Dell's original XPS 15 rivaled the 15-inch MacBook Pro in terms of power, price, and (arguably) style, but it couldn't compete when it came to portability. Along comes the XPS 15z, which is now just under an inch thick and weighs a pound less than its predecessor, while still packing an Intel Core i7 processor, Nvidia graphics, and loud speakers. Starting at $999 ($1,534 as configured), the XPS 15z is a fair bit less expensive than the Mac, but it has a full HD display and about six hours of battery life. Has this Dell usurped the MacBook Pro as the best 15-inch notebook on the market?
If it weren't for the hinge and the raised Dell logo on the lid, the XPS 15z might be confused for the 15-inch MacBook Pro at a quick glance. Its aluminum lid, magnesium-alloy chassis, and chrome trim around the edges exude more style than the regular XPS line. The deck is a slightly darker metallic color than the lid, and the two speaker grilles on either side of the keyboard have a diagonal pattern that continues on the vents on the bottom and back. Some might find this pattern to be a bit much.
The one design feature that seems out of place is the ribbed barrel hinge. We think it clashes with the grille pattern, and the section connected to the lid doesn't quite line up with the sections that are connected to the deck. We wouldn't raise a fuss if this were a budget notebook, but it's a borderline eyesore on a system in this price range.
At 15.2 x 10.3 inches, the XPS 15z's footprint is slightly larger than the MacBook Pro's (14.4 x 9.8 inches), but at just 0.97 inches thick, it's marginally thinner than Apple's notebook (1 inch). It's enough for Dell to boast that the XPS 15z is the thinnest 15-inch notebook on the planet, but you're not likely to notice the difference. Still, the regular XPS 15 (1.5 inches thick) looks positively chunky by comparison.
The XPS 15z's 5.6-pound weight is equal to that of the 15-inch MacBook Pro (and a full pound less than the XPS 15), which didn't make it all that uncomfortable to carry around. However, the smaller MBP is easier to fit into a messenger bag.
After playing a Hulu video for 15 minutes at full screen, the XPS remained fairly cool. The touchpad registered just 82 degrees Fahrenheit, the space between the G and H keys was 89, and the middle of the underside was 85 degrees. However, after we played World of Warcraft for about 10 minutes, the XPS 15 became noticeably hotter: The bottom near the vents reached 104 degrees, and we could also feel the left side of the keyboard heat up, too.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The XPS 15z's island-style keyboard is one of the more stylish we've seen. However, we wish form followed function more. The rounded keys don't have as much travel as we'd like. When we were typing it just felt too shallow. We like the fact that the keyboard is backlit, but when the backlighting is turned off, it's hard to read the letters and numbers.
We also like that there's a dedicated eject button for the DVD drive, but wish the Function row had been reversed, so we didn't have to press Fn in order to, say, adjust the volume.
The 3.9 x 2.3-inch touchpad is not only spacious, but friction-free and highly responsive as well. We were able to execute multitouch functions such as pinch-to-zoom, rotate, and scroll with ease. The two mouse buttons below feel a tad mushy, but are plenty large.
Display and Audio
The XPS 15z's 15.6-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel glossy display was wonderfully crisp and bright. At 300 nits, it's brighter than a typical notebook display (usually around 200 nits), and it showed. During the bleak and moody scenes in the trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, we could make out the smallest details, and darker areas showed little, if any, pixelation. The XPS 15z's panel also has a higher resolution than the 15-inch MacBook Pro, which sports 1440 x 900 pixels.
While not the JBL speakers on the original XPS line, the two large speakers on either side of the XPS 15z's keyboard pumped out a good amount of high-quality sound. Everything from Lady Gaga's "Lovegame" to Jay-Z's "Takeover" sounded crisp and clear, but the lack of a subwoofer, as on the XPS 15, was evident.
Ports and Webcam
On the left side of the XPS 15z are two USB 3.0 ports, one USB/eSATA with PowerShare, HDMI 1.4, Mini DisplayPort, and a 9-in-1 card reader. The right side has a slot-loading DVD drive and headphone and mic jacks. The rear has an Ethernet port.
While it's not Skype HD-certified, a caller during a video chat said that the XPS 15z's 1.3-megapixel webcam was able to render finer details in our face and clothes, and the dual embedded microphones picked up our voice clearly and cleanly. However, it should be noted that the XPS 15 has a 2-MP HD webcam.
The 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-2620M processor and 8GB of RAM in our XPS 15z powered the system to a score of 8,094 in PCMark Vantage. That's about 2,500 points higher than the category average and 400 points higher than the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but about 500 points shy of the XPS 15 we tested, which had a 2-GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM quad-core processor.
The 750GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive booted into Windows 7 Home Premium in 1 minute and 7 seconds, which is even with the category average, but 14 seconds slower than the XPS 15. However, it duplicated a 4.97GB folder of multimedia in 2 minutes and 38 seconds, a rate of 32.3 MBps. This showing was slower than the XPS 15 (33.3 MBps) and the MacBook Pro (36.4 MBps), but all were in the same ballpark, and comfortably above the 26.3 MBps average.
Transcoding a 114MB MPEG-4 video to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder took 40 seconds on the XPS 15z, placing it between the XPS 15 (42 seconds) and the MacBook Pro (37).
The XPS 15z comes with two graphics chips: an integrated Intel HD GPU, and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT525M processor with 2GB of video memory. Using Nvidia's Optimus technology, the XPS 15z switches between the two based on need. Using the Nvidia GPU, the XPS 15z notched a score of 7,420 in 3DMark06, nearly twice the average (3,910). However, the MacBook Pro, with its AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics, scored (10,359) and the XPS 15, which has an Nvidia GeForce GT540M GPU, scored 8,101.
The same pattern repeated itself on our gaming tests. In Far Cry 2, the XPS 15z saw 26 fps at its native resolution and graphics at Very High, which bested the category average by 9 fps, but came in just behind the XPS 15 (29 fps). In World of Warcraft, the XPS 15z averaged 35 fps with effects at Ultra; that was also better than the mainstream average (27 fps), but well behind the MacBook Pro (43 fps) and the XPS 15 (53 fps).
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
The XPS 15z's battery lasted a good 6 hours and 8 minutes. That's well above the mainstream average (4:23) and the XPS 15 (4:26), but about two hours behind the 15-inch MacBook Pro (8:23).
The Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230 Wi-Fi card in the XPS 15z saw a respectable average throughput of 31.7 Mbps at 15 feet from our access point. However, that's still about 5 Mbps slower than average. At 50 feet from our router, throughput dropped to 14.5 Mbps, about 7 Mbps slower than average. The XPS 15z is also equipped with Bluetooth 3.0.
The base model of the XPS 15z costs $999. For that, consumers get a 2.3-GHz Intel Core i5-2410M processor, a 1366 x 768 (200-nit) display, 4GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GT525M graphics with 1GB of video memory, and a smaller hard drive.
Software and Warranty
The XPS 15z comes with trials of Adobe Photoshop Elements 8, McAfee Security Center, Microsoft Office Starter 2010, Roxio Creater Starter, and Skype. Dell-branded apps include Webcam Central and Dell Stage, which provides shortcuts to programs, multimedia files, support, etc., but takes up a lot of room on the desktop.
The Dell XPS 15z addresses the two major concerns we had with the XPS 15, namely, bulk and endurance. This slimmed-down system has a more elegant, streamlined look and measures less than an inch thick. Plus, you get 6 hours of battery life. Our only major complaint is that the keyboard doesn't feel as comfortable as it should and that it's hard to see the letters when the backlight is off. Is the $1,534 asking price worth it when you can get a similarly configured XPS 15 with Blu-ray for $1,299? Yes, if you're willing to pay more for portability. Besides, our XPS 15z is still less expensive than the 15-inch MacBook Pro. That machine offers longer battery life but starts at $1,799. Bottom line: If you're shopping for a Windows notebook, the XPZ 15z is one of the better 15-inch machines that money can buy.