Dell XPS 15 (2017) Review: Your Portable Workstation Has Arrived

Posted on July 10, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 25 Comments

Dell XPS 15 (2017) Review: Your Portable Workstation Has Arrived

The Dell XPS 15 (model 9560) is a powerhouse portable workstation and gaming solution with the most vivid 4K display I’ve ever used. This the obvious choice for any power user who values performance over portability.

Design

When the original Dell XPS debuted several years ago, it was a sensation to rival Apple’s still-current MacBook Air design. With the passage of time, and the arrival of 15-inch and convertible models, the XPS design is becoming more common. But it lacks the premium design flourishes we see on other PCs in its price class.

What’s odd is that the XPS 15 is made of CNC-machined aluminum, just like HP’s premium offerings. But the parts you see and touch are coated in plastic and carbon fiber on the user-facing bits. It feels good, but the keyboard decking is particularly conducive to smudging, marring the experience.

The XPS 15 also retains that most irritating of XPS design touches: Thanks to its InfinityEdge—that is, near bezel-less—display, Dell still positions the webcam below the screen, now centered, and not in the normal location above the display. This results in unflattering “up the nose” shots, rendering the webcam nearly useless. This would have been easy to avoid, as the bottom bezel is fully an inch big. Come on, Dell. This is silly.

From a size and heft perspective, the Dell XPS 15 runs into the same problem as HP’s 15-inch Spectre x360: You just don’t get the same size savings with a 15-inch display as you do when you stuff, say, a 13-inch display into an 11-inch form factor.

So this is still a large and heavy laptop. One that, at 4.6 pounds, is bigger and heavier than that HP Spectre x360, which weighs 4.4. pounds. It doesn’t quite fit in my normal carry-on bag without stretching it uncomfortably. (the bag, not the laptop; the HP doesn’t fit either.)

Display

The glossy, multi-touch capable UltraSharp 4K Ultra HD display in the review unit is clearly the Dell XPS 15’s strongest selling point. It’s impressive on paper, measuring 15.6 inches diagonally and offering the same 3840 x 2160 resolution as the HP Spectre x360 15. But you need to see this display to believe the richness of the color it emits. It’s like getting a new pair of eyes.

But since you can’t see it, I’ll just note that it is bright, at 350 nits, utilizes IPS technology for wide viewing angles, and achieves 100 percent of the Adobe RGB color space, a feat no other laptop has accomplished. And thanks to Dell’s PremierColor utility, you can configure the display to your liking on the fly. I have it set to eyeball-popping Vibrant (Full), which provides a creamy rich color palette that is somewhat akin to HDR. But PremierColor supports many other modes, such as Internet (sRGB), HD Video, and the even brighter Photo mode, which is full Adobe RGB.

In games, videos, photo slideshows, or just day-to-day productivity work, the Dell XPS 15 display is a delight. In fact, the display is so good, I’ve been using the Xbox app’s game streaming feature to play Xbox One games via the XPS 15.

This is easily the most impressive portable display I’ve ever used.

Performance

The Dell XPS 15 isn’t just pretty. This laptop also has the muscle to tackle just about any task you can throw at it, from gaming to video encoding or any other workstation-class activity. On paper, that means a quad-core CPU, the Intel Core i7-7700HQ, as opposed to the normal dual-core part. A gaming-class (and Pascal-based) NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 GPU with 4 GB of VRAM. Fast RAM with options up to a full 32 GB, unheard of with most of the competition. And fast SSD storage.

But those are just specs. In real life, it means … wow.

The Dell XPS 15 handled my standard video encoding test in less time than any non-gaming laptop I’ve ever tested: It was able to convert the 4K movie Tears of Steel to 1080p in just 54:29. Only the HP OMEN 17, a real gaming PC with its own quad-core processor and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070, was able to do it in less time (48:41). By comparison, the HP Spectre x360 15 took 1:39:33, and the Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base took 1:34:05.

Quantum Break plays at 1080p but all the textures are set to high.

The XPS 15 is also a credible portable gaming machine, though you will need to confine resolutions to 1080p-ish if you want to amp up the quality of textures and other effects and maintain high frame rates in more complex games. But it quite capably handled a wide variety of games, from Batman: The Telltale Series to Quantum Break to Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. And the latter was even auto-optimized to 4K, with decent quality texture settings.

Components and ports

The Dell XPS 15 ships with a nice selection of ports, for the most part. And like most other PCs—except those made by Microsoft, notably—it does a good job of straddling the needs of the present with the needs of the future.

On the left side of the device, we find a full-sized USB 3.1 port, a full-sized HDMI port for video-out, and a versatile USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, along with the power port and a combo microphone/headphone jack.

On the right side of the XPS 15, there’s another full-sized USB 3.1 port, an SD/SDHC/SDXC card reader, and something I’ve not seen in other machines in quite a while: A light-based on-device battery gauge. Five lights means it’s fully-charged.

I am disappointed to see a 2017 portable PC still using a proprietary power adapter, though this may be a nod to the device’s double duty between consumer and commercial customers. As oddly, the end of the cable that connects to the PC lights up when the adapter is connected to power, and not just when the PC itself is connected to power. And there’s no difference in the light when the device is charging or fully charged. Not a big deal, but worth noting.

The XPS 15 features the expected networking capabilities—dual-channel Wireless-AC Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1—and they seem to work well for the most part. That said, I did have sporadic connectivity issues during a recent trip, perhaps triggered by an older hotel router.

Audio playback is solid for music, movies, or gaming, and is delivered via stereo speakers. It’s particularly impressive and deep when the XPS is on a flat surface like a table or desk, as the speakers are downward facing.

Keyboard, touchpad, and fingerprint reader

The Dell XPS 15’s back-lit plastic keyboard is nothing special, at least to this touch-typist. It’s full-sized, of course, and sits in the middle back of the laptop’s huge base, with a deep expanse of wrist rest in the way. That layout is preferable to the keyboard designs on some other 15-inch laptops that include a numeric keypad. But I found myself making more mistakes than usual, and it’s unclear why. To be clear, Microsoft’s similar (and also plastic) Surface Book keyboard provides a stellar typing experience. Maybe the smaller wrist rest is the key.

The glass touchpad, by comparison, is excellent. And it utilizes Microsoft’s precision touchpad technologies, making for a nicely configurable experience with tons of gesture and sensitivity support. It’s a largish but square design with integrated buttons, and I’ve had good, error-free results from a palm rejection perspective while typing.

The Dell XPS can also ship with an optional and easy-to-miss fingerprint reader, which works with Windows Hello. I prefer this approach to camera-based Windows Hello. But regardless of your preference, the fingerprint is quick and accurate.

Battery

Thanks in part to its vibrant 4K display, the Dell XPS 15 delivered a disappointing 5 hours of so of battery life in my HD video streaming tests. By comparison, the 15-inch HP Spectre x360 provides 7:40 on the same test, and the LG Gram 15 provides an incredible 9:30 on average. (I try to test multiple times.)

In Dell’s defense, the LG provides a comparatively low-resolution 1080p display which I feel explains the discrepancy there. But the HP also ships with a 4K-class 3840 x 2160 display, albeit one that lacks the eye-popping and vibrant display modes provided by Dell’s unique PremierColor technologies. And it lacks the Dell’s workstation-class components. So that explains that, I think.

This trade-off is by design. As a 15-inch workstation, the Dell XPS 15 isn’t a particularly travel-friendly device. Instead, it’s a powerhouse that most users will access while near a power source. And for those who prefer this device’s quad-core processing power, ample RAM and storage, and stunning display, the Dell is pretty much your best choice.

In other words, if you want power, go with the Dell. But if you prefer a more pedestrian big laptop with more battery life, you have other choices.

Software

Like most laptops, the Dell XPS 15 comes with Windows 10 Home, though you can configure Windows 10 Pro at purchase time.

As other PC makers, Dell bundles a range of software solutions with the XPS 15 that range from essential and useful to borderline crapware. To be fair, however, most of the worst offenders come with Windows 10 itself, which burdens the PC with games, utilities, and apps that few will want.

Dell’s software update utility, Dell Update, is perhaps the most minimalist of such utilities, and it mostly just runs in the system tray with little need for interaction, which I like. But there are too many other Dell-branded apps, including Dell Customer Connect, Dell Help & Support, Dell Digital Delivery, Dell Notifications, Dell Product Registration, SupportAssist, and the aforementioned Dell PremierColor. Surely some of these could be consolidated.

Pricing and configurations

You can find a Dell XPS 15 for as little as $1000, but that model includes a Core i3 processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 500 GB HDD/32 GB SSD combo drive and a 1080p display. My review unit, with its quad-core Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of SSD storage, vivid 4K display, and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 graphics, is a bit more high-end. And it will set you back about double that. You could spend as much as $2500 if you upgrade to 32 GB of RAM and a 1 TB SSD. Like most Dell products, it is almost infinitely configurable.

Recommendations and conclusions

The Dell XPS 15 is an impressive 15-inch portable workstation, especially if you don’t scrimp on the components at purchase time. If I were looking for a 15-inch productivity laptop, I’d probably stick with the HP Spectre x360, which offers better battery life and what I feel is a more elegant and premium look. But the Dell shines in its higher-end configurations. And outfitted like the review unit—which admittedly is a bit north of the sweet spot—the XPS 15 offers an unbeatable combination of beauty and brawn. If you need more than the mainstream, the Dell XPS 15 is your best choice. And it comes highly recommended.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Workstation and gaming PC performance
  • Best-in-class 4K display with vivid colors
  • Reasonable pricing for this kind of power
  • Fingerprint reader for Windows Hello

Cons

  • Battery life
  • Proprietary power connector
  • Sometimes flaky networking
  • Webcam placement
  • Smudgy keyboard deck

 

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Comments (25)

25 responses to “Dell XPS 15 (2017) Review: Your Portable Workstation Has Arrived”

  1. Avatar

    Chris Blair

    What about fan noise and heat issues?

    • Avatar

      Narg

      In reply to Chris Blair:

      It's a workstation laptop. It will be hot and loud.

    • Avatar

      gmanny

      In reply to Chris Blair:

      In my experince with the prior model (9550), the cooling system in it is quite beefy, so it doesn't normally spin fans at an audible speed. And this model has the cooling system beefed up slightly, so this should be ok.


      When having the CPU loaded up to the max (35W of heat approx), the cooling system is able to keep it at about 68°C without sounding annoying at all.


      Overall, cooling system of this laptop is one its strong points.

  2. Avatar

    wright_is

    No mention of an Ethernet port... :-(

    That is the one thing that bugs me about my Spectre, I had to buy a USB Ethernet adapter for it.

  3. Avatar

    the_3rd_pedal

    A buddy of mine has one of these with all the best components, and I must say, it's a very nice machine.

  4. Avatar

    Geeky1

    My girlfriend, a computer science student, bought the previous year's model, the 9550. It's too heavy if you're going to carry it to/from class daily. It's only a pound lighter than my heavy decade old Core2Duo Acer laptop. My main peeve is the lack of a numeric/navigation keypad. Being a developer, having to press the Fn key before pressing often used Home, End, PgUp, or PgDn keys to jump to the beginning or end of a line or scroll up or down a page of code hampers efficiency greatly. Also it needs an ethernet port as having to carry around the USB C converter dongles is a nuisance (and expensive one if you loose it). The glossy 4K screen is great for movies and graphics editing, but terrible for reading text in bright rooms and code is unreadable at 4k on a 15 inch screen. 2k is probably the highest readable resolution on a 15 inch screen. The touch screen just adds weight and smudges, making it hard to read. Unfortunately, it seems all the retailers only carry the glossy 4k touch screen configuration and the 1080p matte screen is only available direct from Dell for barely $100 less than the touch screen at retailers. As for the web cam location, I could care less as I've never used the one on my old laptop. Finally, Dell needs to be upfront about the weight as they used to falsely advertise it as less than 4 pounds and only through detailed investigation and searching through the small print does one deduce that to only be true with the small 48Whr battery (which is not even a configurable option, but separate additional purchase) and atypical non-touch screen.


  5. Avatar

    iainmagee

    I agree with all Paul says here. Bought mine shortly after release so been using it intensively for a few months now. It's a powerful beast - i7 32Gb RAM with 1Tb SSD. Used as my main dev machine. Hooked up to 4k monitor in the office.


    I had a few niggles at the start which have all been sorted with firmware / driver updates. For my kind of use the battery life is more than adequate and I bought the little power companion which gives me an extra few hours at a push. Screen is awesome. I mostly do Skype stuff in the office with a "proper" camera so that doesn't matter. I actually like the power connector - don't expect I'll have to replace it three times during the laptops lifetime like I had to with my MBP! It's quiet and cool under normal use. Yea, it's no tablet-esk waif of a machine for the road warrior, but for my kind of use moving between offices/customers etc it's perfectly portable given the sheer number crunching power it gives me.


    The keyboard is really the only thing I don't like about it - it's not terrible - just OK - but on a £2k+ laptop just OK is a little disappointing. It also had a squeaky spacebar which drove me mental for the first month, but that cleared up by itself before I had time to look properly at it!

  6. Avatar

    gmanny

    Oh oh, there's also an utility that doesn't come preinstalled, but which can be extremely useful called "Dell Command | Power Manager" (you can get in from software fownloads for the laptop on the Dell support site). It allows you to change the battery charging modes on the fly instead of going into the laptop's BIOS.


    The laptop has a Quick Charge mode, which presumably allows you to charge the battery quicker sacrificing its life a bit. As well as a Custom mode which allows you to set the max threshold to which the battery will be charged instead of 100%, plus, the threshold its charge capacity needs to drop so that the chargin starts, which can help if you're mainly using the laptop plugged in because both having the battery at 100% all the time and charging it for small number of percents can degrade its performance a bit quicker.

  7. Avatar

    gmanny

    IMO it's a bit unfair that in this review the battery life is only compared to the laptops which have half the cores and 1/3 the energy consumption at full load.


    Overall, there's a clear trend in the industry that 15W CPUs with two cores can achieve 10h battery life with about 42Wh battery while the 45W quad-core CPUs do up to 5h even when paired with 97Wh battery like in this laptop (and almost the max you can get on a plane).


    Somehow, it seems, the quad-cores consume more power to do the same thing, which I can understand really. The fact that they warrant a bigger cooling system and thus fit into a bigger chassis which requires bigger screen doesn't help either.

    And this is, I think, the main compromise of this laptop: you don't want it unless you can't get by with a dual-core CPU, as the performance potential of this laptop severely limits its other characteristics like battery life (bigger screen, hungrier CPU and GPU) and weight (big bettery required). With one interesting caveat: i3 model is a dual-core, so it can actually fare better on the battery life side of thungs, if you really want the screen and other stuff.


    Another strong point of this laptop is upgradeability. Dell has built a slick and light (comparably) laptop that does not compromise at all on the self-maintenance front. Every part of this laptop is numbered and can be easily replaced, should you want to. There's no adhesive, all you need is PH1 and torx T6 screwdrivers. The SSD can be upgraded, and you can top up the RAM post-purchase. You can even change the battery to a different type (97Wh/54Wh), if you decide to add or remove a 2.5" hard drive. I've even upgraded a 84Wh battery in my 9550 to a 97Wh from the 9560 because they are cross-compatible, and this only required unscrewing 12 screws on the lid and 6 screws which hold the battery in place, no other component was in the way.


    What I'd really wish this laptop had is a dust filter on the air intake ThinkPad-style. I'm sure animal-lovers would understand :)

  8. Avatar

    Ugur

    I like bezel less screens, sure, but i wonder how many iterations it will take them until they get the memo, yelled out by thousands on the web for years, that this camera positioning just sucks massively.

  9. Avatar

    Angusmatheson

    it is amazing to me that before the MacBook Air - all laptops were huge, heavy beasts with a ton of ports that had low battery life or tiny netbooks with no power, tiny screens. Why didn’t Dell (or HP, or Toshiba, or Lenovo) build an ultra book first? I understand why the didn’t built a better tablet, didn’t have good software and UI. But windows 7 was a great desktop OS - and makes for a fantastic ultrabook. Why didn’t they think to get rid of that DVD drive, add an SSD, make it light and Work for all day battery life - taking the good parts of both traditional laptops and ultrabooks? And they were slow to copy it too. It took until the XPS 13 to have a great PC ultrabook, now there are a ton, but what took so long?

    • Avatar

      Jeff Jones

      In reply to Angusmatheson:

      They are afraid to experiment. Usually.


      Dropping the DVD drive back in 2008 when the MacBook Air first came out was a bit of a risky move since Windows, Adobe suites, and other large software packages were distributed almost exclusively on disc. Even Apple was somewhat banking on the MacBook Air being a companion device to a full sized desktop so you could convert things to USB or install over the network. It took a couple years for software distribution to really catch up.


  10. Avatar

    Narg

    That Dell "proprietary" power plug is really anything but, as it's the same Dell plug also used by a LOT of other laptops for years (if not decades) so it's high common and very rugged and will last a long time. I LOVE that they still use this power configuration. this is NOT a con. Not at all.


    Also, I could care less about the camera placement, all laptops even with the cam on top tend to shoot up the nose of many people because, well, it's on their lap. (belly button shot on the Dell??? he he)


    Only negative I see here is the keyboard. A "workstation" device should have a number pad, and there is plenty of room for it. It'd be nice if it were a higher end keyboard overall too.

  11. Avatar

    Andygoes

    a couple notes from a user of the 2016 model for about 15 months:


    • the power adapter is 130W which means no go on every plane I've flown on since - the charger turns off the in seat plug within a few seconds
    • both my boss and I (and many others I've found online) had to replace our batteries due to swelling. This swelling caused the trackpad to push up above the wrist area most recently, and i went without a week of battery waiting for my replacement to show up
    • the camera location is unnecessary. My wife's 2009ish Samsung Series 7 is nearly the same dimensions on all sides and has a 15.6" screen with camera at the top edge of the lid. I remember all the raving about the Infinity Edge display when these launched and measured the difference - nearly indistinguishable!


    That said, this really is a great balance of portability with power! We travel a lot for work and are often using 3D applications (C4D, Blender), our own media server application (with 3D capabilities), video editing, and more. I'm impressed with the battery life even when using these power hungry applications. The only thing that is missing is a 10-key (also on the Samsung), but we make do!


    • Avatar

      MarkEissler

      In reply to Andygoes:

      I've read that Dell has been having QA problems with the 9560. Haven't owned a Dell since 1999 so maybe this is just the way it is? For air travel you might be able to get away with a USB-C charger (like the one from Apple) as long as you aren't seriously pushing the machine. It could be argued that if you travel a lot then maybe you'd be better off with an XPS 13.


      Interesting comment on the camera placement for the Samsung. If they can get two cameras into a phone...just don't get what the deal is with getting the camera up there or why they can't just shift the screen down 0.25".

  12. Avatar

    mtalinm

    If it is the same keyboard as last year's model, this should be avoided. I had it for a year and it drove me absolutely nuts.

  13. Avatar

    Angela_WWW

    I really enjoy your frank reviews. Battery life, up the nose camera, finger smudges and not fitting in the backpack are things that can spoil a new computer experience. They are not written in the spec sheet. Thanks for this review.

  14. Avatar

    StevenLayton

    Minor typo on first paragraph.


    This IS the obvious choice....

  15. Avatar

    TG2

    In other dell models the GTX chips are relegated to 3d or external display only, using the inbred Intel HD chipset for video on the laptop display, is that the same case for the XPS?


    Agreed with this about the camara. Having it low like that can only serve the purpose of facial recognition on the PC, its bad enough having on-board audio pick up the sounds of key presses, but then to have the hands show up in the video too? Forget that, now if it had *2* cameras, and folded, that would make sense, as often when the display is folded backwards or in Tent Mode, the camera that had been at the top of the screen in normal typing mode, would be at the bottom and so if you wanted to use Tent Mode while doing video chat .. you'd be stuck with what this XPS shows, up-nosed too close to the bottom stupidity.


    I'm one of those that prefers the number-pad keyboard layout. Having a powerhouse laptop without number pad on it is a non-starter in my world, I too do tech for a living though I'm no writer.. I'm in support and admin, and deal with ip addressing 99% of my day and while a alphabetic typist, am horrible when it comes to numbers across the top of a standard keyboard, much less than the issue of trying to do octets is much faster on number pad then in that straight line number row the author loves.


    Lastly ... I've one of the Insprion versions of this (15 series 7000 aka 7559) and I would agree the 4k is beautiful, except... its a FREKIN' LAPTOP! If the unit folded to tablet form, to allow drawing at 4k .. then maybe ... but 4k on a 15 inch (15.6) screen is just wrong. Its barely tollerable at 1920x1080 which is my preferred resolution so that when I attach my el'cheapo 24 inch IPS screens I don't suffer from app-shifting .. that resize/re-movement thing that happens when you change from resolution to resolution.


    Apps per apps ... and using Windows 10 Pro at 1080 is pretty good, I'm not an artist so the 4k is just lost, and good luck with streaming content at 4k resolutions without artifacting or jitters due to wifi bandwidth, because the that laptop comes with a blueray player right? (no) and many nowadays don't so you're left downloading that blueray movie before being put into the wifi hellzone, or did you, perish the thought, plug in a hardwire to actually achieve 1G speeds?


    You do realize there are 000, 00, and 0 size philips screwdrivers yes? Why? because a #1 philips screwdriver can't fit the tiny screws rated at #000. In other words, the right tool for the right job. Laptops can be a desktop replacement and this XPS like my 7559 with 4k display can do these things .. but really, is that the tool you need? and at that cost?


    Just food for thought.

    -T

    • Avatar

      rameshthanikodi

      In reply to TG2:
      In other dell models the GTX chips are relegated to 3d or external display only, using the inbred Intel HD chipset for video on the laptop display, is that the same case for the XPS?

      Yes. It uses Nvidia'optimus switchable graphics. Only 3D applications are rendered on the GTX chips (you can override this behaviour manually). Everything else plus the laptop's display will always be controlled by the Intel IGP.


  16. Avatar

    Polycrastinator

    My understanding was, while it has a proprietary adapter, you can still charge over USB-C. Is that correct, or are you stuck lugging around an additional power brick?

    • Avatar

      gmanny

      In reply to Polycrastinator:

      Can't really comment on the 9560 (2017) model, but the 2016 model doesn't quite like the lesser-watt chargers. Whrn attached to a 45W or 65W chargers with Dell connectors, it starts throttling noticeably when the laptop CPU usage goes above certain threshold. And by noticeably I mean that the mouse cursor starts lagging anf the laptop becomes partially unresponsive for a small period of time. Really brings you out of the flow when that happens.


      The same thing happened when I attached it to an 87W USB-C Macbook Pro charger, although looks like it didn't negotiate even the full 87W charging capability either due to the cable I was using, or the proprietary nature of the Apple charger, I dunno.


      So you should at least watch out for the similar behavior in the new model.

  17. Avatar

    MarkEissler

    Thinking about one of these to replace my 2012 Macbook Pro Retina. Cool thing is that the RAM is actually expandable to 64GB (once 32GB sticks become available). It is disappointing that the thing draws 130w, outside of the USB spec (max 100w)...Dell's own USB-C power solutions (in the form of the TB-16 replicator, for instance) supplied 130w over USB to the XPS but will step down to 60w for all anyone else's gear.


    Although I had been considering the Surface Book, it's wobbly screen and 2 cores (instead of 4) just won't cut it for the engineering I do.


    Still think it's odd that everyone complains about weight. I'm pretty sure this weighs the same as my 2012 rMBP. Quite frankly, my Sharp laptop (PC 4602) from 1989 came in at about 25lbs IRRC. Now that's heavy but we didn't think much of it then.

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