Dell XPS 15 review: A pricey premium laptop with a better-than-HD display

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MSRP: $1,899.99

The Good The Dell XPS 15 has a better-than-HD display, decent casual-gaming chops, and a slim, lightweight 15-inch body.

The Bad Painfully expensive for a boring design and midlevel graphics, and going SSD-only drives the price up even more. Battery life falls short for an ultrabook-style system.

The Bottom Line The Dell XPS 15 takes on Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina Display in almost every category, even beating it in a few. But for such a hefty investment, a design overhaul is in order.

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8.1 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 6

Dell's sometimes confusing mix of brands and sub-brands can sow confusion, especially as the same drab design philosophy ties low-end and high-end products together in a sea of similar matte gray and black.

That said, the newly revamped XPS 15, from Dell's high-end product line, is a spectacular laptop, matching the premium features of Apple's also-excellent 15-inch MacBook Pro almost blow for blow.

The $1,899.99 starting price for the XPS 15 includes a fourth-gen Intel Core i7 processor, Nvidia GeForce 750M graphics, and a better-than-HD 3,200x1,800-pixel-resolution touch-screen display, all in a very slim ultrabook-like package. The only down note for components is the 1TB hard drive, with a 32GB solid-state drive (SSD) cache. For that kind of money, it should be all-SSD.

Sarah Tew/CNET

By way of comparison, the current 15-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,999 with a Core i7 processor, a 256GB SSD, and a similar higher-res screen. But the MacBook does not have a touch screen, and to add the same Nvidia GPU, you have to jump to the $2,599 version (which also includes a 512GB SSD). Here the XPS 15 really is a better deal, giving you a 512GB SSD in a $2,299.99 version of the system.

This is probably the closest thing we've seen to a Retina MacBook Pro in a 15-inch ultrabook-like design, and that's intended as a compliment. Your preference for Windows 8 over OS X (or vice versa) surely overrules a few hundred dollars' price difference between the two, depending on the configuration. The main issue holding the new XPS 15 back is that it shares the same bland design as XPS systems from the past couple of years, which in turn look a lot like Dell's less expensive Inspiron products. This is truly a machine that's more beautiful on the inside than the outside.

Dell XPS 15 Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (October 2013)
Price $1,899.99 $999.99 $2,599
Display size/ Pixel resolution 15.6-inch, 3,200x1,800 touch screen 13.3-inch, 3,200x1,800 touch screen 15.4-inch, 2,880x1,800 screen
PC CPU 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-4850HQ
PC memory 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 2GB (dedicated) Nvidia GeForce GT 750M 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 750M + Intel Iris Pro
Storage 1TB, 5,400rpm hard drive, 32GB SSD 128GB SSD hard drive 512GB SSD
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit) Windows 8.1 (64-bit) OS X Mavericks 10.9

Design and features
The current XPS design goes back a few generations of hardware and features a matte gray lid and chassis border, with a matte black interior that blankets the keyboard, keyboard tray, touch pad, and wrist rest for a monochromatic look.

The thin silhouette is excellent, and considering the spinning-platter hard drive and GPU inside, the XPS 15 is very slim and lightweight (it's still 4.4 pounds, but distributed over the wider surface area of a 15.6-inch laptop, that doesn't feel heavy). The aluminum and carbon fiber construction feels solid and well-machined, with no ill-fitting joints or rough edges.

With all that in mind, however, a high-end system such as this deserves a fresher look than the same palette Dell has used for the past few years in the XPS line across all price ranges. At first glance, this could be a $800 laptop, or it could be one that costs more than $2,000, and differentiating between the two is one of the tasks good industrial design is supposed to accomplish.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Dell's backlit keyboard is also unchanged from the past few generations of XPS systems. I like the rounded corners of each key in the island-style keyboard, and the generous Enter, Shift, Ctrl, and other useful keys, but the keyboard itself feels small in the 15-inch body. Some 15-inch midsize laptops fit in a separate number pad, but in this case, you get a lot of dead space on the sides and below the keyboard.

The Function key row is especially tiny, with half-height keys, but at least the "secondary" functions of those F-keys are now mapped to work without holding down the Fn button. That means you can adjust the volume, screen brightness, and other features by simply tapping on the appropriate F key.

The large touch pad is a clickpad-style one, with the left and right mouse buttons built into the lower corners of the pad. The matte black surface feels great under the fingers, with just the right amount of resistance. For single-input navigation it works fine, but I found two-finger scrolling to be touchy, with a split second of dead time just when one starts to scroll. That's especially disappointing in a $1,900 laptop, but no one on the Windows side has really cracked the touch-pad code the way Apple has.

The real star here is the 15.6-inch display with its better-than-HD 3,200x1,800-pixel resolution. We've started to see these higher resolutions on a handful of laptops, starting with the Retina Display MacBook Pro, followed by the Toshiba Kirabook, the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, and others. Note, however, that if you're primarily interested in a mega-HD display, the Yoga 2 offers the same resolution in a 13-inch convertible for $1,099.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The screen here looks great, displaying very crisp text and offering plenty of screen space for photo editing. Like OS X, Windows 8 autoscales its icons and layout to fit any resolution, as long as you're using the tile-based Windows 8 interface. In the traditional desktop mode, however, some text and icons scale well, while others do not. Programs such as Photoshop or Origin (EA's PC game hub) end up with very tiny menus and icons, so be prepared for some hunting and pecking.

Very little online video is available at resolutions higher than 1080p, but the 4K era may change that, so think of the higher-res screen as a bit of future-proofing.

For a slim 15-inch laptop, the stereo speakers were surprisingly loud and deep-sounding. It's not going to help you DJ your next party, but for gaming and movie-watching, it's an above-average experience.

Ports and connections Dell XPS 15
Video HDMI and mini-DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 3 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery
There are few surprises on the XPS 15 in terms of ports and connections. The big advantage the MacBook Pro has is the dual Thunderbolt ports that can also double as Display Port outputs. NFC is included here, something you won't get from Apple, although you'll need a compatible phone or other device to make use of it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The main difference between our $1,899.99 configuration and the more expensive $2,299.99 one is the hard drive. Both have the current-gen Intel Core i7-4702 CPU, 16GB of RAM, and the Nvidia GeForce 750M for graphics. Our review configuration has a 1TB, 5,400rpm hard drive coupled with a 32GB SSD, while the more expensive configuration gives you a big 512GB SSD.