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Dell XPS 15 Review: Powerfully Portable, But Doesn’t Push Past the Pack

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Rating:
7/10
?

  • 1 – Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 – Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 – Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 – Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 – Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 – Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 – Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 – Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 – Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 – Absolute Design Nirvana

Price: $1125-3150

Dell XPS 15
Michael Crider

Dell’s XPS series has grown from an awkward kinda-gaming, kinda-premium machines into some of the most critically acclaimed Windows machines on the market. The XPS 13 gets the lion’s share of that praise, but today we’re looking at its bigger and more powerful brother, the XPS 15.

Here’s What We Like

  • Beautiful, portable body
  • Easily upgradeable
  • Slim bezels
  • Loud speakers

And What We Don’t

  • Poor value
  • Dull, non-touch screen
  • No HDMI or USB-A

The 2020 update of this laptop adds the latest Intel Core processors, plenty of RAM and storage, and an optional discrete NVIDIA graphics card. With all that hardware under the hood, a long-lasting battery, and a surprisingly portable body for a 15-inch notebook, the XPS is more than capable in just about every measure. It’s a solid laptop, but it’s missing any specific X-factor that makes it an easy recommendation above its competition.

The XPS 15 remains a good choice for general users. But those who need either exceptional value or more capability will probably need to look elsewhere.

Aluminum Sandwich

Dell hasn’t changed much about the standard XPS laptop design in several years. And why would it? The company has filed the form factor down to the bare essentials, without losing focus on the essential elements of a good user experience.

XPS 15 keyboard
Michael Crider

As with previous generations, I think of the XPS 15 as an aluminum-and-carbon fiber sandwich: the former on the outside case, and the latter on the inside, attractively covering the palm rest and keyboard deck. On the bottom, you’ll find some subtle openings for a bit of air circulation for the internal components and speakers, and exhaust vents cleverly and gracefully hidden beneath the hinge.

While the design is streamlined, there are a few things I’d like to direct your attention towards. When you open the lid (which can just about be done with one thumb), the first thing you’ll spot is an absolutely massive touchpad. At 3.5 by six inches, it’s bigger in every dimension than the screen of my Pixel 5 phone!

Pixel 5 phone.

The screen is also notable for its tiny bezels. 1920×1200 isn’t particularly remarkable for a 15.6-inch screen, though I do like the 16:10 aspect ratio. But the entire laptop is barely bigger than the dimensions of the screen itself … and even so, Dell’s managed to get both a standard webcam and a Windows Hello IR sensor along the top edge, avoiding the “nose cam” of previous XPS models. While we’re on the subject, note the fingerprint reader in the power button and the big speaker grilles on either side of the keyboard—we’ll come back to that later.

XPS 15 webcam
It’s tough to see, but there are IR sensors in the webcam. Michael Crider

While Dell should be commended for thinning down a big laptop in just about every way, there’s one aspect that’s definitely poorer for it: port selection. The XPS 15 has two USB-C ports on the left side and one on the right, where a full-sized SD card slot and a headphone jack also reside. There’s no HDMI port, no USB-A for older devices. That’s pretty spare for a 15-inch laptop, and I’d have traded a few extra millimeters of depth for the option to leave dongles behind. At least Dell included a combination HDMI/USB-A dongle in the box.

Flexible, Upgradable Hardware

Our review unit XPS 15 came with a Core i7-10750H processor, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and a discrete GPU in the NVIDIA GTX 1650 Ti graphics card. It’s installed in a chassis with a 15.6-inch 1920×1200 non-touch screen, for a price (at the time of writing) of $1,666.

XPS 15 top
Michael Crider

Are you ready for the spec list? Too bad! Here it is! Bam!

  • Screen size: 15.6 inches, 500 nits
  • Screen resolution: 1920×1200, 3840×2400, touchscreen optional
  • Processor: Intel Core i5 (4 cores), i7 (6 cores), i9 (8 cores), 10th-generation, 45 watts
  • RAM: 4GB-64GB DDR4, 2933MHz
  • Storage: 256GB-2TB, M.2 SSD
  • GPU: Integrated Intel UHD or NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1650 Ti
  • Ports: USB-C (3), SD card, headphone jack, Kensington security
  • Expansion: two user-accessible M.2 storage, two user-accessible RAM SODIMM
  • Battery: 3-cell 56WHr or 6-cell 86WHr, 90-watt or 130-watt charger
  • Keyboard: Backlit keys, integrated fingerprint reader
  • Webcam: 1 megapixel, IR sensors for Windows Hello
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5
  • Body: Aluminum, carbon fiber interior
  • Dimensions: 13.56 x 9.07 x .71 inches, 4.2 pounds
  • Price as reviewed (Core i7, non-touch HD screen, GTX 1650 Ti, 512GB, 16GB): $1,666

The graphics card and screen are definitely the most dated part of this configuration: At this price, you can reasonably expect either a 4K screen, a touchscreen, or both, and that graphics card can be found in machines about a third of this price. But assuming that you don’t need to run the latest games at 120 frames per second (and why would you, when the screen is only 60hz?) or render hours of HD video on the go, the configuration will be able to handle pretty much any task you care to throw at it.

In terms of raw number-crunching power, the XPS doesn’t look great next to some of its competition. But those laptops also tend to be on the chunkier side, designed either for gaming or for “workstation” use rarely removed from a desk. The XPS 15 has the same power-and-portability combo that users of the MacBook Pro love so much … and compared to a similarly configured MBP, this laptop is almost a thousand dollars cheaper, with a newer CPU to boot.

XPS 15 SD card slot
Michael Crider

I was pleasantly surprised when I cracked open the latest XPS 13 and found a user-accessible M.2 SSD module. But a larger laptop demands more accessible components. Luckily, the XPS 15 doesn’t disappoint here. Getting the bottom of the case off isn’t trivial—there are eight Torx screws, and you’ll need a plastic pry bar to get the aluminum shell loose.

XPS 15, bottom open
The XPS 15 has two RAM DIMM slots and two M.2 SSD storage bays. Michael Crider

But once you do, you’ll find two M.2 storage slots and two, count ’em, two RAM slots staring you in the face. This configuration enables even the base model to be upgraded to massive capacities of memory and storage. Dell’s most expensive model offers 64GB of RAM and 2TB of storage, at a price of over $3,100. Parting out the upgrades on Amazon, adding the same boost on the base model would cost you only about $400, bringing the total cost to just over $1,500 (albeit with a much slower CPU and GPU, and no 4K touchscreen).

Long story short: If you want to start with a lower-spec XPS 15 and upgrade it yourself instead of paying Dell for the privilege, it’s simple, if not especially easy. Grab an iFixIt toolkit for that excellent driver and pry bar, and it’s a piece of cake.

Big Screen, Portable Body

Using the XPS 15 was a mostly hassle-free experience. I was happy to see Windows Hello supported, as I’ve become used to unlocking my desktop with my webcam. On the laptop, it’s supported in both camera and fingerprint form: The reader is hidden in the power button, where you’d expect to find the Delete key.

Setting up the laptop with my usual suite of work and leisure programs was mostly effortless … though there were more preinstalled programs than I like to see on a “premium” line like XPS. I was annoyed to see McAffee’s pernicious tentacles in the list of installed applications, but not nearly as annoyed as I was to see a McAfee Chrome extension install itself automatically when I loaded up my browser of choice. After that, I scrubbed the program list as best I could, removing “Dell Cinema Guide,” “Dropbox promotion,” and the Windows Store version of Netflix, Skype, and Spotify.

XPS 15 speakers
Michael Crider

On a day-to-day basis, the laptop performed well, if not amazingly. I really missed the extra resolution on a large screen, and despite Dell claiming 500 nits of brightness, I found it a bit dull and lifeless. At several points I found myself poking the screen, and had to remind myself that there was no touch capability despite the relatively high price.

One area where the laptop does shine is in sound. While its stereo speakers aren’t the best I’ve heard on a laptop (Lenovo still has that crown), they might be the loudest, easily filling up my small office and remaining clear in my living room. Between the large low-bezel screen and the loud speakers, a small group of people could comfortably watch a movie or two on the XPS 15.

XPS 15 with USB and HDMI dongle
This dongle with an HDMI and USB-A port comes in the box. Michael Crider

They’d have the time to do it, too. On my standard laptop pass-out battery test (looping Gandalf Sax at 50% brightness and volume), it lasted for a hair under nine hours, which is on the longer side for a laptop with this processor and screen combo. I would have liked to have seen a little more, especially given the upgraded 86-watt hour battery (a bump over the 56Wh base model). Sadly, the ingenious travel charger from the XPS 13 doesn’t show up here … probably because that massive brick would make the combination design impractical.

Typing on the XPS 15 was serviceable, if nowhere near as nice as a ThinkPad. Medium key travel and a smart layout meant that I adjusted to it without any issues. That super-massive touchpad made getting a cursor around the screen quite easy, and Windows’ touch gestures doubly so. It wasn’t enough to make me give up on my trusty travel mouse, but it was enough to make me not care if I forgot to throw it in my bag.

XPS 15 in laptop bag
Michael Crider

And speaking of bags: The portability of this machine is definitely its best feature on a day-to-day basis. At 13.6 inches wide, it can just barely squeeze into the smaller Peak Design Everyday Messenger—a bag designed for 13″ MacBook Pro!—and at just over three pounds, you might even forget it’s hiding in there.

Is Portability Worth the Price?

The XPS 15 is a good machine, especially if you need both a large screen and relatively tiny dimensions. But it misses off the greatness of the XPS 13, because its hardware and price are less competitive. Those who want more power and features will need to spend more, and those who can do without will be able to find the same for less.

XPS 15, Dell Logo
Michael Crider

An attractive and svelte body, surprisingly loud speakers, and great user-accessible upgrade options are compelling reasons to choose the XPS 15. If you go with the base model, you can spend a few hundred bucks on seriously amazing RAM and storage upgrades, which might make the laptop’s subjective value rise by a few points.

But if you’re shopping pre-configured laptops, the HP Spectre, Lenovo IdeaPad, Asus Zenbook, and Acer Aspire lines offer similar specs, often with a touchscreen or newer processor, for the same or less money. Dell’s wonderful body design will have to make up the difference for you—and for me, it doesn’t.

Rating: 7/10

Price: $1125-3150

Here’s What We Like

  • Beautiful, portable body
  • Easily upgradeable
  • Slim bezels
  • Loud speakers

And What We Don’t

  • Poor value
  • Dull, non-touch screen
  • No HDMI or USB-A



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