Dell's XPS series of notebooks are known for high performance and high-end design. The Dell XPS 15 (starting at $1,299, $1,699 as tested) follows that tradition, placing a quad-core Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor and Nvidia graphics into a stylish chassis that's sure to draw comparisons to the MacBook Pro. Dell also throws in Waves MaxxAudio. But how does the XPS 15 stack up to the competition?
From the outside, the Dell XPS 15 looks like a dead ringer for the 15-inch MacBook Pro (albeit a darker one). A chrome Dell insignia sits in the center of the silver machined aluminum lid instead of the backlit, half-eaten Apple logo. An thin band of silver aluminum wraps around the sides. The MacBook Pro similarities end there.
Inside you'll find a magnesium alloy deck with a matte black soft touch finish. This material not only looks cool, it feels comfortable on the wrists when typing. A black, backlit keyboard sits in a slightly recessed area in the center of the deck.
The rubberized motif continues on the bottom of the laptop. A gray matte soft touch band sits along the notebook's silicone underside surrounding a black soft touch panel with a small metal panel in the middle.
Although the design feels solid and premium, the XPS 15 is relatively hefty. It weighs 6 pounds and measures 14.6 x 9.8 x 0.91 inches. Both the Acer Aspire V3-571G-9435 (0.99-1.3 inches and 5.8 pounds) and the HP Envy 15 (1.1 inches, 5.8 pounds) are thicker but lighter. The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is lighter and slimmer, measuring 0.71 inches and weighing 4.5 pounds, as is the regular 15-inch MB Pro (.95 inches, 5.6 pounds).
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.
Audio on the Dell XPS was loud and relatively clear, provided we used the Movies setting on the MaxxAudio-powered Dell Audio control panel. The remaining presets (Music, Gaming, Voice and MaxxSense) didn't deliver the volume or high level of audio quality of the Movies preset. As we listened to Frank Ocean's "Thinking Bout You," Ocean alternated between his staid monotone tenor and a lilting falsetto. The whole track was held together by heavily synthesized instrumentals and a throbbing bass line. Despite the better-than-average audio, there was a bit of distortion in the vocals.
The XPS 15's island style keyboard is spacious, and we appreciate the slight curvature to the keys. Overall, we typed quickly and accurately on this layout, but we prefer the somewhat deeper travel offered by the HP Envy 15. A larger Enter key would also be nice. On the plus side, the backlighting was plenty powerful and evenly distributed.
When we took the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, we hit a word rate of 47 wpm with a 0 percent error rate. That's pretty close to our usual 50 wpm with a 1 percent error rate.
We couldn't keep our fingers off the 3.9 x 2.8 inch, glass Synaptics touchpad. The soft-touch surface made navigating the desktop silky smooth. Multitouch gestures such as two-finger rotate, pinch-zoom and two-finger scroll all worked well, as did three-finger flicks. You can also four-finger swipe down to show the desktop.
When making selections the touchpad provided strong tactile feedback with a reassuring click. Our only nitpick is that the pad got stuck when we accidentally placed the edge of our left palm on the pad while trying to navigate with our right index finger.
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.
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.
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.
The Dell XPS 15 has some serious hardware inside its sleek silver-and-black chassis. This machine comes with a quad-core 2.1-GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM processor, 8GB of RAM, a 750GB 7,200-rpm hard drive with 32GB mSATA SSD and an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU with 2GB of VRAM, the XPS 15 notched 3,599 on PCMark07. That's 1,269 points above the mainstream category average. The Dell even outgunned MSI's 15-inch gaming notebook, the GT60, which scored 3,336.
This showing also beats the $849 Acer Aspire V3-571G-9435's score of 2,595 (2.3-GHz Intel i7-3610QM; 6GB RAM; 500GB 5,400-rpm drive; Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU) The MacBook Pro with Retina Display scored considerably higher (4,779), but that $2,199 notebook benefits from an SSD.
The XPS 15's 32GB mSATA SSD booted Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) in 46 seconds, slightly faster than the 55 second category average. The Aspire V3 and its 500GB 5,400-rpm hard drive matched the average, while the GT60 took 53 seconds.
This notebook duplicated 4.97GB of multimedia files in 2 minutes and 17 seconds for a transfer rate of 37.1 MBps, slightly faster than the 36MBps average. The the Aspire V3 notched a sluggish 19.6 MBps and the GT60's dual hard drive reached 74.8 MBps.
During the OpenOffice spreadsheet macro test, the XPS 15 took 4 minutes and 54 seconds to match 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses. That's 1:23 faster than the 6:17 average. However, the Aspire V3 turned in a faster time of 4:35.
Thanks to its Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU with 2GB of VRAM, the Dell XPS 15 can play some of the most graphically demanding titles--just not at the highest settings.
During the "World of Warcraft" benchmark, the XPS 15 notched a frame rate of 57 frames per second with everything maxed out at full HD resolution. The Aspire V3 turned in a higher 78 fps, but that was at a lowly 1366 x 768 pixels. If you flip the settings to auto on the Dell you'll see a sky-high 113 fps at full resolution.
When we played the more taxing "Batman: Arkham City," the machine managed a brisk 36 fps at 1366 x 768 with the settings on low, but we got a barely playable 28 fps when we upped the resolution to 1920 x 1080. You can forget about maxing everything out, as we saw only 13 fps. A dedicated gaming rig like the MSI GT60 got 47 fps with the settings on high at 1366 x 768, thanks to its higher-end 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 670M graphics card.
The XPS 15 delivered solid results on our synthetic benchmarks. The laptop registered 1,801 on 3DMark11, far above the 997 mainstream category average. However, the Acer Aspire V3-571G-9435, which also has a Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU with 2GB of VRAM, scored 1,929. Here, too, the Acer probably benefitted from its lower-res display. In Boot Camp mode the MacBook Air with Retina Display beat the XPS 15, scoring 2,275.
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.
Software and Warranty
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.
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.
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.
The $1,699 Dell XPS 15 offers an impressive combination of beauty and power. The full HD screen is bright with eye-popping color, and the speakers are capable of delivering robust sound. We also love the luxurious soft-touch deck and appreciate the well-designed touchpad. We just wish the keyboard felt a little snappier and that the webcam were sharper.
In many ways, the XPS 15 is a good MacBook Pro alternative. You would have to pay $200 more to get a 15-inch MacBook Pro sans Retina Display with a 2.3-GHz Intel Core i7 CPU, Nvidia GeForce GT 650M GPU and a full HD screen. We prefer the keyboard on the Envy 15 and its Beats Audio, but HP doesn't offer that 15-inch system with a 2GB graphics card like this Dell.
Shoppers on a tighter budget can get similar graphics performance, but without the 1080p display, from the $849 Acer Aspire V3-571G-9435. And gamers should gravitate towards the MSI GT60 for $1,599. However, if you want a premium multimedia notebook, the Dell XPS is a very good and well-rounded choice.