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Dell XPS 15z

July 10th, 2011
Dell aims to take the upscale, mid-size notebook crown from Apple.

Dell has often been associated with capable but often workhorse systems, but it has regularly tried to go after the premium audience dominated by Apple: the Adamo line was a clear shot across the bow of the MacBook Air, for example. It's coming back to this arena in a very different way with the XPS 15z, a 15.6-inch system that promises more of the style of a Mac (in this case the MacBook Pro) with a mainstream price. We'll gauge in our XPS 15z review whether it's successful as a Windows notebook and whether it might collect a few would-be or current Mac users along the way. Design and expansion

When we looked at the Adamo 13 two years ago, it was evident Dell was chasing the Apple aesthetic mostly in concept: an upscale, aluminum ultraportable to get those who wanted the Mac but still wanted to live in a Windows universe.

The XPS 15z is more than a little direct: it's trying to be a MacBook Pro. It's not the near-clone that teasers had hinted it would be. The palm rest area is differently hued, the speaker grilles are different, and various other touches make it clear this is Dell's creation. Still, there's little doubt that Apple's 15-inch notebook is the target here: the aluminum body, the 'chiclet' keyboard layout, the black display bezel, and the side slot-loading optical drive are all eerily familiar. The giveaway is a battery life indicator button on the side that, much like its Apple counterpart, lights up dots to show how much energy is left without turning the notebook on. It's an appreciated addition but also a sign of who Dell wants to convert.

Dell is even going for weight and thickness, though it's playing a few shell games with its audience. At 5.54 pounds, it's very much on par with a MacBook Pro in weight and was comfortable to hold. Weight is another matter. The company touts the XPS 15z as the "thinnest 15-inch PC on the planet" -- but, as the disclaimers reveal, it's deliberately excluding the Mac to make that claim. Having the opportunity to compare both the XPS 15z and a MacBook Pro side-by-side, we can say the extra 0.03 inches of thickness in the Windows PC is slight, but noticeable. It's far from a dealbreaker, but as Dell's rig has a noticeably larger profile as a whole, there may be a few for whom the difference might be a bit too much.

There are some upshots to this sincerest form of flattery in the design. The keyboard doesn't exactly have the premium feel of Apple's, but it's very comfortable and doesn't have any rude surprises in layout. It's backlit, too, and uses subtle through-the-keys lighting that automatically kicks in when the notebook's ambient light sensor finds that it's sufficiently dark. There's a mostly upscale feel, and even the bottom has a sealed but also unbroken and smooth bottom. Build quality is generally good, although we noticed a slight bit of give at the raised lip of the palmrest area that wasn't as sure-feeling as the unibody frame on an aluminum MacBook.

The trackpad gets most of the way but, in many ways, emblematizes the not-quite quality of the design. We found that it tracked well and, unlike earlier Dell attempts at multi-touch, responds smoothly to two-finger scrolling and similar input. It still uses conventional, deep-travelling trackpad buttons that we're not enthusiastic about, however. And because the support is grafted on through extra software rather than built into the OS, it's clunkier in practice than what's seen on the Mac. You have to switch to an app to scroll it, the gestures aren't nearly as diverse, and it's not as precise or responsive. We still like it; there's just a clear difference, and it might help explain a small piece of Apple's price premium.

Expansion is where Dell gets an almost unambiguous lead. Largely because it's willing to move the Ethernet and power cords to the back, Dell manages the expansion you'd expect from a Windows system without swelling up the dimensions. Both Mini DisplayPort and HDMI are standard on the XPS 15z, and it has both an SD card slot as well as a total of three USB ports, even with a smaller frame than usual. Two of these are much faster USB 3.0 ports, and a third is a hybrid eSATA and USB 2.0 port. About the only thing lacking is FireWire; with the alternatives in place, though, it's doubtful this will be a sore point outside of certain conditions. Bluetooth 3.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi are stock, as is WiDi (Wireless Display); you'll need an adapter for your TV to make WiDi useful.

Veteran Windows PC users will likely have reason to gripe about the sealed-in design we mentioned earlier. While it's easily accessed with standard screws, it does mean you'll be talking to Dell or a qualified repair rep to get the battery replaced rather than hot-swapping in the field. Our concern is that, unlike with Apple, the move doesn't necessarily help Dell much in battery life -- more on this later -- and that it removes a point of differentiation Windows notebooks have often had.

Display, sound, heat, and noise

Dell is known for focusing on advanced displays as an option, and that's certainly the case here. Aside from the 1366x768 entry screen, most versions of the XPS 15z have a 1080p (1920x1080), 300-nit brightness LCD. It's a white-lit LED panel and not the RGB LED that made the Studio XPS 16 a near legend for fidelity, but it's one of the better screens we've known in its price class. It's noticeably bright, generally color accurate, and is fairly tolerant of off-center viewing. The extra resolution was just large enough to be comfortably readable while still managing a large working area

Even so, it's quite clear that the XPS 15z isn't using an IPS (in-plane switching) panel or an otherwise top-flight display. Colors do begin to wash out and invert at horizontal angles more quickly than we'd like. The picture doesn't show any distracting color banding; we do get a sense that the gamut is slightly muted, though. As such, it will work well for quick inspections of a photo's accuracy or for gamers, but we'd still want an external display or another notebook for proofing anything color-sensitive.

Audio is much what you'd expect given the similarities in speaker grilles. It's solid and puts out reasonably loud sound,. No one will want to use it as the only audio output if they have access to reasonably good headphones or external speakers.

Unintended sound may be a bit of a problem. The XPS 15z never gets so noisy as to be unbearable; rather, the cooling just tends to spool up often and can be distracting when using the built-in speakers or in a quiet room. Our MacBook Pro isn't the epitome of silence either but does tend to be slightly more discreet.

Heat, thankfully, wasn't an outstanding issue. We'd still advise against using the system for some gaming or video on your lap while wearing shorts. After a few hours of use on our laps, though, we didn't either get too hot or get that slightly ill feeling that comes from having an overly warm notebook transfer heat through your legs.


Our test system is the highest-end model possible in the 15z line: a 2.7GHz Core i7 2620M, 8GB of RAM, and a 750GB, 7200RPM hard drive. The gap between that and the entry level isn't huge, though, as even the base model has a 2.3GHz Core i5 2410M, 6GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. Across the spread, the graphics are at once positive and disappointing. Every version has a low-to-mid-range GeForce GT 525M with either 1GB or 2GB of memory, so while you'll never be forced to rely on Intel graphics, there's only so much gaming potential here. We'd have liked a step up in video for those who want to run Crysis 2 or its kind closer to maximum detail.

Suffice it to say, the emphasis on speed over sheer portability helped the XPS 15z blow past the Sony VAIO S we tried just a few weeks ago. We scored 2365 points in Futuremark's PCMark 7, a full 50 percent higher than the VAIO; 3DMark 11, which leans more on graphics, jumped by about 52 percent to 957 points. They're two different classes of PCs, so this is more for a frame of reference as to what investing in a faster processor and graphics can do; we suspect the higher-spec Sony system with the same Core i7 and a Radeon HD 6630M would close the gap considerably.

We also fired up one of our preferred real-world tests, Portal 2, to get a sense for what detail levels will work smoothly. Valve's game isn't the most strenuous test but still illustrated the difference in what was achievable. The VAIO S can keep most details high but has to turn off antialiasing and runs at a lower 1366x768; the XPS 15z can max out detail at 1600x900 with 2X antialiasing on and still get a subjectively quick frame rate. Again, hardcore gamers would want faster video, but it's the difference between having to replace the computer just a year later and having the luxury of waiting another year beyond that.

If there's a central gripe with the speed, it's that its seems to have been arbitrarily pigeonholed in a certain segment of Dell's notebook line. Along with the lack of faster dedicated video, there's no option for a quad-core processor. Dell's new PCs effectively stop where Apple's MacBook Pros start: as of mid-2011, the most affordable 15-inch MacBook Pro starts with a quad 2GHz Core i7 and a Radeon HD 6490M, so if you're looking for a video encoding or professional 3D modelling system in a thin and light mid-size notebook, Apple will have the raw performance edge. There's no Blu-ray drive, either, so you won't be watching movies or authoring HD movie discs.

Battery life and Optimus graphics switching

Remember when we said that the sealed-in battery was a particular problem for the XPS 15z? That's because, in practice, you don't get any benefit out of it.

The system, like many newer notebooks with NVIDIA graphics, uses Optimus live switching to flip between the Intel integrated graphics (to save power) and the dedicated (for performance) depending on the apps in use. With light duties that shouldn't invoke the dedicated graphics, such as web browsing and IM, we only mustered just short of four hours of battery life each time we tried for a complete battery drain at half screen brightness. Some of that drop may come from certain apps, and we suspect that Adobe's Flash plugin was invoking the dedicated graphics occasionally and shortening the runtime, even though we weren't watching videos that would need hardware acceleration.

Not only is that much lower than Dell's official claim of about eight hours, it also suggests Dell is imitating Apple's design without really understanding why the design decision was made. The MacBook Pro uses a sealed-in design precisely to make room for a bigger battery and eke out more power than if it had a removable pack. Apple might claim a lower seven hours on the MacBook Pro, but it's a real seven hours with actual conditions, and a figure that Apple regularly exceeds even as it uses a faster, more energy-hungry processor. If ever there were an example of what the higher price of a Mac can get, it's on show here.

Preloaded software and Dell's Stage interface

The out-of-the-box software is, on the whole, less intrusive than what we saw recently with Sony. As is often the case, Dell bundles this notebook with McAfee SecurityCenter antivirus software that tries to scare you into registering. Most configurations have a 15- or 24-month subscription for those willing to use it. For the sake of eliminating it as a performance bottleneck, we disabled McAfee's suite and used Microsoft's own tools instead.

Outside of this, though, the loadout is relatively lean. Our system booted more like a clean install and, once McAfee was out of the picture, wasn't popping up any unwanted notifications beyond those Windows 7 tends to introduce. If more Windows PCs shipped this way, it would be a more pleasant unboxing experience.

What you'll see in a conspicuous space on your home screen, though, is Dell's in-house Stage interface. Ultimately, it's a quick launcher for common app, media and web tasks: it has dedicated full-screen interfaces for elements like music and video as well as pop-up launches for key apps, web shortcuts, documents, and an app gallery for a few extensions. The music component, MusicStage, is the most helpful: it has both a basic music player as well as RadioTime for Internet radio and Noisey to help discover new music based on region.

We like the idea of using Stage as a 10-foot interface or for beginners who just want to know where to go. To us, though, it feels like a mismatch with what the XPS 15z is supposed to be. Dell is focusing on premium users, most of whom have already had a computer or care enough to learn about how to use it. Stage is mostly just simplifying tasks that aren't much more complicated in Windows itself. The interface is also more designed for touchscreen devices with big, oversized buttons that aren't as needed with a trackpad. It's not any real burden, but purists (or those who just like uncluttered desktops) can stop it from loading on startup.

Wrapping up

Much of the appeal of the XPS 15z comes from what it does for the price. At a $999 base price, it's good value if you're looking for better materials and a reasonably slim profile without having to spend a premium for either. An ongoing barrier for Apple has been its decision to price its systems according to size, not speed; if you just want a reasonably quick 15-inch notebook that isn't made out of plastic and aren't concerned about getting everything perfect, you could do well to get Dell's latest.

Expansion is a definite plus, too. If you relish the idea of a home theater notebook or tend to use external storage often, the 15z has a fairly clear advantage.

At the same time, it's tough to escape the sense that the XPS 15z is a bundle of compromises. The performance is that much lower and can't be upgraded to match. Build quality, the trackpad, and the display are just a bit off. And the battery life, as we've noticed, is decidedly too short to match what the MacBook Pro musters. If money and your choice of OS aren't serious concerns, especially if you can consider the high end of the XPS 15z line to start with, the Mac will be the better of the two.

If we were in such a position, it would hinge as much on needs as the budget. Although it takes on Dell's performance label, the XPS 15z is really more of a well-rounded, traditional notebook for those who value quality slightly more than the rest. The MacBook Pro it's pitched against is more of a real do-everything notebook. It doesn't have as much RAM or storage, but it's a sledgehammer of a system that can compile code or render a video quickly in one breath but last through a long business meeting on battery in the next.

Apple won't necessarily have reason to be scared as a result. That said, our time with the XPS 15z does suggest it's one of Dell's better systems in recent memory and a far smarter direction than the Adamo. Instead of trying to chase a fellow notebook manufacturer in ultraportables, an area where Apple often does best, Dell is going for a system that's more in line with its core buyer. The new XPS won't make Mac users have second thoughts, but it's good enough to keep some Windows users that much more loyal.

- Attractive, solid aluminum design.

- Quick and loaded for the price.

- Very good keyboard, reasonably good trackpad.

- Ample expansion for the size.

- Fairly thin and light.

- Mostly clean Windows install.

- Real battery life, thickness not as good as Dell claims.

- Sealed-in battery not worth the short lifespan.

- No upgrades to quad-core, faster GPUs, or Blu-ray.

- McAfee and Stage interface a bit superfluous.

- Trackpad not as tightly integrated as it could be.