Dell XPS 15 L502x: Tweaking the Formula

Late last year, we finally got a laptop with very few compromises that we could look to as the king of the mainstream market. That laptop was Dell’s XPS 15 L501x; it took a balanced approach to performance, battery life, and portability, with a great display upgrade as a bonus offering. Perhaps more important was you could get all of the important features and still pay less than $1000. It was only natural—nay, inevitable—that Dell would update the XPS line with Sandy Bridge processors, and that’s what we have for review today with the XPS 15 L502x. The graphics have also received a minor update to NVIDIA’s 500M line, though the 400M and 500M are basically fraternal twins.

We won’t spend a lot of time discussing the nuances of the build, as very little has changed relative to the original XPS 15. If you want more information on build quality, the keyboard, etc. we refer you back to our earlier write up. The short summary is that the build quality is still good, but it’s not at the level of something like a Dell Latitude. Dell uses a magnesium alloy frame in the XPS, but the top and bottom are still plastic. Perhaps the bigger issue some will have is with the curves; love it or hate it, the curves are here to stay for the time being. We’ll have a bit more to discuss in a minute, but first let’s start with our usual spec table. The following table lists the available options for the XPS 15, with our review configuration components bolded where applicable.

Dell XPS 15 L502x Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-2410M (dual-core 2.30-2.90GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i5-2520M (dual-core 2.50-3.20GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i7-2630QM (quad-core 2.00-2.90GHz, 45W)
Intel Core i7-2620M (dual-core 2.70-3.40GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i7-2720QM (quad-core 2.20-3.30GHz, 45W)
Intel Core i7-2820QM (quad-core 2.30-3.40GHz, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM67
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1333
1x4GB + 1x2GB DDR3-1333
2x4GB DDR-1333 (CL9)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 525M 1GB DDR3
96 SPs, 600/1200/1800MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks

NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M 2GB DDR3
96 SPs, 672/1344/1800MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks
Display 15.6” WLED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)

15.6" B+GR LED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B156HW1)
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 7200RPM HDD
640GB 7200RPM HDD

750GB 7200RPM HDD
(Western Digital Scorpio Black WD7500BPKT-75PK4T0)

256GB SSD
Optical Drive 8X Tray-Load DVDRW
Blu-ray Reader/DVDRW Combo (HL-DT-ST CT30N)
Blu-ray Writer/DVDRW
Networking Gigabit Ethernet(Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n WiFi (Intel Wireless-N 1000)
802.11n WiFi (Intel Advanced-N 6150)
802.11n WiFi + Bluetooth 3.0 (Intel Wireless-N 1030)
802.11n WiFi + Bluetooth 3.0 (Intel Advanced-N 6230)
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, ~5.0Ah, 56Wh
9-cell, 11.1V, ~8.1Ah, 90Wh
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, 6-cell)
15.0" x 10.4" x 1.3-2.2" (WxDxH, 9-cell)
Weight 6.33 lbs (6-cell)
6.68 lbs (9-cell)
Extras Waves Maxx Audio 3
2MP Skype HD Certified Webcam (H.264)
86-Key backlit keyboard (Upgrade)
Flash reader (SD/IO/XC/HC, MS/Pro/XC, MMC, xD)
Warranty 1-year standard warranty (depending on variant)
2-, 3-, and 4-year warranties available
Pricing Starting Price: $800
Price as configured: $1425

We received a moderately upgraded version of the L502x this time around. The base model starts at $800 and you can still add the nice 1080p LCD for $150, so you’re still able to get a nice display for under $1000, but outside of Quick Sync the Core i5-2410M isn’t a major upgrade from the older i5-460M and the same can be said of the GT 525M vs. GT 420M. Basically, it’s better, and it’s about the same price, but if you already have the L501x there’s no need to upgrade to dual-core Sandy Bridge. Quad-core Sandy Bridge is a different story, as we’ll see in the benchmarks; Dell shipped the cheapest of the quad-core options, the i7-2630QM.

Along with the CPU upgrade, we’ve got the GT 540M, which is a faster clocked version of the 420M/425M/435M/525M/etc. The old XPS 15 came with a GT 420M by default, which clocks in at 500/1000MHz core/shaders and 1600MHz on the RAM, so the GT 540M has 34% more theoretical computational power and 12.5% more memory bandwidth, plus twice the RAM for good measure. The base model L502x comes with the GT 525M, which is clocked at 600/1200MHz core/shaders, so the 540M is only about 12% faster on the core but has the same memory bandwidth. Depending on the bottleneck, then, the new system should be 10-35% faster than the L501x in games, and potentially more than twice as fast in CPU calculations.

Other upgrades on the test system include 8GB RAM, a 9-cell battery (we still have the smaller 6-cell around as well), and this is the first time we’ve seen a 750GB 7200RPM 2.5” hard drive. Western Digital’s Scorpio Black is king of the 2.5” HDD hill, but unfortunately it’s also a far cry from matching even moderate SSDs. What it lacks in raw performance it makes up for with capacity, and with the increase in areal density the 750GB drive should outperform older 500GB 2.5” drives. Finally, besides the backlit keyboard, Dell also included the 1080p LCD, a TV tuner, and Bluetooth 3.0. The final tally for our test configuration is a much heftier $1425 at the time of writing. Is it worth it? As with so many other things in life, the answer is a nebulous “it depends”. Let’s discuss things a bit more before we get to the benchmarks.

Design and Other Considerations
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  • tipoo - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Dell's service fixed and shipped back my Studio 15 in three days from making the call, and upgraded me to a 1080P monitor for free from a 720p one. I'd call that pretty good service. 3 years ago I would have agreed with you. Reply
  • Exodite - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Are there any plans to review the Lenovo X220 and its Premium HD (12.5" IPS) display option?

    It's starting to look like a fantastic machine.
    Reply
  • nirolf - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    +1.

    8+ hours on a 63Wh battery.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    The request for a review unit has been sent, but so far no response. Unfortunately, Lenovo tends to be a bit ambivalent towards certain sites, ours being one of them. Reply
  • Ditiris - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    That's unfortunate. I'm more interested in the X220T as a replacement for my aging HP tx2000, but of course the X220 should have similar (if not identical) performance. Reply
  • Exodite - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    I'm sorry to hear that.

    I consider Anandtech to be one of the few sites that provide both in-depth and unbiased reviews.

    Hoping for the best!
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981 - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    I've been reading that Ivy Bridge will have some decent improvements over Sandy Bridge and give it a 20% performance boost over Sandy Brdige. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention it will be 22nm! Reply
  • ekerazha - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    I'm waiting for a 14'' notebook, Sandy Bridge, NVIDIA GeForce 5xx (Optimus capable), dual-channel memory, SATA III and USB 3.0... do I really have to wait forever? Reply
  • 7Enigma - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the review Jarred. One of the complaints I have with Dell recently is the very restrictive upgrade list within a product family. I was recently tasked with a laptop purchase for my SIL whom has very specific requirements (long battery life, usable keyboard, <$650). Found a great build by Dell but they refused to allow for the upgrade to the 9-cell battery, it was only as an optional $175 ADDITIONAL battery. I've seen this with many builds of theirs where they market as upgradable but really mean only if you're willing to shell out for the whole part. That was a deal-breaker and Dell was off the list of choices....

    I appreciate the bolding used to designate what came with your particular unit as it's always been more difficult to tell the parts in the reviewed sample.
    Reply
  • 7Enigma - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Wanted to update my post to note that this particular XPS model does allow for the $40 upgrade to 9-cell battery. That is a huge improvement for very little money and while it does change the form-factor a bit unless that's a deal-breaker for you the added battery life is well worth it IMO.

    Honestly my perfect laptop would be a dual-core 15" with good LCD upgrade, dual-drive for small solid-state boot and larger mechanical drive (while not sacrificing the optical drive), and 9-cell battery. Give me that for under $800 and I think a good 75% of the buying public would be happy.
    Reply

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