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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