If you think the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro is cool but you want a Windows PC with a slightly softer touch then the Dell XPS 15 might be just the notebook you need. Keep reading to find out more.
The XPS brand has enjoyed a long and colorful existence as a category of "premium" products in Dell's family of PCs. Today, the presence of the XPS logo is an easy way to tell if your Dell is just another value-oriented PC or your new laptop packs some of the best hardware and innovate design features. The Dell XPS 15 Ultrabook is certainly no exception to the rule that XPS means quality.
Build and Design
The single biggest advantage -- and arguably the biggest disadvantage -- to the design of the XPS 15 is the use of a thick aluminum chassis. All the brushed aluminum makes the XPS 15 more durable. In fact, the thickness of the aluminum used in the construction of this Ultrabook makes it feel more solid than even a MacBook Pro with its unibody design. Unfortunately, that much aluminum comes at a cost ... and the cost is travel weight.
The XPS 15 (L521X) is one of the heaviest 15-inch Ultrabooks on the market; tipping the scales at 5.79 pounds. That's more than a pound heavier than the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. In fact, the weight is so counter-intuitive to the concept of an ultra-light Ultrabook that some of the product pages on the Dell website don't even describe the XPS 15 as an "Ultrabook" despite the fact that it meets Intel's design criteria for a 15-inch Ultrabook.
Moving on from the XPS 15's obvious weight issue, Dell was wise enough to soften all of that aluminum with a rubber-coated black matte surface surounding the keyboard and covering the bottom of the notebook. This not only gives the L521X a unique look but also helps keep heat away from your hands and lap during everyday use.
Again, despite its weight, the XPS 15 is technically an Ultrabook and features a relatively thin chassis that is just 0.91 inch from top to bottom with the lid closed. When Dell engineers decided to pack an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i7 quad-core processor and NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M discrete graphics inside a box this thin they had to consider heat. That matte black covering prevents the aluminum from turning into a giant heat sink that would transfer the heat from the processor and graphics directly to your skin.
The bottom of the XPS 15, like most Ultrabooks, looks clean and simple with a fully integrated battery and no visible access panels for user upgrades. One interesting item of note is that Dell chose to hide all of the service tag, FCC and Windows key stickers beneath a pop-out panel in the center of the base plate. Again, this keeps the bottom of the XPS 15 looking clean and stylish but gives you quick access to the important service tag and Windows information if you need it later.
Ports and Features
One of the major advantages to 15-inch Ultrabooks like the XPS 15 is the fact that the larger chassis provides enough room for a full range of ports as well as a built-in optical drive. To that end, you won't find much missing from the port selection on the XPS 15. You've got three USB 3.0 ports for "super speed" data transfers, HDMI and mini DisplayPort for connecting to external monitors, projectors, and HDTVs, and even a standard Ethernet port partially hidden be a fold out door on the bottom edge of the notebook. The slot-loading optical drive doesn't take up any more space than needed and the only item that some people might consider "missing" is an ExpressCard expansion slot or docking bay connection to add additional ports later. That said, USB 3.0 hubs and docks work pretty well for port expansion needs. All picture descriptions are left to right.
Screen and Speakers
The new XPS 15 has the full high definition (FHD) screen meaning you can watch your favorite streaming video online or watch Blu-ray movies in all their 1080p goodness. The WLED backlighting is nice and bright although the default color settings on our review unit were biased slightly toward red and orange; making images and video appear slightly "warmer" than they should be.
One of the design features that Dell was quick to promote about the XPS 15 is the use of Corning Gorilla Glass over the display panel. The Gorilla Glass provides both scratch and impact resistance to the screen so you can throw your car keys at your beautiful new screen without breaking the display. The only negative issue with Gorilla Glass is that the glossy cover adds an additional reflective surface to the screen ... reducing viewing angles and making glare and reflections a bigger problem when you use your laptop outdoors or under bright indoor lighting. The majority of notebook manufacturers offer optional matte screens on premium-priced notebooks, so we aren't happy that Dell isn't offering an alternative to the reflective display.
The XPS 15 L521X uses fairly standard stereo speakers with Waves Maxx Audio 4.0 software managing equalizer and digital surround sound effects. Audio quality is generally good with rich highs and midtones with just a hint of bass coming from the speakers. There is no obvious distortion until you increase the volume to about 85-90 percent range.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The new XPS 15 features a keyboard that looks essentially identical to the one found on the smaller XPS 13 Ultrabook. The full-size chiclet-style keyboard is quiet with soft, well-cushioned feedback and a simple layout; the individual keys and keyboard are matte black. This finish prevents the fingerprint smudges common to laptops with glossy keyboards but you can still get some smudges from the natural oils in your skin. The keyboard support structure is good and there is little to no flex under heavy typing pressure. Individual key travel is good but some of our editors thought the keyboard action was a bit "mushy" compared to something like a desktop keyboard with mechanical keys.
The XPS 15 features the same bright LED-backlit keyboard seen on the XPS 13 which is helpful if you want to see what you're typing in a dark room or on a dimly-lit airplane. This is a very nice feature, but what really sets this keyboard backlight apart from other Ultrabooks is the fact that there is minimal backlight bleed around the edges of each key. The majority of the light is coming from the letters themselves and that is what you want in a backlit keyboard.
The Cypress trackpad is actually a "clickpad" (a touchpad surface which lets you press down anywhere to produce a left click). There are no dedicated left and right mouse buttons but Dell marked the button area with a single gray line so you know where to press for a traditional left and right click. That said, the click zones aren't particularly well defined. Sometimes we made a right click when we only wanted to left click.
This is a glass touchpad covered in the same soft touch paint as the palm rests. The accuracy is good and there is minimal lag but the relatively large touchpad has no obvious palm rejection in the driver ... meaning your cursor will jump across the screen if your palm comes into contact with the touchpad while you type.
Performance and Benchmarks
The XPS 15 might technically be an "Ultrabook" but don't think for a second that makes this notebook anything less than an exceptional multimedia and entertainment notebook. The two headline features are a 3rd-generation Intel Core i7 quad-core processor and an all-new graphics card based on the NVIDIA Kepler GPU core with NVIDIA Optimus technology (automatically switching between the discrete graphics and the built-in Intel graphics to give you high performance when gaming and extra battery life the rest of the time). Combine that with 8GB of fast system memory and a 750GB hard drive paired with a 32GB mSATA SSD and you have an "Ultrabook" that is as good as (or better than) most thicker multimedia notebooks from last year. The HDD and SSD work together as a single hybrid drive to give you the storage capacity of a hard drive and the startup speed of a SSD. The two drives appear as just one drive under Windows Explorer so you won't see then as separate drives unless you reformat your system.
Of course, not all the performance is due to the fast storage. As previously mentioned, NVIDIA's new Kepler-based graphics have cards have lower thermals than the previous generation cards which certainly helps them fit inside Ultrabooks that have painfully thin chassis dimensions. NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M card inside the XPS 15 packs more than enough muscle to play modern games like Skyrim or Max Payne 3 at lower detail settings with reasonably fast frame rates (30+ FPS). Keep in mind this isn't a "gaming notebook" but it's pretty impressive that an Ultrabook can deliver a decentgaming experience.
Heat and Noise
The XPS 15 pushes hot air out the dual intake and exhaust vents on the bottom of the chassis near the front and back edges. These large vent strips provide enough airflow to keep the quad-core processor and dedicated graphics running cool and help prevent the metal chassis from getting too hot to touch.
At idle the cooling system switches between total silence and light fan noise that is just loud enough to be heard by someone sitting next to you in a quiet room. Once under full load, however, the noise level increases to the point that your cubicle neighbor might ask you why you're using a hair dryer on the low setting in the office.
The top of the chassis remains lukewarm to the touch with no obvious hot spots. The bottom center of the chassis got particularly warm near the metal XPS logo panel, but temperatures remained "lap friendly" as long and we kept our hands and legs clear of the exhaust coming out of the rear vent while gaming.
During our standard battery rundown test (Windows 7 Balanced power profile, 70% screen brightness, wireless active, and refreshing a web page every 60 seconds), the XPS 15 L521X delivered 6 hours and 4 minutes of battery life from its 9-cell integrated battery. This is pretty good for a light usage (cafe browsing) standpoint but it's much less than we've seen from other 15-inch Ultrabooks and Ultrabook alternatives like the HP ENVY Sleekbook. Still, 364 minutes of constant web browsing is pretty good for a desktop replacement Ultrabook.
The key thing to remember about the Dell XPS 15 is that this notebook is the best combination of attractive design, solid construction and excellent performance that we've seen so far from Dell. Yes, more than a few people will probably criticize this Ultrabook for looking too much like a 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro. Regardless of the obvious visual similarities, the XPS 15 is no less an extraordinary notebook PC.
The display might be annoyingly glossy (making it difficult to see outside or under bright indoor lighting) but the Gorilla Glass protective surface makes the screen far more durable than most laptops ... making it almost impossible to scratch or break the screen unless you're "trying" to break it.
All the aluminum in this notebook combined with high-performance components and a full array of ports makes this notebook heavier than most 15-inch Ultrabooks but that metal construction and those features work together to make the XPS 15 one of the best notebooks in its class.
A starting price of close to $1,300 means the XPS 15 isn't cheap but if you're looking for the best Windows-based alternative to a MacBook Pro ... this is it.