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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  • cookiezulu - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Not satisfied with just replacing the primary HDD with a Vertex 3 I also want to replace the optical drive with a HDD caddy with a 1TB WD 2.5 Scorpio Blue (WD10TPVT) or a 1TB Samsung Spinpoint MT2 (HM100UI).

    So I've got a couple of questions for anybody who knows:
    1. does the MB/Bios support a 1TB drive in the secondary SATA?
    2. if anybody has done in the L501x model, are there any issues with heat?
    3. does this void the warranty? (I realise that Dell are not going to support the 3rd party caddy, but does it void the warranty repacing the ODD with a HDD - I don't quite know why Dell don't make one themselves)

    Thanks again for your help,
    Cookie
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    1) It should support any SATA device in the secondary port, but you'll need to find an appropriate caddy (or jury-rig something).
    2) Most 2.5" HDDs don't generate all that much heat, though 1TB might be a bit more than others. Would be interesting to put the SSD in the ODD bay and use a standard HDD in the main location, as SSDs generate very little heat.
    3) Shouldn't matter, as long as you keep the ODD around. There's nothing to indicate you've done something non-standard unless you actually have to mod the main chassis.
    Reply
  • cookiezulu - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    I'm planning on using the Newmodeus caddy (http://bit.ly/frNqo3). Other people seem to have found it alright for the L502.
    The reviews for hard drive that I was thinking of for the caddy (a WD Scorpio Blue WD10TPVT) report that the drive stays cool under load. Also the caddy is made of metal so that should help with heat.
    I did consider the SSD for the caddy but the problem is that if I want to use a 1TB drive (12.5mm in height) I can only put it in the caddy.
    Yes, I'm keeping the bluray drive and using it in an external USB enclosure. I've got a 1-5 days in home 3 years extended warranty so I should have time to pop the unit back in if the laptop needs to be taken away.
    Reply
  • aneuwahl - Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - link

    Hello,
    does anyone have any news on this?
    http://en.community.dell.com/support-forums/laptop...
    The issue seems to be widely and quickly spreading both on 15" and 17" XPS models.
    And Dell seems not to be finding any solution at the moment.
    Reply
  • mahapatra - Thursday, October 20, 2011 - link

    Does anyone know when Dell will upgrade the gfx card gt540m in xps 15? Would it better to wait for 4-6 months? Reply
  • Waynef - Monday, January 16, 2012 - link

    Hi,

    I purchased an XPS l502x Direct Base on 27th May and was delivered in the second week of June 2011

    Towards the end of the 4th Month ie Oct, I had few incidents of overheating (get pop ups informing the temp is 99.0 deg in core 1 / 2), in the 5th month I had severe overheating issues (get pop ups informing the temp is 99.0 deg in core 1,2,3 & 4), for which I kept informing Dell about the same and they got the heat sink replaced this was in the first week of dec even to date i get occasional overheating issues.. The day they replaced the heat sink my daughter board went kaput and that took a week to get the same replaced.

    In the first 4 months of usage I had a battery life of 7 hrs +, Post which it is now about 3 hours.

    Please do let me know if this is normal?

    1. Overheating issue.
    2. Battery life.

    I use the same in Power Savings Mode with screen brightness on the 1st bar. (min)

    I rarely use the bluetooth and wifi have not used it till now.

    My tech specs are:

    Second gen i7-2630QM processor 2.0 GHz with turbo boost to 2.90 GHz
    WLED display with Truelife
    8GB Dual Channel 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM
    750GB 7200 rpm Hard Drive
    9 CELL Battery
    2 GB NVIDA GeForce GT 540M Graphic Card
    Backlight Keyboard

    Thanks in advance for the replies and assistance.
    Reply

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