Tuesday

Dell XPS 15 Review


 
The new XPS 15 (also called the XPS L501X) is a completely redesigned multimedia notebook from Dell. Sporting a JBL sound-system with subwoofer, NVIDIA GT420M dedicated graphics, and an Intel Core i5 processor, this system is designed with performance and entertainment in mind. In this review, we take an in-depth look at the new XPS and see how it stacks up against the competition.







Design

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The new Dell XPS 15 has a silver on grey color scheme, using metal panels and plastic for the body. Compared to past XPS designs that were trend setters that distinguished themselves from the lower models, the new XPS doesn't seem to spark much visual interest. In theory, mixing alloy panels with a brushed metal palmrest and backlit keyboard usually yields good results. The redesigned XPS 15 doesn't seem to really set itself apart, though, from the standard Inspiron 15R until you take a much closer look. Standing back five feet, the panels look like average plastic on the exterior, and the body itself even seems more bloated than the 15R. Overall, it seems like Dell missed a big opportunity to make the XPS-series the unique notebooks they once were. The result is a rather bland looking multimedia notebook where its budget-oriented sibling --the Inspiron 15R--outshines it.

Nevertheless, the XPS 15 feels nicer than it looks. The metal panels on the interior and exterior add strength to the body, reduce flex, and give the notebook a high-quality feel. Holding the notebook for the first time is a weird experience, as most of the panels look like plastic until you feel the cold metal. The screen cover does a very good job at protecting the display from impacts and seems to resist flexing when opening the screen from one of the front corners. The inside of the notebook features a large brushed metal panel that makes up the palmrest and keyboard surround. The bottom of the notebook is completely plastic (including the access panel) but still resists flex and feels durable. The only problem we noticed was the high use of plastic clips holding most of the notebook together (in addition to metal screws).

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Users looking to upgrade the Dell XPS 15 will find it easy or not so easy, depending on which components they are looking to swap out. The single access panel on the bottom of the notebook houses the two sticks of RAM, wireless card, and WWAN/TV tuner slot. To get at the hard drive, you must fully disassemble the notebook, which isn't a task for the faint hearted. We counted about 16 screws, but didn't want to go further and risk breaking plastic clips or gouging the trim around the perimeter. That's an awful amount of work just to swap out a hard drive for a full-sized notebook.

Ports and Features

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Users who want high-speed data connections on their notebooks will love the Dell XPS 15. Dell configured this system with two USB 3.0 ports, one eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port, gigabit Ethernet, mini-DisplayPort, HDMI-out, and plenty of audio jacks. For expansion, Dell only includes a SDHC-card reader/writer; you don't get an ExpressCard slot to add additional ports in the future.

Display and Speakers

 

The Dell XPS 15 can be configured with two 15-inch screen options. The lower-end models offer a WXGA resolution 1366 x 768 panel, whereas the higher-tiered models include a nicer 1080p 1920 x 1080 screen. Our review system included the lower resolution option with a glossy surface. The WXGA panel rates average to below average, with a 177nit maximum brightness and a contrast ratio of 190:1. Black levels were average at best, with an average brightness level of 0.91nit. Colors looked vibrant thanks to the glossy surface, although with poor viewing angles, most colors washed out quickly with the screen tilted forward or back. Horizontal viewing angles were better, keeping colors accurate to 60-70 degrees where reflections off the screen overpowered what you were viewing.

If there was one feature of the XPS 15 that I had to pick out as my favorite, it would be the JBL speakers. With most 15-inch notebooks going for thinner designs, it's hard to fit really good sounding speakers in a notebook these days. Dell did an amazing job with the speakers on the XPS 15 though, which offer high peaks and rumbling lows. The subwoofer on the bottom really made its presence known, adding a soft rumble to the keyboard and palmrest when playing movies or music with lots of bass. For users looking for a more private listening session, the XPS 15 offers two headphone jacks for sharing a movie on a plane, as well as SPDIF and HDMI out for the home theater.

Keyboard and Touchpad

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The Dell XPS 15 features a very comfortable backlit keyboard with a design using traits from standard and Chiclet-style keyboards. The keyboard doesn't feature an internal bezel like most island-style keyboards, but it also has completely flat key surfaces. For typing long documents or even playing a game to blow off steam during a long company meeting, the keyboard does an excellent job. Typing noise is minimal, with each key only emitting a very soft click when pressed. The backlight is adjustable with three settings; off, low, and high. On high, the keys are lighted just enough to see the backlight is on under strong office lighting. The low setting is great for users who don't keep their screens set to full brightness at night, but still want some illumination to figure out where some keys are located.

The touchpad is a large multi-touch Synaptics model with dedicated left and right buttons. Sensitivity out of the box was excellent, with the touchpad having no trouble tracking my finger out of the box. The touchpad supports some multi-touch features like pinch zoom, two finger scrolling, and offered a surface large enough to not make multiple fingers feel cramped. We had no trouble with lag or slow refresh speeds, making it feel very responsive in all situations. The touchpad buttons were also very nice, offering deep throws and soft feedback.

Performance and Benchmarks

The Dell XPS L501X offers an upper midrange configuration featuring an Intel Core i5 processor clocked at 2.53GHz and a NVIDIA Optimus graphics solution powered by the GeForce GT420M dedicated graphics card. In testing, this setup performed very well in daily use and 3D oriented benchmarks. Users looking to play the latest games should be in luck, although in some cases you might need to dial down the detail settings to get framerates at a playable level. When you aren't in the mood to play games or stress the GPU, the system automatically switches back to the integrated graphics to save on power.

The system had no trouble decoding locally played 720P and 1080P video, with the GPU hardly breaking a sweat. Online streaming HD video was also no problem for the XPS 15, where we tested 720P and 1080P videos from sites such as YouTube, Hulu, and Vimeo. Initially we did run into a small bug where video's wouldn't play in full-screen, but updating the Flash codec to the latest version corrected the problem. With the included HDMI and DisplayPort-out connections, this system should have no trouble at all working as the multimedia hub for your home theater.

In standard daily use, the Dell XPS runs smoothly with fast boot times, thanks to the standard 7200RPM hard drive. Users can configure the XPS 15 with an optional solid state drive (SSD), although at the time of this review, Dell only offers a rather expensive--$510!--256GB SSD. Users looking to increase performance may want to turn to an aftermarket upgrade, purchasing a less expensive SSD from an online retailer such as Amazon or NewEgg.


Heat and Noise

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Dell did a pretty good job handling the thermal load of the high-performance components stuffed into the XPS 15. Airflow through the chassis is very good and the system is able to expel most of the CPU and GPU's thermal load quickly when the load increases. During our benchmarking, the system quickly ramped up its cooling fan speed to handle the higher heat levels while still maintaining a minimal noise output. The chassis felt only mildly warm to the touch under continuous loads, with only one recorded hotspot on the bottom. External temperatures shown below are listed in degrees Fahrenheit:

Battery Life

The XPS 15 is offered with either a 6-cell or 9-cell battery. Our configuration included the smaller 56Wh 6-cell battery, which performed pretty well while still maintaining a clean flush appearance on the bottom of the notebook chassis. In our testing with the screen brightness reduced to 70%, keyboard backlit disabled, wireless on and refreshing a webpage every 60 seconds, and Windows 7 set to the Balanced profile the XPS 15 stayed on for 5 hours and 16 minutes. For a notebook with an upper midrange processor and decent dedicated graphics, this was pretty good. Expect roughly 7 to 8 hours on the larger 9-cell battery.

Conclusion

The newly redesigned Dell XPS 15 brings a lot of cool features to the table, but seems to miss the mark in the design department. With previous XPS notebooks being flagship models from Dell, it's disappointing to see such a bland and normal looking system. I think it's rather odd when you look at "budget" models like the Inspiron 15R and see flashier colors and sleeker profiles. Build quality was a step up at least, with metal panels protecting the screen and metal on the palmrest and keyboard trim inside the notebook. The plastic chassis felt strong, but left something to be desired when it came to accessing internal components. Users looking to replace the hard drive will find it very difficult, as the notebook requires full disassembly if they want to upgrade to an SSD later on.

System performance was very good with the Intel Core i5 560M and NVIDIA GeForce GT420M performing well in a variety of tasks. The sound system was my favorite feature on this notebook, providing booming bass and great audio quality. Overall if you don't mind the looks, the XPS does offer a pretty good value, starting at $799 for the base configuration.

Dell XPS 15 Specifications:
  • Intel Core i5 460M Processor (3MB cache, 2.53GHz)
  • 15.6-inch 1366 x 768 glossy display with LED backlighting
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT420M with 1GB DDR3
  • Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
  • 6GB DDR3 memory
  • 500GB 7200rpm HDD (Seagate Momentus 7200.4)
  • Realtek gigabit ethernet and Intel 1000 802.11b/g/n wireless
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • 6-cell Li-ion battery (56Wh)
  • Dimensions: 15 x 10.4 x 1.3-1.5-inches
  • Weight: 6.21lbs
  • MSRP: $899.99 (Closest configuration)