Battery life is disappointing, especially as the XPS 15 is intended as a lightweight Ultrabook, although as a desktop replacement system it ticks more of the right boxes. It provides outstanding display quality and high-end performance at a competitive price, while still being slim and light enough to slip into a bag for the occasional business trip or weekend away.
It might not have the eye-catching convertible design of its stablemate, the flipping-screen Dell XPS 12, but the 3200 x 1800 display of the latest version of the Dell XPS 15 ensures that it provides plenty of visual appeal of its own. With a weight of just 2.01 kg, it’s also one of the lightest 15-inch laptops currently available. (See also: What’s the best laptop you can buy in 2014?)
The partial-aluminium casing and Retina-style screen of the Dell XPS 15 prompts inevitable comparison with Apple’s MacBook Pro, and its weight and 18 mm thickness are also virtually identical to those of the Apple original. However, the XPS 15 has some ideas of its own and outguns the MacBook Pro in a number of respects.
The laptop makes a good impression even before you turn it on. The aluminium casing is both light and sturdy, and provides good support for the 15.6-inch screen. The keyboard, trackpad and surrounding panels all have a pleasant ‘soft-touch’ matt-black plastic finish that looks smart and feels very comfortable to use.
The slimline design forsakes an internal DVD drive, but few people will complain about that if it means that the XPS 15 can lose some heft compared to most 15-inch laptops. It’s a shame that there’s no ethernet port for a wired network connection, but one of the three USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 could accept an adaptor. Both HDMI and Mini DisplayPort provide good connectivity for external monitors. (See also: Should I buy a Windows laptop or a Chromebook? Office apps on Chromebook explained.)
Dell XPS 15 review: QHD display
However, it’s Dell’s ‘QHD’ screen that is the real eye-opener. With a resolution of 3200 x 1800 pixels and 235 pixels per inch, the XPS 15 has a higher resolution than the Retina display of the MacBook Pro, at 2880 x 1800 and 220 ppi.
Numbers aside, it looks terrific, as the IPS panel is very bright and colourful, and strong contrast ensures that blacks look very black while the pristine white backgrounds of many web pages help accentuate how dull the colours are for many other laptops.
The screen is touch-sensitive too, although we found ourselves rather reluctant to mar the brilliant and shiny screen with our fingerprints.
The bigger problem with that high-res display is that many Windows programs don’t work properly. The adjustable scaling technology in Windows works well enough on the main Windows desktop, allowing you to adjust the size of OS text and icons to enhance visibility. But it doesn’t always help with interface elements within individual applications, which resolutely remain at the screen native resolution.
This means that toolbars, icons and buttons in some third-party applications appear so small that they’re almost unusable. And, ironically, it’s often graphics applications such as the Adobe Photoshop Elements program we tried that suffer the most here, because of their reliance on graphical-based tools.
That means you may find yourself switching to a lower resolution for tasks such as photo- or video-editing; which rather defeats the point of paying for the QHD display in the first place.
That’s Microsoft’s fault rather than Dell’s, although it’s you as the latter’s customer that has to put up with it. (See also: MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air comparison.)
Dell XPS 15 review: better than the MacBook Pro
There are areas where the XPS 15 provides better performance and value for money than its rival the MacBook Pro with Retina display.
There are two versions of the Dell XPS 15 currently available, with prices starting at £1249 for a model with a quad-core Intel Core i7 running at 2.3 GHz, 16 GB memory and an nVidia GeForce GT 750M handling graphics duties.
Note that the model we tested had a 2.2 GHz GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ; Dell’s website now lists a 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7-4712HQ, after Intel’s running processor upgrade.
Our review model included a 512 GB solid-state drive, which bumped this price up to £1499. That compares very favourably to a starting price of £1699 for the 15-inch MacBook Pro, which has a 2.0 GHz processor, 8 GB of memory and 256 GB solid-state storage. This entry model of Apple’s notebook also relies on Intel’s Iris Pro integrated graphics rather than a discrete GPU.
Lab performance of the Dell is good, with a score of 5833 points in the general-purpose PCMark 7. This suggests that the XPS 15 can provide desktop-PC levels of performance for a wide range of software. (See also: Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison review.)
Performance in the Home and Works suits of PCMark 8 wasn’t quite so strong, but scores of 2699 and 2800 points respectively are still solid enough for all but the most demanding tasks.
It can handle a fair bit of gaming action too, easily breezing to 68 fps when running our Stalker: Call of Pripyat casual gaming test at 1920 x 1080 resolution.
We tired Batman: Arkham City at the full 3200 x 1800 resolution – which looked terrific, but only gave us 21 fps. Dropping down to 1920 x 1080 allowed the XPS 15 to hit a smooth 50 fps even with graphics details set to High.
Battery life is disappointing. Dell quotes a life of ‘up to 11 hours’, but in our usual test we only just managed 5 hours of streaming video with the XPS 15.
Apple’s entry-level 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display lasted more than 50 percent longer in the same test, running for 8 hours 14 mins. (See also: 20 best budget laptops of 2014.)
Dell XPS 15: Specs
- 15.6-inch (3200 x 1800 pixel, 235 5ppi) gloss IPS touchscreen display
- 2.2 GHz GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ (3.2 GHz Turbo)
- Intel HD Graphics 4600 & nVidia GeForce GT 750M (2 GB RAM)
- Windows 8.1 (64-bit)
- 16 GB DDR3L RAM
- 512 GB mSATA SSD
- Bluetooth 4.0
- 1x HDMI 1.4
- 1x Mini DisplayPort 1.2
- 3 x USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0
- SDXC card slot
- 720p webcam/microphone
- 1x headphone socket
- 91 Wh lithium-ion battery
- 372 x 254 x 18 mm
- 2.01 kg