Dell XPS 15 Subjective Thoughts: Life on the High-DPI Edge

We like to start every laptop review with our subjective impressions of the system in day-to-day use. Here, the XPS 15 really does well, as the design looks great and at least in my experience feels great as well. The build quality is solid and I would say this may be the best Dell laptop I’ve ever encountered in terms of the look and feel. The touchpad and keyboard work just as they should, with a good feel and responsiveness. This is such a rarity that it still boggles my mind – getting the basic input devices more or less right should be something from Laptops 101, but somehow there are a lot of laptops with terrible touchpads and/or funky keyboard layouts. I still miss having dedicated document navigation keys and a “Context Key” (Shift+F10 equivalent), but I’ve adapted to the XPS 15 layout with no substantive issues.

There were a few oddities that did come up in testing – the big one being that at times, the touchpad and touchscreen basically stopped working properly for “clicks”. I could move the mouse cursor around, but as soon as I tried to click it appeared that the OS was sending that click to the far reaches of space. The active application would lose focus, and pretty much nothing would happen. The solution was to reboot, which seems pretty crazy as a “solution”, but I think I tracked down the issue to updating video drivers. Normally, that’s a simple process, and in some cases NVIDIA and AMD are able to update the drivers without a reboot. Well, perhaps thanks to the high-DPI display or some other factor, every time I’ve updated the NVIDIA drivers I’ve ended up needing to reboot (via keyboard shortcuts no less) in order to get proper mouse functions back. This is a rare enough occurrence that the only reason I mention it is that it may help others, and perhaps the driver teams at Dell/Intel/NVIDIA may be able to fix the root cause.

Sound quality on the XPS 15 continues to be decent, particularly for this size/thickness. Bass response isn’t really there and the earliest XPS 15 models sounded better, but that’s partly because they were a lot thicker and so there was more opportunity for putting in a subwoofer and perhaps getting better reverb/acoustics/whatever. Sorry if that’s not particularly technical – I’m not an audiophile by any stretch of the imagination; basically, I just go with what my ears tell me sounds good. Earphones of course will sound better than any laptop if you’re after true quality, but even without the XPS 15 sounds quite good. Perhaps more importantly, when listening to audio through the headset jack, I didn’t notice any static or other interference, which is definitely something that has come up with other laptops I’ve used.

Moving on to perhaps the most important aspects for many of you, let’s talk about the display and storage. I received the QHD+ panel for this review, and that tacks on quite a bit to the final price. The base model comes with a 1080p display, but there’s no way to get pure SSD storage unless you spring for the top-end model. That’s a bit of a misfire I’d say, as we’re fast approaching the point (or perhaps even past it) where including mechanical storage in a laptop is a serious faux pas – and for a high-end laptop like the XPS 15 that’s designed to compete with the likes of the Apple MacBook Pro line, there’s simply no reason for it. I also think Dell is being too conservative with the use of an mSATA SSD; I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make to go with an M.2 SSD (particularly a PCIe-based solution), but there are occasions where the SSD feels just a bit less responsive than some of the 2.5” SSDs I’m used to running. It’s still far better than any of the HDD + caching SSD laptops I’ve used, however, so unless you absolutely need maximum storage throughput, I wouldn’t worry too much about the use of Samsung’s SM841.

Subjectively, the 3200x1800 display on the Dell XPS 15 looks impressive out of the box – the pixels are fine enough that it's very difficult (perhaps impossible in my case, as my eyes aren’t what they used to be) to see them with the naked eye, and with my basic lenses on my Nikon D3100 I likewise am unable to capture an image of the pixels. Within the Modern UI, everything works as expected as well – everything scales nicely and you simply use the applications as you would on any other tablet or laptop. Where things get messy is when you switch to a desktop application. People often argue about whether or not Windows handles DPI scaling well; my personal opinion is that it remains a mixed bag. Some things scale nicely and look as you would expect; others don't scale at all, and still others scale the size of text but not other elements. Some of this you can blame on the programmers behind the various applications, but particularly on programs that are several years old (but remain useful) we can't really expect new versions (for free) simply because Microsoft has a new way of doing scaling. There's also the question of how many applications really work well within the Modern UI, and again personally there are many times that I simply like the desktop view and don't want to lose that.

But what's a 3200x1800 display really like in Windows 8.1? There are a few options for how you want to run things. You can run at native resolution and use DPI scaling (100%, 125%, 150%, 200%, or some other custom number), or you can run at a lower resolution (like 1600x900 or 1920x1080) and just let the display scaling do the work. As you might suspect, neither option is perfect. 200% scaling in theory is pretty easy – you just double everything – but doubling images doesn't always look great and so apparently that doesn't happen, even with Windows 8.1. The result is that most apps look fine, but there are exceptions. And needless to say, anything running at an unscaled DPI looksreally tiny, for example the StarCraft II launcher looks is unscaled whereas Steam’s UI scales.

Here's a gallery showing just two instances of the scaling not doing what most people would expect. Look at the browser tabs in Chrome, where in one screen it's running at 1080p 100% and in the other it's at 3200x1800 200%. The second shows Steam and the StarCraft II launcher, with 125% and 200% DPI settings I believe; you can see SC2 is the same size in both images while everything else changes.

So those are a couple instances of DPI scaling not working, and it’s basically the fault of the developers, but if Microsoft wants this high-DPI stuff to really work then they need to find solutions to dealing with…let’s just call them “obstinate programmers”. Windows has been around for a long time and creating a new way of doing things (i.e. Modern) doesn’t help at all with existing programs. It’s one of the reasons I think a lot of people are sticking with Windows 7 for the time being. A proper solution needs to work for any reasonable application that someone might run, and perhaps give the user the option to enable/disable the scaling if it causes problems. For now, unless you’re ready to live mostly in the Modern UI (or have exceptional vision and can run at 100% scaling and 3200x1800), just know that there are going to be quirks to deal with.

Meet the New Dell XPS 15 (9530), Late 2013 Edition Dell XPS 15: QHD+ LCD Testing
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  • Meaker10 - Thursday, March 06, 2014 - link

    Is the largest cache really an advantage though. I thought tests showed in everything but gaming on the igp it had no impact on performance. Reply
  • willis936 - Thursday, March 06, 2014 - link

    That really isn't the case. Go back and check the compute numbers on crystalwell. It blows every other mobile SKU out of the water. Sure if you don't need compute don't spend $2k on it Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, March 13, 2014 - link

    The weight there in the first page, the Dell website says it starts at 4.4 pounds, but is that still the case going from the 6 to 9 cell battery? Reply
  • edzieba - Thursday, March 06, 2014 - link

    "and perhaps give the user the option to enable/disable the scaling if it causes problems"
    It exists: http://i.imgur.com/Duy2Igv.png
    Reply
  • edzieba - Thursday, March 06, 2014 - link

    I'll add that (not using chrome) I've had minimal issues with hiDPI scaling for applications. What's really annoying is when docking a laptop, you can set the internal and external displays to have different scaling factors (125% for the laptop display, 100% for the external monitor), but that these only take effect AFTER a logout/login. Until then, applications will be the correct scale, but using the old non-DPI-aware method (rendered at equivalent lower resolution and bitmap scaled) and will be slightly blurred. Upon the logout/login, everything will scale normally. Reply
  • Silma - Thursday, March 06, 2014 - link

    Can you make a video of it or a step by step, I never could find a way to get 200% on the laptop and 100% on the external monitor. Reply
  • jphughan - Thursday, March 06, 2014 - link

    There isn't a way to set separate scaling percentages on each display. Windows 8.1 lets you specify a baseline size, and it will then do post-render zooming in/out on the non-primary displays to make things look the right physical size. Mac OS X does the same thing with the "Optimize for Retina" or "Optimize for external display" options. Actually having multiple DPI scaling values on multiple displays simultaneously would be a huge headache for Microsoft to support and then for developers to adopt for all sorts of reasons, and I'm betting it will never happen because as soon as HiDPI becomes the norm, the need for this setup will disappear. So instead you can either optimize your scaling for the HiDPI display and have everything essentially zoomed out on the external panel (which looks pretty good but not as great as native optimization for that panel), or you can optimize for your external panel and have everything zoomed in on the QHD+ display, which as you can probably imagine doesn't look great. Still, it's better than having to pick a single scaling value for both displays, since there's no single value that would perform acceptably in both cases. Reply
  • edzieba - Thursday, March 06, 2014 - link

    I don't do it with simultaneous displays (lid closed when docked) which is why I have to do the logout/login fandango, but there is a Windows Blog post that explains the new features including independant scaling for each display: http://blogs.windows.com/windows/b/extremewindows/... Reply
  • Penti - Friday, March 07, 2014 - link

    Which isn't independent if you read the article. Set your primary display to 125% and your secondary to 200%, then the secondary will be a rescaled (bitmap/DWM) version of the 125% DPI. IE solves the problem by not doing any scaling, but rather zooming at different levels on different screens. Basically just ignoring the DPI-settings and handle it (resizing) themselves by not supporting the native ways. Reply
  • jphughan - Friday, March 07, 2014 - link

    Correct. But supporting multiple DPI scale factors simultaneous would require a ton of work from Microsoft and then a ton of work from app developers to support it properly. Apps would have to dynamically rescale their elements (and possibly load different art assets if the scale factors are large enough) as they were dragged across displays -- not to mention what would happen for applications that users want to use spanned across two displays. It's certainly not impossible, but given that HiDPI will eventually become the norm, I'm betting that Microsoft isn't going to engineer true multi-DPI support because they know that by the time they figure it out AND third-party developers build in support, it will basically no longer be required. It's worth noting that Apple hasn't engineered multi-DPI either despite having a multi-year head start on HiDPI support and full control over both the software and hardware platform; instead they still use the same type of scaling that Windows 8.1 does in that situation. Reply

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