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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  • air_ii - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    Given current fan / throttling profiles, wouldn't it be interesting to see gaming performance of a throttled i7/GF vs nominal (or perhaps turboed?) IGP performance? Perhaps the GF is completely pointless under circumstances? Reply
  • TC2 - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    The best for the Best :) It's an excellent machine! Reply
  • TheTechSmith - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    "And on a related note, I should mention that I’ve seen at least some minor throttling with several other “thin but fast” laptops, so Dell’s not alone here; we’ll be making a concerted effort to check for throttling on all future laptop reviews."

    Yes! I think this is a great idea. I've believed for years that laptops like the one that you just reviewed have been slapped together without proper thermal design (lack of the required mechanical knowledge, reluctance to put in the required money/time?) in order to sell it on specs, and the end result is terrible, and I don't think there is enough awareness on this issue. I posted a little earlier on my XPS M1330 which is a 4 year old computer with the same issue. If reviews start testing for this specifically and compare laptops quantitatively against other laptops (temperature and average frame-rate of select games over time?), then perhaps companies that are poor in this area will hire the required mechanical engineers and dedicate the proper money and time to do it right.
    Reply
  • SovereignGFC - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    On page 7, it was noted the laptop shut down under load after ThrottleStop was used to force it to run at a specified speed rather than the BIOS-controlled throttled speed.

    According to Intel (http://ark.intel.com/products/64901), this CPU is rated for a TJunction (maximum core temperature) of 105C. The CPU only hit 100C during these tests, so that implies to me that CPU temperature, while VERY high, was within spec and should not have triggered a shut-down.

    If the GPU hit its limit, that's a different story.

    However, as an owner of an XPS1640, well-known for behaving similarly, I have to ask whether the A/C adapter Dell shipped is adequate for such a powerful machine. The A/C adapter was sized based on the machine being throttled, not unlocked the way ThrottleStop will permit it to run. I can offer at least one anecdote (many more can be found on NotebookReview's forums) about A/C adapter vs. thermals. This throttling was present in the Latitude E6X00 series of professional notebooks, one of which is owned by a friend. After showing him how he wasn't getting the performance he paid for, he un-throttled his CPU and ran Prime95 to test its thermals.

    The machine shut down in a few minutes and the A/C adapter was too hot to touch for a while afterward.

    Many XPS1640 owners reported that calling Dell, mentioning "throttling" and asking for a 130w A/C adapter allowed their machines to run properly under "full load." Even though components would be subjected to high heat (I've seen 103C on my Core 2 Duo, 88C on the GPU) they would also receive enough energy to operate as designed, rather than stressing or even destroying the A/C adapter in the process.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    I can't test this right now, but the thought that we might be exceeding the power limit did cross my mind. I don't think that's the case, however, as there are various triggers that can cause a system to shut down. I'm guessing Dell defined a maximum temperature of some other component, or that something on the motherboard is overheating. I'll look into power draw when I return home next week. Reply
  • SovereignGFC - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    Thanks.

    What annoys me the most is that we get these half-crippled machines that emphasize form over function. I don't care if it looks like a brick--it's a gaming machine and gaming machines need to dissipate huge amounts of heat.

    http://forum.notebookreview.com/dell-xps-studio-xp... - That's a massive discussion about heat/power throttle on the 16XX series.

    http://forum.notebookreview.com/dell-xps-studio-xp... - People are already talking about the L521X negatively, "it throttles so badly under a realistic gaming load that I'm returning it."

    That said, I don't see any "load" (power) related throttling mentioned.
    Reply
  • CeriseCogburn - Sunday, July 29, 2012 - link

    Yes, good points.
    Doesn't matter if this site's is under performing from the lack of adequate ps as that is what end users will be receiving, except in the sense it would be nice to know. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if it was. I doubt they're going to purchase a 130W universal adapter to find out.

    Great points, I agree with you, the insane emphasis on looks bothers me as well - it's even worse in discrete video cards, as you won't be staring at them as you game - with a laptop I can excuse quite a bit of it - as you will be looking at it a lot.
    Reply
  • SovereignGFC - Monday, July 30, 2012 - link

    If enough people complain (like the XPS 16), Dell will give out 130w adapters like candy, even though by themselves they did not solve the problem with the XPS 16. Only completely cutting the BIOS out of the CPU equation and replacing it with ThrottleStop let my laptop run like it was supposed to.

    If tests on sites like Anand say "This laptop needs MO' POWAH!" then Dell will probably jump at a cheap "fix." I'm not saying we know for sure a larger adapter is required (that's what the tests will be for) but experience suggests power may be a factor.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 09, 2012 - link

    Just to update (and spoil the surprise): I plugged the XPS 15 into a 135W Dell adapter; throttling still occurs just as quickly as before, so it's not a power adapter problem. Reply
  • JNo - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    I think the Acer M3 looks might tempting value when looking at the graphs. It's got about 90% of the power for about 50% of the price. Sure it's not all about specs and Acer's build quality and looks are nowhere near that of the Dell but I can't ignore that price differential.

    So what are you really missing out with the Acer? Two things spring to mind: 1) no SSD - easy; buy your own and clone the HDD and you're still alot cheaper than the Dell with your own preferred brand and size of SSD. 2) The rubbish 1366x786 TN panel on the Acer. This is much trickier I prefer lower resolutions for games anyway but 1650x800 or 1080p would be much better for work. Only question is, can you buy and fit a better panel yourself cheaply if you're willing and able?
    Reply

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