device, its screen showed to cover 96% of the sRGB color gamut.

Color accuracy

Both panels show fantastic scores in our color accuracy test. The MacBook Air showed a dE value of 1.7, which is great for color-sensitive work, so you should be set, if you are an artist or a designer, or just value accurate colors and vibrant images. The panel on the Dell XPS 13, when using the factory settings, showed much worse color accuracy, but once we applied our Design and Gaming profile it was all fixed and we got a dE value of 1.2, better than on the MacBook Air.

Here are the results of the color accuracy test for both the MacBook Air (left) and the Dell XPS 13 9310, with the Design and Gaming profile applied (right).

Response time (Gaming capabilities)

We test the reaction time of the pixels with the usual “black-to-white” and “white-to-black” methods from 10% to 90% and vice versa.

The MacBook Air (M1, Late 2020) showed a faster response time of 32ms, which is still somewhat slow, but still better than the 38.9 ms on the XPS 13 9310.

Health impact / PWM (Blue light)

PWM – Screen flickering

Pulse-width modulation (PWM) is an easy way to control monitor brightness. When you lower the brightness, the light intensity of the backlight is not lowered, but instead turned off and on by the electronics with a frequency indistinguishable to the human eye. In these light impulses, the light/no-light time ratio varies, while brightness remains unchanged, which is harmful to your eyes. You can read more about that in our dedicated article on PWM.

The Apple MacBook Air (M1, Late 2020) doesn’t use PWM across any brightness level, which ensures a comfortable and safe experience while using the device. The Dell XPS 13 9310’s backlight flickers up to 140 nits of brightness, and while the frequency is considered safe, we would still advise you to avoid it.

Blue light emissions

Installing our Health-Guard profile not only eliminates PWM but also reduces the harmful Blue Light emissions while keeping the colors of the screen perceptually accurate. If you’re not familiar with the Blue light, the TL;DR version is – emissions that negatively affect your eyes, skin, and your whole body. You can find more information about that in our dedicated article on Blue Light.

Buy our profiles

Here at LaptopMedia, we create a set of custom-tailored profiles for every notebook we review. They boost the productivity of display and reduce negative effects such as blue light emissions and PWM. You can read more about them here.

The MacBook Air (M1, Late 2020) doesn’t have dedicated display profiles, due to it being an Apple device.

As for the case of the Dell laptop, you can buy its profiles from here:

Dell XPS 13 9310 13.4-inch Full HD+ IPS panel – Sharp VVK8Y-LQ134N1 (SHP14F9): Buy our profiles

Sound

The speakers on the MacBook Air are front-facing, in contrast to the bottom-firing setup on the XPS 13. The speakers are similar, in the fact that they are both stereo setups and that they both deliver loud and clear audio with very high quality and have no deviations across the entire frequency range.

Battery

As with all of our battery tests, we turn the Windows Better Performance setting on, set the screen brightness to 120 nits, and close all the apps except for the one that we are testing the notebook with. The MacBook Air with its slightly smaller 49.9Wh completely tore apart the battery chart, as it lasted for 24 hours and 20 minutes of Web browsing and 13 hours and 20 minutes of video playback. The Dell, on the other hand, had much more modest battery life, despite its larger 52Wh unit, of 12 hours and 55 minutes of Web browsing and 10 hours and 20 minutes of video editing. Now, the MacBook has one more test, that wasn’t performed with the Dell laptop and it was for continuous video editing, at which the laptop lasted for 4 hours and 13 minutes.

In order to simulate real-life conditions, we used our own script for automatic web browsing through over 70 websites.
Michael Andronico

Michael Andronico

For every test like this, we use the same video in HD.
Michael Andronico

Michael Andronico

We use F1 2017’s built-in benchmark on loop in order to simulate real-life gaming.
Michael Andronico

Michael Andronico

Performance

In terms of performance, the MacBook Air has the Apple M1 SoC, which is somewhat unconventional for laptops. Of course, Microsoft has talked about Windows on ARM in the past, but the technology really hasn’t moved forward with it for a while now. Apple found the perfect time to strike with this new tech, which is basically a beefed-up smartphone chip. The M1 features an 8-core CPU and a GPU which varies in its number of cores, depending on the model and configuration you go for.


Michael Andronico
The lower-end MacBook Air configurations get a 7-core GPU, while the higher-end configurations and the MacBook Pro get an 8-core GPU. Both the CPU and GPU utilize the big.LITTLE architecture with four power-efficient cores dubbed Icestorm, which handle low-resource tasks and background processes, and four high-performance cores, called Firestorm (shoutout DC fans) for when you really need a boost in power. It also has a Unified Memory Architecture, which packs the RAM, CPU cache, and every other bit of memory all in one place close to the SoC, so that they can communicate faster, eliminating the long travel time of the signals.

The Dell XPS 13 9310 uses a much more orthodox solution, in the form of the new Tiger Lake processors from Intel. There is a choice between three different CPUs. The standard configuration comes with the Core i5-1135G7, but if you’re going to even try to rival the MacBook Air, that won’t be enough. For that reason, you can also purchase it with the Core i7-1165G7 and the i7-1185G7, which get a nice bump in power that is definitely noticeable.

Handling the graphics is the Iris Xe Graphics G7, which has a decreased number of Execution Units on the i5 models. Overall, it is fantastic for an iGPU, dare we say the best iGPU on the market, but nowhere near the performance of the Apple M1’s GPU, which is close to the level of the GTX 1650.

Results are from the Cinebench 20 CPU test (the higher the score, the better)
Michael Andronico

Michael Andronico

Results are from the Fritz chess benchmark (the higher the score, the better)
Michael Andronico

Michael Andronico

Les résultats sont issus de notre test de référence Photoshop (plus le score est bas, mieux c’est)
Michael Andronico

Michael Andronico

Temperatures and comfort

In our CPU stress test, we use 100% of the CPU cores while monitoring the core temperature and clock speeds. Furthermore, we simulate three different types of loads. The first one is a very short load, with a running time of 2-10 seconds. After that, we do a medium load, which runs for 10-30 seconds, and finally, we go all-in with a long load which takes about 15 minutes and is an ideal test of how the CPU would perform in video editing, for example. We have to clarify that due to Apple’s limitations, we weren’t able to record the clock speeds of the CPU.

As you can see, the M1 is running way cooler in the beginning, but when it comes to long and torturous processes, the passive cooling solution struggles a lot and the CPU throttles.

Comfort during full load

While the MacBook Air struggled in the stress tests, it was dead-silent due to having no fans and had an external temperature of just 38.3°C, recorded in the middle of the F-keys. The Dell XPS 13 9310, despite the fact that it has a dedicated cooling solution with a fan and all, got way hotter on the outside, even though the fans were spinning at full speed and could definitely be heard. We recorded a temperature of 48.1°C.

Verdict

This was a pretty great comparison between two great devices. However, we have to choose a winner here, and although we really wanted to recommend the Dell XPS 13, we just can’t. The MacBook Air is just so good at its job that you’d really have to bend over backwards and do some heavy mental gymnastics, in order to justify buying the Dell. When it comes to looks and construction, both laptops are very stylish and incredibly durable with the MacBook having a design that would appeal more to the general consumer.  We, however, are not the general consumers and will give the edge to the Dell, since it has a nice combination of metal and carbon fiber, which makes it lighter, thinner and make it stand out.

Both laptops offer great keyboards and touchpads, which provide a comfortable typing experience. The I/O is also pretty lacking on both machines, with only two USB Type-C ports (Thunderbolt 4 on the Dell). In addition, the Dell also has a MicroSD card slot, which is an added bonus. Upgradeability also goes the way of the Dell, with one M.2 PCIe x4 drive and all of its RAM soldered. This is better than the MacBook Air which has all of its storage and RAM soldered onto the board, as part of its Unified Memory Architecture.

The displays are amazing on both machines, but we think that the panel on the Dell XPS 13 has better qualities. While the color coverage is smaller (100% vs 96% of the sRGB color gamut), it has a higher contrast ratio and maximum brightness. The panel on the Apple device has a higher resolution, however, which results in a sharper image and higher PPI. In fact, the color coverage of the MacBook Air goes all the way to almost 100% of the DCI-P3 gamut. The 16:10 aspect ratio is there for both laptops, which is great for the productivity-maniacs. Color accuracy is also better on the Dell laptop, but only after we applied our Design and gaming profile. The Dell panel also uses PWM below 140 nits of brightness, but it is totally fixable with our Health-Guard profile. Overall, if you are willing to mess with profiles the Dell is a better option, but if you want a display that will be amazing right out of the box, the MacBook Air is your answer.

Speakers are a draw, with a slight edge to the MacBook, due to its front-firing setup. As for the battery, the MacBook is miles ahead, having double the battery life in the Web browsing test, while having a smaller unit, which is just spectacular. Furthermore, the MacBook set the record for the longest battery life of 24 hours and 20 minutes.

Moving over to the performance, the Apple M1 is by far, the better option, as it has basically the same power as the bigger MacBook Pro. It crushed our CPU and GPU tests. In addition to that, it is much more power-efficient, which can only bode well for the end-user. In the stress test, the M1 showed lower temperatures, while struggling with the longer loads, due to its passive cooling.

To conclude all of the text above, the MacBook is by far the best device for the money that you can get right now. It brings desktop-level performance to such a portable and lightweight package, thanks to its M1 SoC, which has in itself one of the most powerful mobile processors while having superb power efficiency. This paired with the fantastic build quality that Apple is known for and the great display makes for a portable workstation device, which you can always count on.

Apple MacBook Air 13 (M1, Late 2020): Full Specs / In-depth Review