Editors' Note: As of March 2011, the Dell XPS 15 reviewed here has been replaced with a newer model that offers the latest second-generation (Sandy Bridge) Core i processors.
Dell is relaunching its high-end laptop line for the holiday season with a revamped line of XPS systems. These are media-focused counterparts to the gaming-centric Alienware, and, now that the poorly defined Studio line has been killed, the main alternative to the infinitely configurable mainstream Inspirons.
Surprisingly, despite a bulky, clunky design, the XPS' ample specs and stellar speakers combine to offer one of the best affordable high-end laptops around.
The pleasant surprise lies not in the features, but in the cost. The XPS 15 we reviewed was an entry-level model at $849, yet its specs were a pretty strong overall package: Core i5 processor, 500GB hard drive, 4GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GT420M graphics, backlit keyboard, and the aforementioned big-sounding JBL speaker array, which gave even the HP Envy line a run for its sonic money.
The Dell XPS comes in 14-, 15-, and 17-inch models, all with high-end arrays of JBL speakers, updated ports including USB 3.0 and HDMI 1.4, and Nvidia GeForce 400-series graphics with Optimus.
Though its looks don't scream high end and its size and weight demand placement on a desktop, the reasonably priced XPS 15 deserves consideration from any shopper looking for a good media and game-ready notebook. If you're looking at a MacBook Pro or an HP Envy, make sure you give the XPS 15 a serious look, too.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$849|
|Processor||2.53 GHz Intel Core i5 M460|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT420M + Intel GMA HD (Nvidia Optimus)|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||15.0 inches x 10.4 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / weight with AC adapter||6.3 / 7.2 pounds|
The size and shape of the Dell XPS 15 is best described as beefy and bulky, with a flat, wide, silver profile that looks like plastic but is actually metal. A thick, slightly tapered base and wide, flat, brushed-aluminum lid look, at first glance, like they belong on a budget laptop.
The hinge-forward design on XPS mirrors other recent Dell laptops such as the Inspiron R and Mini 10, pushing the screen forward a little in relation to the keyboard but giving the rear end significant chunk. The XPS uses that back lip for a handful of rear-facing ports, including HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, Ethernet, the power jack, and one of its two USB 3.0 ports. It nearly acts like a dock, giving this XPS a very desktop-friendly feel for keeping wires out of the way, but making access a little tough for lap use.
The thick chassis has some noticeable flex on the sides, giving an impression of being not quite as solidly built as other high-end laptops such as the MacBook Pro and HP Envy. However, this is a laptop that gets a lot better once you actually start using it. A wide, generous palm rest and keyboard deck is covered in more brushed metal, with a semiraised keyboard centered right in the middle between two speaker grilles.
Typing feels very comfortable, although there could have been room for a number pad had the speakers been placed somewhere else. We also appreciated that the keyboard was backlit, which isn't always a given in laptops less than $1,000. Even better, the volume control and other control keys are function-reversed, meaning a simple press is all it takes to raise and lower volume. We're not a huge fan of the column of page up/down buttons lining the right side of the keyboard, relegating the Enter/Shift keys to inner positions that aren't instantly touch-intuitive.
A few backlit touch controls lie on the upper right side above the keyboard, to the left of a slightly off-from-center power button. A settings button launches a pop-up of useful controls covering the bases from Bluetooth to battery mode; it's so useful, we wish more laptops had such a hot key. Another button can be customized to instantly launch a program, and a third brings up fine-tune controls for the Waves MaxxAudio system that runs through the JBL speakers.
Dell's onscreen dock, much like the icon dock in Mac OS X, provides a nice instant-access strip for commonly used programs, augmenting Windows 7 nicely. It's not new or unique, but we appreciated it once again on the XPS 15.
A large multitouch touch pad is nearly the size of the MacBook Pro's, and controls better than many touch pads we've seen. Simple plastic buttons beneath do their job without fanfare, but reliably. It's nice to see a touch pad that does its job without getting too overstylized for its own good.
Now, back to those speakers for a moment: Dell has made lofty claims that the JBL/Waves audio system in the XPS bests even the HP Envy 14 Beats Edition. That's up for debate, but the included 5.1-speaker/subwoofer array is one of the best we've ever heard in a laptop. Music and movies play with crisp pop, punch, and separation, and gaming shows off the surround-simulating effects. The great audio enhances the value of this laptop for anyone looking for it to be a true home entertainment product, especially at the entry-level price.
The 15.6-inch LED-backlit glossy 16:9 display has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, which is a bit below expectations for high-end laptops at this price range. Colors were very bright and true, and both movies and games looked great, but for an extra $130 users can select a 1,920x1,080-pixel full HD display instead. To us, that seems like a worthwhile upgrade, although the next temptation would be to add a Blu-ray drive for $100, pushing the price up to $1,079. Still, considering the specs, that would be a reasonable price for everything included.
The touted HD Webcam records video at resolutions up to 1,600x1,200 pixels, or at 1,280x720 pixels in HD H.264 format. Though framerates are choppy using normal settings, the HD recording mode produces smooth, very watchable clips. The Webcam is also compatible with SkypeHD for HD streaming, a pleasant plus. A noise-canceling microphone adds additional value to the chat package, pushing its chat capabilities well above the average laptop.
|Dell XPS 15||Average for category [Desktop replacement]|
|Video||HDMI 1.4, Mini DisplayPort, optional TV tuner||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo 2.1 speakers/subwoofer, 2 headphone jacks (one S/P DIF), 1 microphone jack||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks.|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0/eSATA combo, SD card reader||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, optional WWAN/WiMAX||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||DVD burner, optional Blu-ray player||DVD burner, optional Blu-ray player|
Though the XPS 15 lacks some features such as an ExpressCard slot or Intel Wireless Display, it's chock-full of future-proof ports that may matter more. Two USB 3.0 ports leave the door open for high-speed data transfer peripherals, though we currently don't make use of it much, and having HDMI 1.4 enables Nvidia 3DTV Play, allowing playback of 3D games or Blu-ray content onto a 3D HDTV via an HMDI cable. You'll need to have a Blu-ray drive on your Dell XPS and a 3D TV to even take advantage of this feature, and we doubt many people will, but it's a nice touch that's offered at no extra cost.
Configurations options abound on Dell's Web site, as is often the case with Dell laptops. Our XPS 15 has a base configuration including a Core i5 processor and Nvidia GeForce 420M GPU with Optimus, a solid set of specs already. CPUs range up to a quad-core Core i7-840QM (an extra $500), and graphics top out at an Nvidia GeForce 435M with 2GB of memory ($100). RAM can be expanded up to 8GB (an extra $180), and the hard drive up to 640GB for an extra $50, or a 256GB SSD drive for $550. It's nice to see the entry-level base $849 XPS 15 configuration represent a laptop that offers nearly no compromises, except for its lower-res screen and lack of Blu-ray. Compared with the entry-level $999 HP Envy 14, which comes with a Core i3 processor, this is a better deal.