Exclusive: The story behind the XPS 17, Dell’s largest and most powerful laptop

Seventeen-inch laptops are nearly extinct.

The 17-inch MacBook Pro was discontinued in June 2012, and outside of gaming laptops, much of the industry followed Apple’s lead. There wasn’t room in the world for a 6.6-pound laptop that couldn’t fit in a standard backpack or briefcase.

But Dell is attempting a revival, and to do so, the company is relying on lessons learned from its svelte Dell XPS 13. Want proof of their success? The new XPS 17 is smaller than the majority of 15-inch laptops currently sold.

I visited Dell’s labs and spoke with its design team to see how the XPS hopes to make 17-inch laptops relevant again.

Why make a 17-inch laptop?

The XPS team has led laptop design for years. Its push toward thinner bezels started in 2015, and Dell’s competitors have been playing catch-up ever since.

The XPS 17 is about more than just bezels. The dream behind the creation of the XPS 17 has always been one of power. Yes, Dell has the XPS 15, a popular choice for workstation-like performance in a sleek build. But the XPS team wanted more.

Donnie Oliphant has guided the XPS team over the past decade. He spoke candidly about the wild experiments, missteps, and successes of XPS over the years, and seems confident the XPS 17 is a bold new direction for the industry.

According to Oliphant, the true origin for an all-powerful XPS 17 came from another innovator at the company, Frank Azor. The longtime head of both XPS and Alienware departed Dell last year for an executive role at AMD; the XPS 17 is his last conceptual contribution to Dell.

“This is a little tongue-in-cheek, but 17 exists because Frank Azor wanted a much larger, more powerful, and capable XPS notebook. That’s the short answer,” said Oliphant with a laugh. “We also looked at that space, and knowing what we could do putting a 17 in a 15-inch form factor — 17-inch was this missing guardrail that we didn’t have.”

A few competitors do offer 17-inch laptops today. Examples include the HP Envy 17, the LG Gram 17, and niche workstation laptops like the HP ZBook 17 G5. But when Oliphant speaks about “missing guardrails,” he’s talking about more than just an empty slot in the product portfolio.

“We look for opportunities to lead in existing categories, but we also look for ways to create new categories,” Oliphant told me. “Seventeen-inch is an uber, uber small market. Well, 17-inch today are big, 8-pound gargantuan products. What if we did a sexy, sleek, slim 17-inch that is about the same size as most 15-inches? That’s kind of a new product category from my perspective. We put a twist on 17-inch that nobody else has.”

What’s the big twist? It goes back to Azor’s initial concept for the XPS 17. He wanted to build the most powerful XPS laptop ever — and a meaningful step up from the already powerful XPS 15 — without losing the sleek profile Dell’s XPS laptops are now known for.

Unprecedented power

There’s a problem inherent in trying to sell the XPS 17 on more power. The XPS 15 already exists, and it’s incredible. Its most recent update offers the best Intel mobile processors available to consumers. A Dell XPS 15 with the 8-core, 16-thread Intel Core i9 can tear through 4K video edits. Since Intel doesn’t have anything new up its sleeve, Dell was left to its own devices to crank up the performance.

The XPS engineering team turned to the next logical bottleneck: graphics. The XPS 17 can be configured with the Nvidia RTX 2060 with 6GB of VRAM. It’s a first for XPS, and it’s one of the few laptops under 5 pounds to offer it.

“We’re giving the RTX 2060 all 60 watts that it needs. We’ll play games with power share between CPU and GPU,” said Oliphant. “We’re not a gaming device, so we typically don’t run both components 100% concurrently. On this particular product, though, we felt like we had the ability to give the graphics all that we could and still not shortchange the CPU too much.”

The XPS 17’s most impressive performance advantage almost didn’t make it to the final product.

Limited thermal headroom is a problem for laptops in this class. They’re forced to walk a tightrope between heat, noise, performance, and size. The worst example is the 2018 MacBook Pro 15, which infamously throttled the Core i9 so hard it sometimes fell short against the Core i7 model. It was, in a word, a disaster.

According to Oliphant, that’s why the RTX 2060 wasn’t always in the XPS 17’s plans. Simply bringing the thermal solution in the XPS 15 to a larger chassis wouldn’t leave enough headroom for Nvidia’s beefy, 60-watt graphics card. Then, halfway through the development cycle, the team’s engineers hit a breakthrough.

“About six months ago, when we were in the middle of this development cycle, our TDP (thermal design power) for this product was about 70 or 75 watts. Our engineering guys, the thermal and mechanical engineers and architects, developed and incubated a new thermal technique which basically took this product from the mid-70s up to the 90s. We had to change the fans and enclosures a little bit, but no other structural changes to the product. Just through some incubation and innovation on the thermal side, we’re able to give you an extra 30% of TDP.”

This was a breakthrough. Without it, the Dell XPS 17 wouldn’t be “ready for VR,” it wouldn’t have the RTX 2060, and its gains over the XPS 15 would far less impressive. The XPS 17 was well on its way to being another 17-inch laptop serving up a larger display — and not much else.

Dell didn’t offer a specific figure for the boost the new thermal system brings, but more power means the system is able to run higher clock cycles and more efficiently push heat off the system.

The new thermals include a vapor chamber that covers the graphics card and acts as a large heat sink to absorb that hot air. Many gaming laptops use this type of cooling over traditional heat pipes, however. The real breakthrough can be found in the fans.

The impeller is now much larger, filling 90% of the housing with whirling fan blades. Combined with some careful airflow tricks within the chassis of the laptop, this thermal solution can move far more air and exhaust more heat. It sounds simple, but creating a practical, durable fan design capable of such airflow took months of work, and Dell thinks it’ll prove to be a game-changer.

It’s always a balance, of course — or the “B” word, as Oliphant calls it.

“There’s a ton of different forces pulling us in different directions when we talk about thermal capabilities for these products. I could add some big-ass feet on this thing and drive the thermals up even further. But we want table height when we’re sitting on the table next to our competitors. These aren’t gaming boxes. They’re performance boxes, but they’re premium performance boxes. It’s a delicate balance on what we do to make these things beautiful, but then also make them effective in what their jobs are supposed to be.”

MacBook Pro in its sights

The XPS 17 might not have a clear rival from its Windows competitors, but it does have a clear target. The MacBook Pro 16. It’s a laptop that won much favor for Apple, especially from creative professionals. The XPS 17 has its work cut out for it if Dell hopes to win this “creator” demographic.

“When you look at all the focus on creators right now, a lot of it is marketing,” said Oliphant. “It’s not like there’s been some magical university of creation that has just started people who want to create things. There have always been creators out there. But people have started to market to those people very effectively.”

This is, of course, something Apple has been doing for decades. Apple has always sold itself as the brand for creatives — whether for hobbyists or professionals. The 16-inch MacBook Pro epitomizes this approach as a large and powerful laptop meant for this exact demographic. The 17-inch MacBook Pro was canceled long ago, but the 16-inch feels like its spiritual successor.

“We didn’t know the MacBook Pro was coming as a 16-inch.”

The shadow of Apple’s laptop hung over all our conversations at XPS labs. A MacBook sat on the table as we talked about the potential of the XPS 17.

“We didn’t know the MacBook Pro was coming as a 16-inch,” Oliphant told me. “It just happened to perfectly fit right in between our products. Now, we have a sandwich strategy where if you want something lighter and as powerful, you buy this product. If you want something significantly more powerful and probably about the same size, you get the 17.”

Thin bezels and small footprints have always been a part of the XPS DNA, but when you apply them to a laptop with a 17-inch screen, it’s even more noticeable. Despite its larger screen, the XPS 17 is only a hair bigger than the MacBook Pro. The footprint of each is almost identical, with the only noticeable difference being an extra 0.65 inches in width for the Dell. That’s the strength of the XPS 17’s thin bezel design.

The XPS 17 matches other important design changes made to recent XPS 15 and 13 models: A 16:10 display aspect ratio, a large touchpad, upward-facing speakers, and four Thunderbolt 3 ports. These enhancements help the XPS 17 match or exceed the MacBook Pro 16 in multiple areas. Dell doesn’t want to give away any advantage to Apple.

The lead designer on the XPS team, Nick DiLoreto, described why a laptop exactly like this was what he’s always wanted. “There’s a whole group of creative people like myself who are always looking for the biggest screen,” he told me. “When I’m in Taiwan or whatever, I don’t have access to my 38-inch monitor, but I still have to do the same types of tasks. To have that screen is really helpful for people like me.”

The next innovation

The XPS team seems confident about the next era of laptops. Its lineup has never been more unified, and the inclusion of a larger, more powerful XPS laptop is an exciting next step. Dell expects the XPS 17 to cut into sales of 15-inch laptops, and possibly even its own XPS 15.

“If this product is going to be successful, it’s gonna eat a bunch of 15-inch products,” said Oliphant. “Competitors, and maybe even some of ours. But we think this is gonna be groundbreaking.”

That doesn’t mean Dell is ready to forgo a 15-inch laptop, as Apple did. Dell has no plans to slow down or ax current models. Oliphant says the future holds more iterations and updates, not less.

“We won’t let our product line get as long in the tooth as this one,” he said, pointing to the previous version of the XPS 15. “You’re going to see us refresh these products a little more frequently. We’re not going to go crazy and do something new every year, but we’ve proved to ourselves that five years on this chassis was probably one to two years too long.”

He also pointed toward a big shift in technology that could happen in the future. He referenced everything from the architectural revolution of big core/small core chip design to ultrathin mechanical keyboards.

“I’ve fell many more times than I’ve succeeded,” Oliphant told me. “Go back to the Adamo days. Neither of those products were successful. But if we hadn’t done those products, we wouldn’t be where we are today with these products. Everybody’s gonna make mistakes. The smart ones learn from them.”

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