With plenty of solid mainstream notebooks available for under $700, a machine with a nearly $900 starting price needs to bring something special to the table. Fortunately, Dell's XPS 15 (starting at $849; $864 as configured) offers a lot more than just a Core i5 processor and 1GB Nvidia graphics card. In addition to blazing fast performance, the 15-inch model in Dell's revamped premium laptop line sports fantastic JBL speakers and a high-def webcam that makes Skype HD calls--a first for notebooks. The XPS 15 can even play 3D content when you hook it up to a compatible TV. Should you take the plunge, or are there better choices at this price?
Editors's Note:Dell has released a newer version of the Dell XPS 15. Read our new review here.
The Dell XPS 15 sports a matte silver anodized aluminum lid that doesn't pick up fingerprints, but its somewhat dull color doesn't impress. Those looking for more panache should deck out the XPS 15 in one of 200 Dell Studio lid options. On the plus side, we appreciate the small black bar that sticks out behind the lid and has a backlit XPS logo that flashes when the system's asleep. We also like that the matte finish continues on the sides and bottom, areas too often ignored by other notebook makers.
The dark brushed aluminum deck on the inside of the machine and the diamond-cut, silver trim that surround the keyboard and touchpad look more modern. The JBL speakers, which sit on either side of the keyboard, have a unique pattern that reminds you just how powerful they are.
At 15 x 10.4 x 1.5-inches and 6.1 pounds, the Dell XPS 15 is somewhat hefty for a notebook with this size display. It weighs more than the MSI P600 (5.4 pounds) and the 14.5-inch HP Envy 14(5.4 pounds). However, the Lenovo IdeaPad Y560d weighs 6.2 pounds.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The XPS 15's backlit keyboard offered reasonable tactile feedback and no flex at all, though we wish the keys weren't flat. On the ten thumbs typing tutor test, we managed a score of 86 words per minute, comfortably above our typical rate of 80 wpm.
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Above the keyboard sit a few status lights and three touch-sensitive buttons. The first button launches Windows Mobility Center, a mini control panel that allows you to easily manage your Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and display settings. We particularly appreciated being able to set the keyboard backlight's brightness. The second button is user-configurable and the third button launches Dell Audio by Realtek, an audio control cetner.
The large 3.9 x 2.2-inch touchpad on the XPS 15 has a surface that offers just the right amount of friction and smoothly executes multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom. It also has two discrete mouse buttons that offer good tactile feedback, a huge benefit over competitors that make you click the entire pad or force you to deal with a single button that clicks left or right.
While using the Dell XPS 15, we noticed that the left palm rest and the touchpad both got warm, though not unpleasantly hot. After streaming a video for 15 minutes, we measured the keyboard at a reasonable 92 degrees. However, the touchpad reached 95 degrees, right on the border of what we consider annoying. The bottom of the chassis, which is the warmest part of any notebook, reached 102 degrees.
Click to enlargeThe 15.6-inch glossy 1366 x 768 screen displayed sharp images and solid viewing angles. Even at 45 degrees to the left and right colors were bright and colorful. No matter what type of file we threw at it, the Dell XPS played video with aplomb. Whether we were streaming a 720p episode of Glee or playing a 1080p QuickTime trailer for Tron Legacy, images were completely noise-free and motion was totally smooth.
Though the XPS 15 does not have a 3D-capable display or emitter, its Nvidia GT420 video card can stream three dimensional video to a 3D-enabled television using Nvidia's 3DTV Play software and the system's HDMI 1.4 port. We didn't have a 3D TV on hand during testing, but the technology worked well during a hands-on demonstration. 3DTV Play will display photos or videos you capture with a 3D camera or camcorder, as well as content from the Web. To take full advantage of this software, though, you should equip the XPS 15 with a Blu-ray drive that can play 3D Blu-ray movies.
Click to enlargeEven more impressive than its video playback capability is the XPS 15's sound quality. The notebook's JBL speakers and Waves MaxxAudio 3 sound enhancement provided the best audio fidelity we've heard on any notebook this size. When listening to a guitar-heavy rock tune, a bass-centric R&B song, and a synth-laden pop ditty, playback was rich and layered with a clear separation of sound between the two speakers. In addition to the speakers on either side of the keyboard, the XPS 15 has a JBL subwoofer on the bottom of its chassis for a total 20 watts of power.
Using the Dell Audio by Realtek control panel, we were also able to exert fine control over the bass and treble. Though maximum volume seemed low at first, we were able to achieve really high levels with no distortion once we checked the Leveler option on the control panel.
Ports and Webcam
Click to enlargeThe Dell XPS 15 has a few high-end ports that you won't find on most other notebooks in this price range, but it doesn't have a VGA connection for video output. (Not a big deal for the target audience.) The front lip contains a 9-in-1 card reader. On the right side are a headphone jack, a microphone jack, and an S/PDIF connector, along with a USB 2.0 / eSATA combo port. On the back, the XPS 15 has an HDMI port, Ethernet, mini DisplayPort, Kensington lock slot, and USB 3.0 port. On the left side is one more USB 3.0 port, for a total of three USB ports, two of which are USB 3.0.
The 2-megapixel webcam provides 720p video output that works in Skype, a first for notebooks. When conducting a high-definition call from within our office, video was sharp and smooth, but colors were muted and our face was somewhat dark and shadowy. Testing the webcam from within our dimly-lit living room provided even worse color fidelity. Bottom line: we appreciate the Skype HD support, but wish the image could be brighter.
With its 2.4-GHz Core i5 460M CPU, 7,200 rpm hard drive, and Nvidia GT420 graphics, even the base configuration of the Dell XPS 15 offers performance that's good enough for demanding users such as gamers, media enthusiasts, and content creators. On PCMarkVantage, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall speed, the notebook notched a strong score of 6,112, well above the mainstream notebook category average of 4,577 and about on par with the HP Envy 14 (6,129) and Lenovo IdeaPad Y560d (6,172).
The 500GB, 7,200-rpm Seagate hard drive booted into Windows 7 (64-bit) in a reasonable 55 seconds. The drive took only two minutes and 58 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test, in which we copy 4.97GB of mixed media files. That's a rate of 28.6 MBps, quite a bit faster than the 23.5 MBps category average, but just a bit behind the HP Envy 14 (29.8 MBps) and the Lenovo IdeaPad Y560d (36.4 Mbps).
The XPS 15 is more than powerful enough for video editing. It took a mere 49 seconds to transcode a 114MB MP4 file to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder. That's 12 seconds faster than the category average, 5 seconds quicker than the Envy 14, and a full 16 seconds faster than the Lenovo Y560d.
The Dell XPS 15 comes standard with a discrete Nvidia GT420 graphics chip that uses Nvidia Optimus technology to automatically switch back and forth with the system's integrated Intel HD graphics for maximum performance and power efficiency. With the power of the GT420 behind it, the notebook is capable of playing hardcore games as well as high-definition videos.
On 3DMark06, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall graphics prowess, the XPS 15 notched a strong 6,875 score, well above the 3,463 category average and on par with the HP Envy 14 (6876). The Lenovo IdeaPad Y560d (8,068) scored a bit higher, though.
Playing World of Warcraft at the notebook's native resolution of 1366 x 768 with the game's recommended settings, we got a whopping rate of 98 frames-per-second, well above the 79 fps category average. When we upped the special effects to ultra mode, that rate dropped to a still-strong 65 fps, way above the category average of 25 fps.
When we tried playing the more-demanding game Far Cry 2, the XPS 15 didn't blink. At 1024 x 768 resolution, it provided a whopping 64 fps, which is double the category average (32 fps) and about on par with the HP Envy 14 (75 fps). At its native resolution of 1366 x 768, that rate dropped to a still-strong 34 fps, which is more than double the category average of 15.6 fps.
Battery Life and Wireless
If you plan on using the Dell XPS 15 with its standard 6-cell battery, you'll need to make sure you're near an outlet. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi, the notebook lasted only 3 hours and 6 minutes, nearly 50 minutes less than the category average of 3 hours and 55 minutes and over an hour less than the HP Envy 14 (4:26). In anecdotal use, battery life was much worse. In just under an hour testing the notebook's media capabilities with the brightness turned up, the notebook dropped from 98-percent to less than 50-percent. If you were playing games of watching videos on the XPS 15, it probably wouldn't last even two hours.
The XPS 15's Intel WiFi Link 1000 802.11n radio managed mediocre transfer rates of 29.6 and 19.8 Mbps at distances of 15 and 50 feet from the router. Those numbers are a bit short of the 30.6 / 21.2 Mbps category averages and weak in comparison to the HP Envy 14 (48 / 18.3 Mbps) and Lenovo IdeaPad Y560d (33.7 / 24.6 Mbps).
Click to enlargeThe Dell XPS 15 starts at just $849. With the base configuration, which is what we tested except for our optional ($25) backlit keyboard, you get a 2.4-GHz Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, 500GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, Windows 7 Home Premium, and Nvidia GT420 graphics. If you shop at Dell.com, you can configure the notebook with a full HD screen ($130), processors ranging from a 2.6-GHz Core i5 to a 3.2-GHz Core i7 ($500), a faster Nvidia GT435M graphics chip ($100), or a graphics chip with TV tuner ($50 to $100). A larger 640GB hard drive ($40) or a 256GB SSD ($550) are also available. You can step up to a Blu-ray drive for only $100, or get a 9-cell battery ($40) which promises to boost the notebook's meager endurance.
We highly recommend splurging for the 1080p display panel, because the notebook's strong media prowess is wasted on the default 1366 x 768 resolution screen. If you're a media enthusiast, the Blu-ray drive is a good choice too.
Software and Warranty
Click to enlargeOn the top of the screen is the Dell Dock, which provides shortcuts to the preloaded software, which is divided into categories like E-mail & Communications, Internet, and Photos. You can configure the dock, but given that you can pin shortcuts to the taskbar or the Start Menu in Windows 7, you really don't need it.
Among the utilities Dell includes are CyberLink PowerDVD for playing movies, Roxio Easy CD and DVD Burning for authoring discs, and Dell webcam central for shooting photos and videos with the system's camera. To enhance security, the XPS 15 has FastAccess facial recognition, and Dell DataSafe for backups. Our favorite preloaded application is the Dell Audio by Realtek control panel because it gives you the ability to fine-tune the speaker output and even create profiles for different uses such as movies or music listening.
Dell includes a standard one year warranty and 24/7 toll-free support. To see how Dell did in our latest tech support showdown, click here.
If you're looking for a reasonably priced all-purpose notebook that's great for multimedia and good enough for real gaming, the Dell XPS 15 is one of your best options. The sound quality alone really sets this laptop apart, as does the HD webcam (though we wish it performed better in low light). If you're looking for something more portable and stylish, you might want to consider a 14-inch system like the HP Envy 14. However, if you want an entertainment PC for use around the house, the XPS 15 should be near or at the top of your list.