Dell XPS 15 (2017) review: A top choice for designing demons -- and occasionally killing them
Dell took what was arguably a best-in-class 15-inch Windows notebook and made it even better. It retains the line's terrific screen, premium build, svelte design and full feature set, boosting it for 2017 with the latest processors from Intel and Nvidia.
It's more traditional and certainly a lot more staid than multipurpose hybrids models such as the HP Spectre x360, but it makes up for that with the power and features you can't really cram into a hybrid.
I also think it eclipses the current (2016) MacBook Pro in most respects, including using it for photo and graphics work as well as gaming. If the choice is between the Mac's only standout features -- the clever Touch Bar and almost absurdly large touchpad -- and the Dell's far better features, specs and price, I'll take the Dell any time.
Those features include a 4K touchscreen display with hardware calibration support, 100 percent Adobe RGB and most of the DCI-P3 coverage and excellent accuracy. Also included is a decent complement of connectors, an SD card reader and much stronger specs -- all for less money than the MacBook Pro.
While it's a little bigger and heavier than the MacBook Pro, it's not so in any significant way. A bigger tradeoff is battery life, but that's a price you pay for more powerful components. And yes, the XPS runs Windows while the MacBook runs MacOS, but I'm not wedded to any particular operating system, though.
While the 7th-generation Core processor probably contributes to better battery life, the real silicon standout for this model is the Nvidia GTX 1050 graphics processor. The 1050 is the lowest-end option in Nvidia's current notebook-processor line, incorporating its latest Pascal architecture. In addition to giving the system pretty solid gaming performance, Pascal has improved battery optimization over its predecessor. That's a huge boon for people who work in photo editing, design, 3D, video and other creative applications which use GPU acceleration, as well as the obvious gamers. While it's not as powerful as the last-generation, top-of-the-line 980M, those were generally used in gaming-specific systems. This class of notebooks usually used the 960M, and it's an improvement over that.
However, the 1050 is also the only processor in the line that's not VR ready. And while the chip supports G-Sync, the XPS 15 doesn't seem to. I didn't notice any tearing (horizontal distortion across the screen when playing a PC game), though I believe it's already optimized internally for the laptop display. And I doubt G-Sync kicks in when connected to an external monitor, because the 1050 seems to communicate via the integrated graphics processor and G-Sync requires direct communication between the display as well as the chip. (If you disable the integrated chip, the Nvidia control panel claims it doesn't see the GPU, so you can't turn it on.)
The system seems quite expensive until you start thinking about what you're getting for the money, although the cheapest model looks like an exception.
This year's crop of XPS 15 models incorporate 7th-generation Core i3, i5 or i7 processors. The entry model, a dual-core i3 with an HD (1,920 by 1,080-pixel) nontouch screen only comes with integrated graphics and starts at $999, It looks like a US-only option; in the UK you have a choice of Core i5 or or i7, and in Australia, only i7. If you don't need the wider color gamut and accuracy of the XPS' display or care about the speed boost of an SSD, you might as well go cheaper and get the more flexible Inspiron 15 5000 2-in-1 instead. It's slightly bigger and heavier, but it's a better value for the money.
Once you start looking at models with the 1050 GPU, prices run from $1,250 (£1,350 or AU$2,500) to $2,550 (£1,800 or AU$3,700); if you want the 4K UHD display, you'll pay at least $1,650 in the US, £1,800 in the UK or AU$3,000 (Dell's Australia website is offering a further AU$450 off the 4K model as of this publication time).
All of the 4K models incorporate a bigger 97Wh battery (compared to the standard 56Wh), which makes them about 0.5 pound/1.8 kilogram heavier -- our unit with the 4K display and 97Wh battery weighs 4.5 lbs/2kg. Dell doesn't offer a touch version of the HD display for the XPS 15, though, so you're out of luck if that's what you want.
Dell XPS 15 (2017)
|Price as reviewed
|$2,075, £1,800, AU$3,000
|15.6-inch, 3,840x2,160-pixel touch display
|2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ
|16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz
|4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050
|802.11ac 2x2 WiFi and Bluetooth 4.1
|Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit)
I think the cheapest configuration I'd recommend is the $1,450 (£1,430, AU$2,500) Core i7 with the HD display because of the combination of features and performance. Though if you're looking for the smallest and lightest performance Windows model in the 15-inch class, the XPS 15 is it for comparable configurations. With 4K, I think our $2,075 (£1,800, AU$3,000) test setup really is a sweet-spot model -- and it's a lot cheaper than the most closely configured MacBook, with a Radeon Pro 460 upgrade, at $2,900 (£2,790, AU$4,410).
Are you for 4K?
I'm a bit of a contrarian compared to my colleagues when it comes to the usefulness of 4K, mostly because they're more concerned about entertainment and the availability of 4K content. From that perspective, sure -- it's probably not worth the price premium, now, but that doesn't mean next year or the year after you won't be glad you opted for it.
But I look at the other side, and it's totally worth it for serious work and content creation like judging image sharpness, working with detailed illustrations or editing video. If you code, you can fit more lines on the screen (though how practical you find it depends on your vision). At 4K, it has a pixel density of 282 pixels per inch (PPI), which is approaching print.
And Dell's top-tier screens are terrific. While it's annoying that the only calibrator its PremierColor application supports in hardware is the pricey X-Rite i1, It works fine with other software-profile calibrators, such as the Datacolor Spyder5. Games look great even played at lower resolutions, and you can save profiles; for example, I have one that uses the maximum gamut and boosts the display gamma to improve visibility in shadow-filled areas for games, and another that uses Adobe RGB as well as lower brightness settings for image editing. The biggest drawback of the screen is high reflectivity -- but I can't seem to escape it.
Netflix looks great in either HD or 4K on a screen this size, and our tests show that it will stream for about 7.2 hours on its battery using the existing power settings. I tend to use it at full throttle (but with lower display brightness) for working, and my mileage is closer to 4 hours under typical use. That may not be sufficient for some people, but you can stretch it if you're not doing anything intensive.
While previous reviews have complained about the touchpad, I think it's fine -- out of the box it's a bit hypersensitive, but if you decrease the setting in Windows it's perfectly acceptable. The backlit keyboard is just adequate; while the backlighting is nice and all the keys are a good size as well as in the right places, there isn't enough travel or feedback for my taste. I like a little more click and kick in my keyboards.
There's a decent set of connections -- two USB 3.0, one USB-C which supports external monitors, HDMI out and a jack -- and the speakers sound pretty good. It sustained a Bluetooth headset connection while gaming, but it did display the common "unknown device" issue while pairing (it showed my devices properly, but they were lost in a sea of Unknown devices in the vicinity).
I initially experienced some issues with Chrome freezing (I was not alone), but after setting the Nvidia driver to use the 1050 GPU exclusively for it rather than swapping with the integrated graphics everything seemed to run smoothly.
While there's tons I like about the system, one serious design flaw remains -- the webcam is at the bottom left side of the display. That's the tradeoff for the attractively thin bezel, but it's a real pain. If you plan to use Windows Hello to login to your computer, spring for the fingerprint reader.
And the system vents out the bottom, so it can get hot where there isn't a lot of airflow -- like sitting on a desk. Plus, when the fan spins up, it's relatively loud.
Go for it
The competitive landscape for this type of notebook changes rapidly, but for the moment I can't think of another that balances all the essentials for a reasonable price as well as the Dell XPS 15.
|Dell XPS 15 (2017)
|Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.8GHZ Intel Core i7-7700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050; 512GB SSD
|Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016)
|Apple MacOS Sierra 10.12.1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-6820HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 2GB Radeon Pro / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 530; 512GB SSD
|HP Spectre x360 (15-inch, 2017)
|Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce 940MX; 512GB SSD
|Dell Inspiron 15 7000 (2017)
|Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7300HQ; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti; 256GB SSD
|Razer Blade (14-inch, 2016)
|Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970; 256GB SSD