Up Close and Personal with the Dell XPS L501x

Looking at the specs and figuring out that the XPS L501x sounds like a good laptop is easy enough, but how does it fare in actual practice? In fact, it does very well, and this is easily one of my favorite laptops from the past several years. The old Studio XPS 16 had an impressive LCD option, just like the L501x, but from a design standpoint there were areas that I didn't particularly care for—chief among these being the use of glossy plastic surfaces all over the chassis. To say that fingerprints on the piano black finish were a problem is an understatement, so the switch to a matte plastic bezel and aluminum surfaces removes our biggest complaint.

The new design looks better, and it feels better as well—though we didn't have any real complaints with the Studio XPS build quality to begin with. The L501x has rounded corners and beveled edges that fit together snugly and look attractive. It's a sturdy laptop—not at the level of business notebooks perhaps, but definitely a step up from the Inspiron and other consumer offerings. Some may prefer the industrial design aesthetic of the Adamo line, but personally the L501x is more my speed. The palm rest is plenty large, with an equally large touchpad in the center. Like most modern laptops, the touchpad is multi-touch and gesture aware; it may not integrate with the OS as well as the MacBook touchpad does with OS X, but that's more of a Windows and application problem.

Besides the keyboard backlighting, there's not much to say other than it works well. The layout is fine, and Dell skips on the numeric keypad to make room for the speakers. Normally, we'd question such a move, but in this case there's some good sound quality to back it up. The key travel is good, all of the important keys are readily accessible with no funky Fn-key combinations required (the function keys default to multimedia, but you can switch that setting in the BIOS). There's also very little flex—only if you mash down on the keys with several pounds of pressure do you see flex, and in regular use the keyboard works well.

To the left and right of the keyboard are cutouts for the JBL speakers, and Dell is rightfully proud of their audio quality. There's a similar cutout pattern on the bottom for the integrated subwoofer. While I'm no audio expert by any means, what I can tell you is that subjectively these speakers blow away any other laptop I've used, and they can get very loud without distortion. To compare speaker quality, I grabbed a couple other laptops and looked at maximum volume without [noticeable] distortion.

The XPS L501x managed an impressive 83dB at three feet, with good bass and no serious quality concerns. The ASUS G73Jw, which also sounds good for a notebook and has 5.1 speakers, reached around 80dB as well, but there was some distortion and static present in our test audio files. We had to dial it down to 75% volume (~70dB) to eliminate the distortion, and while that's still reasonably loud the sound quality simply wasn't as good as the L501x. Bringing up the rear and representing "typical" laptops, we have an Acer 5551G we're working on reviewing, this time with just the two stereo speakers. While better than some Acer laptops we've looked at in the past (the 5740G for example had serious distortion problems), the 5551G put out a maximum of 67dB and was very thin and light on the bass (as expected). The JBL speakers in the L501x are very impressive…for a laptop. They're still small, so temper your expectations: you won't get the soundscape of a set of large studio monitors from a couple of small tweeters in a laptop chassis, no matter how hard you try, but you could at least watch a movie with a couple of friends and not strain to hear the audio.

Another big upgrade relative to the older Studio XPS comes in the graphics department. Okay, the 420M isn't going to set the world on fire with its performance, but it does manage roughly the same level of gaming capabilities as the GT 335M (which is roughly on par with the HD 4670). More importantly, Dell now has Optimus Technology in the dual-core XPS laptops, so now you can have performance when you need it but still get good battery life. Like all 400M equipped laptops, the L501x supports HDMI 1.4, and Dell includes free support for NVIDIA's 3DTV Play. If you have a 3D HDTV and upgrade to a Blu-ray drive, you can use the L501x to watch 3D movies on your television. Again, I'm completely unsold on the whole 3D video concept—I've tried it and simply wasn't that impressed—but at least you're not stuck paying extra for a feature that should just work.

Finally, there's the display to discuss. I'm not sure what the deal is with "B+GR LED" marketing—that would imply separate blue and green/red LEDs, which would be a halfway house between standard yellow LEDs and the RGB LEDs used in the top LCD panels. Anyway, the 1080p panel in the L501x is an AU Optronics B156HW01, and if that's the same as the B156HW03, that would make this a WLED backlight. Subjectively, that's not particularly important, as the image is still great. We'll get to the display measurements later, but the short story is you get a near-100% AdobeRGB 1998 (ARGB1998) gamut, good viewing angles, and a good contrast ratio.

So with all the good, what's not to like? Not being able to upgrade the CPU and GPU independently is probably the issue that will come up first for most users. What if you want better gaming performance and would like the GT 435M, but you want to keep Optimus? What if you want a quad-core processor for content creation but you don't need a faster GPU? In either case, you're out of luck—at least for now. We'll probably see a new Sandy Bridge version of the L501x that gives you both quad-core and Optimus, hopefully with better performance and battery life, but we're still waiting for the official Sandy Bridge launch. My only other complaint is with the HDD, specifically it's a pain to get to the HDD if you happen to want to do an SSD upgrade on your own. Since Dell is still using Samsung SSDs, if you want maximum random read/write performance you'll probably want a SandForce controller (or wait a bit longer for the third generation Intel parts and other offerings to arrive). Dell charges $550 to upgrade to a 256GB Samsung SSD; you can grab a 240GB SF-1200 for as little as $430, which is a far better proposition. But to do the HDD upgrade, you'll need to remove the palm-rest first, which isn't super difficult but it's far more cumbersome than simply removing the bottom plate. Our final complaint is that as good as the 1080p "B+GR LED" LCD is, that's not the standard panel, and we would be more than a little surprised to see anything remotely comparable from the stock 768p display. If you want a good LCD, make sure you pay for the upgrade!

Are we picking nits here? Yes, we certainly are, and that's because the L501x gets so many things right. The build quality is much better than average, battery life is good, performance is a substantial bump from the old Core 2 Duo Studio XPS—in both graphics and CPU workloads—and the audio really needs to be experienced to hear how good it is (relative to other laptops as well as basic desktop speakers). There really isn't a single show-stopper in sight. Gamers will still pine for a better GPU like the 460M, particularly if they want to drive the 1080p panel at native resolution and medium to high detail settings, but for the price the new XPS line comes with everything I would recommend in a modern laptop. That's the initial experience, but I'm sure you want some benchmarks and concrete data to back things up, so let's get to it.

Dell XPS L501x: Windows' MacBook Pro Alternative Dell XPS L501x Application Performance
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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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