Dell XPS 15 (2013) review

The 1800p screen, which is supposed to be the XPS 15’s highlight, is actually one of its weakest traits.
The 1800p screen, which is supposed to be the XPS 15’s highlight, is actually one of its weakest traits.
The 1800p screen, which is supposed to be the XPS 15’s highlight, is actually one of its weakest traits.

Highs

  • Attractive and durable exterior
  • Very thin and light for a 15.6” laptop
  • Four USB 3.0 ports
  • Bright 3200 x 1800 display
  • Quick, well-rounded performance

Lows

  • Expensive
  • Display lacks contrast
  • Loud fan at load

Dell is the only PC manufacturer that has consistently understood the need for premium products that wow consumers and make competitors look bad. Accomplishing this has long been the job of its XPS sub-brand, and while its experiments haven’t sometimes turned out to be monsters, the most recent batch of XPS Ultrabooks have been excellent. We’ve highly praised the XPS 12 and 13 in the past, and often use them as a standard against which other Ultrabooks can be compared.

We can’t say the same of the old XPS 15 which, though impressive enough to earn our Recommended award when we reviewed it in December of last year, came to be remembered as competent rather than outstanding. But now, Dell has released a new version that’s redesigned from scratch. Highlights include a 4th-gen Intel Core processor, an optional 3200 x 1800 touchscreen, Nvidia graphics and a carbon fiber chassis. On paper, these specs make it a power-house, yet Dell has also managed to shave off some weight, dropping the new model to 4.4 pounds while reducing thickness to seven-tenths of an inch.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that this new Dell XPS 15 is sold at a MacBook-esque price. The base model, which has a 1080p display, starts at $1,499, but our review unit retails at an intimidating $1,899, just $100 less than the basic MacBook Pro 15 with Retina. Let’s see if this new Dell lives up to its going rate.

Let us tell you about carbon fiber

Carbon fiber is light, durable and flexible, but there’s a problem; it feels cheap. This has been an issue for laptops like the Sony VAIO 13 and Lenovo ThinkPad T440s, neither of which felt as expensive as the words “carbon fiber” sound. Dell, however, has solved this problem, adding a luxurious soft-touch finish and aluminum framing that reinforces the chassis. A little flex is noticeable if the laptop is handled roughly, but it’s unnoticeable during normal use.

The Dell XPS 15 isn’t the best value, but it’s great for anyone who needs a featherweight workhorse.

The look of the XPS 15 reveals a split personality. Most of the system is coated in a subdued, professional shade of black, and the aluminum frame which binds the system together adds a hint of elegance. The generic metal display lid is a bit out of place, however, and adorned with a gaudy, chrome Dell logo. XPS 15 owners will feel pampered by luxury, but everyone else at your local coffee shop will think you’re using an Inspiron.

At just .7 inches thick, there’s not a lot of room along the XPS 15’s flanks, but a fair number of ports have been crammed in regardless. Four USB 3.0 ports, two on each side, provide plenty of connectivity for peripherals and external hard drives. They’re joined by HDMI and Mini-DisplayPort connectors, an SD card reader and a combo headphone/microphone jack. This modest but versatile selection of connectivity bests most 15.6 inch Ultrabooks.

Blank space

Though it offers a 15.6 inch display, and has plenty of interior space to spare, the XPS 15 doesn’t include a number pad. This means there’s about two inches of blank space on either side of the center-set keyboard, which looks a bit odd, but also provides people with plus-sized digits room to spread out. Key feel is decent, but not exceptional. Key travel is adequate and the layout is spacious enough, but alternatives from Apple and Lenovo clearly have Dell beaten in this area.

Backlighting is standard and activated via a function-row hotkey. Only two brightness settings are available, which is skimpy compared to the MacBook Pro, which offers a broad range of adjustment. Light leak is minimal, however, and the dimmer of the two brightness presets provides the perfect level of light for use in a dim or pitch-black room.

The touchpad measures 4 x 3.5 inches and has a slightly different texture than the surrounding palmrest. Mouse buttons are integrated into the clickable surface, which lacks travel and has only the faintest tactile feel. Multi-touch activates smoothly and reliably. Overall, the touchpad is like the keyboard; good enough, but not great.

There’s more to a display than pixels

Though available with a 1080p panel, our review unit boasted a display resolution of 3200 x 1800. That translates to 235 pixels per inch, slightly higher than an Apple MacBook Pro 15 with Retina. The result is a very sharp display, and this perception is boasted by the backlight’s astounding maximum brightness of 400 lux. This makes the display usable in harsh lighting conditions in spite of its extremely glossy coat.

Our praise ends there, however. While our testing equipment showed that the display is capable of rendering 96 percent of the sRGB gamut, it also revealed that the XPS 15 has a problem with blacks. They’re nowhere near as deep on competing products, which in turn hurts contrast, resulting in a maximum ratio of 390:1. For comparison, the Acer Aspire R7 has a contrast ratio of 780:1 and the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro reaches 580:1.

The speakers, however, deserve unqualified praise. They’re loud, largely free of distortion and provide modest bass when required.

Testing only confirmed what we suspected from the moment we turned the laptop on. We immediately noticed grayish blacks, and our first impression was reinforced when we watched several movie trailers. While the quality of the screen is adequate, pixel count is its only outstanding feature, and it unfortunately doesn’t translate to a superior entertainment experience.

The XPS 15 also suffers from the scaling issues common on Windows laptops with a high PPI display. Fine details like text look blurry in some apps, and even 1080p video has a soft look caused by up-scaling content to the display’s native resolution.

The speakers, however, deserve unqualified praise. They’re loud, largely free of distortion and provide modest bass when required. A good pair of external speakers will be an improvement, but most users will find the XPS 15’s built-in sound adequate for movies and music.

Screamin’ fast

Our review unit, the mid-range model, came with an Intel Core i7-4702HQ processor. This is a lower-voltage quad-core with a base clock of just 2.2 GHz that can potentially Turbo Boost up to 3.2 GHz. The extra cores easily pulled their weight in SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic benchmark, where the XPS 15 scored 98.33 GOPs. Acer’s Aspire R7, a 15.6 inch Ultrabook with a dual-core processor, scored only 38.74 in the same benchmark.

The 7-Zip file de-compression test heaped more praise on the Dell by reaching a score of 15,389, a test in which the Aspire R7 scored 6,590 and the fastest dual-core systems barely break 7,000. There are quicker options, like the Asus G750 gaming laptop, which scored 19,634, but they’re larger, heavier laptops.

Dell XPS 15 review display side

PCMark 8’s storage benchmark turned in a grade of 4,169, which is great given our review unit’s 1TB mechanical hard drive. The score is no doubt thanks to the laptop’s 32GB cache SSD, which stores commonly accessed data by nature. A dedicated SSD is faster still (the ASUS UX301LA, for example, scored 4,863) but Dell’s approach provides decent performance and plenty of capacity as well.

While the base XPS 15 makes do with Intel HD 4400 graphics, our review unit arrived with Nvidia’s GeForce GT 750M GPU. This powerful GPU led the system to a 3DMark Cloud Gate score of 8,914 and a Fire Strike score of 1,759. These are the best numbers we’ve received from any laptop not explicitly built for gaming, and they absolutely dominate Intel integrated graphics. Acer’s Aspire R7, for example, scores a mere 600 in the Fire Strike benchmark.

With that said, though, the XPS 15 isn’t a gamer’s dream. Older titles may not support the display’s 3200 x 1800 resolution and newer games will run worse than expected because the high pixel count increases the burden on the GPU. You can, of course, reduce in-game resolution and graphics options to improve framerates, but doing so reduces image quality.

Lightweight

Unlike most Ultrabooks, the XPS 15 can be purchased with one of two different batteries. Most versions ship with the 61 watt-hour unit found in our review system, but the most expensive variant (which starts at $2,199) has a 91 watt-hour battery. The lesser battery keeps weight down to just 4.4 pounds, which is very light for a 15.6 inch Ultrabook boasting a quad-core processor.

The 61 watt-hour battery managed to power the XPS 15 for just four hours and twenty-six minutes while running the Peacekeeper web browsing benchmark. Though this is not a terrible result, the Acer Aspire R7 lasts over an hour more and the Lenovo ThinkPad T440s offers over two hours of extra endurance. On the other hand, Lenovo’s Yoga 2 Pro lasts over an hour less and the Asus G750 manages two minutes short of four hours.

Our light-load Reader’s Test, which uses the Battery Eater software to continually scroll through a document, extended life to only five hours and thirty-one minutes. We normally expect to see a wider gap between the web browsing and light-load tests, but that can change on laptops offering a display resolution beyond 1080p.

A look at the watt meter reveals why the XPS 15 provides mediocre battery life despite its large battery. At idle, with the display brightness set at 50 percent, the system consumes a whopping 19 watts, almost double demanded by the Acer Aspire R7. Running the 7-Zip benchmark nearly triples consumption to 57 watts, and gaming can bring power draw up to almost 75 watts, over three times more than the Aspire R7’s 29 watts of consumption.

Cooling

At idle, the XPS 15 is nothing if not tame. The fan spins slowly, creating about 40 decibels of noise, and the exterior reaches a maximum temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Both figures are average for the class.

Hit the gas, though, and the system fan surges in an attempt to keep temperatures in check. Noise tops out at about 51 decibels, much louder than the Acer Aspire R7, which peaks at 41db, or even the Asus G750, which almost hits 46db.

Dell XPS 15 review left side ports

The fan does a reasonable job of keeping temperatures in check during most tasks, as the system’s bottom doesn’t warm above 95 degrees at maximum processor load. Play a game, though, and heat soars to about 116 degrees as the powerful Nvidia GPU engages. Most of the warmth is directed towards the bottom of the chassis, so gaming on a desk keeps the experience tolerable, but you’re not going to want this Dell in your lap while capping newbies in Battlefield 4.

Software

Very little bloatware arrived on our Dell XPS 15. There were no unnecessary icons on the desktop, and the Windows Start Screen was saddled with just eight added items, most of which were simple apps like Dell Shop or Amazon Kindle. The only potential annoyance was McAfee Internet Security, which prompted us with several backup and anti-virus warnings during our time with the laptop. Fortunately, McAfee can be uninstalled without trouble.

Conclusion

Dell’s XPS 15 is a valiant attempt to compete with the best premium notebooks but, ultimately, it falls a bit short. The blame for this lies with the display, which pads the price but doesn’t add much to the user experience. Is it sharp? Certainly. But poor black levels sap contrast and ultimately sour the overall package. The system’s expensive $1,899 MSRP is supposed to be justified by the display, so we’re disappointed to see that, beyond pixel count, it doesn’t live up to expectations.

Still, the XPS 15 deserves credit for delivering excellent performance in a thin and light chassis. Samsung’s ATIV Book 8 is still our top pick among 15.6” premium laptops in spite of its continued use of a 3rd-gen Intel Core processor, but it’s a full pound heavier and two-tenths of an inch thicker. Dell has managed to match the size of the MacBook Pro 15 for $100 less ($500 less, if you go with the base model), and some buyers will find that a very attractive trait.

Dell also deserves credit for strong storage performance in spite of this system’s 1TB hard drive. Most other systems of similar size come with a standard 128GB solid state drive that simply isn’t large enough for many users. The XPS 15, however, provides plenty of space.

This system isn’t the best value around, and the display’s resolution writes a check its performance can’t cash, but the XPS 15 is a good choice for anyone who needs a light, yet powerful and versatile, workhorse.

Highs

  • Attractive and durable exterior
  • Very thin and light for a 15.6” laptop
  • Four USB 3.0 ports
  • Bright 3200 x 1800 display
  • Quick, well-rounded performance

Lows

  • Expensive
  • Display lacks contrast
  • Loud fan at load
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