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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  • callmesissi - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    Great review. I'd like to ask you WHY do you keep comparing Windows products to MAC products. In real life you cannot do in a mac what a windows machine can, and dont get me started on "simulation software", if you do run windows on top of mac add the cost of windows license + simulation software and then benchmark the mac and lets see how fast it is by running that.

    Dont get me wrong, this is NOT a "i hate mac" post. But for a living i repair and give technical support to windows machines, and you CANT do everything that you can do in a windows pc on a mac. from hardware to software. for example my main client has quite a few stores + the central base and the radio software (win only) the printers (win only) the accounting software (win only) and so on...

    I do hope you review Mac as a Mac versus other mac and not versus a windows pc. Macs are pretty much good for any user that does not use it for work, or business that use some specialized software like pilots, navigation, design and that's pretty much it.

    I know it wont be long where we wont have that windows / macOS / android / ios / etc. problems, future is aiming for an open source, html based software that can run on any platform. but this is today and as of today you simply CANT use a Mac to replace a pc.

    And not to mention a pc gamer... how many games are on a Mac?...

    Please, just compare apples to apples (pun intended) or if you do, then add parallax + windows to the mac and then set benchmarks. Windows has support for like a 1,000,000 things more than a mac does.

    my two cents.
    Reply
  • Ma Deuce - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    It's extremely easy to run windows on a mac... Saying that you can't replace a pc with a mac is just completely false.

    My line of work requires me to use several Windows only programs, and none of them have issues running on my macbook pro.

    About the only thing you can't do is make a good living providing repairs and technical support to mac owners, they just don't have as many issues lol
    Reply
  • Penti - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    Plenty of enterprises run Windows on Apple machines, support-people shouldn't be unaware of that, guess he's never heard of bootcamp or for that matter knows what parallels is. A mac is a qualified machine for volume licensing. Corporations can just stream their business apps from their TS/RDS/Citrix environment rather then let users who use OS X virtualize Windows. The only thing you really can't do is remote control everything like on vPro/iAMT-machines but the same goes for this Dell. For a end user, a Windows license is about 100 dollars. For business it's pretty much the same as including any other machine in your volume licensing program. If you need Parallels it's 70-80 dollars. A small business can run Windows only accounting software just fine, the virtualization software will make it launch from the dock just like any other program if you like to do that, some OS X users can use business and accounting software that run natively. It's really not an issue any more. It mixes really well with a Microsoft server environment, regardless which OS you choose to run albeit some extra software is required to administrate the OS X-machines with ease.

    For a end user who wishes to legally use Windows on their mac it's just the 100-200 dollars extra. Even with that extra cost a MBAir and so on usually does very well against semi-expensive Windows-powered Ultrabooks. If they do choices that makes it worse then it need to be at the price point it's worth taking note. Even if most mac users prefer to use OS X for 90% of work. There is also some software for OS X in a few professional fields that aren't available for Windows and has no alternative. You really can't treat them like say if they wore a ARM-based tablet, hardware-wise it's totally comparable and sites like this one do benchmark on Windows too. Prices and price ranges are easy to compare too.
    Reply
  • robco - Thursday, March 13, 2014 - link

    Comparisons of high-end Windows laptops with MacBooks is inevitable. Apple's industrial design is considered to be the best in the business. The price difference between the model reviewed here and the comparable rMBP config is $170. The Mac has Thunderbolt (which gives you GigE with an adapter), plus Apple has their own OS. Dell's support is less expensive though.

    As for not being able to use it for work, I know many people who would disagree. Most web devs I know (who don't use .NET) use Macs. Same with most mobile app devs (required for iOS, much easier to set up Android SDK on OS X vs. Windows). Not to mention quite a number of A/V pros. As for most general business tasks, a Mac can do those just fine - just not necessarily with the exact same software. Most F/OSS is *nix based and OS X is UNIX. Unlike other *nix systems, OS X has a fair amount of commercial software as well.

    If you are buying a system primarily for gaming, then of course you want a Windows box. But even that is changing. Check out Steam or even the Mac App Store and you will see quite a few titles available. For everything else, there's BootCamp.

    Ultimately a computer is a tool. Use the best tool for your needs. But understand that the needs of others may be quite different from yours. For me and my needs, a Mac works better. However I understand that for many, the opposite is true. But quite a number of people (including the primary author of this site), find Macs to be quite useful for getting "real" work done...
    Reply
  • blzd - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    Never buying another one of these after the 15z battery would die after 1 year almost exactly. Reply
  • tviceman - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    Maxwell is jumping and screaming to get put inside this chassis! Reply
  • augiem - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    It would have been nice to see mbpr in some of the tests and benchmarks where applicable. After all, that's what this thing is trying to be. At the very least on the screen tests and battery life charts. Reply
  • JPDiueholm - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    Did you encounter any problems like:

    http://en.community.dell.com/support-forums/laptop...

    Which has rendered the XPS 13 unusable!
    Reply
  • petar_b - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    It would be nice to compare the above mentioned DELL notebook with ASUS NV550 touch screen. They have almost identical hardware, both come with SSD, however AUSU kept optical drive (blu ray burner), and still has two fans (one for each PU). for the height of 8mm-18mm DELL sacrifices optical drive, while ASUS kept height of 27mm (and has lots of empty space below, I am sure asus could save 3-4 mm if the case was closer to components. Price of asus is aprox 1200eu while dell is 2000 eu. Not sure if dell is overpriced... Reply
  • Flying Goat - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    Hmm...I can't find anything about an "NV550". Looks to me like the Asus N550 (No V) weighs 6 pounds, not 4.5, has a mechanical HDD, and a standard resolution screen, also does not have 802.11ac (Though it does have an ethernet port), so not at all comparable, except perhaps in terms of video card and CPU. If you don't care about the weight or the high res screen, then you shouldn't buy the Dell, but if that's what you want, the price seems competitive with comparable models.

    The ASUS model you should be comparing it to is the ASUS Zenbook UX51Vz-XH71, which costs $2400 (More than the Dell). It's also light, and has high res monitor. However, it has previous generation CPU/GPU (Ivy Bridge, 650GTX), no touch screen, only 8 GB RAM, no 802.11ac, and marginally lower resolution monitor. Only things it has going for it are an ethernet port and bing only 4 pounds instead of 4.44. Anyhow, given that price, I'd call the Dell's pretty competitive, if you want a light gaming laptop with a high res screen - there aren't a lot of models that fit that bill.

    If you want a gaming laptop, but don't care about the weight, and are happy with a lower resolution screen, the price premium may not be worth it.
    Reply

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