Dell XPS 15z full review

The obvious comparison for the Dell XPS 15z (the first in a line of z-series XPS systems) isn't another Windows-based PC, it's an Apple MacBook Pro 15in (Early 2011). In fact, the overall look and feel of the system are close enough to those of Apple's iconic laptop that you might confuse the two at a glance. The new XPS 15z doesn't quite match the MacBook Pro's level of polish and sophistication, but it costs substantially less.

Starting at £899 inc VAT, the Dell XPS 15z incorporates a Intel Core i5-2410M dual-core processor, 4GB of RAM, a GeForce 525M graphics processor with 1GB of graphics RAM, a 500GB 7200-rpm hard drive, and an 8X DVD/CD burner. It supports Nvidia's Optimus technology, which enables the laptop to switch automatically between integrated and discrete graphics as needed to perform well and promote battery life. The left side of the system houses HDMI and mini-DisplayPort outputs, a USB/eSATA combo port, two USB 3.0 ports, and a multicard reader. The USB/eSATA port incorporates Dell's Powershare feature, which allows it to charge mobile devices even when the system is shut down. The right side houses the slot-loading DVD burner along with headphone and microphone jacks. The gigabit ethernet port and power plug are on the rear edge.

Unlike most other Dell laptops, the Dell XPS 15z isn't highly configurable. You can't upgrade the slot-loading burner to a Blu-ray drive: Dell says that the system is too thin to have room for a slot-loading Blu-ray drive. The base model comes with a screen resolution of 1366 by 768, but for a few pounds more you can upgrade to a full 1920 by 1080. Aside from the full-HD display, Dell offers set configurations with 8GB of RAM instead of 4GB, a dual-core Core i7-2620M CPU, and double the graphics RAM, but most of those enhancements won't make a noticeable difference.

Returning to the comparison with a MacBook Pro, we note that the least-expensive 15-inch model from Apple costs £1,549. It includes a quad-core Core i7 CPU and a slightly superior Radeon HD 6490M GPU, but it has the same 4GB of RAM, a 5400-rpm hard drive, a 1440-by-900-resolution display, and no USB 3.0 ports.

While the Dell XPS 15z and 15-inch MacBook Pro have almost exactly the same thickness, they are not quite the same size. The XPS 15z measures 24.68x384.85x260.37mm. It looks as though Dell could have reduced the XPS 15z's dimensions a bit, considering the space in the bezel surrounding the display and the room left for vents and speaker grills on the sides of the keyboard. Cosmetic differences don't end there, either. The MacBook Pro is famously sculpted from a single piece of aluminum, while Dell blends aluminum and magnesium pieces.

That's not to say that it has the typical design of a Dell, which is more about price than craftsmanship. The XPS 15z looks great, with clean lines, graceful curves, and a minimum of seams and excess buttons. In fact, the only thing on the keyboard deck besides the keyboard and the trackpad is the power button. The keyboard's island-Chiclet style keys have extremely rounded edges and an unusually soft action. Though I sometimes missed the backspace key, I had no trouble typing quickly and accurately. The sizable touchpad is recessed just enough to minimize accidental palm activation. Its two physical buttons are large and easy to command, and the touch surface tracks smoothly and accurately, with support for multitouch gestures.

The full 1080p version of the display incorporates a technology that Dell calls "Splendid colour". An "enhanced colour performance" option in the Windows 7 Mobility Center lets you toggle between Generic colour and Splendid colour. Nearly all laptops today use twisted-nematic-style displays that can show only 6 bits of colour per channel, so they attempt to match the 8-bit-per-channel colour from your graphics card with a combination of dithering techniques.

As such, they have trouble encompassing the entire sRGB colour space. Splendid colour can't get around these basic engineering issues, but it attempts to match colours more closely with the part of the sRGB colour space that the panel can display. So, it doesn't extend the 6-bit colour gamut, but it does more accurately represent colours within that colour gamut. Splendid colour also incorporates colour enhancement, sharpness enhancement, and contrast enhancement.

Does it work? Well, some of the colours may be more accurate, but overall the saturation and contrast are blown out of whack. The effect is reminiscent of how HDTVs have their contrast and colour saturation pumped up to look good in stores but somewhat unnatural at home. Photos pop maybe more than intended, and subtle detail in very dark areas is lost in the name of contrast enhancement. I spent hours jumping back and forth between Generic and Splendid colour settings, and I definitely prefer the Generic colour mode.

The XPS 15z's performance is about what you'd expect from a laptop with a midlevel dual-core Core i5 or Core i7 processor. Our review unit scored an impressive 134 on WorldBench 6, and its gaming performance was okay; you can play real modern games, but you'll have to run the more strenuous titles at reduced resolution and settings to maintain a smooth frame rate. Our test unit lasted just over 5 hours on one charge in our battery tests - less than Dell claims, but reasonable for a powerful system with a 15.6-inch screen. We would have expected a better graphics card in a £1,000 laptop, however, in place of the pointless doubling of graphics RAM. The entry-level model's price/performance ratio is far more appealing. Audio quality from the built-in speakers was among the best we've seen in this class of laptop.

Dell throws in some basic software with the XPS 15z, including McAfee antivirus software and Dell's Webcam Central software, which makes tweaking webcam settings easy. The most important part of the software bundle may be Stage, a floating desktop toolbar that lets you quick-launch games, music, photos, websites, and access to Dell support software. I'm not entirely sold on it, in part because I just don't think that the world needs another proprietary toolbar. Some of the apps, such as those for listening to music or viewing photos, are Dell's own. They're okay, but it's not as if we need more music, photo, or video software. Stage is easy to disable or uninstall, however.

See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?


Dell XPS 15z: Specs

  • Intel Core i5-2410M 2.3GHz, 4Threads, 3MB cache/Intel Core i7-2620M 2.7GHz, 4Threads, 4MB cache
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit
  • UP TO 8GB DDR3 Dual Channel RAM
  • 1GB/2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 525M Graphics Card
  • 15.6 inch display
  • High Definition Audio +Waves MaxxAudio 3 (5.1 Surround sound can be supported via HDMI)
  • Up to 750GB3 SATA hard drive (7200RPM)
  • Slot load 8x DVD+/-RW (reads & writes to CD/DVD) (9.5mm)
  • AC Adapter
  • 8-Cell Lithium Ion Primary Battery (64WHr, 2.2AHr)
  • 1.3MP HD with dual array digital microphones
  • 10/100/1000 Ethernet network standard, opt external USB Modem
  • Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230 802.11 agn (2x2)
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • Intel Wireless Display ready
  • HDMI 1.4, Mini DisplayPort, RJ-45, headphone, microphone, USB 3.0
  • 24.68x384.85x260.37mm
  • 2.51kg