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Dell XPS 15 review: Dell XPS 15

Built like a tank, but much better-looking, the Dell XPS 15 high-powered, but also high-priced.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
7 min read

The latest revamp of Dell's Inspiron and XPS laptops continues to move in the right direction, clearly inspired by the growth of Apple's MacBooks and the push toward thinner, snazzier ultrabook-style laptops.

The Good

The new <b>Dell XPS 15</b> has an appealing minimalist design, solid construction, and powerful components.

The Bad

There are only a handful of preconfigured builds available, and the more powerful options get very expensive. It's also too heavy for regular commuting.

The Bottom Line

You can get similar components to our Core i7 Dell XPS 15 configuration for less, but the rock-solid design makes this feel like a premium machine.

A larger version of the Dell XPS 14 we reviewed recently, this XPS 15 is a similarly solid, slablike laptop with a minimalistic design, but also with plenty of extra features, from a high-res display to Nvidia graphics, making it feel like a truly premium laptop. Our review sample included a quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU and discrete Nvidia GeForce 640M graphics, for $1,699. Other configurations start from $1,299, but I wouldn't want to pay that for a Core i5 laptop.

You can find something close to this particular CPU/GPU combination for less (Hewlett-Packard has a similar Pavilion dv6 for $1,200), but here you get the premium design, the build quality, and the premium support service Dell offers with XPS systems.

The XPS 15 is a high-end workhorse for gaming, video editing, or other creative tasks, but if $1,699 is a bit steep, we've seen several midsize laptops for under $1,000 recently that offer up-to-date processors, discrete graphics, and reasonably sharp looks. One alternative worth considering is Dell's updated Inspiron line, including the Inspiron 14z, which can trade up to an Intel Core i7 and midrange AMD graphics for $1,049. It's not as attractive or well-built, but it's a worthwhile alternative if you're looking to save a few hundred dollars.

Price as reviewed / Starting price $1,699 / $1,299
Processor 2.1GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM
Memory 8GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 750GB 7,200rpm / 32GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GT 640M / Intel HD 4000
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 15x10.4 inches
Height 1.3 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 15.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 5.9 pounds / 6.8 pounds
Category Midsize

The aluminum outer chassis in the XPS 15 (like the XPS 14) is combined with a magnesium alloy wrist rest and a soft-touch silicone bottom panel. The 14-inch version of this laptop felt dense and heavy. So much so that I said it was "heavier than any 14-inch laptop without an optical drive needs to be." This 15-inch model is about a pound heavier, but somehow the weight feels better distributed, and certainly expectations of what a powerful 15-inch laptop should feel like in the hand are different. That said, a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is significantly lighter, and I can't see carrying the XPS 15 around with you more than once in a while.

The heft does have some advantages. It's not technically a rugged laptop, but the XPS 15 feels like it might stop a bullet (don't try this at home). At the very least, it'll do some major damage if you drop it on your toe, and it feels like it would be largely impervious to everyday knocks.

The sparse interior is highlighted by a keyboard that's similar to the island-style ones found in systems from Apple, Sony, and others. It has an especially bright backlight, and the Shift, Tab, CTRL, and other important keys are a good size. But overall, the key faces could be larger, and there's a lot of dead space on the left and right of the keyboard.

The large, button-free, multitouch click pad should be a familiar sight by now. This version works well with multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, and is about as responsive as you're going to find, save for Apple's MacBooks. Both the keyboard and touch pad seem to be the same as those found on the XPS 14. On that smaller laptop, both were a better fit. Here, both could stand to be bigger.

One area where the XPS 15 beats the XPS 14 (and many other 15-inch laptops as well) is screen resolution. For a premium 15-inch laptop, the 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution is entirely appropriate, and I'd expect nothing less in something that costs $1,299 and up. Having a 1080p screen can be a bit overwhelming on a 13-inch laptop, and it's a matter of taste for 14-inch models (the XPS 14 we reviewed had a 1,600x900 display). The screen itself was bright, with edge-to-edge Corning Gorilla Glass over it, but very, very glossy, picking up a lot of glare from nearby lights.

Dell XPS 15 Average for category [midsize]
Video HDMI, Mini DisplayPort VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 3 USB 3.0, SD card reader 2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive Blu-ray player/DVD burner DVD burner

The right edge of the system is dominated by a slot-loading optical drive, along with headphone and mic jacks and an SD card slot. The left side has all the USB and video-out ports, including both HDMI and DisplayPort outputs. All three USB ports are of the 3.0 variety, and one of them supports the charging of USB-connected devices while the laptop is off or asleep.

The least expensive XPS 15 configuration starts at $1,299, and includes an Intel Core i5-3210M CPU, an Nvidia GeForce 630M GPU, and a 500GB hard drive/32GB solid-state drive (SSD). This $1,699 configuration trades up to a Core i7-3612QM and a GeForce 640M GPU, plus a 750GB HDD/32GB SSD. It also includes a Blu-ray drive, which is a step up from the basic DVD burner in the base model.

In our benchmark performance tests, the Dell XPS 15 matched up well against other midsize quad-core Core i7 laptops with Intel's current-gen Ivy Bridge chips. This is the top CPU choice for this particular system. The 15-inch Maingear EX-L 15 can use the top-of-the-line Core i7-3820QM for faster scores, but it also costs around $500 more. A closer comparison, the Lenovo IdeaPad Y480, was also a bit faster (and around $500 less).

At this level, however, the differences in benchmark performance are largely academic. Any of these laptops would be more than fast enough for any task you'd throw at them, from HD video rendering to Photoshop to running high-end games.

The included Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics card in this system isn't the top of Nvidia's laptop line, but it's a solid midrange part (whether you should expect more than "midrange" in a $1,699 laptop is another story, however). In our very challenging Metro 2033 test at full 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, the XPS 15 ran at 20.3 frames per second, which is considered an excellent score on that test. The more forgiving Street Fighter IV test at the same resolution ran at 73.1fps.

Anecdotally, I ran Modern Warfare 3 at 1080p resolution with nearly all the graphics settings on high, and got a very smooth, playable experience. This isn't a specialized gamer machine like you'd get from Origin, Maingear, or even Dell's Alienware brand, but it's great for mid-to-high-end gaming.

Juice box
Dell XPS 15 Avg watts/hour
Off (60%) 0.33
Sleep (10%) 0.73
Idle (25%) 7.77
Load (05%) 43.38
Raw kWh number 38.39
Annual power consumption cost $4.36

Annual power consumption cost

Among high-end laptops with quad-core Core i7 CPUs and discrete graphics, the Dell XPS 15 cleans up in battery life, running for 4 hours and 41 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. That previously mentioned high-powered Maingear 15-inch ran for 2 hours less. Of course, you have to exclude the Retina MacBook Pro for this comparison to work -- Apple's quad-core Core i7 15-inch laptop ran for more than 6 hours.

Dell offers a different level of warranty support with its XPS laptops than you'll find in less expensive Inspiron models. This Premium Protection Package, as Dell calls it, includes in-home service, accidental damage protection, and LoJack service, all for one year. A separate phone support line is set aside for XPS systems. Upgrading this package to three years of coverage costs $299.

Dell's high-end XPS line has gone through many different designs over the years, but the current look is the best to date, and fits well with the overall theme of a high-end laptop that mixes productivity with premium materials and construction. Still, this Core i7 configuration is very expensive at $1,699, and if you're more interested in the internals than the chassis, there are less expensive ways to get similar performance.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Street Fighter IV (in fps, native resolution, 2X AA, V Sync off)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Dell XPS 15
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.1GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Acer Aspire V3-571G-9435
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M / 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Maingear EX-L 15
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-3820QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M + 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Lenovo IdeaPad Y480
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Sony Vaio S1511AGXB
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.1GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Dell XPS 15

Dell XPS 15

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Battery 8Support 8