4K displays are relatively rare for TVs, and even more so for notebooks -- which is one of the reasons Dell's refreshed XPS 15 is so interesting. Its crystal-sharp 15-inch touch screen is a delight for video and photo editors. But, more important, the XPS 15 ($2,549 as configured; starting at $1,599) has the muscle to back it up: a Core i7 processor and Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics. And it's encased in a lovely aluminum and carbon-fiber shell, making it as -- if not more -- attractive than the MacBook Pro with Retina display. But is it worth it to spend more than $2K on 4K?
Editor's Note (10/8/2015): Dell released a new version of the XPS 15 that features an edge-to-edge display, Intel's new 6th-generation Core processors, and an optional Nvidia GPU for a starting price of $999. We recommend that shoppers consider that model and have updated the shopping links in this review to point to it.
Similar to the MacBook Pro, the XPS 13's lid is made of aluminum but has a darker finish than Apple's machine. Unlike the smaller XPS 13, which now has an aluminum lid and undercarriage, the bottom of the XPS 15 remains carbon fiber. Two ridges run parallel to each other across the width of the bottom, elevating it from the surface of a table or your lap.
I really like that the all-black keyboard deck is coated in a soft-touch finish. It felt extremely comfortable on my wrists. The polished stainless-steel trim along the edges is a nice aesthetic touch, too.
In all, the Dell is more interesting to look at than the MacBook Pro, whose monolithic all-aluminum design, while attractive, is starting to wear on me.
The Dell XPS 15 has a slightly larger footprint than Apple's notebook and, at 4.6 pounds, is slightly heavier than the 4.4-pound MacBook Pro. Still, it's lighter than the mostly plastic -- and pedestrian -- 4.8-pound Acer Aspire V15 Nitro.
Packing a quad-HD (3840 x 2160-pixel) touch-screen display, the XPS 15 is one of the sharpest screens you'll find on a notebook. The MacBook Pro with Retina display is no slouch, but it has a lower, 2880 x 1800p resolution.
In terms of brightness and gamut, the XPS 15 and the MacBook Pro are pretty evenly matched. The Dell's display rings in at 320 nits, while Apple's is 317 nits. The Acer V15 came in at a much lower 212 nits.
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Likewise, the Dell and the Mac can reproduce 88.3 and 89.8 percent of the sRGB spectrum, respectively. (The Acer scored a near-perfect 97.8 percent.) Where Apple pulls ahead is accuracy: Its Delta-E score of 1.4 is near-perfect, and much better than the XPS 15's score of 7.2.
Watching the same trailer side by side confirmed the results of our lab tests. A 1080p trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens looked equally spectacular on both displays; the Dell's had a greener tint, and the Empire's banners looked a bit redder on the Mac, but both were a feast for the eyes.
Keyboard and Touchpad
You'll get a near desktoplike experience when typing on the XPS 15's large keyboard. The keys are well spaced, and the caps have a nice concave shape that cups your fingertips. The keys have a fairly deep travel of 1.6 mm, and require 63 grams of force to press.
On the 10FastFingers typing test, I averaged about 60 words per minute on the Dell, which is close to my desktop score of 60 wpm. Still, I preferred the snappier action on the MacBook Pro's keys; as a result, I averaged about 66 wpm on the MacBook Pro.
The XPS 15's spacious 4.1 x 3.1-inch touchpad has the same finish as the rest of the deck. Executing Windows 8 gestures and two-finger scrolling was smooth for the most part. There were several instances, though, where, instead of scrolling down a page, the cursor would select icons or text. The soft-touch finish -- similar to that on the rest of the keyboard deck -- didn't feel as comfortable here, and made for slightly less-accurate navigation compared to what I experienced with the MacBook Pro's touchpad.
While hidden from view, the XPS 15's speakers make their presence known. When I watched the Star Wars trailer, the Millennium Falcon's engines roared throughout the testing lab. David Guetta's "Play Hard" remix, streamed through Pandora, made it feel like I was in a nightclub, and Ariana Grande's voice soared in "One Last Time." At max volume, though, bass tended to distort, regardless of genre.
The speakers, powered by MaxxAudio by Waves, let me switch among four sound profiles: Movies, Music, Voice and Gaming. Of the four, Movies was the most balanced, and brought out voices while still keeping lower-end tones defined.
Ports and Webcam
On the left side of the XPS 15 are two USB 3.0 ports, a mini DisplayPort, an HDMI port, and headphone and power jacks. Over on the right are two more USB 3.0 ports and an SD card reader. It's a nice assortment.
The XPS 15's webcam delivered bright images, but they had a bit of visual noise, which degraded sharpness. Although my face was well lit, I could see a number of speckles, and my brown hair was mottled.
It's not just the XPS 15's screen that impresses. Inside our notebook was a 2.3-GHz Intel Core i7-4712HQ processor, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB solid-state drive. I had no trouble playing videos, running scans and browsing the Web simultaneously on this machine, but in our performance tests, it fell a bit short of the competition.
On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, the XPS 15's score of 11,816 was about 2,500 points higher than the category average of 9,308. However, the MacBook Pro and the Acer V15 Nitro, both of which also have Core i7 processors, notched even higher scores of 13,352 and 12,843, respectively.
The XPS 15's 512GB SSD was fast, duplicating 5GB of multimedia files in 33 seconds -- more than a minute faster than average. Again, though, the Dell was trumped by the MacBook Pro's PCIe-based flash storage (18 seconds), as well as the Acer's more conventional 256GB SSD and 1TB HDD combo (25 seconds).
Similarly, the XPS 15 matched 20,000 names and addresses in OpenOffice in 4 minutes and 9 seconds, which is also more than a minute faster than the average but slower than its closest competitors. The Acer was a few seconds faster (3:55), while the Mac was a minute faster (3:04).
The Nvidia GeForce GT 750M processor and 2GB of vRAM in the XPS 15 are strong enough for video editing as well as high-end games, albeit with the settings turned down.
On World of Warcraft, the Dell managed a just-playable 34 frames per second at its native 4K resolution, but with the effects on medium. At those same settings (but at its native 2880 x 1800p), the MacBook Pro -- which has the same GPU as the Dell --managed 27 fps. The Acer V15 Nitro, which has an Nvidia GeForce 860M graphics card, hit 51 fps at its native 4K resolution.
Neither could reach a playable frame rate when I increased the eye candy to the max: The Dell eked out 16 fps, while the Mac hit 15 fps. The Acer nearly doubled both, at 29 fps.
On BioShock: Infinite, the XPS 15 churned out a strong 58 fps at 1080p, and with the effects on low. That's about half that of the Acer V15 (97 fps) and the mainstream average of 108 fps, but this category includes a number of gaming rigs. With the effects turned up, the Dell's frame rates dropped to an unplayable 23 fps -- 20 frames below the Acer, and 30 frames below the average.
Good news for Metro: Last Light fans: You can play that game on the XPS 15 at a comfortable 37 fps, albeit at 1080p and the effects on low. At its native resolution, the game slogged along at 11 fps.
One of the few areas where the XPS 15 could improve is heat dissipation. After I played a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the underside of the notebook hit 114 degrees Fahrenheit. That's nearly 20 degrees hotter than what we consider acceptable. The space between the G and H keys was also too warm, at 100 degrees. Only the touchpad, at 77 degrees, was cooler than our threshold.
Although our configuration has a 91-watt-hour battery -- larger than the 61-Wh batteries in all other configurations of the XPS 15 -- our review unit lasted 6 hours and 59 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test.
While that's much better than the mainstream notebook average (5:49) and the Acer V15 (2:48), the MacBook Pro lasted an hour and a half longer (8:29).
Dell offers four configurations of the XPS 15. The least-expensive one starts at $1,599; for that, you get an Intel Core i5-4200H processor; 8GB of RAM; a 1TB, 5400-rpm hard drive; a 32GB SSD; and a 1080p touch-screen display with Intel HD 4600 graphics.
The cheapest model with a 4K display -- if you can call it "cheap" -- will run you $2,149. You also get an Intel Core i7-4712HQ processor, 16GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce 750M GPU with 2GB of memory.
Ours was the splurge config. At $2,549, this model includes a 512GB SSD and a 91-Wh battery that's larger than the 61-Wh batteries in the other configurations. This makes the notebook slightly heavier, but the design is unaffected.
By comparison, the MacBook Pro costs $2,499, and has a 2.5-GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 512GB PCIe-based flash storage, 16GB of RAM and Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics with 2GB of vRAM.
Dell's consumer notebooks have really impressed us over the last year, and the XPS 15 is further proof. It has a gorgeous design, an impressive 4K display, and more than enough performance for photo and video editors. My only concern is the amount of heat it kicks out, so you'll want to keep it on a desk, rather than on your lap. Although the XPS 15 costs $50 more than a similarly configured MacBook Pro with Retina display, the premium is worth it for the higher-resolution touch screen.