Dell XPS L501x: Windows' MacBook Pro Alternative

We've lamented the state of Windows laptops on numerous occasions; the formula is "tried and true", but that doesn't mean we like it. Put in reasonably fast components, give us sufficient memory and hard drive capacity…and then match this with a cheap (usually glossy) plastic case and the least expensive (again, glossy) LCD panel you can find. Acer (and sub-company Gateway) has truly perfected the art, with a keyboard that all three of our laptop reviewers dislike/loathe/vilify, but they're certainly not the only culprit. ASUS, Toshiba, Dell, HP, and many others use variations of the same basic pattern, and what we're left with is a matter of finding out who if anyone can make something that truly stands out from the crowd.

Of course, if we're talking about standing out from the crowd, one name almost immediately comes to mind: Apple. Love 'em or hate 'em, Apple has definitely put more time and energy into creating a compelling mobile experience. It starts with building a high quality system, but it reaches beyond that into the core OS X experience. Whatever Apple is doing, the result is significantly better battery life under OS X for the components and battery capacity—and as we've shown, moving to Windows 7 largely negates any battery life advantage.

HP created their Envy line to go after the same target market, only forget the OS X stuff and simply build a better consumer notebook that doesn't feel like a cheap piece of plastic. Now, Dell is throwing its hat into the ring with the return of their XPS line. Yes, you could argue that the Studio XPS went after the same market, but the chassis now comes with a magnesium-alloy frame and eschews glossy plastic; the result looks and feels better (in our opinion) than the old Studio XPS 16. Dell also ships Waves Audio Maxx and JBL certified speakers on all the new XPS models, with a claim that these are the best laptop speakers on the market. We'll try to put that claim to the test, but before we get to the evaluation here's the specifications on our test system.

Dell XPS 15 L501x Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-460M
(2x2.53GHz, 32nm, 3MB L3, Turbo to 2.80GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM57
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1333 (Max 8GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 420M 1GB GDDR3
96 SPs, 500/1000/1600MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks
Display 15.6" B+GR LED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B156HW1) (Upgrade)
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 7200RPM HDD
(Seagate Momentus 7200.4 ST9500420AS)
Optical Drive Blu-ray/DVDRW Combo (Upgrade)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n (Intel WiFi Link 6200AGN) (Upgrade)
Bluetooth 3.0 (Upgrade)
Audio 2.1 JBL Speakers + Waves Audio
(Stereo speakers and subwoofer)
Microphone and two headphone jacks
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 6-Cell, 11.1V, 4.9Ah, 56Wh
Front Side Memory Card Reader
Left Side Exhaust vent
1 x USB 3.0
Right Side Optical Drive
2 x Headphone Jack
Microphone Jack
1 x eSATA/USB 2.0 Combo
Back Side Mini DisplayPort
HDMI 1.4
Gigabit Ethernet
TV Input (Optional)
AC Power Connection
1 x USB 3.0
Kensington Lock
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 15.0" x 10.4" x 1.3-1.5" (WxDxH)
Weight 6.14 lbs (with 6-cell battery)
Extras Waves Maxx Audio 3
2MP Skype HD Certified Webcam (H.264)
86-Key backlit keyboard
Flash reader (SD/IO/XC/HC, MS/Pro/XC, MMC, xD)
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
2-year and 3-year warranties available
Pricing Starting Price: $850
Price as configured: $1220

Most of the specs are standard stuff, but a few areas stand out from the crowd. One clear advantage over competing laptops is the 1080p LCD, and it takes about two seconds after you first power on the laptop to determine that yes, we have a winner here! Throw in what is obviously a higher-than-500:1 contrast ratio and the 1080p resolution and we're sold. The high color gamut (~100% AdobeRGB 1998) means the picture looks oversaturated at times, but given the choice between a 45% gamut and a 100% gamut we'll take the latter. What's great is that the total price of the LCD upgrade is only $130, and considering the amount of time you spend staring at the display it's money well spent in our book!

The speakers are another item where the XPS is head and shoulders above the crowd. The subwoofer adds much-needed bass, and sound clarity in general is very good. The Waves Maxx Audio 3 might matter more for audio professionals that regular users, but Waves does give you quite a few options for tweaking the way your laptop sounds. You won't be replacing your home theater system with laptop speakers, obviously, but the L501x can get very loud and do so without severe distortion. Personally, these rate as the best laptop speakers I've used (which isn't saying much), but how important that is depends on the individual.

Similar to the Waves audio in terms of how much it will matter is the HD webcam, and this is apparently the first Skype HD certified laptop. With H.264 support, the webcam in theory allows you to chat with others and get a higher quality video, though the video you get still depends on the other user's camera. In practice, getting an HD video connection with Skype requires at least 512Kbps of bandwidth in both directions, and even when you have that it doesn't always work. The webcam does work fine otherwise, but we never did manage a high quality HD video conference, perhaps because of bandwidth limitations (even though we tested on a 12/1Mb connection).

As mentioned, this is our first encounter with a mainstream NVIDIA 400M part, and we're quite curious to see how the 420M compares to the previous generation parts. NVIDIA has given us an estimate of 30% faster, but that would probably mean 30% faster than the 320M, which would make the 420M around the same performance as GT 335M—only with DX11 support naturally. In other words, we don't expect to be blown away by the 420M, especially if we try to run games at the 1080p LCD resolution! 400M also means the HDMI port is version 1.4, and there's a mini DisplayPort connection as well. This isn't a gaming laptop, unlike some of the previous XPS designs, but it will handle "mainstream" gaming…at a lower resolution than the 1080p panel. Thankfully, you can run at lower resolutions, and the panel is great in multimedia and general use even if 1080p requires quite a bit more GPU before it becomes reasonable.

Of the remaining features, only two final items are worthy of note. One is the backlit keyboard and the other is USB 3.0 ports—two of them. The keyboard isn't your typical chiclet option either; while it may not displace the ThinkPads for comfort, it works well. There's an eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port as well, so while expansion options don't include ExpressCard and you miss the Firewire port (sorry Dustin!), everything else you'd expect on a good mainstream notebook is here. Other extras like a Blu-ray combo drive, Bluetooth 3.0, a 2-year warranty, faster CPUs, a GeForce GT 435M, and a larger hard drive (or an SSD) are also available if you're interested. We do have one complaint about the upgrades, however: you can only order the faster 435M GPU if you get a quad-core CPU, which means you lose Optimus support in the process. The CPU+GPU upgrade also bumps the power adapter up to a larger 130W unit in place of the normal 90W brick, which addresses a problem some users experienced with CPU/GPU throttling on the old Studio XPS 16.

Given the price, what we have is Dell's direct competitor to Apple's entry-level MacBook, and frankly there's no competition in performance or features. The MacBook only leads if you want one of two things: a smaller size, or the ability to run OS X (without going the Hackintosh route). The standard 6-cell battery provides good if not great battery life, while an upgraded 92Wh 9-cell battery should provide for all-day computing if you don't try watching videos or playing games. The specs of our slightly upgraded unit also compete very well against the ASUS N82Jv—similar performance with a dramatically superior LCD—as well as the HP Envy line. If you pick the L501x up on one Dell's routine sales (i.e. the current sale available on all but the entry-level unit) you can cut costs even more. With improved build quality and features, the new XPS L501x is a great update to the old Studio XPS 16; the name change doesn't really matter in our book, as we thought the old model was good regardless, but Dell has addressed all the areas where users had complaints and produced a very compelling midrange (mainstream) notebook offering.

Up Close and Personal with the Dell XPS L501x
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  • barnett25 - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    As always a great review. Just wanted to throw that out there because it amazes me how much people complain about the most ridiculous things in reviews on this site. Reply
  • Dug - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Pc laptop makers still don't get it. (Except HP with Envy line, which is just a knock off of Mac).
    Just like monitor manufacturers. Just make a simple square black border. Don't add curves, or shiny black borders, or ugly angles.

    This thing is horrible to look at.

    Why can't manufacturers make a simple design? I don't care if its a little thicker than a mac, just don't add stupid crap that isn't necessary, put stickers all over it, etc. It's not that hard, and would actually be cheaper to manufacture.
    For instance the thinkpad series, the border of the screen has engraved lines, hooks, odd spacing on one side, different depths. Why?
    I think the timeline x series is close, but still not quite there. It is very close to specs on this except the screen. 3x battery life, better video card, 4.5lbs.
    Reply
  • Dug - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    I think this would be a much better alternative.

    http://www.xoticpc.com/sager-np5135-built-clevo-b5...

    $803 with better specs, better looking, and more custum options.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    We'll have a look at that Clevo B5130M unit in the near future. I can tell you already that it's just as bulky and the speakers sound like crap, and the build quality doesn't look great either. It's got a good 1080p LCD though (very possibly the same one as the L501x).

    As for the curves and other styling, that's ultimately a case of personal opinion. I happen to like the L501x; if I had any serious complaints with it I wouldn't have given it the Gold EC award. Some will like simple, some will like the curves; the angled edges also make it more comfortable to rest your hands on the laptop IMO. Some people think the Alienware M11x/M15x/M17x looks freaking awesome, I find it to be somewhat impractical and am perfectly happy with "average" laptops. I also like the way ThinkPads and Latitudes look and feel -- they're nothing like the L501x, but they're built more solidly.

    I'm a little confused at some of your comments, though... I suppose you're referring to laptops in general, because the L501x is very clean with no stickers to speak of, and I'm not sure what would qualify as "stupid crap" on this laptop.

    Anyway, Clevo's B5130M looks to be a fairly decent laptop and we'll have a full review from Dustin in the not-too-distant future. Stay tuned....
    Reply
  • Dug - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    I was speaking of the sides. I don't mind curves around the screen or body as long as its a uniform look, but the sides just look terrible. At least keep the same color of the palm area.
    The lines should just run even to the back, instead there's some curve and it makes it look like the back flares out.
    I also don't need the dvd, multi reader, cdrw, blu-ray, etc junk on the drive. It just looks so bad.

    Even the Inspiron has cleaner lines, except for some idiot marketing dept that decided glossy black is what people want where their palms rest. Sony has good lines too.

    I also think 1.5" and 6.5 lbs is too much for what you are getting. I am assuming that the speakers are what is taking so much space. Or just bad design.
    Reply
  • barnett25 - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    " I am assuming that the speakers are what is taking so much space. Or just bad design."

    Or cooling?
    I think Dell may be trying to avoid the overheating issues of XPSs past.

    I like a good looking device as much as the next person but I personally feel Dell made a good call on this one. Half the good looking laptops out there overheat, I would rather have a reliable laptop than one that just looks good.
    Reply
  • Pylon757 - Sunday, November 14, 2010 - link

    The recent Thinkpad series fixed most of the problems you listed, and overall it's a more integrated look. They've got centered screens, no pesky grille things on the screen, etc. However, the hook on the top is still necessary for the Thinklight.

    I think the Latitude E-series are pretty close too. My E6410 is a great looking laptop IMO. Brushed metal lid and all corners.

    As for curves, my opinion is that doing them right is really hard. This laptop clearly doesn't do them well. I personally think that the unibody white Macbook is a really good example of using curves well. It fits really well into the design, and even adds a lot of functionality since the curved edges make a really nice grip.
    Reply
  • Aikouka - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    It's nice to see a look similar to the older Dell XPS M1530 (which I own), but with more curves added. I am a bit bummed that they kind of tacked on the 1080p LCD without adding a graphics option that can truly handle it. When I looked at Dell's new line-up, I also noticed that the 17" laptop doesn't even have a 1080p option (unless it was recently added) but has the fastest GPU option available. Reply
  • notfeelingit - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    * The touchpad belongs in the center of the laptop. No one is using it with their thumbs while also using the keyboard. It should be as large as possible and directly proportional to the aspect ratio of the screen. Also, mouse buttons are dumb.
    * Chiclet keys are the best.
    * Batteries don't need to be super easy to change. If you design your laptop around this principle you will be able to make the laptop smaller while keeping excellent battery life. Maybe make an external battery option for business folks.
    * Lose the optical drive.
    * Only LED screens from now on, please.

    Basically, just make a MBP, minus the optical drive, and knock the $800 apple tax off and everyone on planet earth will purchase your laptop.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    1 - Completely disagree on the touchpad buttons. I've used buttonless options and I hated it. Apple seems to have done it better, but I'll keep the buttons thank you.
    2 - I don't think chiclet is best; it's a stylistic thing that looks okay, but if you want a good keyboard try a ThinkPad or a Dell Latitude.
    3 - I agree they don't need to be removable at the flip of a switch for many users, but they also need to be user-replaceable.
    4 - Disagree based on input from quite a few people. I've had more than my share of friends see one of my test laptops without an optical drive and they can't figure out what they're supposed to do. When I tell them to buy an external USB drive or just use the network, they look at me like I'm speaking another language. The masses disagree with you here, and even if Apple goes this route it doesn't make it the right choice.
    5 - Name me one laptop out there that doesn't use LED backlighting... just one! What you need to say is "stop using crappy panels with tons of backlight bleed."

    Pretty much every one of the items in your list is personal opinion, and your opinion is that everything should be a MacBook clone (more or less). I'd like to see a good Windows laptop that incorporates most of the above elements, but by no stretch of the imagination do I think that should be the only way to spec out and build a laptop. There's room for a lot of variety, and while some may not like the L501x styling I think it looks great.
    Reply

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