Wednesday

Dell XPS 15 review


The Dell XPS 15 offers high-end audio, fast performance, and good battery life, but falls behind in other models when it comes to its lackluster design.

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

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).


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.

Display



The XPS 15 screen is a sight to behold; it's easily one of the best we've seen on a 15-inch notebook. The full HD panel (1920 x 1080 pixels) delivered rich, vibrant color and crisp text on its edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass display. While watching a 1080p "Total Recall" trailer, we saw a pair of orange-and-gold koi swimming on a translucent screen hiding a woman clad in a blood red dress, which made for a visually sensuous scene. We could easily see the scars from probable bullet wounds on Colin Farrell's body, though there was a hint of graininess in darker scenes.

When we watched a 1080p trailer for Skyfall, details like the stubble on his beard were sharp. Better still, the display offered wide viewing angles; colors remained true as we moved as much as 90 degrees to the right and left of center.

With a display brightness of 323 lux, the XPS 15 outshone the 260 lux mainstream category average as well as the MacBook Pro (223 lux), HP Envy 15 (243 lux) and Acer Aspire V3 (212 lux). However, the display's glossiness was a distraction at times, reflecting everything from the lights to ourselves.
Software

The Dell XPS 15 is blissfully free of the bloatware found on other systems. Dell Support Center is there to take care of the majority of our maintenance and diagnostic needs with PC Checkup and Backup and Recovery. Dell Webcam Central offers a number of whimsical scenes and effects such as an ominous storm cloud background with flashes of lightning.

There's also MaxxAudio-powered Dell Audio control panel that comes with a number of presets for the ideal listening experience.

Software
The Dell XPS 15 is blissfully free of the bloatware found on other systems. Dell Support Center is there to take care of the majority of our maintenance and diagnostic needs with PC Checkup and Backup and Recovery. Dell Webcam Central offers a number of whimsical scenes and effects such as an ominous storm cloud background with flashes of lightning.

There's also MaxxAudio-powered Dell Audio control panel that comes with a number of presets for the ideal listening experience.

Keyboard and Touchpad


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.

Dell XPS 15 review

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.

Audio
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.

Heat
After running a full-screen Hulu video for 15 minutes the notebook's touchpad measured 82 degrees Fahrenheit. The space between the G and H keys and the notebook's underside measured 86 and 89 degrees. The hottest point of the notebook was the small metal panel on the bottom of the laptop that measured 92 degrees. However, this was below our 95 degree comfort threshold. In fact, we used the XPS 15 in our laps for over an hour in total comfort.

Webcam
The XPS 15's 1.3-megapixel webcam captures stills and video in 1280 x 1024 using Dell Webcam Central. Images were somewhat dark under fluorescent light. We saw better color accuracy in a natural light setting. However, there was a high level of visual noise in both instances.

Ports
Dell XPS 15 review
A slot-loading Blu-Ray player, a 3-in-1 card reader, jacks for a headphone and a microphone/headphone combo and a Kensington lock slot sit on the XPS 15's right. There's a trio of USB 3.0 slots on the left side along with a mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, Ethernet and an AC adapter jack.

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.

wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):






PCMark05 measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):




PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):



3DMark06 measures gaming performance (higher scores mean better performance):




3DMark Vantage measures gaming performance (higher scores mean better performance):


Specifications


Warranty
Third-party software includes Microsoft Office Starter, Skype, Adobe Reader X, Windows Live and a 30-day free trial of McAfee SecurityCenter. The Dell XPS 15 comes with a one-year limited hardware warranty. See how the company fared in our Best & Worst brands report.
Configurations


Configurations


Our $1,699 review unit of the Dell XPS 15 comes with with a 2.1-GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM, 8GB of RAM, a 750GB 7,200-rpm with a 32GB mSATA SSD and an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M with 2GB of VRAM. The $1,299 base model features a 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5-3210M CPU with 6GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200-rpm hard drive with a 32GB 32GB mSATA SSD and a Nvidia GeForce GT 630M GPU with 1GB of VRAM. The $1,999 top model has the same processor and GPU as our review unit with 16GB of RAM, a 1TB 5,400-rpm hard drive with 128GB mSATA SSD.

Battery Life
During the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing via Wi-Fi on 40 percent brightness), the XPS 15 lasted 5 hours and 7 minutes. That's 19 minutes short of the 5:26 mainstream category average, which isn't bad considering that this notebook has such a sharp and bright display. The Aspire V3 clocked in at 4:46.

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.
Pros:
  • Fast processor and graphics card
  • Good battery life
  • Comfortable backlit keyboard
Cons:
  • Difficult to upgrade
  • Bland design