Review: Dell XPS 15, the premium Windows 10 laptop

It’s been a long time since I’ve owned a portable computer larger than 13 inches. I’ve always appreciated the more spacious screens, more powerful components and larger batteries found in larger laptops, but the bulkiness and the weight have always been deal breakers. If I wanted the greater power, I would rather just use a desktop and if I want the portability I would use a smaller laptop. There are plenty of compromises between the two, but they complement one another and give me enough flexibility that I can get my work done.

Despite this, I actually found myself enjoying Dell’s newest XPS 15 more than I had anticipated. I tried to use the device as my primary computer for about a week and half, weighing the computer’s balance of power, good looks, and portability to see if it could be the one that could finally pry my desktop away from me. The review unit we were given is one of the higher end models: Intel Core i7-6700HW, Nvidia GTX 960M, 16 GB of RAM, 4K Ultra HD display, and 512 GB PCIe SSD.

I’m going to break down some of my observations and different ways I’ve been trying to fit the XPS 15 into my day-to-day use. This is purely an observational review, going over my impressions and real world usage: benchmarks are great, but my goal here was to see if this could really be an all around replacement for the mix of computers I use. I’m currently using a custom PC that I built a few years ago including a Core i7 960, 16 GB of RAM, ASUS GTX 760Ti and a mix of different spinning and solid state drives, along with a Core i5 Surface Pro 3 with 4GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD.

TL;DR

  • Pro – Excellent build, weight, and finish
  • Pro – Gorgeous 4K display option
  • Pro – Great trackpad and keyboard
  • Con – Poor speaker and webcam placement
  • Con – Okay battery life
  • Con – Relatively small port selection

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Hardware

Dell has had the XPS series of high-performance laptops and desktops around for a very long time, and this isn’t the first XPS 15 by a long shot. It is, however, the first XPS 15 to be modeled after Dell’s newly redesigned and critically acclaimed XPS 13. It’s striking how much they kept the same between the two computers. The InfinityEdge display and it’s narrow bezel remain unchanged between the two units, making this smaller and lighter than nearly every other 15-inch device in its class.

The XPS 15 takes everything that made the XPS 13 a fantastic computer and blows it up: the same comfortable keyboard, the same beautiful soft touch palm rest, the same aluminum body and the same Precision Touchpad. Dell nailed all the basics here and it feels like a sturdy, well-built unit through and through. I couldn’t find any noticeable creaking or give anywhere on the keyboard or palm rests and the hinge was incredibly stable when opening or using the touchscreen.

I’m not the best typist in the world, but the keyboard was a pleasure to use and I felt that the keys had a satisfying “clicky” travel. Key spacing was comfortable and it didn’t take me more than a few minutes to feel right at home. I use a Logitech Solar Keyboard as the day-to-day keyboard on my desktop and I have no trouble jumping back and forth between the two.

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The trackpad is one of the better non-Apple trackpads I’ve used. Accurate, spacious and responsive, it is a fully fledged Precision Trackpad and takes full advantage of Windows 10’s native gestures. It was even comfortable to use while editing photos and video, something I normally stumble around through at best.

The screen is one of the best I’ve seen on a prosumer-focused computer. While Dell does sell a 1080p non-touch display in the base units of the XPS 15, I was able to use the stunning 4K touchscreen display found in the higher end units. Colors look fantastic and the unit was plenty bright enough to do some writing and web browsing outside at a park. One nice fact is that the display covers 100% of the Adobe RGB color gamut, making this a great choice for people working with graphics and/or color.

Speaking of media work, the XPS 15 with the Core i7-6700HQ is wonderfully fast. With everything from initial boot to network file access to rendering video, working with the XPS 15 had no noticeable differences than working from my regular desktop.

The XPS 15 is not without its faults, though. The ports are serviceable, with 2 USB 3.0 ports, an SD Card port, Kensington lock port, a headset port and a Thunderbolt 3 port. Thunderbolt 3 saves the day here, with it being able to be easily adapted to a number of other ports with adapters, but I was hoping for a wider array of ports on something I was trying to replace my desktop with. Carrying around a bag full of adapters or having a bunch dangling off your computer during use isn’t the most graceful solution.

Just like the XPS 13, the webcam is located under the screen because of the narrow bezel and doesn’t use the most flattering angles. Additionally, forget about using that webcam for Windows Hello, it lacks any of the hardware necessary. The image quality is serviceable at least, but I really hope that Dell finds a way to balance the thin display bezel and the webcam placement in future iterations.

Speakers are often a sore spot on portable devices, and Dell’s are pretty good all-in-all. The speakers sound nice enough, with the high-end being crisp and the lower end being manageable. They’re great for kicking back and watching a quick TV show or YouTube video. The big issue here is with placement, just like the webcam. They’ve been positioned on the front edge of the computer, right under where your forearms sit. Trying to type and listen to music causes a huge portion of the high-end audio spectrum to disappear, being soaked up by your forearms. Overall, I am hugely impressed with the presentation of the XPS 15 and am glad to see Dell continuing its push of premium design.

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Day to Day Basics

The XPS 15 is a powerful computer and I never had any doubts that tasks such as web browsing, email and the like would work well. My question was whether or not a device like the XPS 15 could manage power well enough that doing these sorts of tasks would be a pleasure or not. I have traditionally delegated this task to smaller laptops and larger tablets because I appreciate the low weight, cool ambient temperature and smaller size to carry around.

The XPS 15 is deceptively small for the screen size and the thermal regulation is fantastic. Our review unit is 4.4 lbs with an 84Whr battery, but the units with a 1080p screen are 3.9 lbs with a 56 Whr battery. Altogether that makes a computer that I can easily pick up and carry with one hand very comfortably. It is noticeably heavier than my Surface Pro 3 of course, but it was worth it having the extra usable screen space for multitasking and working in.

The best thing about using a 4K screen is that it gives you a bunch of control over exactly how much you want to show on-screen through Windows 10’s native scaling options. This isn’t unique to the XPS 15 of course, but I can’t stress enough just how much I love being able to adjust the scaling of the UI at any time. On my desktop, I’m used to working on a 27” 1440p display with lots of space, and I can nearly achieve that same usable space comfortably with this screen. By default, the screen scaling was set to 250%, but I found things to be most comfortable at 175%. The trade-off I made in size and weight was not equal to the amount of usable space I gained, and that’s spectacular.

The battery life in these situations was about 6-7 hours on average, which isn’t awful but was pretty disappointing. My normal use was Google Chrome with about 12 tabs open, music playing, screen at half brightness and a few other applications (chat client, Word, Mail, etc.). That 6-7 hours number is an idle observation without me running any controlled tests, so take it with a grain of salt.

For my day-to-day use, I was rarely able to get the internal fans to spin up and start humming along to whatever I was working on. I couldn’t have been happier. I am neurotic about fan noise and it’s almost always my deciding factor when getting a new computer. The Surface Pro 3 doesn’t have the best track record here and I was genuinely surprised how quiet the XPS 15 is under light loads. Now, there are a bunch of vents on the underside of the computer and blocking those by placing it on blanket or my lap quickly made the fans spin up, but even then it wasn’t an obnoxious whine like some fans can get. The XPS 15 paired with a lapdesk is a winning combination.

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Heavy Use

And now for the other side of the coin. Along with writing, I also edit and process videos for WinBeta. Lately, I’ve been working with Courtney Sabian on the Microsoft on Android series so I was excited to see how well the XPS 15 could handle working on these projects from start to finish. I also play video games on my desktop from time to time, so I was also excited to see how well the XPS 15 could handle some older and some more modern video games. It’s not sold as a gaming machine, but the spec of a machine like this should be able to handle its fair share of whatever I throw at it.

For video editing, I work almost entirely in the Adobe suite, primarily Premiere Pro, Photoshop and After Effects. I am happy to report that my workflow wasn’t changed by switching everything from my main desktop to the XPS 15. Render times are fast, color accuracy and contrast are super for color work and even under prolonged use, the computer stayed snappy. My projects aren’t terribly complex, but I never saw any stuttering or dropped frames while running 2 streams of 1080p video side by side. I never had the opportunity to test any 4K footage.

The fans would run pretty steadily as I ran Premiere Pro and After Effects and would really pick up on final exports, but it never seemed to be throttled because of high temperatures. Most of the heat buildup was around the upper portion of the keyboard, so I rarely ever felt any sustained discomfort during heavy use and the underside would get warm but using my lapdesk redirected much of that. I generally saw about 2-3 hours worth of battery life. Not great by any stretch and it’s a bit underwhelming all in all.

I have a file server setup with a Dropbox-like solution for syncing files and changes between the server and the client that I work on all my projects through. Not having easy access to ethernet around my house, and having to use an adapter when I did want to use ethernet anyway, I was very interested in seeing how well the WiFi could keep up. I use a Netgear R7000 as my wireless access point, so I’m blanketed in Wireless AC and the XPS 15’s WiFi card took full advantage of it. I didn’t run into any bandwidth or stability issues with the file syncing and my normal workflow worked like a charm.

As far as gaming goes, I’m somewhere in between “I don’t normally have enough time” to “I’m staying up way too late trying to finish this quest”, but for the most part, I do a lot of my gaming on consoles. I was curious to see if a device like the XPS 15 could be powerful enough, and more importantly, efficient enough, to sway me back to PC gaming. I was also very interested to see how comfortable it was to play in bed and in the living room with a lapdesk and a mouse and I had a few of my favorite titles to do some testing with: The first Crysis and Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. Not the most recent titles, but it still suited my test just fine.

Firing up a game would get the fans spinning pretty quickly. Within 10 minutes or so, the fans would steady out with a noticeable hum, but it wasn’t loud or shrill enough that it bothered me. The thermal management is superb, with most of the hot points being around the hinge and the upper left corner of the keyboard. The enclosure itself would get warm, but not so much that it was too hot to touch or move and my trusty lapdesk kept most of the heat from hitting my thighs. As far as performance goes, it was able to tackle Transformers: Fall of Cybertron at a steady 60 fps with max settings and Crysis with 60 fps with a mix of medium and high settings, both running at 1080p. Even though this isn’t sold as a gaming device, with all the bells and whistles that come with that sort of title, it seems like it can hold its own.

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Configuration Options

One of my favorite things about the XPS 15 is the amount of customization you can choose for the unit from Dell. You can get a 1080p or 4K display, choose from a range of HDDs or SSDs, with or without discrete graphics, a range of CPUs and different amounts of RAM. The models range from $999 all the way up to $2749, so this is a premium computer through and through. No matter what you choose, though, they all share the same great build quality. Dell is giving choice and allowing someone to build just the computer they need, cutting corners where they can and not being forced to spend more than they need to.

Upon opening up the XPS 15, I realized that the RAM, SSD and wireless card are all removable and easily swapped. For a computer marketed as being thin and light, it still allows you to customize and upgrade your computer down the line. This is something being stripped from more and more computers, so I commend Dell for keeping this sort of option intact. Allowing for expansion like this increases the lifespan of the device and allows the user to spend less upfront because they know that they’ll be able to make changes to their hardware down the line. This is a computer that is designed to last and that’s a point that gets often overlooked.

It’s these sort of details that highlight just how much of a 180 the company has made in the last few years since the company went private three years ago. There was a time not too long ago that Dell was synonymous with “that boring, slow computer I use at work”. The reinvigorated XPS line and the XPS 15, in particular, are showing how devoted Dell is to turning their image around.

Accessories and Software

Along with the XPS 15 itself, we were also provided with Dell’s Power Companion and USB-C Adapter. The Power Companion is essentially an external battery pack that will charge various Dell computers and USB based devices and is about the size of the power adapter included with the XPS 15. It’s charged from the same power adapter your laptop would use, so you need to daisy chain things together to charge the battery and your computer at the same time. The battery holds 18000 mAh, a respectable amount, and managed to almost completely charge the XPS 15 (while I was still using it).

The USB-C adapter will add ethernet, VGA, an additional USB 3.0 and an addition HDMI to the computer. It works as expected and I had no issues with any of it. The coolest thing about the adapter is that it will work with any supported device. I tested it with my Nexus 5X smartphone to verify and had no trouble with the ethernet or USB functions (the Nexus 5X doesn’t support display out through its USB-C port). They both add extra utility to the XPS 15 but come with a price: the Power Companion currently retails for $119 and the USB-C Adapter for $122, both directly from Dell’s website.

On the software side of things, the computer was thankfully pretty bare out of the box. Aside from a few Dell utilities, the only other items pre-installed was a free 20 GB promotion from Dropbox and a McAfee trial. I am not a fan of McAfee (or most antivirus suites for that matter) but at least this was easy enough to remove. I also wanted to mention that some early adopters had been seeing issues with stability on the system. I didn’t have any trouble with blue screens, sluggishness, or graphics during my couple weeks with it, but there have been numerous updates to the BIOS and drivers so make sure everything’s up to date if you’ve been having trouble!

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Final Thoughts

I am a huge supporter of the direction Dell has been taking its computers in recent years, and the XPS 15 is no different. This is the first computer of this size that I’ve felt can really take the place of my primary desktop machine and my smaller laptops without many compromises. The best way to sum it up is the XPS 13 with a bigger, better screen and more powerful internals. It is a premium machine and is priced accordingly, but for everything you’re getting, I think the pricing is justified. This is the first computer I’ve used that has made me start reconsidering the necessity of a desktop and portable PC in my life, and that is a huge victory in and of itself. Just as Dell’s XPS 13 is one of the best ultra-portable laptops available, the XPS 15 is one of the best workstation laptops for more power-hungry workloads.

Written post by Bryan Slade.

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