Dell XPS 15z: A Good or Great Artist?

You can call the XPS 15z whatever you want. Is it a cheap knockoff of the MacBook Pro 15? Yes, but that’s just it: it’s a lot less expensive for a similar experience. The MacBook Pro 15 still wins out on build quality, and it packs a quad-core CPU. For the price, however, the XPS 15z is still a very nice laptop—and I know quite a few people that have already purchased the 15z for their own use. If good artists copy and great artists steal, what do you call an “artist” that is only moderately successful at copying but throws in enough unique twists to create an interesting work of art? Because that’s what Dell has done with the 15z.

There are a few areas of concern, like the rather thin and flexible aluminum casing and the relatively high temperatures under load. Upgrading the hard drive and/or memory is also rather difficult and you run the risk of damaging the casing/trim in the process (note: see below for an update on this). The 1080p LCD fails to live up to the standard established by the XPS 15, but it’s still better than most consumer laptop LCDs. Sound quality and the keyboard layout are also a step back from the XPS 15 in my opinion, but they’re still adequate. Balanced against the concerns we have a much sleeker form factor and better battery life.

Update, 1/18/2012: In case anyone still reads this, I have to really stress that over the past four months, the build quality of the 15z has really started to bother me. It has been my laptop of choice during that time, but it's not without issues. The chrome trim around the palm rest has come loose on two corners, and one corner actually got ripped up/bent when it brushed against my backpack at CES 2012. I think some of the issues were exacerbated by opening up the laptop and upgrading to an SSD (and taking pictures), but really, 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. To make matters worse, my LCD recently cracked while I was typing on the laptop--like, I was literally looking at the LCD when the fracture appeared. That may have just been random bad luck, or the aftereffects of the stress of CES, but when the inevitable Ivy Bridge update of the 15z comes out, you can bet I'm going to pound on it a little more.

Really, that pretty much defines the type of user that should be looking at the 15z: it’s for people that value mobility over raw performance. It’s fast enough for any typical SOHO task, and it can handle moderate gaming. It’s also easy on the eyes and it comes priced aggressively. If you’re the type of user who drops their laptop on occasion or simply throws it in a bag without much concern for being careful…well, you’re careless and you shouldn’t be handling sensitive electronics devices! For those that treat their laptop like a $1000+ piece of equipment that could break if dropped, though, the 15z is a great system. I’d like to see a more robust cooling solution and thicker aluminum, which would address the build quality and heat concerns, but even in the present form the 15z is very good.

I’m hesitant to hand out any awards here, since the Mac crowd is almost sure to bring out their pitchforks, but even if the 15z’s design borrows heavily from the MacBook Pro, I don’t consider such things as appearance to be worthy of patents. Every laptop out there has a display, keyboard, speakers, etc. and if you can cram all of those things into a thinner and lighter chassis without running into severe problems, great. (That's such a nice idea that Intel has even created the Ultrabook category of laptops, so we'll see a lot more thin laptops in the coming months.)

The Dell XPS 15z does exactly that, and for a consumer laptop it’s still better than 95% of the other offerings—certainly nothing in its price range can touch it in terms of overall experience. For getting all of those things right, I’m giving the XPS 15z our Bronze Editors’ Choice award—the heat, build quality, and step back on the LCD and speakers are enough to keep it from the Silver and Gold.

Credit to Apple for creating some very nice laptops with their MacBook Pro line, but I don’t care for OS X (just ask Anand about CES 2011 where he watched me use his Mac for about five minutes and was cracking up), and I’m certainly not willing to fork over $2000+ for the type of configuration I’d like. In fact, I wouldn’t even want to shell out $1500 for a configuration like this review unit. I’d be more than happy with the base model XPS 15z, as long as I get the 1080p display upgrade. The i5-2410M might also help keep temperatures a bit lower, and with pricing starting at under $1100, you can grab exactly that.

Dell XPS 15z: LCD, Temperatures, and Noise Levels
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  • lukarak - Friday, September 02, 2011 - link

    "In many ways the XPS 15z is a better laptop than the 15z,...." I might not be into Dell stuff, and there could be a Dell 15z as a separate model from XPS 15z, but i think you wanted to drop the Z the second time?

    Also, on topic, what's with the keyboard? If you copy the island design, don't mess with the shape of the keys, please.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 02, 2011 - link

    Oops! Fixed, thanks. I actually call the MBP keyboard style "chiclet" and the Acer/Gateway stuff "floating island". Maybe others define "chiclet" differently? Anyway, typing on the 15z is actually quite nice, but like I mention I still prefer the XPS 15 keyboard layout. Reply
  • tbutler - Friday, September 02, 2011 - link

    For those of us who remember the original 'chiclet' keyboards - the original PCjr, the TRS-80 CoCo, ZX Spectrum, etc. - the current keyboards aren't even CLOSE. :)

    The origin of 'chiclet' as a keyboard description was a derogatory term for those early keyboards - where the keys not only looked like chiclets, but were nearly impossible to touch-type on, because of both layout and the keyswitch design. Aside from the superficial look, the current keyboards have nothing in common; the layouts are 'normal', as are the keyswitches, and key travel is well within normal boundaries. Touch-typing is eminently possible, and in fact some of my favorite keyboards of the last couple of years have been in this style.

    So yeah, I define 'chiclet' quite differently, and resist attempts to tar current keyboards with the same brush. :)

    On another note: "The quality of the MBP15 display is better, but it’s hard to argue with a higher resolution and the 15z panel at least has a decent contrast ratio and brightness." On the contrary; I find it trivially easy to argue against a higher resolution. The 1440x900 MBP15 panel already causes me some eyestrain issues from the size of text and other interface elements, even at the admitted better display quality. The 1680x1050 panel was unlivable for extended use, and I can't even begin to describe the hurt a 15" 1080p display would cause me - especially if the overall display quality is lower.
    Reply
  • iamezza - Friday, September 02, 2011 - link

    this is what 'dpi' is for

    Windows 7 handles increasing the dpi very well, it can work with ALL programs. It can also be disabled on a per program basis if required.
    Reply
  • Proph3T08 - Friday, September 02, 2011 - link

    DPI is Dots per Inch usually when talking about monitors people use PPI (Pixels per Inch). A screen cannot change its PPI so anything Windows 7 would be doing would be software based to fake it. Reply
  • seapeople - Saturday, September 03, 2011 - link

    You basically just agreed with him in a very strange way. DPI is how many pixels per inch the Windows interface renders certain UI elements such as window bars and text in. If you increase DPI, then Windows increases the resolution it uses to render text and other features, thereby making things bigger and easier to read without altering the actual pixel count being sent to your LCD screen, thereby preventing the blurriness you would otherwise get. Reply
  • neothe0ne - Friday, September 02, 2011 - link

    "Dell gives you a GT 525M, which should be at least comparable to the HD 6750M in performance"

    I'm sorry but this can't possibly be true. The Radeon HD 5650M is a faster card than the GeForce GT 525M. How the hell could the GT 525M hope to compete with the 6750M?
    Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Friday, September 02, 2011 - link

    Agreed, the 6750M is more on par with the GT 540M if anything. Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Friday, September 02, 2011 - link

    Actually, I'm incorrect. But either way, OP's point stands.

    I'm honestly really not impressed by the XPS 15z. 95C on the CPU cores is inexcusable, that keyboard sucks out loud, and the 1080p screen is among the worst we've tested in that class.

    Also, anyone who deliberately spends up on the 2GB GT 525M upgrade deserves what they get. ;)
    Reply
  • vol7ron - Friday, September 02, 2011 - link

    I got my first Apple, which happened to be the 15" Macbook Pro. Worth the price? Not really. Apple OS freezes more than anything. It's only got a 2.0GHz QC, but I put a OWC SSD, 8GB of RAM, and upgraded to the anti-glare HD screen.

    So why do I like it? For the OS? no. For the keyboard? definitely no. For the trackpad gestures? kind of. For the quality screen? most definitely. The experience difference is in the screen alone. Viewing www.steampowered.com's opening page is an oddly different experience than viewing it on my desktop (better graphics card and more expensive monitors) and that's just for a static page. HD videos make it better too. I just wish it had better speakers - oh well.

    XPS doesn't look bad, but the screen is where the user can really have that overwhelming sensation.
    Reply

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