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)
85W MagSafe Power Adapter
Front Side N/A N/A
Left Side 3 x USB 3.0
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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  • ananduser - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    Well your stress tests are against Anand's own review and many other reviews that have noticed how under long stress tests the MBP gets extremely hot. You're a lucky one.
  • dtolios - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    Apple did nothing "new" with the rMBP...the contrary, it got thinner and the thermal envelope of the notebook got "tighter"...
    It's just that it is using "cooler" components that intel and nvidia put together.

    The metal chassis can only insulate so much, and that is true for all manufacturers. Apple cannot beat physics (doh).

    Thus really high end GPUs were always out of the question for MBPs, (and all thin/light laptops) despite the amount of money you were willing to throw in for customizing.
  • CeriseCogburn - Sunday, July 29, 2012 - link

    Ha that is so funny to me - I can see that picky elite machead going for the totally silent room, doing the yoga meditation, some breathing exercises, then firing up the MBP to do some spiritual testing - getting that ear on down low next to it, to see if it can hold it's breath, too.

    That's why the macgineers had to do what they did do - it's the end user's magical idiot silent wet dream, and there are so many of those people... who cares if they burn their crotch off - that's a good thing.

    Yeah, it's really sad. Same type of insanity with gaming gpus as they have the sound cranked to the max and often are wearing noise cancelling expensive headgear for sound. I suppose the fan sound would ruin their delicate and selective critical listening enjoyment.
  • name99 - Saturday, July 28, 2012 - link

    The two are really not comparable. Read what Anand said:

    The takeaways are:
    - for many purposes attempting to stress the machine did NOT result in reduced performance
    - even when it did, the falloff was not that extreme (5% or so)
    - there was no mention of the system ever crashing due to thermal overload (and I've never heard of this in earlier Macbooks, eg my 2nd gen MBA very obviously throttles in hot weather, but it never crashes).

    One thing I wonder (Anand hinted at the same thing) is whether this is a consequence of using a 45W part rather than 35W --- Apple has more headroom and is using that AS headroom, not as compute capacity. If so, this would be analogous to the way they under-clock pretty much every iOS device relative to the CPU's rated specs. The exact reasoning is slightly different, but the overall point is the same in both cases --- to balance the tangible, measurable goal of maximum performance against the intangible, unmeasurable goal of delight, where delight is increased by things like longer battery life, consistent performance and, of course, no crashes. The editorial aside would, of course, be that you can't build products that delight if you are purely driven by checklists and measured numbers --- you have to be willing to make tradeoffs, like leaving some performance on the table for the sake of battery life, or stability, or temperature.

    [I'm not trying to be rah rah Apple here; I'm trying to point out the real differences between these two products, and the real factors that led to these differences.]
  • GotThumbs - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    Ok Fanboi. Just remember the fact that Apple is now a PC Assembler. When they first came out...they built their own systems. They were not as successful back then. Now they use Intel chips and other PC components available to any other PC Assembler.

    Now Apple is a PC Assembler and they are very good at designing fashionable/attractive shells, but don't con your self into thinking Apple is a true innovator. The are very much like the Chinese in the 80's (Sony Tv's, Walkman, etc.). Apple is very good at taking an existing idea...and putting its own spin on it. There are features they have that are not fire-wire...but as the reviewer stated....He doesn't use it and most of the users of today are probably in the same boat. How great is an option or its not used/needed?

    You need to put the Cool-Aid down.

    Listen, If you like using Apples products and they do what you need....I'm happy for you. Just don't try and make this a pissing game or who's dad can beat up whose.

    I'm really getting tired of the regurgitation of which is king.

    Now that Apple is a PC assembler...the reviewers point about the OS is the key. Either you prefer windows or Apples OS.....or any other number of Linux alternatives.

    All I'd like is for people to grow up and have a little respect for other peoples choices/decisions.

    If it your money...spend it how you wish...but don't act like a 5 year old and sing about your ice-cream or whos king of the hill. It just too school yardish.

    All the best and enjoy your computer.
  • solipsism - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    1) So in 1976 when they first started out they were less successful than they are now as the world' largest publicly traded company? No fucking way! /s

    2) The parts they use today are more specialized then any other time in Apple's history. Using an Intel processor doesn't change anything as the processors they used previously were also available to others. Just look at the Xbox 360 for proof.

    3) Also note that Apple builds their ARM SoCs based on reference designs. Same goes for a lot of other components that Apple doesn't directly own but has invested heavily in and therefore has been given exclusive rights for a set period of time. Their display tech for the iPhone, iPad and now MBP come to mind.
  • kevith - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    I´l just second your opinion of the pissing contest.

    And this isn´t even a Mac-review...
  • CeriseCogburn - Sunday, July 29, 2012 - link

    Oh come on, we've got to compare. I'm learning here. Let them express.
  • xype - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    …and Apple was the first to figure it out, it seems.

    At least Dell made the keyboard area black and put the sleep light in the center, that counts for something, amirite?

    It’s kind of weird that Apple’s "think different" is becoming a "everyone be like Apple!". I love my MacBook Pro and iPad, but damn, it would feel nice to see an original design on the (big vendor) PC side now and then.

    Why do these companies think people will buy a copy of an Apple design/hardware, if they can get the original just as well? Customers like choice, yes, but choice does not mean 5 vendors making the same laptop all over again.

    No wonder the PC makers are struggling, they’re all lead by unimaginative MBA retards.
  • ananduser - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    Yes PC makers are indeed struggling, Apple being one of them. Apple's PC lineup is also not the pinnacle of mobile computing. Get a grip.

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