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


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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, November 23, 2010 - link

    Hilarious... search for L501x and all you get are support documents for the XPS L501x, including a BIOS update. Search for XPS 15 and you get a bit closer. Just go to the following link and select the model you want:
  • danielt - Monday, November 22, 2010 - link

    Nice screen at 1080p, but GPU is not up to the task. Even the cheaper Acer Timelinex 4820TG performs better than XPS15 (same core i5) in gaming and multiprocessing.
    So for XPS15, GPU fail while A/V is good.
    For 4820TG, GPU is good while A/V fails.
  • danielt - Monday, November 22, 2010 - link

    You guys at anandtech should give 4820TG some tests, and see for yourself its benchmarks and gaming power.
    BTW, judging from your tests on XPS15, even the cheaper Gateway ID49 performs better in many games..
  • CalvinW - Tuesday, November 23, 2010 - link

    Is it out there the perfect PC or Mac?Will it come the day when we can go to the store and grab the perfect computer? NO, it won't . I hope not, otherwise the experience of shopping/ reviewing computers will be meaningless. If you want a quasi-perfect PC just build a desktop or if you want a portable one well, go with the market.
    Moreover,I like this XPS15 because its features, but not because of its design. Dell could have gotten one of those guys that design for Apple and get something aesthetically beautiful to the eye. But what is beautiful for me, might be ugly for you though.
    If you need a Mac to go out to a cafe and get looks of approval from people, or being accepted by a social group, well do it if you have the means to spend for a computer. I do love Macs but the MacPro are not professional at all.
    As for PCs there is variety out there, there is more space to innovate, and there are many of us that want something more flexible in hardware, and perhaps OS system. Certainly, Windows 7 has its flaws, and it won't be perfect, but guys you have options... if you don't like this PC don't buy it, don't even read the reviews; also, and if you have problems with self-esteem, and therefore need a machine to show off buy one appealing to your friends and stop whining like a child.
  • Tetranode - Saturday, November 27, 2010 - link

    I'm about to buy one of these, but I want to know if it's at all possible to install XP on it. Yes, I'm a software luddite etc. who runs XP on a q9550@3.6 and so forth, but I like the results.

    Any info is appreciated.
  • EnzoM3 - Monday, December 06, 2010 - link

    Hopefully it'll as good as the review says. Reply
  • Luke2.0 - Sunday, December 12, 2010 - link

    Out of curiosity, I was just checking the site
    That's the correct model, right?

    As of this moment, the option to upgrade to full HD resolution is gone.
    Just a few days ago, it was priced at $195 for the upgrade. (too high demand?)

    For whatever reason causing the hike and the subsequent removal of that upgrade, the gold-medalist is not so golden now IMO. Hmmm...
  • IanWorthington - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    Looking on dell's site for the 1080 screen today, can't find it. Is it still available? Reply
  • Taimfrey - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    I've been looking at this laptop for a while and have customized it on their website a few times to figure out what I want and how much I want to spend. Tonight I got on and the option to add the 1080p screen was no longer available. I called Dell and apparently now only the alienware laptops have the 1080p screen as an option. I hope this is a temporary adjustment due to the holiday, or else I'm going to buy somewhere else. Seems like a rather poor move on their part, especially after a review like this. Reply
  • Photon0000 - Monday, December 20, 2010 - link

    The 1600 x 900 LCD display on the XPS 17 is for me not usable for image work and unpleasant to use period. It does not have any viewing angle you can tilt the lid to that will provide a consistent appearing image. Lift your chin and the image changes. If you tilt the lid so the webcam has you centered the image on the LCD is washed out like you are looking at it through mist. There is no sweet spot. As you tilt the screen its a continuous unbroken progression from washed out to loss of detail in dark areas. In any given position just lift your chin and the image changes. The only thing wrong with this laptop is the LCD but even the replacement they sent has the same unacceptable screen. I'm returning both. I'll just have to make do with my 5 year old 17" Inspiron 9300 which doesn't have any lid tilt viewing angle issues. Hopefully Dell will make a quality 17" screen option available at some point. Reply

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