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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  • SeanPT - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    They really need to bring back the design of the XPS M1330. That was one heck of a laptop and I still have a handful of them in service. There were a few nagging design flaws but the later revisions didn't suffer from the same problems. I ordered one the day it was launched with that nice LED display that was just oh so thin. Reply
  • XZerg - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    I own a L501x that I bought in December 2010 after reading the review at AnandTech and the awesome deal I was able to get. However upon receiving it I was in for some disappointments:

    1) No Port Replicator ports
    2) Changing the HDD was pretty much rip the whole damn system apart
    3) Keys arrangement - they could have easily put the arrow keys a bit south or something to give a hint as you are more likely to press wrong key many times when trying to use Shift, Right-click key, End.
    4) The touchpad is annoying - if you have a finger/hand close to the touchpad it treats it pressing the touchpad - so either no response to the actual action with the other hand or tries to zoom or scroll instead.
    5) The screen only tilts to something like 120degrees or so which is annoying sometimes when you want have better viewing angle due to too much reflection due to the glossy screen.
    6) Finally I would have much rather had the multimedia buttons standalone instead of FN based.
    Reply
  • Pessimism - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Snap together plastic clip construction=FAIL. No serviceability whatsoever. That stuff NEVER comes apart without something breaking. Reply
  • XZerg - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    yea and even if it does come apart it does not go back in perfectly either. I have the l501x and i know that for sure.

    I have to say though I like the l501x over the l502x simply because of the keyboard on the newer one feels cheap quality.
    Reply
  • Arbie - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Whether the goal is to show what the machine can do, or to show what it can't do, this game matters. First, there's a huge amount of comparative info available. Second, Crysis / Warhead scaled really well so you probably can get a playable experience at the lower settings a box like this works with. Third it's the best single-player FPS ever made (IMHO) and won't be surpassed anytime soon - unfortunately. So it deserves a continued place on your list. Stalker...? C'mon. Reply
  • NCM - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    JW writes: "Finally, Quick Sync with the “Quality” profile took 34 seconds (156.56 FPS), while the “Fast” profile results in the quickest transcoding time, requiring just 25 seconds—or a very impressive speed of 212.92 FPS."

    So test results apparently timed to the nearest second acquire 5 significant digit precision when translated into FPS? My old math teacher wouldn't buy that one...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Perhaps I used a stopwatch and rounded to the nearest second? :-p

    Anyway, you'll be thrilled to know that I have now rounded to the nearest FPS, which completely changes the results. Oh, wait... it doesn't, other than to show there's potentially a larger margin of error. Maybe I should round to two significant digits, because then we could say that it was 58FPS vs. 77FPS vs. 160FPS vs. 210FPS -- and by further rounding increase the margin of error another 1-5%.

    I've actually considered this before. All of the gaming benchmarks are slightly variable, so while they can measure very specifically the result of one test run, depending on the game you might see up to a 10% change between runs. It's why I end up running multiple times and taking the best result, so we're comparing best-case on all systems. But should we stop including any decimal points in our game benchmarks, just because they're variable? Some readers will complain if a bunch of systems tie at, e.g. 73FPS, but at the same time I hope everyone here realizes that anything less than a 5% difference is close enough that you're not going to notice.
    Reply
  • BioTurboNick - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    As a scientist, I'd say average +/- standard deviation would be perfect. :-D Reply
  • seapeople - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Three sig figs is fine. It's just distracting and annoying to look at "155.36 fps". Whatever you do, do NOT start doing crap like "46 +/- 3 fps" like someone suggested. This is a tech forum, not a statistics orgy; the average audience here wouldn't care. Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Is it so hard to design a laptop with a 9 cell that doesn't stick out like a sore thumb? Reply

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