Up Close and Personal with the Dell XPS L501x

Looking at the specs and figuring out that the XPS L501x sounds like a good laptop is easy enough, but how does it fare in actual practice? In fact, it does very well, and this is easily one of my favorite laptops from the past several years. The old Studio XPS 16 had an impressive LCD option, just like the L501x, but from a design standpoint there were areas that I didn't particularly care for—chief among these being the use of glossy plastic surfaces all over the chassis. To say that fingerprints on the piano black finish were a problem is an understatement, so the switch to a matte plastic bezel and aluminum surfaces removes our biggest complaint.

The new design looks better, and it feels better as well—though we didn't have any real complaints with the Studio XPS build quality to begin with. The L501x has rounded corners and beveled edges that fit together snugly and look attractive. It's a sturdy laptop—not at the level of business notebooks perhaps, but definitely a step up from the Inspiron and other consumer offerings. Some may prefer the industrial design aesthetic of the Adamo line, but personally the L501x is more my speed. The palm rest is plenty large, with an equally large touchpad in the center. Like most modern laptops, the touchpad is multi-touch and gesture aware; it may not integrate with the OS as well as the MacBook touchpad does with OS X, but that's more of a Windows and application problem.

Besides the keyboard backlighting, there's not much to say other than it works well. The layout is fine, and Dell skips on the numeric keypad to make room for the speakers. Normally, we'd question such a move, but in this case there's some good sound quality to back it up. The key travel is good, all of the important keys are readily accessible with no funky Fn-key combinations required (the function keys default to multimedia, but you can switch that setting in the BIOS). There's also very little flex—only if you mash down on the keys with several pounds of pressure do you see flex, and in regular use the keyboard works well.

To the left and right of the keyboard are cutouts for the JBL speakers, and Dell is rightfully proud of their audio quality. There's a similar cutout pattern on the bottom for the integrated subwoofer. While I'm no audio expert by any means, what I can tell you is that subjectively these speakers blow away any other laptop I've used, and they can get very loud without distortion. To compare speaker quality, I grabbed a couple other laptops and looked at maximum volume without [noticeable] distortion.

The XPS L501x managed an impressive 83dB at three feet, with good bass and no serious quality concerns. The ASUS G73Jw, which also sounds good for a notebook and has 5.1 speakers, reached around 80dB as well, but there was some distortion and static present in our test audio files. We had to dial it down to 75% volume (~70dB) to eliminate the distortion, and while that's still reasonably loud the sound quality simply wasn't as good as the L501x. Bringing up the rear and representing "typical" laptops, we have an Acer 5551G we're working on reviewing, this time with just the two stereo speakers. While better than some Acer laptops we've looked at in the past (the 5740G for example had serious distortion problems), the 5551G put out a maximum of 67dB and was very thin and light on the bass (as expected). The JBL speakers in the L501x are very impressive…for a laptop. They're still small, so temper your expectations: you won't get the soundscape of a set of large studio monitors from a couple of small tweeters in a laptop chassis, no matter how hard you try, but you could at least watch a movie with a couple of friends and not strain to hear the audio.

Another big upgrade relative to the older Studio XPS comes in the graphics department. Okay, the 420M isn't going to set the world on fire with its performance, but it does manage roughly the same level of gaming capabilities as the GT 335M (which is roughly on par with the HD 4670). More importantly, Dell now has Optimus Technology in the dual-core XPS laptops, so now you can have performance when you need it but still get good battery life. Like all 400M equipped laptops, the L501x supports HDMI 1.4, and Dell includes free support for NVIDIA's 3DTV Play. If you have a 3D HDTV and upgrade to a Blu-ray drive, you can use the L501x to watch 3D movies on your television. Again, I'm completely unsold on the whole 3D video concept—I've tried it and simply wasn't that impressed—but at least you're not stuck paying extra for a feature that should just work.

Finally, there's the display to discuss. I'm not sure what the deal is with "B+GR LED" marketing—that would imply separate blue and green/red LEDs, which would be a halfway house between standard yellow LEDs and the RGB LEDs used in the top LCD panels. Anyway, the 1080p panel in the L501x is an AU Optronics B156HW01, and if that's the same as the B156HW03, that would make this a WLED backlight. Subjectively, that's not particularly important, as the image is still great. We'll get to the display measurements later, but the short story is you get a near-100% AdobeRGB 1998 (ARGB1998) gamut, good viewing angles, and a good contrast ratio.

So with all the good, what's not to like? Not being able to upgrade the CPU and GPU independently is probably the issue that will come up first for most users. What if you want better gaming performance and would like the GT 435M, but you want to keep Optimus? What if you want a quad-core processor for content creation but you don't need a faster GPU? In either case, you're out of luck—at least for now. We'll probably see a new Sandy Bridge version of the L501x that gives you both quad-core and Optimus, hopefully with better performance and battery life, but we're still waiting for the official Sandy Bridge launch. My only other complaint is with the HDD, specifically it's a pain to get to the HDD if you happen to want to do an SSD upgrade on your own. Since Dell is still using Samsung SSDs, if you want maximum random read/write performance you'll probably want a SandForce controller (or wait a bit longer for the third generation Intel parts and other offerings to arrive). Dell charges $550 to upgrade to a 256GB Samsung SSD; you can grab a 240GB SF-1200 for as little as $430, which is a far better proposition. But to do the HDD upgrade, you'll need to remove the palm-rest first, which isn't super difficult but it's far more cumbersome than simply removing the bottom plate. Our final complaint is that as good as the 1080p "B+GR LED" LCD is, that's not the standard panel, and we would be more than a little surprised to see anything remotely comparable from the stock 768p display. If you want a good LCD, make sure you pay for the upgrade!

Are we picking nits here? Yes, we certainly are, and that's because the L501x gets so many things right. The build quality is much better than average, battery life is good, performance is a substantial bump from the old Core 2 Duo Studio XPS—in both graphics and CPU workloads—and the audio really needs to be experienced to hear how good it is (relative to other laptops as well as basic desktop speakers). There really isn't a single show-stopper in sight. Gamers will still pine for a better GPU like the 460M, particularly if they want to drive the 1080p panel at native resolution and medium to high detail settings, but for the price the new XPS line comes with everything I would recommend in a modern laptop. That's the initial experience, but I'm sure you want some benchmarks and concrete data to back things up, so let's get to it.

Dell XPS L501x: Windows' MacBook Pro Alternative Dell XPS L501x Application Performance


View All Comments

  • JarredWalton - Sunday, November 14, 2010 - link

    Right now, the "B+GR" is only listed on the 15.6 as an upgrade, while the 14" and 17" list WLED. Obviously, all WLED are not created equal, so unfortunately without testing I can't say how the other displays compare. We're working to get the other two models in for review, but we'll have to wait and see what happens. Reply
  • Hrel - Monday, November 15, 2010 - link

    In order to get the GT435 GPU you HAVE to "upgrade" the CPU to a Core i7. I DO NOT WANT A Core i7, I want a Core i5. Yeah, let's reduce the clock speed by 1GHz then double the threads, yeah, that'll be great for gaming cause ALL games totally use 8 FUCKING THREADS!!!


    Seriously, WTF!? In what world is pairing a Core i5 with a GT435M and "compatibility issue". I fucking hate you Dell. Even when you start to do something right, you FUCK IT UP!

    I am angry out of my mind right now, I cannot believe they FORCE you to downgrade to a Core i7, fucking greedy bastards. That's NOT what I want. Cyberpowerpc.com FTW!
  • plewis00 - Monday, November 15, 2010 - link

    While that's true, your rant just made you come across as a complete retard...

    I originally noticed the 420M vs. 435M issue but the 435M is virtually just a factory-overclocked 420M anyway. You also don't get Optimus but I'd find it less 'forcing' you as there is some other underlying reason neither you nor I know about.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, November 15, 2010 - link

    Incidentally, while the i7 quad-core is lower clocked for the base speed, it has MUCH higher Turbo modes. So an i7-740QM runs at a base 1.73GHz but can Turbo as high as 2.93GHz when only one or two threads are active. The i5-460M in this system as reviewed runs at 2.53GHz base but can only Turbo as high as 2.80GHz.

    I'm betting you're thinking right now that the i7-740QM won't usually run anywhere near that 2.93GHz, but at least in my experience it does exactly that for many games. I'd go so far as to say that the only dual-core Arrandales that will clearly outperform a 740QM in games would be the i5-540M and i7-620M (and any higher clocked parts, obviously). But then, those cost just as much or more than the 740QM and in multithreaded loads they would still lose.

    As far as I'm concerned, the only real drawback to the quad-core upgrade is that removal of Optimus. 435M can definitely do Optimus (i.e. look at the L701x: BOOM! An XPS laptop with 435M and Optmimus!), but Dell is choosing to artificially require the CPU upgrade along with the GPU. Sandy Bridge should take care of the problem in the near future with IGP + quad-core + ~25% faster than Clarksfield/Arrandale at the same clocks. How long before we get SB + 445M Optimus? That's what I really want for the base L501x.
  • mopomoso - Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - link

    Jarred, well you seemed to suggest there was no significant difference between the i5-460 and i7-740 in your review and then almost contradict this above.


    "...The higher base clock speed also puts it (ie i5-460M) within striking distance of the i7-720QM in multi-threaded tasks, so unless you really need every last ounce of multi-core power the dual-core i5-460M is a compelling alternative—and don't forget the loss of Optimus (and the price increase) that comes with moving to Clarksfield processors"
  • rorthron the wise - Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - link

    Have a look at your own post - the clue is in there!

    Sod it i'll tell ya - the i7-740 is quicker than the i7-720!!!
  • mopomoso - Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - link

    Haha! Teach me to post when I'm tired -:) Apologies to Jarred.

    I'm currently debating whether to buy a L501 now or wait for SB. Doesn't look like SB will bring any benefit thermally and will, at least with the duals, only provide a small increase in processing power.

    Plus it could easily take until February for SB XPS to ship.
  • blackrook - Monday, November 15, 2010 - link

    Isn't the 420m easily overclockable anyway? Reply
  • rorthron the wise - Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - link

    I took delivery of an XPS 17 a couple of days ago; it kept crashing on me and now it won't start at all. When i try i get 6 beeps indicating a video card failure. It also came with a slight indentation on the right palm rest.

    I've got a full refund though, and i'm not too put off - it's just a bit inconvenient that i've now had to re-order, which means waiting another couple of weeks for a new machine.

    Hopefully this is not usual - doesn't Dell have a good reputation for reliability?
  • dgs - Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - link

    I can find various versions of the XPS in terms of CPU and screen size, but I can't find the model XPS L501x. More pertinently, I can't find any customization that will give me the 1080p screen that the review recommends. And that's the screen I want!

    I used to like Dell's website, long ago, but in recent years it's become so junked up that it's really hard to find what I want. Has anyone else been able to find it?

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now