Introducing Dell’s XPS 15 L521x: the 2012 Update

I’ve had some good experiences with Dell’s XPS line of laptops over the years, but in virtually every case I’ve had a few minor complaints. The earlier models were large, fast, and too expensive for most users. Then Dell dropped the XPS line for a while and went with the Studio XPS—still generally expensive and there were performance elements that came up short (e.g. the Studio XPS 16 had an awesome RGBLED backlit display, but it tended to run a bit toasty and the hardware wasn’t as fast as previous XPS offerings). With the relaunch of the XPS line in late 2010, the original XPS 15 delivered a great display and a well-balanced set of components that was enough to earn our Gold Editor’s Choice award, but the chassis was understandably a bit too bulbous for some tastes. The XPS 15 Sandy Bridge update improved the CPU and GPU options, but six months after the first XPS 15 I was even less enamored with the chassis.

Next up in the list of progression was the XPS 15z, which improved some areas but regressed in others. It had a thinner, sleeker looking chassis, but dropped support for quad-core processors, downgraded the GPU slightly, had some thermal concerns, and perhaps most worrisome was the build quality. I posted an update a few months after the review that summed things up nicely: “I can't stress enough how it feels like Dell cut a few corners and the result is a laptop that doesn't hold up as well as I'd like over the long haul…. When the inevitable Ivy Bridge update of the 15z comes out, you can bet I'm going to pound on it a little more.” And that brings us to the new XPS 15, which has a completely redesigned chassis. Did Dell listen to my complaints about the 15z build quality? You better believe it!

Superficially, the new XPS 15 looks quite similar to the 15z, at least in pictures. Meet one in person, however, and the changes are immediately noticeable. Many suggested that the XPS 15z was trying to clone Apple’s MacBook Pro, but that’s somewhat disingenuous—unless you consider any laptop that aims to be slimmer and silver to be a MBP clone, I suppose. I would however suggest that it did take more than a couple design cues from Cupertino, including a strikingly similar keyboard layout. The newest model keeps the 15z keyboard layout (which is still a step back from the XPS 15 L501x/L502x in my opinion), but ditches the silver palm rest and keyboard area for a matte black surface with a soft-touch coating. The touchpad also gets a clickable MBP-like interface that we’ve seen on just about every Ultrabook along with many newer laptops. Personally, I still prefer touchpads with separate non-integrated buttons, so this is another step back.

What’s not a step back is the chassis itself, which is now the most MacBook Pro-like chassis I’ve encountered in a non-Apple product. It uses machined aluminum for the main chassis and frame, similar to Apple’s unibody chassis, and it’s thicker and far more rigid than any previous Dell XPS laptop. Even the display cover gets a thick aluminum backing, so there’s really no twisting or flexing to speak of. The palm rest on the other hand isn’t machined aluminum but instead uses magnesium with a soft-touch coating. If you thought the XPS 15z copied a lot of Apple’s design, the XPS 15 will only cement that impression, but really I don’t care: if a competing product is better, then stealing a few ideas isn’t going to hurt my review of it. [Insert obligatory Steve Jobs quote about great artists stealing….]

Here’s the spec sheet for the new XPS 15, and I’ve included the specs of the last-gen MacBook Pro 15 as a reference point. Note that unlike the MacBook Pro Retina, Dell continues to include a DVDRW/Blu-ray optical drive with their XPS 15.

Dell XPS 15 Specification Comparison
Laptop Dell XPS 15 L521x Apple MacBook Pro 15 (2012)
Processor Intel i7-3612QM
(Quad-core 2.10-3.10GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 35W)
Intel i7-3610QM
(Quad-core 2.30-3.30GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 45W)
Chipset HM77 HM77
Memory 8GB DDR3-1600 4GB DDR3-1600
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1100MHz)

NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M 2GB GDDR5 (Optimus)
(384 cores at 624MHz/709MHz Boost, 128-bit GDDR5-4000)
Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1100MHz)

NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M 512MB GDDR5
(384 cores at 735MHz, 128-bit GDDR5-4000)
Display 15.6" WLED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B156HTF/B156HW03)
15.4" WLED Glossy 16:10 WXGA+ (1440x900)
Storage 750GB 7200RPM HDD (Seagate ST9750420AS)
32GB mSATA caching SSD (Samsung PM830)
750GB 5400RPM HDD
Optical Drive Blu-ray Combo slot-load (Matshita UJ167) DVDRW slot-load
Networking 802.11n dual-band 300Mb WiFi (Intel 6235)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel 6235)
Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n dual-band 450Mb WiFi
Bluetooth 4.0
Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo Speakers
Headphone/Microphone jacks
Stereo Speakers with Subwoofer
Headphone/Microphone jacks
Battery/Power 9-cell, 14.8V, 4400mAh, ~65Wh
90W Max AC Adapter (19.5V, 4.72A)
77.5Wh
85W MagSafe Power Adapter
Front Side N/A N/A
Left Side 3 x USB 3.0
Mini-DisplayPort
HDMI
Gigabit Ethernet
AC Power Connection
Headphone and Microphone jacks
SDXC Card Reader
2 x USB 3.0
1 x Thunderbolt
1 x FireWire 800
Gigabit Ethernet
MagSafe AC
Right Side Headphone and Microphone jacks
Kensington Lock
Memory Card Reader
Optical Drive (BD-Combo)
Kensington Lock
Optical Drive (DVDRW 8x SuperDrive)
Back Side Exhaust Vent Exhaust Vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OS X Lion (or Mountain Lion)
Dimensions 14.6" x 9.8" x 0.91" (WxDxH)
(371mm x 249mm x 23.2mm)
14.35" x 9.82" x 0.95" (WxDxH)
(364mm x 249mm x 24.1mm)
Weight 5.79 lbs (2.6kg) 5.6 lbs (2.56kg)
Extras 1.3MP HD Webcam
80-key Backlit Keyboard (Spill Resistant)
Memory Card Reader (MMC/MS Pro/SD)
720p FaceTime HD Webcam
78-key Backlit Keyboard
Memory Card Reader (SDXC)
Price $1700 MSRP, online starting at $1600 (7/17/12) $1799 MSRP; online starting at $1710 (7/17/12)

The “on paper” matchup between the Apple and Dell laptops ends up being quite interesting. Not surprisingly, even the base model MacBook Pro 15 is quite a bit more expensive than the mid-tier XPS 15. (There’s a dual-core model XPS 15 that comes with an i5-3210M CPU, GT 630M 1GB GDDR5, 6GB RAM, 500GB HDD + 32GB mSATA SSD, 1080p LCD, and DVDRW for $1300 if you’re interested.) In many key areas, Dell comes out ahead of Apple this round: they have a higher resolution LCD standard, you get 8GB DDR3-1600, they use a 750GB 7200RPM HDD with a 32GB mSATA SSD caching drive (via Intel’s Smart Response Technology), you get a Blu-ray combo drive, and there’s a third USB 3.0 port plus HDMI and DisplayPort outputs.

However, that’s not the whole story: Apple uses a full voltage 45W i7-3610QM processor, which boasts slightly higher clock speeds than the 35W 3612QM, and they also use a GT 650M GPU that comes with higher core clocks. Let’s also not forget the FireWire 800 port (well, I’ve never used FireWire so actually I can forget about it…), or more importantly the Thunderbolt port. Apple also uses a higher capacity battery configuration and provides a 450Mbps capable (dual-band 3x3:3 MIMO) wireless adapter.

Perhaps more interesting than the differences are the areas where they’re the same. Both laptops have machined aluminum chassis, and the dimensions are very close to a tie. Apple isn’t quite as wide, thanks to their 16:10 aspect ratio display, but the Dell XPS 15 is actually slightly thinner. Despite the relatively similar dimensions, Apple still manages to come in 0.2 pounds lighter, but for this size laptop that’s close enough for all practical purposes.

So which laptop is better? In the past, I’ve always felt that Dell’s attempts to compete with Apple came up a bit short. The first XPS 15 (L501x/L502x) was a nice change of pace from previous Dell designs, but it wasn’t really close to Apple in terms of overall design. The XPS 15z got the form factor right in my opinion, but build quality still went to Apple—plus you were limited to dual-core CPUs. I would also say the same thing about HP’s Envy line—they’ve had some nice looking laptops for sure, but I’ve never felt they could match Apple’s overall build quality (though I would rank the previous models slightly ahead of Dell’s older XPS offerings). This time, build quality is absolutely top notch for the new XPS 15, and the only thing that really differentiates it from the MacBook Pro is the black palm rest with soft-touch coating, and the silicone on the bottom of the chassis.

What it really comes down to is one thing: do you prefer running Windows or are you an OS X devotee? Sure, you can always run Windows on a MacBook in a pinch (or you could try to make a Hackintosh), but as we’ve shown in the past there’s a penalty in terms of battery life if you choose that route. If you have never owned a MacBook Pro, there’s a good chance you fall into the camp of users that admire Apple’s designs but couldn’t care less about their OS—which is exactly my feeling. Now, we have a truly viable alternative for the MacBook Pro (though sadly there’s nothing even remotely close to the MacBook Pro Retina, of course). And guess what? You’ll pay more; yes, it’s true: quality has a price.

I’m not sure exactly how much of the added cost comes from the sturdier and slimmer chassis, but if we look at competing Windows laptops (e.g. ASUS N56VZ), you can actually get pretty much the same specs from a laptop for just $1000. There’s no doubt in my mind that the XPS 15 is built better than the N56VZ, but I’ve been using a similar ASUS laptop for a couple months now and the only thing that’s really missing in my mind is solid state storage—which you can easily add on your own. The ASUS should also be slightly faster on the CPU side, though the use of DDR3 memory on the GPU makes it a bit of a wash. Based purely on the overall design and features, I’d go with the Dell XPS 15, but at a 60% price premium the ASUS is clearly the better bargain.

The Dell XPS 15 in Practice
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  • CeriseCogburn - Sunday, July 29, 2012 - link

    Looks like the truth is less than half on not so old macs
    http://www.ebay.com/itm/Mac-Book-Pro-17-2-3Ghz-i7-...
    Reply
  • BillatDell - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    Very fair review, all things considered, Jarred. Thank you very much. I am the Dell employee you linked to out on Notebook Review Forums.

    I am wondering if skin temps matter to you and the Anandtech audience. I'd be curious to see a skin temp comparison under similar loads between the XPS and any competitive system, particularly the rMBP and MBP. It may not have any impact on anyone's buying decision if they don't see the numbers, but it may or may not matter to others if there turns out to be a wide disparity. Hard to tell if the cost/benefit analysis of our having a hard set skin temp spec across the board for all platforms stands to reason, given pretty much universal approval of how the MBP performs and the obvious lack of popularity with our current thermal/throttling scheme.

    Anyone else have any thoughts on skin temps, or is it a non-factor? I'm interested to hear and get some thoughts out here on the record.

    Great community. Great site. Thanks for all you do.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    If I understand what you mean by "skin-temps" Bill. No for me personally it does not matter. The laptops I use currently serve as desktop replacements. As we are completely off-grid using solar, wind, and sometimes generators.

    However, I would admit. That we are not the norm for most users.

    My own personal concerns are getting what I paid for but, stability first. Just for example. I like to play a lot of games, but have many computer related hobbies. So gaming performance for me tends to be my own benchmark. Of course I also have a price range I tend to stick within.

    Unfortunately for me, and Dell. The XPS series is generally out of my own price range. However that could change. With that said, I have been keeping an eye on your companies products. Specifically the XPS mobile line.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    Hi Bill, glad to have you on here. Skin (surface) temperatures are something I used to report, but them my thermometer broke and we added a couple more laptop reviewers and I figured I would just forget it and use internal temperatures. What I'd REALLY love to get is one of those digital thermal imaging cameras, but sadly they're a bit too much for me to convince Anand to buy a couple.

    As for what I think of skin temps, there's a balance that needs to be maintained, and certain areas can get hotter without bothering the user as much. If we're looking at a desktop replacement, it's not too big a concern, but for the more portable systems I definitely feel it's important. Ideally, I want the palm rest, keyboard, and the bottom "thigh" areas to be cooler, while the rear of the laptop (e.g. where the vent is on the XPS 15) can be hotter. 35C or less is generally what I'd like, but I live in WA so temperatures aren't as hot as, say, AZ or CA. If I were living in a hotter climate, I'd probably want even cooler running laptops.

    Anyway, as you can probably glean from the review, I'd say you need stability as well as the ability to hit the rated performance on all parts. For the CPU, that means CPU clocks of 2.1GHz or higher regardless of workload should be possible pretty much indefinitely--and certainly if you're in a 75F or cooler environment. If the heatsink/fan can't keep the CPU and GPU at acceptable temperatures under load, then the hardware has been over-specced for the cooling. (We saw this exact same issue on Acer's TimelineX 3830TG, incidentally. Thin and light with reasonably fast hardware, but with gaming workloads the CPU would drop to 1.2GHz.)

    My one thought that I keep coming back to on the XPS 15 is that it simply needs a higher RPM fan. Maybe the BIOS can kick the fan speed up one more level, but right now it just doesn't seem capable of cooling effectively at the current maximum RPM. A more drastic change would involve looking at the exhaust and trying to make that "breath" easier, as right now the bottom of the LCD/hinge seems to restrict airflow. Would either of these items be enough to fix the throttling problem? I don't know, but I am very surprised that this wasn't caught and addressed before retail units were shipping to the public.

    Here's hoping we'll get a reasonable firmware fix in the near future!
    Reply
  • Voldenuit - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    OK, off the bat, I want to apologize for sounding like a broken record.

    But I was vocally unhappy with the Acer sporting a TN panel at $1400, and I'm even more unhappy with the Dell doing the same thing at $1700. What makes manufacturers think they could (or should) get away with foisting this sort of crap on people?

    Next time I should just skip to the LCD page before reading any further. :/
    Reply
  • Grok42 - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    I agree. My preference of OS in order is Linux, Windows, BeOS, OS X. I also hate laptops as they are typically slower, hotter and cost more than a desktop. That said, as of today my next computer will probably be a rMBP because of the screen. My profession is computers and ~$1000 is nothing compared to what I will gain with a better tool with which to do my work. The PC industry better wake up and start offering multiple 4k displays or they are going to be wiped out. Reply
  • Doomtomb - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    I like Dell and I want to see them succeed in the consumer/enterprise PC market. However, this review of the new 2012 Dell XPS 15 reminds me of the same niggles I had with my Studio XPS 16 purchased in early 2010. The one area that my Studio XPS 16 will always dominate is display (RGB-LED 1080p) displays colors perfectly unlike the XPS 15. Both of these computers are very premium products with price tags to match. The problems with the Studio XPS 16 were build quality (lousy hinges, seems between aluminum parts), heavy, battery life, and heat. It tries to push the boundaries between size, style, build quality, and performance but you can't have it all. It ended up being too big and heavy and just not quite as powerful as my friend's Alienwares. The battery life was also sub-par for class. I'd just rather recommend getting a thin and light, a gaming desktop replacement, or a MacBook with Retina Display. Reply
  • antef - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    After the ridiculous overheating and throttling (to the point of an unusable machine) I've experienced with my Dell Precision, and reading this article with similar concerns, I can't imagine I'll be trusting a Dell for any high-performance workloads anytime soon. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    I was going to comment on how the MBP 15" gets mentioned in nearly every paragraph without being in the charts. Then I thought: "Well, they do have the Bench for those things." So I went there trying to compare this with the MBP 15" 2012. But you don't have the Dell there (yet) and you have no Apple 15" of any sort in there. How come? :-) Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    Indeed, I'd like some macs on there Reply

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