Dell XPS 15 9500 (2020) full review
The Dell XPS 15 might be the most famous, most celebrated all-rounder laptop series of the last decade, outside of Apple's MacBooks. Dell’s 2020 XPS 15 (the 9500) an excellent alternative to the MacBook Pro 16, and is far better for gaming. In most respects it is near-flawless.
The build quality is superb, the screen is excellent, performance is good, it runs quietly for office-type jobs and the speakers are among the best ever put into a Windows laptop.
There are two issues to consider, and two more minor complaints. Like all XPS machines, the Dell XPS 15 2020 is fairly expensive. Its keyboard is a little shallow, if great in other respects. Also, implementation of HDR is flat-out bad and the webcam fairly poor.
You can't have everything, but for many, the Dell XPS 15 is the ultimate Windows laptop.
Design & Build
Dell shows admirable consistency in its XPS laptop design. It hasn't been swayed by the popularity of bare metal laptops and continues to use a soft touch keyboard plate.
The black Dell XPS 15’s is series-staple plastic composite reinforced with a layer of woven carbon fibre. Dell's Frost White version, not yet available at the time of review, switches carbon fibre for woven glass.
Don't be put off by the term "plastic", though. The Dell XPS 15 2020 feels wonderful. You get the build quality of a thick metal palm rest, but with a softer surface. It also has the kind of keyboard rigidity you otherwise only really see in MacBooks. Its lid and base do not flex, full stop.
The lid and underside are thick aluminium. There’s enough shiny stuff to satisfy the heavy metal lovers out there.
A 15in laptop is never going be the smallest you might buy, but Dell has pushed the envelope here too. The previous generation XPS 15 had small bezels on three sides, but a large one at the bottom. This 2020 edition has tiny bezels on all four sides, wasting less space.
The Dell XPS 15's weight starts at 1.83kg, rising to 2.05kg with its 86Wh extended battery. My scales say this particular laptop weighs 2.005kg. It's not a slim and light dream laptop, but will at least fit in the average rucksack happily.
If you want something smaller then there is, of course, the Dell XPS 13.
Dell has not chosen to shift the webcam elsewhere, as in some thin-border laptops. It still sits in the black surround above the display. This is the best place for a webcam, avoiding unfortunate double chin incidents. But there's no room for a particularly good sensor or lens, so you end up with a fairly poor 720p camera. Its image is mushy, as in most Windows laptops.
Consider keeping some cash aside for a separate webcam if you have a lot of video meetings or calls.
Keyboard & Trackpad
The Dell XPS range has gone through a keyboard evolution over the last few years. It followed Apple's lead in making some of its keyboards shallower, often with disappointing results.
Dell's XPS 15 for 2020 does not have an ultra-shallow keyboard, but is still significantly shallower than the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 Gen 7's. If I could change one thing about the XPS 15, it would be the key depth.
However, considering the thin-crust style, the XPS 15 keyboard is excellent. The resistance at the actuation point is well optimised, definition is good, and soft typing is very quiet.
While this may not be the most desirable keyboard for those who type thousands of words a day, it absolutely feels like the keyboard of a top-tier laptop. The caps are also large, with none of the miniaturisation of Shift and Caps keys you might see in a smaller-screen alternative.
There's also a two-level backlight, for night typing, and a fast fingerprint embedded into the blank black power key.
There are no similar caveats to the Dell XPS 15 touchpad. It is a huge plate of soft-touch textured glass, positioned centrally so it does not get in the way when you type.
Its clicker is quiet, with a well-defined but also slightly softened click action. This means you get plenty of tactile feedback without the cheap click-clack of a basic touchpad.
Screen & Speakers
An OLED screen was one of the stand-out features of the last generation of XPS 15. That is no longer an option in the 2020 XPS 15, but the top-spec 4K Ultra HD+ (3840x2400) LCD is a surprisingly good replacement.
It's a 16:10 aspect ratio touchscreen display with Gorilla Glass 6 protection and a glossy finish. As such, it’s reflective, but the Dell XPS 15 does have an effective anti-reflection coating.
Add that to maximum 514 nit brightness and you have a laptop that lets you work outside without squinting yourself into astigmatism. This is a very bright screen.
Colour is extremely vibrant for an LCD screen as well, to the extent I'm glad Dell preinstalls an app that lets you alter its calibration. As standard, the Dell XPS 15 uses full bore native colour, which looks far more vivid than the average laptop.
Dell PremierColor lets you switch to seven other profiles, including sRGB, Adobe RGB and DCI-P3. Select sRGB if you want something closer to your last laptop. The default setting is similar to Adobe RGB, which makes deep reds and blues look rather lively.
Another app, CinemaColor, offers modes for movies, sport, late-night use and animation. But I'd recommend sticking to the PremierColor modes, particularly as you can set different gamuts for specific apps if you want to go deep with customisation.
My Datacolor SpyderX Pro colorimeter says the Dell XPS 15 9500 covers 100% of sRGB and 99.9% of Adobe RGB. DCI-P3 coverage is lower, 93.4%, but the display can actually render colour tones outside of all three colour standards.
Its gamut volume represents 171-, 118- and 121% of sRGB, Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 respectively, which is superb for any laptop display, let alone an LCD one.
A standard LCD will never reach the contrast heights of OLED thanks to its universal backlight, but the Dell XPS 15’s figures are great here too. I measured 1100:1 at 120cd/m, rising to 1541:1 at maximum brightness. This suggests black levels are kept under control even at 514cd/m.
You will notice slightly raised blacks in a dark room at this setting, of course, but the Dell XPS 15 would look uncomfortably bright in that setting anyway.
The Dell XPS 15 also supports HDR 400 and is Dolby Vision certified. You wouldn't see the same sorts of HDR results as a 2000-nit OLED TV even with the best application of these standards, but the HDR here is flawed.
You can see the backlight level trail up and down as the peak brightness in each scene changes. It is extremely distracting, and means video looks better with Windows's HDR feature turned off. This is also a standard 60Hz refresh rate screen, not the “faster” kind used in some gaming laptops.
The Dell XPS 15 2020 is still a superb portable TV and movie streamer, though, because it has ridiculously good speakers. These sit to the left and right of the keyboard, and take inspiration from the MacBook Pro 16, which was so far ahead of any other laptop at launch we wouldn't have believed such progress was possible without any hit to a laptop's size.
These speakers offer output similar to a decent Bluetooth speaker. There's real bass, with actual output in the 80-100Hz range, convincing mids and fairly clean, clear treble. Gaming laptops twice the weight sound terrible compared to the Dell XPS 15.
The stereo image is excellent for a laptop. And the nerdy part I'm actually most impressed by is how little the laptop vibrates at maximum volume - a very common problem. Place your palms on the keyboard rest and you'll feel a slight buzz, but with hands in a natural position, it's almost as if there are a pair of invisible speakers to each side of the screen. Well done, Dell.
Specs & Performance
Our test Dell XPS 15 is a mid-tier spec, and is a good one to pick as you get discrete graphics and the high-spec UHD+ screen without the dizzying cost of a Core i9 processor.
It has an Intel Core i7-10750H, 32GB RAM, 1TB of NVMe SSD storage and an Nvidia GTX 1650 Ti graphics card. However, as only the lowest-end version uses a Core i5 and lacks the discrete graphics card, most of my observations will apply to most Dell XPS 15 models.
The Dell XPS 15 is, for the most part, what it has always been. This is a more-stylish-than-most workstation laptop that has the power you want for intensive jobs like video editing.
Its H-series CPU has far greater power than the low voltage kind you'll see in slightly thinner, lighter laptops. The main compromise for the relatively trim size of the XPS 15 is how its heat dispersal system works.
Air intake ports sit on the bottom, and the hot air is pushed out the back. To avoid hearing fans spinning harder than they should, you need to ensure there's space under the XPS 15, that no part of the intake is blocked. It can start making worrying wheezing sounds with a partial blockage and will get hot.
The Dell XPS 15 is no fan of working on carpets, beds or your knees if you're going to do more than writing a document. Low voltage laptops can get away with this even if they have bottom-loaded intake holes, as their CPUs generate less heat.
While the XPS 15 cooling system works, the thin margins afforded by the relatively slender frame mean it needs to be treated right. Working from your bed is a no-no.
Still, stick to a desk and the XPS 15 is a trooper. It's near-silent when the fans are whirring away at a low rpm, and the 6-core, 12-thread processor has power similar to that of a desktop PC.
I had to process and export a 10-minute 5.3k resolution video clip during testing, and it was radically better for the job than the ageing MacBook Pro 13 I use for day-to-day work.
It scores 6531 in Geekbench 5 and 5049 in PCMark 10. Earlier in this review, I compared the Dell XPS 15 keyboard to the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s, unfavourably so. But these results show the XPS is significantly more powerful. The Lenovo scored in 3842 in PCMark 10, almost 25% less, because it has a low voltage CPU.
The Dell XPS 15 is also a better gaming laptop than you might imagine. Its Nvidia GTX 1650 Ti is not a favourite pick among enthusiasts, not least as it cannot handle Ray Tracing, which is supported by the step-up GTX 1660 Ti Max Q.
But its performance at 1080p resolution is adequate with recent games nonetheless so it can be for both work and play.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood runs at an average 42fps at Ultra graphics, or 60fps at Medium. Far Cry 5: New Dawn runs at 43fps at Ultra, 52fps at Normal graphics. Wolfenstein complained about the lack of video memory at Ultra graphics, but the game still ran acceptably at 1080p.
The Dell XPS 15 9500 is, unsurprisingly, not made for 4K gaming though. Switching to native resolution results in disaster, with frame rates often in single figures. Of course, you can play plenty of older games at 2400p.
You will likely need an adapter for peripherals, though, as the XPS 15 only has USB-C ports, three of them. Two of the USB-Cs are Thunderbolt 3 sockets, the other a slower USB 3.1.
The good news: you get a dongle in the box that turns one of the USBs into a USB-A and HDMI combo. There’s also a full-size SD card slot and a headphone jack.
The Dell XPS 15 reviewed has an 86Wh battery. It’s a large cell, but of lower capacity than the MacBook Pro 16’s 100Wh one.
Here’s where you might benefit from getting the 1080p XPS 15 instead of the UHD+ display. Dell says the lower-end display model lasts up to 24 hours when doing basic Office jobs, or nearly 17 hours streaming Netflix.
This drops to 13 hours 46 minutes in Office apps or 8 hours 27 minutes streaming Netflix in the UHD+ version.
According to PC Mark 10’s battery test, our UHD+ XPS 15 lasts for 9 hours 2 minutes of mixed office jobs at 120 nits, or 8 hours 28 minutes when playing a movie from the SSD at 120 nits brightness (41% in this case).
If Dell’s aim was to provide enough juice for a full day of basic office jobs, it’s a success. However, this is the best reason, other than cost, to consider downgrading to 1080p.
The Dell XPS 15 starts at £1,419/US$1,199, but Dell’s entry-level model does not have dedicated GTX 1650 Ti graphics, just the chipset baked into its lower-tier Intel Core i5 CPU.
£1,699/US$$1,529 is the real starting point if you want most of the benefits mentioned in this review and really should be enough for most users, providing a nice balance of price and specs.
4K screen versions start at £2,099/US$2,499. Dell says the lower-end 1080p models do have similar 500-nit brightness, but we doubt they have the same extreme colour performance as the one reviewed.
The leap to a Core i9 processor is, unsurprisingly, expensive. You’ll pay £2,127 for the most affordable i9 Dell XPS 15, and that does not have the high-spec screen, just the 1080p panel. The US only has an i9 with 4K screen for US$2,799.
Check out the rest of our best laptop chart for more options.
The Dell XPS 15 is a superb laptop in most respects. Excellent performance, a huge trackpad, amazing speakers, long battery life and a graphics card potent enough to play recent games at 1080p are all squeezed into a laptop that will fit comfortably into a rucksack.
Buy a higher-spec version with the 2400p screen and you get a display colour-rich and accurate enough for colour-critical work too.
A slightly deeper keyboard would be nice, and the screen deserves a better application of HDR than we see here. But 2020 improvements make this the best Windows alternative to a MacBook Pro 16.
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