Introducing Dell’s XPS 15 L521x: the 2012 Update

I’ve had some good experiences with Dell’s XPS line of laptops over the years, but in virtually every case I’ve had a few minor complaints. The earlier models were large, fast, and too expensive for most users. Then Dell dropped the XPS line for a while and went with the Studio XPS—still generally expensive and there were performance elements that came up short (e.g. the Studio XPS 16 had an awesome RGBLED backlit display, but it tended to run a bit toasty and the hardware wasn’t as fast as previous XPS offerings). With the relaunch of the XPS line in late 2010, the original XPS 15 delivered a great display and a well-balanced set of components that was enough to earn our Gold Editor’s Choice award, but the chassis was understandably a bit too bulbous for some tastes. The XPS 15 Sandy Bridge update improved the CPU and GPU options, but six months after the first XPS 15 I was even less enamored with the chassis.

Next up in the list of progression was the XPS 15z, which improved some areas but regressed in others. It had a thinner, sleeker looking chassis, but dropped support for quad-core processors, downgraded the GPU slightly, had some thermal concerns, and perhaps most worrisome was the build quality. I posted an update a few months after the review that summed things up nicely: “I can't stress enough how it feels like Dell cut a few corners and the result is a laptop that doesn't hold up as well as I'd like over the long haul…. When the inevitable Ivy Bridge update of the 15z comes out, you can bet I'm going to pound on it a little more.” And that brings us to the new XPS 15, which has a completely redesigned chassis. Did Dell listen to my complaints about the 15z build quality? You better believe it!

Superficially, the new XPS 15 looks quite similar to the 15z, at least in pictures. Meet one in person, however, and the changes are immediately noticeable. Many suggested that the XPS 15z was trying to clone Apple’s MacBook Pro, but that’s somewhat disingenuous—unless you consider any laptop that aims to be slimmer and silver to be a MBP clone, I suppose. I would however suggest that it did take more than a couple design cues from Cupertino, including a strikingly similar keyboard layout. The newest model keeps the 15z keyboard layout (which is still a step back from the XPS 15 L501x/L502x in my opinion), but ditches the silver palm rest and keyboard area for a matte black surface with a soft-touch coating. The touchpad also gets a clickable MBP-like interface that we’ve seen on just about every Ultrabook along with many newer laptops. Personally, I still prefer touchpads with separate non-integrated buttons, so this is another step back.

What’s not a step back is the chassis itself, which is now the most MacBook Pro-like chassis I’ve encountered in a non-Apple product. It uses machined aluminum for the main chassis and frame, similar to Apple’s unibody chassis, and it’s thicker and far more rigid than any previous Dell XPS laptop. Even the display cover gets a thick aluminum backing, so there’s really no twisting or flexing to speak of. The palm rest on the other hand isn’t machined aluminum but instead uses magnesium with a soft-touch coating. If you thought the XPS 15z copied a lot of Apple’s design, the XPS 15 will only cement that impression, but really I don’t care: if a competing product is better, then stealing a few ideas isn’t going to hurt my review of it. [Insert obligatory Steve Jobs quote about great artists stealing….]

Here’s the spec sheet for the new XPS 15, and I’ve included the specs of the last-gen MacBook Pro 15 as a reference point. Note that unlike the MacBook Pro Retina, Dell continues to include a DVDRW/Blu-ray optical drive with their XPS 15.

Dell XPS 15 Specification Comparison
Laptop Dell XPS 15 L521x Apple MacBook Pro 15 (2012)
Processor Intel i7-3612QM
(Quad-core 2.10-3.10GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 35W)
Intel i7-3610QM
(Quad-core 2.30-3.30GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 45W)
Chipset HM77 HM77
Memory 8GB DDR3-1600 4GB DDR3-1600
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1100MHz)

NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M 2GB GDDR5 (Optimus)
(384 cores at 624MHz/709MHz Boost, 128-bit GDDR5-4000)
Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1100MHz)

NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M 512MB GDDR5
(384 cores at 735MHz, 128-bit GDDR5-4000)
Display 15.6" WLED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B156HTF/B156HW03)
15.4" WLED Glossy 16:10 WXGA+ (1440x900)
Storage 750GB 7200RPM HDD (Seagate ST9750420AS)
32GB mSATA caching SSD (Samsung PM830)
750GB 5400RPM HDD
Optical Drive Blu-ray Combo slot-load (Matshita UJ167) DVDRW slot-load
Networking 802.11n dual-band 300Mb WiFi (Intel 6235)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel 6235)
Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n dual-band 450Mb WiFi
Bluetooth 4.0
Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo Speakers
Headphone/Microphone jacks
Stereo Speakers with Subwoofer
Headphone/Microphone jacks
Battery/Power 9-cell, 14.8V, 4400mAh, ~65Wh
90W Max AC Adapter (19.5V, 4.72A)
77.5Wh
85W MagSafe Power Adapter
Front Side N/A N/A
Left Side 3 x USB 3.0
Mini-DisplayPort
HDMI
Gigabit Ethernet
AC Power Connection
Headphone and Microphone jacks
SDXC Card Reader
2 x USB 3.0
1 x Thunderbolt
1 x FireWire 800
Gigabit Ethernet
MagSafe AC
Right Side Headphone and Microphone jacks
Kensington Lock
Memory Card Reader
Optical Drive (BD-Combo)
Kensington Lock
Optical Drive (DVDRW 8x SuperDrive)
Back Side Exhaust Vent Exhaust Vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OS X Lion (or Mountain Lion)
Dimensions 14.6" x 9.8" x 0.91" (WxDxH)
(371mm x 249mm x 23.2mm)
14.35" x 9.82" x 0.95" (WxDxH)
(364mm x 249mm x 24.1mm)
Weight 5.79 lbs (2.6kg) 5.6 lbs (2.56kg)
Extras 1.3MP HD Webcam
80-key Backlit Keyboard (Spill Resistant)
Memory Card Reader (MMC/MS Pro/SD)
720p FaceTime HD Webcam
78-key Backlit Keyboard
Memory Card Reader (SDXC)
Price $1700 MSRP, online starting at $1600 (7/17/12) $1799 MSRP; online starting at $1710 (7/17/12)

The “on paper” matchup between the Apple and Dell laptops ends up being quite interesting. Not surprisingly, even the base model MacBook Pro 15 is quite a bit more expensive than the mid-tier XPS 15. (There’s a dual-core model XPS 15 that comes with an i5-3210M CPU, GT 630M 1GB GDDR5, 6GB RAM, 500GB HDD + 32GB mSATA SSD, 1080p LCD, and DVDRW for $1300 if you’re interested.) In many key areas, Dell comes out ahead of Apple this round: they have a higher resolution LCD standard, you get 8GB DDR3-1600, they use a 750GB 7200RPM HDD with a 32GB mSATA SSD caching drive (via Intel’s Smart Response Technology), you get a Blu-ray combo drive, and there’s a third USB 3.0 port plus HDMI and DisplayPort outputs.

However, that’s not the whole story: Apple uses a full voltage 45W i7-3610QM processor, which boasts slightly higher clock speeds than the 35W 3612QM, and they also use a GT 650M GPU that comes with higher core clocks. Let’s also not forget the FireWire 800 port (well, I’ve never used FireWire so actually I can forget about it…), or more importantly the Thunderbolt port. Apple also uses a higher capacity battery configuration and provides a 450Mbps capable (dual-band 3x3:3 MIMO) wireless adapter.

Perhaps more interesting than the differences are the areas where they’re the same. Both laptops have machined aluminum chassis, and the dimensions are very close to a tie. Apple isn’t quite as wide, thanks to their 16:10 aspect ratio display, but the Dell XPS 15 is actually slightly thinner. Despite the relatively similar dimensions, Apple still manages to come in 0.2 pounds lighter, but for this size laptop that’s close enough for all practical purposes.

So which laptop is better? In the past, I’ve always felt that Dell’s attempts to compete with Apple came up a bit short. The first XPS 15 (L501x/L502x) was a nice change of pace from previous Dell designs, but it wasn’t really close to Apple in terms of overall design. The XPS 15z got the form factor right in my opinion, but build quality still went to Apple—plus you were limited to dual-core CPUs. I would also say the same thing about HP’s Envy line—they’ve had some nice looking laptops for sure, but I’ve never felt they could match Apple’s overall build quality (though I would rank the previous models slightly ahead of Dell’s older XPS offerings). This time, build quality is absolutely top notch for the new XPS 15, and the only thing that really differentiates it from the MacBook Pro is the black palm rest with soft-touch coating, and the silicone on the bottom of the chassis.

What it really comes down to is one thing: do you prefer running Windows or are you an OS X devotee? Sure, you can always run Windows on a MacBook in a pinch (or you could try to make a Hackintosh), but as we’ve shown in the past there’s a penalty in terms of battery life if you choose that route. If you have never owned a MacBook Pro, there’s a good chance you fall into the camp of users that admire Apple’s designs but couldn’t care less about their OS—which is exactly my feeling. Now, we have a truly viable alternative for the MacBook Pro (though sadly there’s nothing even remotely close to the MacBook Pro Retina, of course). And guess what? You’ll pay more; yes, it’s true: quality has a price.

I’m not sure exactly how much of the added cost comes from the sturdier and slimmer chassis, but if we look at competing Windows laptops (e.g. ASUS N56VZ), you can actually get pretty much the same specs from a laptop for just $1000. There’s no doubt in my mind that the XPS 15 is built better than the N56VZ, but I’ve been using a similar ASUS laptop for a couple months now and the only thing that’s really missing in my mind is solid state storage—which you can easily add on your own. The ASUS should also be slightly faster on the CPU side, though the use of DDR3 memory on the GPU makes it a bit of a wash. Based purely on the overall design and features, I’d go with the Dell XPS 15, but at a 60% price premium the ASUS is clearly the better bargain.

The Dell XPS 15 in Practice
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    I'll look into this when working on the "final" review -- e.g. when the next A05 BIOS is officially released. For gaming in general, I don't think it will matter too much, as most don't tax all four cores. Still, stranger things have happened. Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    Well the reason why I say this Jarred. Is because of how I understand these CPU's throttle. If they do operate the way understand it. These should be able to clock higher with only two cores being used fully. Then a lot of games only really need 1-2 cores. But not all.

    I myself have tried this on a game that I know is CPU dependent. It did not increase performance for the game, but it does help with heat. Well, performance wise, it did help because I was able to overclock the processor. Then remain inside the same heat envelope.

    However, my system is based on an AMD A6-3400.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    So I did a quick test just now. Setting Batman: AC affinity to cores 0-3 (or cores 0 and 2) resulted in throttling within the first 60 seconds or so of running the Batman benchmark. So I turned to ThrottleStop again and decided to go for broke and set the multiplier for "Turbo" (maximum) and disabled CPU PROC HOT. I reached a temperatures of 100C on the first two cores after running the benchmark three times, and while the laptop didn't crash I wouldn't be comfortable running those temps.

    Next, I dropped the ThrottleStop multiplier to 26X and retested. Cores one and two still hit 98C after a few loops, and performance wasn't any better or worse (89-90 FPS for our "Value" 768p Medium settings). Then I tried ThrottleStop with the multiplier set to 23X but without any affinity setting. Performance went up slightly (91-92 FPS), and all four CPU cores topped out at around 91C, so overall performance was slightly up and temps were slightly down by just restricting the multiplier more rather than using CPU affinity.

    Obviously, results for affinity will vary depending on game. Some games will benefit from additional cores (albeit slightly) and others really don't use more than two. If you're really hoping to control temperatures, though, setting a 23X multiplier as well as affinity should be a bit better than just TS alone.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Friday, July 27, 2012 - link

    Jarred, thanks for taking the time to look into it.

    It is a shame that what I was thinking did not pan out. It was a shot in the dark to begin with. Based on personal experiences of my own. So I think what that confirms in my mind anyhow is that Dell needs to work on a much better cooling design for this series of laptops. Maybe just putting in a higher RPM fan will work too. Like I think you had suggested.

    Personally, I would not care if the case design were a bit thicker to allow for better cooling. Nor would I care if the laptop were a bit heavier too. But as I stated in another post, I am most likely not the norm in my laptop usage.
    Reply
  • alfling - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    1) Please don't start here another "Apple fanboys vs Apple haters" battle like in most other reviews :)

    2) To the reviewer: many people experienced significant drops in download speed (upload keeps constant) when being out of line of sight from the router, while with other laptops (also older ones) keeps being good. Could you please try to walk away from the router and check for us?

    3) To the reviewer (again): I heard some people complaining that in white or very light screens (like Google homepage) they can clearly see the pixel grid of the display, but nothing official has come from Dell yet. Could you please tell us if you experience the same issue?

    Thank you in advance!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    WiFi connection speed over longer distances is a bit of a craps shoot, but I did read somewhere that Dell is working on tuning the WiFi performance as well. There are so many variables at play (just the type of router and the testing environment introduce all sorts of factors) that without doing a massive amount of work I couldn't say if the XPS 15 wireless is underperforming or not. I'll try to look into this a bit more for the final (next BIOS) review.

    Regarding the LCD, I don't see the grid when looking at static content, but as I noted in the review, moving windows around really shows some "fuzziness" on high contrast edges. I see similar behavior on most TN panels, and it's caused by the 6-bit to 8-bit dithering/interpolation AFAIK. Trying to capture this in a picture or video would unfortunately require a better camera/lens than I have. Anyway, the LCD is better than a lot of displays, but the ASUS N56VM/VZ 1080p panel is better IMO, and so is the old XPS L501x LCD (which had better colors and gamut as well). Will most people notice? Nope, but enthusiasts and screen connoisseurs might. The "dithering effect" doesn't bother me, but the bluish cast of the LCD is definitely noticeable.
    Reply
  • alfling - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    Thank you very much for your prompt reply Reply
  • rnmisrahi - Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - link

    Indeed, there are many problems with the wireless card. Unless you're very near your router, the speed slows down to 2 mbps, while other older machines give me 30 mbps downstream, of course.
    Look at this Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/all_comments?v=x-KFW7_UxJM
    Reply
  • dragosmp - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    So what's the point of a quad core Core i7 and a discrete GPU if the chassis can't cool them? So you do have 4 cores than can potentially go to 2.8GHz, but if you try to actually use them they'll get throttled to 1.2GHz; or at 1.8GHz if this is as much as the chassis can take, and by the way thanks Jarred for doing this bit of investigative journalism. Unless they accelerate the fan further and/or modify the cooling/chassis, with all the BIOS engineers in the world they won't be able to pull more than ~1.8GHz.

    At this point I'm wondering, isn't the i7 a check box feature? From an engineering standpoint if the overall dissipation power of the chassis is xW you can take advantage of the thermal capacity and go over the xW for a certain period of time without passing the temperature threshold. Dell took this further: put a slim chassis with probably half the thermal capacitance of the old XPS 15, made it slimmer thus reduced the dissipation power and kept the same TDP CPU (which is itself surpassed while Turbo-ing). I wonder what if a 25W DC Core i5 would be faster than the 35W i7 in most apps, even heavy threaded apps, simply due to it keeping higher clocks per core.

    As a engineer I see no point in this, but if I were a seller I sure wouldn't want to be the only one that doesn't support the fastest CPU as pointless as that may be.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    I think the issue isn't the quad-core CPU so much as the total amount of power the cooling system needs to dissipate. If the GT 640M GDDR5 can use 40-45W of power (which seems about right) and the CPU uses up to 35W, then the cooling needs to be able to handle at least 75-80W of heat in order to avoid problems. Given what we're seeing with throttling, it looks like the cooling is probably only able to handle 60-65W, so something has to give.

    As far as the quad-core being useless, keep in mind that I never saw any throttling when running just CPU-intensive workloads. It's only the combination of CPU and GPU both being loaded where we run into issues. Games do that, and professional CAD/CAM type programs would do it as well, but a lot of other tasks aren't really going to be a problem I don't think. Even video editing probably doesn't put enough of a strain on the GPU to trigger throttling -- though I'll have to look into that later.
    Reply

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