Design and Other Considerations

Before we get to the benchmarks, let’s take a minute more to look at the design and aesthetics on offer. We’ve covered most of this already—the XPS 15 L501x had a decent keyboard with only slight flex, there are lots of matte surfaces to go around, and you get some of the best sounding speakers you’ll ever hear in a laptop. Except, this isn't exactly the same keyboard as the previous model, and the chassis feels slightly less sturdy as a result. More on this in a moment.

One upgrade that we didn't get to test previously is the 9-cell battery, and this is one of those hit-or-miss upgrades. On the one hand, you increase battery capacity and battery life (by about 55% in our testing). Unfortunately, the 9-cell battery really ruins the profile of the XPS 15, raising the back of the notebook almost a full inch and giving the bottom an uncomfortable bump that makes using it on your lap a dubious proposition. It's great for battery life, and if your laptop sits on a desk or table it's not a big deal; however, Dell should be able to put this much capacity into a better form factor with a few modifications to the chassis.

In the above gallery, we’ve included some comparison pictures of the 6-cell and 9-cell Dell batteries with ASUS’ 8-cell battery from their U-series. The ASUS battery is nearly as thin as the 6-cell but it’s substantially longer; it shows that it would be possible for Dell to fit such a battery into a 14” chassis if they were willing to rework the chassis and internal layout. Personally, I think Dell needs to reevaluate the battery design. While I really like the idea of a 90Wh battery, I don’t like the battery wart on the bottom of my laptop. Another option would be to go for a higher quality (and higher cost) Lithium polymer battery that could pack the same 90Wh into a smaller shell, which is the approach Apple tends to take.

Another tidbit worth mentioning is that upgrading your hard drive requires a bit of extra work. You can get at the memory, WiFi card, and the remaining mini-PCIe slot (occupied by an AverMedia TV Tuner in our test unit) through the single large bottom panel. The hard drive on the other hand is accessed through the top of the chassis. Interestingly enough, the top cover around the keyboard isn’t even secured by any screws; remove the battery and you can access a couple of the plastic clips that hold the cover in place. There are about twenty plastic clips around the top cover, and you’ll have to get them all to release before you can get at the hard drive; you’ll also need to detach the touchpad and media/power button ribbon connectors. While you won’t need to remove any screws, the end result is something of a pain compared to the simple bottom-hatch access most laptops use, and if you happen to remove the cover several times there’s a reasonable chance you’re going to start breaking the plastic clips.

The reason I get into the above is two-fold: first, it illustrates a design flaw and the difficulty of upgrading the hard drive/SSD. The other item to note is that the entire top cover is made of somewhat flimsy plastic, which feels more like Inspiron quality than XPS quality. The frame on the XPS line may be solid, but the actual shell around the frame is plastic and definitely not as sturdy as Dell’s Latitude line. I’d really prefer to see the XPS line go slightly more upscale—bump the price up $50 to $100 and give us a consumer chassis that feels like it will last. Or there’s the new Alienware M11x/M14x that might fill that niche, but aesthetics are still a matter of opinion and plenty of people dislike the bling that’s present on Alienware’s offerings.

Finally, let's discuss the keyboard. I actually liked the old L501x keyboard, and I sort of figured the L502x would be the same design. Well, it's not. The new keyboard is the chiclet style that has become so prevalent among consumer notebooks. I don't really mind typing on chiclet keyboards, and this one works well enough, but I felt there was more flex and less ruggedness to the overall design compared to the previous model. Some of that may just be my perception—I don't have the L501x handy to check—but as noted above the build quality feels more like a tweaked Inspiron rather than giving you the quality of a Latitude.

With that out of the way, let’s hit the benchmarks and graphs and see how the new XPS 15 compares to the old model, along with a selection of other recent laptops. Pricing for the reviewed configuration puts the L502x into direct competition with laptops sporting significantly faster GPUs—i.e. MSI’s GT680R can be found for just $50 more. What you get with the Dell is a more aesthetically pleasing design, a higher quality LCD, significantly better battery life (thanks to Optimus), better speakers, and a backlit keyboard. On the other hand, the GTX 460M walks all over the GT 540M in games, so if you’re looking for gaming laptops as opposed to Jack-of-All-Trades offerings, there are better options.

Dell XPS 15 L502x: Tweaking the Formula No Surprises: Quad-Core Sandy Bridge Is Still Fast
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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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