Dell XPS 15 L502x: Now with Sandy Bridgeby Jarred Walton on April 20, 2011 1:10 AM EST
Dell XPS 15 L502x: Everything Changes
The majority of this review shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. We know quad-core Sandy Bridge is faster than Clarksfield, and it’s much faster than Arrandale. It also manages reasonable power usage under light loads, although higher loads can definitely suck down power. So take one of our favorite laptops from last year and update the system with a Sandy Bridge CPU and a slightly newer GPU and what do you get? A better laptop, at least as far as performance is concerned. The only difficulty is that the rest of the market isn’t standing still, and it seems like the few changes Dell made—specifically to the keyboard—aren't necessarily for the better. While we still like the XPS 15 there’s definitely competition to discuss.
For the mainstream users, the L502x remains an excellent choice. You get awesome sounding speakers and a great 1080p LCD, with a decent chassis and most of the features you might want—USB 3.0, eSATA, HDMI, and DisplayPort are all present. There’s no FireWire or ExpressCard, but USB 3.0 is already more useful than FireWire (unless you happen to be an A/V professional with FireWire equipment) and ExpressCard is mostly showing up in business laptops these days. Blu-ray (including 3D support on an external display) is also available, and you can choose from a wide range of options with pricing starting as low as $800 and extending upwards of $2000 with some configurations. Our test sample didn’t max out every component—there’s still room for a faster 2720QM or 2820QM CPU and a very expensive 256GB SSD—but we did get just about every higher performance upgrade.
The result is a price of $1425, which is only slightly lower than MSI’s GT680R; you get to choose between much better battery life and a nicer looking chassis with the XPS, or more graphics power and storage capacity with MSI. We also have the Clevo P151HM with similar specs to the GT680R in for testing, only with a single hard drive; our test system comes from CyberPower and has the same awesome LCD used in the P150HM, and it also costs around $1450 with the 2630QM and 8GB RAM. Having used all three laptops (we’ll have full reviews of the GT680R and Xplorer X6-9300 in the near future), I can say that in general I prefer the Dell XPS, but for gaming the GTX 460M is hard to beat. At $1425, the XPS comes with a good 1080p LCD, a backlit keyboard, and generally build quality, but both the MSI and Clevo alternatives are worth a look. For mobile users (as opposed to mobile gamers), the XPS L502x is going to be superior. Drop down to a dual-core processor but keep the 1080p LCD and you still get all of the good aspects of the original L501x with improved battery life and moderately improved performance for under a grand.
The bad news of course is that if you didn’t like the updated XPS design unveiled last year, the 2011 refresh so far doesn’t change much. The XPS laptops are really just upscale Inspirons, with better performance options and the potential for a better display, along with better speakers. The exterior of the chassis may look different, but the internal structure seems 99% the same. I’d rather see an XPS that builds off the strengths of the Latitude line rather than using a modified Inspiron chassis—I’ve seen far too many worn-out hinges on Inspiron laptops over the years to trust that the XPS 15 will last through several years of regular mobile use. I can say the same of most other consumer laptops, of course; it’s very difficult to point to a laptop that offers the build quality I want without a massive price premium. (Yes, Apple, I’m talking about your MacBook Pro markup.)
If you’re looking for another alternative that packs a bit more punch without sacrificing all of the battery life that Optimus affords, your best bet looks to be the newly updated Alienware laptops. The M11x R3 now offers Sandy Bridge CPUs with the same GT 540M graphics as the XPS 15, but matched to a 1366x768 LCD it’s going to be far more capable of native resolution gaming, and you get it in a much smaller chassis (about two pounds lighter). The other option is the brand new M14x, which can support up to quad-core SNB processors and a GT 555M GPU; that setup should go with the upgraded 1600x900 LCD quite nicely. I can’t speak for the display quality, unfortunately, which is one of the few remaining areas where the XPS 15 is a safer bet. However, I mentioned in our look at the now-discontinued XPS 14 that a 14”-screen chassis is probably where I feel I get the best balance of performance, size, and ease of use (i.e. I don’t feel like the keyboards are too small), so the M14x looks very compelling. We will try to have one of those for review in the not-too-distant future.
We awarded the Dell XPS 15 L501x our Gold Editors' Choice award last year, so normally I'd just say the L502x update maintains that standing. From the performance side, it's certainly a worthwhile update. The problem is the keyboard and plastic palm rest. I personally prefer the old version, but some will probably like the new chiclet style more. I'm not going to actually give an official award here, letting the Gold sort of carry over, but with all the good there's still room to make the XPS line better. Maybe that's what Dell is doing with their Alienware brand, but there's certainly room for a less-guady laptop with better build quality, and Alienware doesn't usually cater to those wanting the former.