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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  • tno - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    This review certainly gives us a peek at what the M11x R3 review will look like. Really hope to see some awesome battery numbers out of that.

    Jason
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    My experience is that Alienware laptops are never quite as optimized for maximum battery life. They have all the extra glowing lights on the case (which can usually be turned off, sure), and there's a bigger focus on performance. Dell is quoting "up to 6 hours" on the M14x, for instance, using a 63Wh battery. That's not so great, considering I've reached 6-7 hours with a 56Wh battery on the ASUS K53E with a 15.6" LCD. Anyway, I suspect the M11x R3 and M14x will be similar to the XPS 15 56Wh in battery life, which is good but not exceptional. Reply
  • GeorgeH - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    At ~$1500 this isn't such a great laptop, but who pays MSRP for a Dell? You can pick a 2630QM/525M/1080p right now for ~$950 (some Deals are Slick-er than others... )

    I understand MSRP has to be used in a review analysis, though.
    Reply
  • Jovec - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Yes, I've got an XPS 17 gen2 with a 2630, 1080p, 90w battery, backlit keyboard, and the 555 gpu for upgrades for just under $1200 with tax and shipping. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    All of the little extras can quickly add up. The review sample upgraded the wireless to the Intel 6230 with Bluetooth ($35 extra), the battery to a 9-cell ($40 extra), 8GB RAM ($60 more than 6GB), GT 540M 2GB with TV tuner ($150), and adds in the backlit keyboard ($40).

    Of course, even with all of that, prices change regularly. Right now, if you start at the $1100 model, you can get all of the upgrades above and you end up at the $1425 price I quoted. Can you get most of what we tested for less? Sure. The XPS 15 and 17 also have different pricing. If you got the 17 with GT 555M and the various other upgrades for $1200, that's a very good price. At the Dell site, you're looking at around $1450 for all of the typical upgrades you listed (plus 8GB RAM).
    Reply
  • Drag0nFire - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    "it’s very difficult to point to a laptop that offers the build quality I want without a massive price premium."

    Any chance you're going to get one of the new Thinkpads in the lab any time soon? I'm hoping the T520 will fulfill the role you outlined at a reasonable price, as I'm in the market for a new laptop...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    ThinkPads aren't exactly inexpensive. Yes, great build quality, but right now it looks like you get a bit less than the competition for your dollar.

    It's around $935 for an i5-2410M with 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD, integrated graphics, and a 1366x768 LCD. By comparison, the K53E will give you a larger HDD with the other parts being the same for $720.

    Move up to around $1300 and you get a T520 with a dual-core i5-2540M, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD, Quadro NVS 4200M, and a 1600x900 LCD. The XPS 15 can be had with 2630QM, GT 525M, 6GB RAM, 750GB HDD, and the 1080p LCD for just $1000 (so lose the Blu-ray, upgraded GPU, backlit keyboard, and upgraded WiFi of the system we reviewed).

    I'm not saying the ThinkPad is a bad choice, but LCD quality is probably lousy (but at least matte) on everything short of the ThinkPad W-series, and pricing is higher than consumer notebooks. If I were buying a laptop for long-term use, though, I'd push the Latitude, ThinkPad T-series, and HP EliteBook up to the top of my list simply for the build quality.
    Reply
  • JJG - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    The pre-configured W520 with an i7 2720QM isn't much more than the XPS 15 you reviewed in this article. They run a little more than $1500 at many online retailers (with 8GB RAM, Nvidia Quadro 1000M, and a full HD screen). The 1920X1080 screen on the Lenovo is by some accounts as good as the one on the Dell. I would love to see you test that one, because I imagine the build quality is better and I think your reviews are among the most thorough on the net. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    You're right... that one looks like the sweet spot. Big question is if the 1080p panel is still a good one, or if they've shifted to a cheaper option. Only problem is getting Lenovo to send us anything for review. :-( Reply
  • headbox - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    "XPS 15 L502x" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Why don't any PeeCee makers get this? Want to generate hype? Give your product a NAME. Reply

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