Last year one of the better Windows laptops I encountered, at least based on the core appearance and design, was the Dell XPS 15 (Ivy Bridge Edition). It was basically Dell's third attempt at making a MacBook Pro (more or less) – the first two attempts being the Arrandale XPS 15 (with the Sandy Bridge model using the same design), then there was the XPS 15z that used dual-core Sandy Bridge in a slimmer form factor, and then the retooled XPS 15. Today we have the fourth generation XPS 15, which has taken many of the design elements of the IVB XPS 15 but hopefully fixes the cooling/throttling, adds a Haswell CPU and an updated 700M NVIDIA GPU, ditches the optical drive, and on the higher-end SKUs you get an ultra-high resolution 3200x1800 display. The display is actually both good and bad, but I'll get to that later. Let's start with the core specifications for the high-end model, which is what I received for review.

Dell XPS 15 (9530) Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-4702MQ
(Quad-core 2.2-3.2GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 37W)
Chipset HM87
Memory 2x8GB DDR3-1600
Graphics GeForce GT 750M 2GB GDDR5
(384 cores, 967MHz + Boost 2.0, 5GHz GDDR5)

Intel HD Graphics 4600
(20 EUs at 400-1150MHz)
Display 15.6" Glossy PPS 16:9 QHD+ (3200x1800)
(Sharp LQ156Z1 Touchscreen)
Storage 512GB mSATA SSD (Samsung SM841)
Optical Drive N/A
Networking 802.11ac WiFi (Intel Dual-Band AC-7260)
(2x2:2 867Mbps capable)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel)
Audio Realtek HD
Stereo Speakers
Headset jack
Battery/Power 9-cell, 11.1V, 8000mAh, 91Wh
130W Max AC Adapter
Front Side N/A
Left Side Battery Charge Indicator LEDs
Headset jack
2 x USB 3.0
1 x Mini-DisplayPort
1 x HDMI
AC Power Connection
Right Side Flash Reader (MMC/SD)
1 x USB 3.0
1 x USB 3.0 (Sleep Charging)
Kensington Lock
Back Side Exhaust vent (inside LCD hinge)
Operating System Windows 8.1 64-bit
Dimensions 14.6" x 10.0" x 0.3-0.7" (WxDxH)
(372mm x 254mm x 8-18mm)
Weight 4.44 lbs (2.01kg)
Extras 720p HD Webcam
87-Key Backlit Keyboard
Pricing $2300 as configured
$1500, $1750, and $1950 alternatives

As is often the case, the new XPS 15 with Haswell is both better and worse than Apple's latest MacBook Pro Retina – and that's just looking at the paper specifications. The display is higher resolution than the Retina, with a 3200x1800 panel compared to Apple's 2880x1800 resolution display. Apple has been one of the few companies to continue to buck the trend towards 16:9 aspect ratio displays, sticking with a 16:10 AR – a choice I wholeheartedly approve of. The 3200x1800 panel is the 16:9 alternative to the rMBP 15's panel, and while Dell technically has more pixels, I still would prefer the “taller” screen that Apple uses. (We'll also need to look at color accuracy, but that we’ll get to that later in the review.)

The display is actually one of the few areas where Dell comes out ahead, however. In most other areas, the laptops are either equal or Apple maintains their lead. For example, Apple is now using PCIe based SSDs while Dell is using a Samsung SM841 SSD mSATA drive – it’s not that the SM841 is slow, but the PCIe SSDs are certainly faster. For the CPU, Apple has elected to use Intel's latest Crystalwell chips with Iris Pro Graphics (i7-4750HQ and i7-4850HQ) while Dell is opting for the 37W quad-core i7-4702HQ. It's not a huge difference in performance – the maximum CPU clock is 3.5GHz on the 4850HQ compared to 3.2GHz on the 4702HQ and 4750HQ – but Apple still comes out ahead thanks to the “L4 cache” (eDRAM). On the GPU front, both systems use NVIDIA's GT 750M GDDR5 chip, so the difference in iGPU performance is largely superfluous. Interestingly, it appears the main reason for the difference in CPUs (other than Dell not being interested in Crystalwell) is TDP, and in fact the base clock of the 4702HQ is actually slightly higher than the base clock of the 4750HQ.

Worth mention is that there are three different models of the new XPS 15 available right now. The base model XPS 15 comes with a 1920x1080 touchscreen display (it’s not clear if this is a TN panel or not), 500GB HDD with 32GB SSD cache, dual-core i5-4200H CPU, 8GB RAM, integrated HD 4400 Graphics, and a 61Wh battery for $1500 (or a 3-year warranty for $1750). Stepping up to the $1950 XPS 15 will get you the quad-core i7-4702HQ CPU, 3200x1800 PPS (similar to IPS) touchscreen, 16GB RAM, GT 750M GDDR5 GPU, a 1TB HDD with 32GB SSD cache, and a 61Wh battery. And then there's the big kahuna that we're reviewing, which is mostly the same as the $1950 model but it dumps HDD storage completely in favor of a 512GB mSATA SSD and adds a larger 91Wh battery in place of the 2.5” drive. $400 extra for a 512GB Samsung SM841 is actually a pretty reasonable expense, considering retail pricing on that SSD is typically well over $500, making the added battery capacity a bonus. Of course Dell isn’t paying retail prices, and drives like the Crucial M500 480GB mSATA can be had for $320 online, but even then the $400 upgrade price is still reasonable.

The components aren't the only change with this model. The design language of the latest XPS 12 and XPS 13 carries over now as well, with carbon fiber being used on the bottom casing of the chassis. Perhaps more noteworthy is that Dell has ditched the optical drive this time around, and on the highest end model they also skip out on conventional storage. Both changes make room for additional battery capacity, where the model we're reviewing comes with a 91Wh battery. Dell also manages to stuff all of these updates into a thinner and lighter chassis – the new model we have weighs 4.44 lbs. (2.01kg) while the previous generation weighed 5.79 lbs. (2.6kg), and this generation is 0.7” (18mm) thick compared to 0.91” (23.2mm) previously.

Of course, besides the core hardware and other design elements, the big question people undoubtedly have is going to be thermals. Dell let me know that thanks to our investigation of the thermal throttling on the earlier IVB XPS 15, they went back and redesigned the cooling. Like the rMBP 15 and a few other laptops, Dell is now using a dual cooling solution for the CPU and GPU with two fans (the removal of the optical drive makes way for the second fan). I've run through our benchmark suite, and I’ll discuss later the question of throttling and whether or not that’s a concern. Using some pathological workloads and stressing both the CPU and GPU (e.g. Cinebench on seven of the eight CPU cores and a GPU load like 3DMark), it’s definitely possible to exceed the thermal design of the XPS 15 and end up with lower clocks, but there’s more to it than that. How much of a concern this is can largely be answered by the question, “Do you play modern PC games?”

Not surprisingly, the host of changes listed above makes for a much more interesting laptop, but one that can end up costing a fair amount of money. Given that only the top model sports pure SSD storage, that's the one we need to compare with Apple's rMBP 15, and it mostly ends up a wash. You can get the Dell for $2300, as mentioned already. The rMBP 15 with 512GB SSD on the other hand will set you back $2600. Apple gives you a faster SSD (PCIe based), a faster CPU (i7-4850HQ), and Thunderbolt 2, which makes the extra $300 acceptable. (Other options for right around the same price are available, for example this one gets the i7-4950HQ CPU but uses Iris Pro Graphics and only comes with 8GB RAM.) Dell's model has a larger battery (but likely less battery life if we compare Windows 8.1 with OS X Mavericks), a touchscreen, and a higher resolution display. Ultimately, it's likely going to be more a question of whether you're interested in running OS X or Windows 8.1.

I do have to say that I also miss the ability to custom configure Dell’s laptops, and perhaps that’s just the way things will be with systems like this that target style more than pure performance. I’d love to have the option to configure the storage, display, CPU, RAM, battery, and GPU options rather than choosing between one of three pre-configured models but that’s just not in the cards right now. Anyway, with the overview of the core components out of the way, let’s find out how the XPS 15 performs, what's it like using a high-DPI display in Windows 8.1, and how the laptop fares in everyday use.

Dell XPS 15 Subjective Thoughts: Life on the High-DPI Edge
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  • darwinosx - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    You could not play me to buy Dell anything. Cheap junk and forget about support after you buy. Reply
  • kgh00007 - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    How about the WiFi performance?
    The previous version had poor connection and throughput issues due to a design fault? Is this one any better?

    My XPS 15 L502x, which is two generations behind this one, has the exact same throttling issues. I would not buyba laptop with any sign of throttling issues from the start, it will only get worse over time. Look for a laptop with good thermals from the start.

    In order to game on my L502x with an i7-2360QM and GT525M, I have to set a "Game" profile with the CPU Max set to 99% to avoid turbo boost on the CPU so that it doesn't cook itself and the GPU. The heatsinks are connected just like they are in this newer model!
    Reply
  • jphughan - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    WiFi had some issues early on in this system but they turned out to be driver-related. Intel released version 16.6 that seems to have fixed the vast majority of problems. Some people on NotebookReview are still having issues, but they haven't clarified what router or firmware they're running, so I consider those issues within the regular realm of WiFi performance/compatibility issues overall and not something specific to this particular system. Reply
  • dorekk - Monday, June 23, 2014 - link

    That's weird, I've never noticed any throttling with my L502X. Reply
  • Dug - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    I've read that people have been very happy with the business equivalent which is the Dell Precision M3800. No throttling and seems to run cooler. I'm assuming because it uses the Nvidia Quadro K1100M, w/ 2GB GDDR5. I personally would get the 1080p panel. The scaling with high resolution displays is fine, until you plug in external monitors. Yes you can have different scaling between the laptop and external monitors but it's never plug and play. As soon as you disconnect them, you have to log off and back in to get the correct scaling on the laptop. Reply
  • jphughan - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    Or just take the acquisition of this laptop with a QHD+ panel as an excuse to buy a 4K panel! :D Of course that won't help if your apps don't handle scaling well at all as opposed to just having issues with regular DPI and HiDPI coexisting.

    I have the QHD+ version with a 24" 1200p external display and work around it by either not running the built-in panel at all when at my desk or running it at 1600x900. Yes switching to 3200x1800 and adjusting scaling requires a logoff and logon, which is somewhat irritating, but that's mostly because Microsoft only just delivered an API in Windows 8.1 that notifies applications when there's been a DPI scaling change, and thus those app developers haven't updated their apps to watch for and respond to that API notification. Remember back in Windows 95 when you had to restart your machine even when you changed your desktop resolution? That was true for the same reason, and it's been fixed because applications now watch for and respond to the resolution change notification. The same will happen with DPI scaling.
    Reply
  • typicalGeek - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    After all the problems my kid has had with his XPS 15 (i5 - don't know exact model) in the 2.5 years he's had it, I would be pretty hard pressed to even consider one.

    The expensive "Crystal Clear HD" (or some such marketing BS) screen is useless unless viewed "head on" - only a few degrees off in either axis are unviewable, he's had problems with Dell's drivers (for the touchpad & DVD drive), and the 90W battery died without any warning. Still shows 100% charge on the status LEDs. Ha! Dell wanted $150 for a replacement battery, he ended up ordering one off Amazon for less than a third of that - and it included a 18 month warranty. Now his XPS keeps bugging him every start/boot that his battery is not genuine and that he should replace it. Does Dell <i><b>really</b></i> think they're going to convince someone to spend three times as much to get their battery by nagging them every day? All it really does is slow the boot process and tick off the customer. (Who probably isn't too keen that their battery didn't last much past the warranty in the first place.)
    Reply
  • JBVertexx - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    My biggest beef with Dell now is their website and move to pre-configured models. It used to be so easy to go on the website and pick exactly what I wanted. I've tried numerous times in the last 4 months to go find something I would like, and it's just not there.

    There are too many models with too few options. The navigation is confusing, and there is no straightforward way to see ALL the models for a particular line you want.

    I have a 4 year old Dell Latitude E6410, which was maxed out with the specs when I bought it. I've been happy with Dell laptops as my primary work and do-everything PC since I started buying them 16 years ago.

    So instead of buying a new laptop, I just replaced my HDD with a 240GB SSD, then I bought one of the ODD bay adapters off ebay to fit a 750GB storage drive, and I'm all set for now. I'm starting to get in the hurt-locker with my NVS1100 graphics, and I'm starting to find cases where I could use more than 8GB RAM, but I guess I'll just have to suck it up for a while longer.

    Really disappointed in what the website and their product lineup have become.
    Reply
  • JBVertexx - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    Correction - that's NVS 3100M - still in the hurt-locker though. Reply
  • jphughan - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    Unfortunately pre-configured SKUs is the new deal. I think it's because in this smartphone/tablet era people overall are less concerned with menial options and more concerned with the overall product. That's not true of everyone of course, but fixed SKUs while continuing to only build to order means savings from a lean inventory and additional savings from fewer manufacturing variances and thus fewer chances of errors and rework.

    Still, Dell does appear to be passing the savings down to the consumer (likely because consumers are demanding lower prices for what is being seen more and more as a commodity/luxury than a necessity in the smartphone/tablet era). I remember my maxed out Precision M6300 back in the day cost $5200 before discounts. The modern-day equivalent of that system is the Precision M90, and even maxed out it costs less than half that -- despite inflation over the last 7 years. And it's certainly not because the Precision line has gone down the tubes.
    Reply

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