Traveling with a Laptop: MacBook Air 11 vs. Dell XPS 13

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In many ways, I am not your average traveler. Travel is usually not a “vacation” for me — it's my job, and that means I'm often working on the road. This means that I have to carry a decent amount of technology with me whenever I leave home.

And, as someone who works full-time online, a laptop is a must-have for me.

I use my laptop for everything on the road — for writing, photo editing, video-making, social media updating, and all-around entertainment. So obviously I want to find the absolute best laptop possible to have as my traveling companion.

I'll be upfront: I've been a Mac user for years. I started out on a 15-inch MacBook Pro, and then switched over to an 11-inch MacBook Air a few years ago when I started traveling more and couldn't bear to lug around a huge computer any longer.

But recently I had the chance to try out Dell's new XPS 13, an award-winning laptop with an “infinity screen” and Intel 5th generation core processor.

At first, I was going to say no. I mean, as much as my boyfriend makes fun of me for it, I LIKE Apple products. But I realize that not everyone is an Apple/Mac fan. So I thought it would be useful to try out a PC in order to compare the two. After all, when choosing a computer for traveling, you want to weigh all your options before plunking down $1,000 or more, right?

MacBook Air 11 vs Dell XPS 13

MacBook Air 11 vs Dell XPS 13

What I like about the 11-inch MacBook Air

Portability — At just 2.38 pounds and only 11 inches from corner to corner, the size of the smallest MacBook Air is perfect for traveling. I can easily stow the computer in my carry-on bag or even a large purse and not feel completely weighed down by it. It makes working on planes and trains really easy, too.

The inclusions — MacBooks all come standard with basic photo and video editing software (iPhoto and iMovie), which is good enough for most of the editing the average person would want to do. I liked not having to pay for and install separate programs for basic editing.

Apple integrations — Since I also have an iPhone (and an older MacBook), it's super easy to integrate everything since it all uses the same operating system.

What I don't like about the 11-inch MacBook Air

The screen size — Sometimes the screen is just TOO SMALL. It takes some getting used to, and is sometimes frustrating when I'm trying to do something but can only see a tiny portion of a website on my screen.

No SD card slot — There's no built-in slot for SD cards on the smallest MacBook, meaning I have to carry around a USB card reader — which I frequently misplace.

The battery life — Yes, my MacBook Air is now aging slightly. But from the beginning the battery life on this tiny computer left a little to be desired. Using the computer heavily, I could only ever eke out 5 or so hours of battery life at best (and it's even less now).

Now, let's move on to the Dell XPS 13. At first glance, the computer looks REALLY similar to the MacBook Air (see side-by-side comparison photo earlier in this post). And, to be honest, the functionality is just as good, if not better.

What I like about the Dell XPS 13

Portability — The XPS 13, despite having a 13-inch screen, actually has almost exactly the same “footprint” as my 11-inch MacBook Air, and only weighs in at 2.6 pounds. That's a HUGE bonus — I get 2 extra inches of screen real estate without sacrificing any portability.

The screen — I got the touch-screen version of the XPS 13, which has a super high-definition Quad HD+ display (3200 x 1800). The screen on this puppy is incredible. Seriously. It’s not only super hi-def, but the actual display reaches almost to the edge of the bevel, hence the “infinity screen” claim. (Note: The non-touch-screen version has a FHD (1920 x 1080) infinity display.)

The battery life — The non-touch screen version of the Dell XPS 13 boasts up to 15 hours of battery life (and even with the Quad HD+ touch display, you can still get up to 11 hours). Even using the laptop heavily, I was easily getting 8 hours or more of battery life. That means I could take this on a longhaul flight without powerpoints and be able to watch at least a couple movies without it dying.

Power companion — I got a 12,000 mAh Dell Power Companion with my XPS 13, which is basically an extra battery. The external battery fits in the palm of your hand, and you can use it to charge everything from your laptop to your phone or tablet. This is ideal for a traveler — and Apple doesn't make anything similar that pairs perfectly with their laptops.

SD card slot — The XPS 13 has one! *Happy dance.*

Dell XPS 13
Dell XPS 13

What I don't like about the Dell XPS 13

Windows — After years of working on a Mac, it was difficult for me to adjust back to Windows. Windows 8.1 isn't terrible, but I still hate how some things look on it. It's mostly an aesthetics thing, though, and is probably something I could get used to again over time.

The touchpad — My biggest complaint about the Dell XPS 13 was that the built-in touchpad didn't always work smoothly, and never felt quite as fluid as the touchpad on my MacBook Air. I realize that this could easily be solved with a wireless/portable mouse, but carrying around extra stuff while traveling is a pain and I try to avoid it.

It's also worth noting that, when using a laptop with such a ridiculously hi-res screen, you'll soon realize that not all websites are created equal when it comes to how hi-res-friendly they are. Many websites have yet to optimize photos and graphics for retina/other high-resolution screens. This of course is not the fault of the computer — but I still wanted to mention it.


The 11-inch MacBook Air starts at $899 (4 GB of onboard memory; 128GB flash storage; 38‑watt‑hour lithium‑polymer battery). It is upgrade-able to include more flash storage for $1099.

The Dell XPS 13 starts at $799 with the same specs (but a 52-watt-hour battery). It has quite a few upgrade options — the $1099 version of the XPS 13, for example, gets you double the onboard memory (8GB) and flash storage (256GB). If you upgrade to the ultra-hi-def touch screen with maximum storage, it will set you back $1399.

So, all in all, they are pretty similar when it comes to pricing. You might get *slightly* more bang for your buck with the Dell, but just barely.

So what's the verdict?

So what should you travel with? An 11-inch MacBook Air, or a Dell XPS 13?

Well, to be honest, I think it really comes down to personal preference. If you're a die-hard Apple/Mac OS fan, then you probably won't take well to the Dell (or any other PC, for that matter). Similarly, if you've always used PCs and are a Windows fan (or if you're just really opposed to Apple products), then a MacBook won't work for you.

Both computers have pros and cons. Both are about equal when it comes to size, weight, and price. So, in the end, it's a decades-old question: Mac or PC?

Do you travel with a laptop? If so, what's your computer of choice?



*Note: I received a Dell XPS 13 to try out at home and while traveling. My opinions are, as always, completely my own, though, and I was not obligated to write anything positive about the computer. If something is terrible, you can trust me to tell you so!

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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37 Comments on “Traveling with a Laptop: MacBook Air 11 vs. Dell XPS 13

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  1. I’m REALLY struggling choosing a laptop. I’ve never travelled with a laptop but I am going to Ireland for 6 months in 16 days and I plan to do lots of traveling. i started a blog and i work in digital marketing and graphic design. So I’m trying to decide between the 13″ or 15″ MacBook Pro with retina. These are both super lightweight: the 15″ is only a pound more than the 13″. With that in mind would you choose the 15″ or in your experience would it still just feel too big and bulky?

      After having traveled with an 11″ Air for years now, I could never imagine traveling with a 15″ laptop again. I used to travel with a 15″ Macbook Pro, and it was SO heavy and annoying to carry around. If you’re set on the Pro, I would probably go with the smaller one for better portability.

    I’ve been traveling with a MacBook Air for two years and it’s been buggy since day one. I don’t know if I just got a lemon or what but I frequently desire to throw the thing at the wall. I think I know now what I’ll be asking Santa for this year. Thanks for the review.

      Glad to help! In the meantime, have you ever taken your Mac to an Apple store to have them look at it? They usually are really helpful!

    Interesting comparison! I currently use a MacBook Pro 13 inch but it’s almost 5 years old and rather heavy for travelling so I might consider the MacBook Air 11 inch too! The battery life is a pain though, as with mostly all apple products! Wish they would sort that out!

      When I upgrade next, I *might* go with the 13-inch Macbook Air. Slightly bigger screen, slightly better battery life (than the 11-inch), but still nice a light!

    I’m probably one of your very few PC’s lovers! I love it so much that my husband just bought me a new one for Xmas and I am over the moon LOL! Yes, it”s a little larger and a little heavier but I prefer a large screen as I can’t work with smaller ones. I can play DVD’s/CD’s /video, download, upload quite a lot, and everything else. I find iPads to be useless for writing and blogging but great for reading and games. 🙂

    When I travelled to Asia last year, I didn’t take it with me. I pre-wrote my posts and wrote about my Asian trips when I returned. Around Europe, I take my laptop with me as it’s just an extra “handbag!” In fact, I’m in Lithuania right now and having my laptop with me is great, along with my kindle, and my iPhone.

      My boyfriend is quite anti-Apple, so you are not alone! I actually used to really dislike the smaller screen on my MacBook Air (going from 15 inches to 11 is a big jump!), but now I’m so used to it that I don’t even miss having a larger screen.

        Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-Apple at all! I love ’em! I just prefer the PC. I still have an Apple iPhone and iPad. In fact, we have 4. iPhones I mean! It’s just that the iPad is awful when writing for a post that is between 2,000-3,000 words. I’ve never had a Mac so I couldn’t tell you the difference as you have, but heigh ho!

    Get a Google Chromebook instead. Very portable notebooks, with limited amount of possibilites (they run on Goolges’s Chrome OS). But they have very good battery runtimes. 12h are no problems.

      The battery life would definitely be a plus!

    I was always a PC user until I got my 11inch Macbook Air about 6 months ago. Generally I really love it but I don’t love the measly amount of storage and the fact it doesn’t have a memory card reader. Also, I miss using Word but am too cheap to pay for Windows for Mac so I just keep using the inferior Pages. I would definitely consider going back to PC in a couple of years when I need to upgrade and PCs are just getting better and better

      Yeah the storage is definitely a bummer – I back up all my photos/video to an external hard drive, but I still like to upload/edit newer photos and stuff to my Mac. Meaning I’m constantly having to delete older stuff to make room. And yeah… lack of SD card slot is SO annoying! That was a huge bonus for me on the Dell.

    Thank you for a informative article! I have just bought myself a 13″ mac, and love it! But a Dell with that long battery life…! I would love that as well!!!

      Yes, the battery life is definitely a huge plus!

    I also have 15″ MacBook Pro and it’s worked well for me. Because we use Windows at work, I got the 2011 Microsoft Office suite for Mac (Home/Student edition) at home. It took me a bit to get used to the appearance/layout on the Mac.

    When I go traveling, I bring a digital camera and sometimes my iPod. The rest of the gadgets stay home!

      I wish I could leave more of the gadgets at home! But I just seem to be accumulating more and more each year. 😉 Though, I can’t really complain because I love what I do!

    This post is super timely for me, Amanda; I’m about to leave for a two-month backpacking trip in a few weeks, and since I want to blog on the road I’m tearing my hair out about what kind of tech to take with me! I own a laptop already, but it’s a few years old, the battery isn’t the best, it’s heavy, etc…don’t get me wrong, I love it dearly, but it’s not the best travel companion!

    At present I’m thinking of investing in a Microsoft Surface Pro 3; I’ve tried a few out in tech stores and the keyboard attachment is surprisingly easy to type on. My ideal device would be a tablet that can be used as a laptop, and it seems like the closest I’m going to get.

    That Dell, though…it’s so pretty, goddamn! Although it’s times like this that I wish I spoke Mac; they seem like the go-to computer for most serious travel bloggers, but I’ve never used one and I’m not too keen on swapping OS’s right before a trip abroad!

    😀 Great post, as usual!

      The Dell is really nice! If you decide to go the tablet route, just make sure that you can still do all your blogging/photo editing on it. I tried traveling with an iPad once, and it didn’t support flash, meaning I couldn’t use WordPress at all!

    After years of using Windows laptops, 9 years ago I tried a macbook and was hooked. I have a 13″ Macbook pro – slightly dated but still works perfectly for my needs. I had an 11″ Macbook Air that was great for travel but I didn’t like the screen size. Sold it a few weeks ago for 2/3 what I paid for it 2 years ago so it was a cheap experiment in travel laptops. I have a lighter than “normal” travel year coming up so don’t feel a need to replace it, so it’ll be me and my phones and my iPad Air. It would only be one phone (an iPhone) except that my iPhone is old enough that I can’t unlock it and use t-mobile on for traveling, so I have an Android phone as my “travel phone”. Once the iPhone 4S dies I’ll replace it with something iPhone and current and the Android phone will become unnecessary….

      Sounds like you’ve worked out what works best for your travel needs!

        I think more accurately I figured out that the 11″ screen was too small. The iPad is not optimal, either, but I won’t have a lot of typing to do on the next 10 months worth of trips.

        I think, though, that from the perspective of today’s technology, a single phone, a tablet, and a laptop roughly the size of a 13″ Macbook air would be the right general purpose mix.

        Up until now I’ve had a “work” laptop that was heavier and more powerful, and a travel laptop. Soon, if not now, those could combine into one, and may.

        As for tablets, today’s available services have made my choice of a WiFi only tablet a mistake. Enough so that I may sell it and buy one with a SIM slot.

        Communications is a huge travel problem, and for me at least that’s all data and virtually never voice. And while country-specific SIM cards for my phone are “fine”, they’re less than practical sometimes (Turkey!) and expensive if you’re flitting from country to country.

        One solution, that I used, is t-mobile phone service in the Android phone. The phone works and has data everywhere for no additional cost, as well as unlimited SMS and cheap voice service. *BUT* t-mobile won’t let you tether it so you can’t do even slow data interactions on your other devices. However, t-mobile has a data-only *tablet* SIM that does allow tethering. You don’t get SMS or voice, but you have data on all your devices.

        Also, the voice service is $50/month and the tablet service is $20/month.

        So .. the quest for the ideal travel technology “package” of devices and services is not quite over….

          Haha that quest may never be over, with how quickly technology is changing!

          I have T-Mobile service for my phone (the $50-per-month plan with free international data/texting) and I think it’s brilliant for the frequent traveler. I did the “buy a new SIM card everywhere I go” thing for a while, but it’s easier/cheaper in some countries than others. Plus, I’m in the US more than I’m out of it, so the T-Mobile plan is a no-brainer for me!

            I had t-mobile for a few months when I was traveling a lot, and it was great. But back here in the Boulder, CO area t-mobile has poor coverage. I was countless places where my Verizon phone had 4 bars and t-mobile had no service at all. I need my cellphone to work at home, too! So, Verizon it is here in the USA and t-mobile or local SIMs when traveling.

            For example, this is cheap enough that I’ll just get a local SIM for my month in NZ. Also, sometimes there are benefits – a local NZ phone number allows access to lots of public WiFi – you have to SMS to the WiFi provider and they send you back a code for the WiFi. But it needs to be a NZ number…


              I totally understand! I’ve been to plenty of places in the US where T-Mobile coverage really sucks. I was fine using T-Mobile to use Vodaphone’s network in NZ, though!

    This was super interesting to read as I recently just bought an 11-inch MacBook Air which I’ve found PERFECT for my travels! Thanks for sharing.

      It’s perfect for traveling! It might be too small for day-to-day stuff, but I’ve definitely gotten used to the smaller screen.

    great article I have been looking into getting a new laptop, the Dell has been a consideration. certainly something I am looking into a lot more

      It’s a fantastic machine from what I can tell so far. Of course, I don’t know how the battery will last long-term, but so far I’ve been really impressed.

    I had a Toshiba (so heavy!)for the longest time before switching over to the Macbook Pro ( so much lighter). I don’t like carrying heavy things around so the lighter the better!

      Yup, I definitely understand that!

    No, I don’t travel with my laptop. But then again, I’m not working when I travel. I only bring my kindle so I can read, watch movies, e-mail, etc. But I do have a Dell laptop. It’s a much older version, but I love it.:)

      I always have my Kindle with me, too!

    I do travel with my laptop – it’s a Toshiba 15in screen with all the bells and whistles. HOWEVER I find it rather cumbersome and even at just over 1kg, not easy to lug around. I want to downgrade but not lose any of the things I have on the laptop.

    I am currently looking at getting a Windows Surface with keyboard accessory. The reason I am looking at something like that and not an iPad is simply because I want to be able to transfer my photos from SD card to external hard drive as well as update FB & my blog.

      Yeah, I tried using just an iPad a few years ago, and it just didn’t cut it when it came to photo editing and blogging. It’s great if you just want to check email and social media while you’re traveling, but it’s definitely not enough if you’re blogging on the road!

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