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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  • Evil_Sheep - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Great review. My first impression of the rebooted XPS series was "meh" but this review has helped change my mind. I can't remember the last time seeing such an enthusiastic review from Anandtech for a laptop PC (or a gold medal.) Dell IS doing a lot of things right here (for once) and they deserve to be recognized.

    Still I think there is some real criticism that needs to be made of the XPS 15. The main one, and this may be perceived as being unfair, is there is no good reason for 15" notebooks to exist, aside from niche applications. The XPS 15 is a case in point: 6.1lbs (6.5 w/ the 9-cell), 1.5" thick, 3-odd hours on the standard battery is no longer mobile: the farthest I would want to transport this is from my bed to my couch. And if it's not going to leave my house, why not upgrade one step higher to the XPS 17 which for $100 more gets me valuable screen real estate, a faster video card standard, and more powerful options?

    There is a user category that is going to be well-served by this overweight powerhouse, but their numbers are quite small. Most people looking for a mobile computer are much better served by sub-13" / 5lb laptops, where there is a lot of good choice in that category these days. Otherwise a home-based computer is better off as 17". The 15 is too big to be portable, too small to be useful. It's stuck between two product categories but serves neither adequately.

    So personally this review leaves me very interested in the XPS 17. I'd love to see how the new Asus N73Jq matches up (also features brand-name audio, also runs the new GT400M parts) ....any chance of a forthcoming review? My guess is that it's completely inferior (unless the rumoured 1080p panel finally shows up) but it looks exquisite and I'd love to read Anandtech's always-thorough verdict.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    We're working to get the XPS L701x and L401x for review as well, but I don't know how soon that will happen. One thing that does concern me is that while the L501x has a standard 768p display, the thing that really makes this a winner is the 1080p B+GR (WLED) high gamut panel. There's no upgraded LCD on either the L401x or the L701x. Perhaps the stock panel is already good, but without testing I have no idea. I've seen far too many lousy LCDs to assume that just because the 1080p L501x panel is good, the other XPS panels will follow.

    Perhaps the above explains the existence of the L501x. I actually don't mind the 15-16" form factor, but it does come very close to the 17" laptops. Keep in mind that we're really looking at 15.6" LCD vs. 17.3" LCD, though, so in terms of total size you're looking at 1.3" wider and .9" deeper on the L701x (or roughly 8.5% larger). It's also a substantial 23% heavier, but then it has the ability to use a much more powerful GT 445M GPU in the L701x and comes standard with the 435M... perhaps the cooling accounts for most of the difference?

    Finally, while you consider 6.14 lbs too much to carry around, keep in mind that the oh-so-amazing MacBook Pro 15 checks in at 5.6 lbs. Perhaps being thinner makes it feel lighter, but really I have no issue carrying a 6 lbs. laptop around. It's the 9 lbs. with a 1.5 lbs brick and 2 hours of battery life that causes me grief. I'm still perplexed at the poor battery life of the L501x in the Internet test, so I'm going to run that same test with the LCD set to 768p to see what that does and test my theory of the resolution hurting it. With only the IGP active it should have done better, as the idle results indicate. We'll see....
    Reply
  • Evil_Sheep - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    I just learned the 17 doesn't have the B+GR panel, and frankly I'm surprised as it seems a natural home for it. I thought I saw in some of the initial coverage that both the 15 and 17 would be offered it. Maybe it will be coming later. I hope so otherwise the 15 is a much better choice (for my needs anyway.)

    My personal cutoff for weight is 5lbs. I spent years carrying around 6-10lb laptop bags (including AC) all day...it's something I can do but it's something I will no longer choose to do when 13-inchers are cheap, fast and give all-day battery life.

    Once they get under 5lbs I often forget they're even there. It feels like going back to the dark ages with a +6lb 15-incher - I mean seriously I was using a similar form factor from Dell in 2000! That's history, or at least it needs to become history real soon.

    So yes by that metric I would also eschew the Macbook 15 (Amazing? Maybe. Good value? Hell no.) There is a small subgroup of people who can't get enough specs in a 13" package but still want to attempt to be mobile, but those people are few and know who they are. Most are better off with 13's or 17's (go big or go home.)

    Once the 400M parts start showing up in the Asus U30 refresh (and other 13-inchers), it's going to make relative heavyweights like the Envy 14 and XPS 14 look less interesting (you're gonna get the same power but twice the battery life, and of course the same crappy screen.) I'm surprised I haven't seen any announcements yet on the doorstep of the holiday season and considering how sku-happy Asus is.
    Reply
  • rorthron the wise - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Good review with a lot of encouraging info. I'm awaiting delivery of an XPS L701X with Geforce 445m and Intel I7 740QM.

    Jarred, are there any plans to review the L701X?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Yes, we've asked Dell for the L701x. When/if that will come, who knows? Reply
  • warden00 - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    It's too bad they don't offer more options with the video devices. If this had a mobile Radeon 5650 in it it would be -perfect- for me. Reply
  • KommisMar - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    The specs seem reasonably good for the price, but why is Dell still advertising laptops that look like they belong in 1999? I know you make some nice looking laptops, Dell. Stop hiding them in the business section of your website! Reply
  • TEAMSWITCHER - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Sure you can save a lot of money, but if your gonna use the computer for many years do you really want to lug around something so fat, heavy, and ugly? Remember that something is a bargain only if you get what you wan't. Why can't this thing be 1" thick, 1 pound less, and bit easier on the eyes. Also, why can't they put in a big battery without having it bulge out the bottom of the laptop. WHY!!!!

    If Apple can do it, why can't Dell? What the hell is going on here? Has Apple patented thin, lightweight good-looking laptops with non-protruding batteries? Dell - get a fu#&ing clue!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, November 11, 2010 - link

    Apple tends to run hot, they have a slower GPU, and OS X is far more optimized for power than Win7. Controlling software as well as hardware certainly gives you some advantages. And if they went with squared edges like the MacBook rather than rounded corners, a bunch of people would be saying it looks boxy. This weighs half a pound more than the MBP 15, and it's about .3" thicker. That .3" should help with cooling quite a bit. Could they improve the design? Sure, there's always stuff that could be better, but the old Studio XPS 16 was worse in many ways in my book -- all that glossy plastic was horrible! Reply
  • mrmbmh - Saturday, November 13, 2010 - link

    Does this high quality LCD exist only for 15" Models? How about new 14 Dell XPS? (I don't mean resolution.... ? I mean contrast &.... ) Reply

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