Introducing Dell’s XPS 15 L521x: the 2012 Update

I’ve had some good experiences with Dell’s XPS line of laptops over the years, but in virtually every case I’ve had a few minor complaints. The earlier models were large, fast, and too expensive for most users. Then Dell dropped the XPS line for a while and went with the Studio XPS—still generally expensive and there were performance elements that came up short (e.g. the Studio XPS 16 had an awesome RGBLED backlit display, but it tended to run a bit toasty and the hardware wasn’t as fast as previous XPS offerings). With the relaunch of the XPS line in late 2010, the original XPS 15 delivered a great display and a well-balanced set of components that was enough to earn our Gold Editor’s Choice award, but the chassis was understandably a bit too bulbous for some tastes. The XPS 15 Sandy Bridge update improved the CPU and GPU options, but six months after the first XPS 15 I was even less enamored with the chassis.

Next up in the list of progression was the XPS 15z, which improved some areas but regressed in others. It had a thinner, sleeker looking chassis, but dropped support for quad-core processors, downgraded the GPU slightly, had some thermal concerns, and perhaps most worrisome was the build quality. I posted an update a few months after the review that summed things up nicely: “I can't stress enough how it feels like Dell cut a few corners and the result is a laptop that doesn't hold up as well as I'd like over the long haul…. When the inevitable Ivy Bridge update of the 15z comes out, you can bet I'm going to pound on it a little more.” And that brings us to the new XPS 15, which has a completely redesigned chassis. Did Dell listen to my complaints about the 15z build quality? You better believe it!

Superficially, the new XPS 15 looks quite similar to the 15z, at least in pictures. Meet one in person, however, and the changes are immediately noticeable. Many suggested that the XPS 15z was trying to clone Apple’s MacBook Pro, but that’s somewhat disingenuous—unless you consider any laptop that aims to be slimmer and silver to be a MBP clone, I suppose. I would however suggest that it did take more than a couple design cues from Cupertino, including a strikingly similar keyboard layout. The newest model keeps the 15z keyboard layout (which is still a step back from the XPS 15 L501x/L502x in my opinion), but ditches the silver palm rest and keyboard area for a matte black surface with a soft-touch coating. The touchpad also gets a clickable MBP-like interface that we’ve seen on just about every Ultrabook along with many newer laptops. Personally, I still prefer touchpads with separate non-integrated buttons, so this is another step back.

What’s not a step back is the chassis itself, which is now the most MacBook Pro-like chassis I’ve encountered in a non-Apple product. It uses machined aluminum for the main chassis and frame, similar to Apple’s unibody chassis, and it’s thicker and far more rigid than any previous Dell XPS laptop. Even the display cover gets a thick aluminum backing, so there’s really no twisting or flexing to speak of. The palm rest on the other hand isn’t machined aluminum but instead uses magnesium with a soft-touch coating. If you thought the XPS 15z copied a lot of Apple’s design, the XPS 15 will only cement that impression, but really I don’t care: if a competing product is better, then stealing a few ideas isn’t going to hurt my review of it. [Insert obligatory Steve Jobs quote about great artists stealing….]

Here’s the spec sheet for the new XPS 15, and I’ve included the specs of the last-gen MacBook Pro 15 as a reference point. Note that unlike the MacBook Pro Retina, Dell continues to include a DVDRW/Blu-ray optical drive with their XPS 15.

Dell XPS 15 Specification Comparison
Laptop Dell XPS 15 L521x Apple MacBook Pro 15 (2012)
Processor Intel i7-3612QM
(Quad-core 2.10-3.10GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 35W)
Intel i7-3610QM
(Quad-core 2.30-3.30GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 45W)
Chipset HM77 HM77
Memory 8GB DDR3-1600 4GB DDR3-1600
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1100MHz)

NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M 2GB GDDR5 (Optimus)
(384 cores at 624MHz/709MHz Boost, 128-bit GDDR5-4000)
Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1100MHz)

NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M 512MB GDDR5
(384 cores at 735MHz, 128-bit GDDR5-4000)
Display 15.6" WLED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B156HTF/B156HW03)
15.4" WLED Glossy 16:10 WXGA+ (1440x900)
Storage 750GB 7200RPM HDD (Seagate ST9750420AS)
32GB mSATA caching SSD (Samsung PM830)
750GB 5400RPM HDD
Optical Drive Blu-ray Combo slot-load (Matshita UJ167) DVDRW slot-load
Networking 802.11n dual-band 300Mb WiFi (Intel 6235)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel 6235)
Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n dual-band 450Mb WiFi
Bluetooth 4.0
Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo Speakers
Headphone/Microphone jacks
Stereo Speakers with Subwoofer
Headphone/Microphone jacks
Battery/Power 9-cell, 14.8V, 4400mAh, ~65Wh
90W Max AC Adapter (19.5V, 4.72A)
85W MagSafe Power Adapter
Front Side N/A N/A
Left Side 3 x USB 3.0
Gigabit Ethernet
AC Power Connection
Headphone and Microphone jacks
SDXC Card Reader
2 x USB 3.0
1 x Thunderbolt
1 x FireWire 800
Gigabit Ethernet
MagSafe AC
Right Side Headphone and Microphone jacks
Kensington Lock
Memory Card Reader
Optical Drive (BD-Combo)
Kensington Lock
Optical Drive (DVDRW 8x SuperDrive)
Back Side Exhaust Vent Exhaust Vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OS X Lion (or Mountain Lion)
Dimensions 14.6" x 9.8" x 0.91" (WxDxH)
(371mm x 249mm x 23.2mm)
14.35" x 9.82" x 0.95" (WxDxH)
(364mm x 249mm x 24.1mm)
Weight 5.79 lbs (2.6kg) 5.6 lbs (2.56kg)
Extras 1.3MP HD Webcam
80-key Backlit Keyboard (Spill Resistant)
Memory Card Reader (MMC/MS Pro/SD)
720p FaceTime HD Webcam
78-key Backlit Keyboard
Memory Card Reader (SDXC)
Price $1700 MSRP, online starting at $1600 (7/17/12) $1799 MSRP; online starting at $1710 (7/17/12)

The “on paper” matchup between the Apple and Dell laptops ends up being quite interesting. Not surprisingly, even the base model MacBook Pro 15 is quite a bit more expensive than the mid-tier XPS 15. (There’s a dual-core model XPS 15 that comes with an i5-3210M CPU, GT 630M 1GB GDDR5, 6GB RAM, 500GB HDD + 32GB mSATA SSD, 1080p LCD, and DVDRW for $1300 if you’re interested.) In many key areas, Dell comes out ahead of Apple this round: they have a higher resolution LCD standard, you get 8GB DDR3-1600, they use a 750GB 7200RPM HDD with a 32GB mSATA SSD caching drive (via Intel’s Smart Response Technology), you get a Blu-ray combo drive, and there’s a third USB 3.0 port plus HDMI and DisplayPort outputs.

However, that’s not the whole story: Apple uses a full voltage 45W i7-3610QM processor, which boasts slightly higher clock speeds than the 35W 3612QM, and they also use a GT 650M GPU that comes with higher core clocks. Let’s also not forget the FireWire 800 port (well, I’ve never used FireWire so actually I can forget about it…), or more importantly the Thunderbolt port. Apple also uses a higher capacity battery configuration and provides a 450Mbps capable (dual-band 3x3:3 MIMO) wireless adapter.

Perhaps more interesting than the differences are the areas where they’re the same. Both laptops have machined aluminum chassis, and the dimensions are very close to a tie. Apple isn’t quite as wide, thanks to their 16:10 aspect ratio display, but the Dell XPS 15 is actually slightly thinner. Despite the relatively similar dimensions, Apple still manages to come in 0.2 pounds lighter, but for this size laptop that’s close enough for all practical purposes.

So which laptop is better? In the past, I’ve always felt that Dell’s attempts to compete with Apple came up a bit short. The first XPS 15 (L501x/L502x) was a nice change of pace from previous Dell designs, but it wasn’t really close to Apple in terms of overall design. The XPS 15z got the form factor right in my opinion, but build quality still went to Apple—plus you were limited to dual-core CPUs. I would also say the same thing about HP’s Envy line—they’ve had some nice looking laptops for sure, but I’ve never felt they could match Apple’s overall build quality (though I would rank the previous models slightly ahead of Dell’s older XPS offerings). This time, build quality is absolutely top notch for the new XPS 15, and the only thing that really differentiates it from the MacBook Pro is the black palm rest with soft-touch coating, and the silicone on the bottom of the chassis.

What it really comes down to is one thing: do you prefer running Windows or are you an OS X devotee? Sure, you can always run Windows on a MacBook in a pinch (or you could try to make a Hackintosh), but as we’ve shown in the past there’s a penalty in terms of battery life if you choose that route. If you have never owned a MacBook Pro, there’s a good chance you fall into the camp of users that admire Apple’s designs but couldn’t care less about their OS—which is exactly my feeling. Now, we have a truly viable alternative for the MacBook Pro (though sadly there’s nothing even remotely close to the MacBook Pro Retina, of course). And guess what? You’ll pay more; yes, it’s true: quality has a price.

I’m not sure exactly how much of the added cost comes from the sturdier and slimmer chassis, but if we look at competing Windows laptops (e.g. ASUS N56VZ), you can actually get pretty much the same specs from a laptop for just $1000. There’s no doubt in my mind that the XPS 15 is built better than the N56VZ, but I’ve been using a similar ASUS laptop for a couple months now and the only thing that’s really missing in my mind is solid state storage—which you can easily add on your own. The ASUS should also be slightly faster on the CPU side, though the use of DDR3 memory on the GPU makes it a bit of a wash. Based purely on the overall design and features, I’d go with the Dell XPS 15, but at a 60% price premium the ASUS is clearly the better bargain.

The Dell XPS 15 in Practice


View All Comments

  • robco - Thursday, August 2, 2012 - link

    You had some decent, respectable opinions, until that dig in the last line. Plenty of people who know how to use computers use Macs - especially the laptops. There are lots of people who fire up Terminal and use the CLI. Lots of *nix software works on OS X - because it is BSD. I know plenty of engineers sporting MacBooks. The stereotype of only computer novices using Macs is a tired one.

    As for proprietary hardware, that's the case with most laptops. They're not like desktops where you can assemble one from standardized, interchangeable components. Sure the CPUs, drives and RAM may be, but not the motherboard, cooling system, case, GPU, battery, etc. You can't mix and match the parts you like about different Dell, HP and Lenovo laptops and make a Frankenstein box like you can with a desktop. Laptops are sold more or less as complete packages. You can get DIY kits in different sizes, but you're just installing the CPU, drives and RAM. There's a lot less choice.
  • Luke2.0 - Saturday, August 4, 2012 - link

    Hi, Jarred. Good first look. Well done.

    But I miss the audio / speaker test (You did it for the N56 Preview). You see, Dell was leveraging on their JBL speakers back then. And it helped their 2010 XPS15 to earn AT's gold medal.
    How about the current offering?
    I would love it be mentioned again, especially when you are going to update and finalize the review. Even if the testing would be somewhat reviewer-subjective, still I'm gonna appreciate your effort.

    Thank you.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 9, 2012 - link

    The speakers are good, better than the 15z, but not as good as the original XPS 15 (L501x/L502x). I think that's because the last XPS 15 had a dedicated subwoofer, where this version does not. That's too bad. So basically, the earlier XPS 15 had a (much) better 1080p display, better audio quality, but worse build quality and aesthetics (though some of that is certainly subjective). Of course, with the proper power adapter, the original XPS 15 didn't have any issues with throttling that I experienced. Reply
  • alfling - Wednesday, August 8, 2012 - link

    BIOS A06 is out! Could you please give it a try and tell us how it is in gaming? Thank you!
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 9, 2012 - link

    Interesting... where did you get that link from? Dell sent me a couple beta versions of A05 that didn't fix the throttling issues (actually, they throttled the GPU instead of the CPU, which was even worse for gaming). I haven't heard anything from them for the past 10 days or so, though, so I'm not sure what the current status is. I'm guessing that A06 is another beta, but I'll give it a shot and report back shortly.... Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 9, 2012 - link

    Okay, I only tested with DiRT 3, because that's been very good at showing the throttling. It looks like the A06 (beta?) you linked is better than the A05 betas I've played with, but I can see exactly what Dell is trying to do and I don't like it. With the CPU and GPU loaded (i.e. playing a game), the CPU is no longer throttling. At all. So throughout 10 minutes of running DiRT 3 tests, the CPU always had at least one (usually two or three or all four) CPU cores running at 2.8GHz (2795.5-2795.9 MHz to be precise). The problem is the CPU is thus still generating a decent amount of heat, and in order to compensate Dell is throttling GPU clocks.

    Looking at the GPU, after about 2.5 minutes (and over half of that time is spent launching DiRT 3), the "GPU Geometry Clock" drops from 708.8 (Boost Clock) to 669.8 MHz (still boosting but not as much), and then about 10 seconds later it drops to 615 MHz (now slightly lower than "stock"), and after a few more seconds it drops way down to 405MHz. There are even times where the GPU clock drops down to 270 MHz -- so basically running at less than half the expected GT 640M clock speed. At the same time, the GPU Memory Clock starts at 1000.4 MHz (4GHz effective) and stays there for the first 2.75 minutes, and then the clock starts to fluctuate between 1000MHz and 400MHz.

    Ultimately, you get a much better gaming experience with the CPU running at a steady 1.8GHz with the GPU at maximum clocks than dropping GPU clocks while leaving the CPU at max -- so from that perspective, the A04 BIOS is still better, especially if you're willing to play with ThrottleStop.

    Temperatures incidentally are higher than I saw with A04 -- I'm seeing a maximum of 92C on the CPU (but the throttling causes the temps to drop quite quickly after that to around 85C). and the GPU tops out at around 81C. And this is all just in 10 minutes of testing. But then, I'm using the built-in DiRT 3 benchmark, so let me try actually playing the game to see if that's any different....
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 9, 2012 - link

    So, as expected the issues carry over into the actual gameplay, and in fact the GPU throttling is even worse than I at first suspected -- not that it occurs more frequently, but that it really messes up the experience. I'm still seeing steady 2.8GHz CPU clocks with the GPU usually at 405MHz after the first couple of minutes, but the GPU memory going back and forth between 1000MHz and 400MHz causes very noticeable fluctuations in frame rates. One second everything will be going smoothly, and the next you feel the lag and the slower frame rates, and then it kicks back to higher speed.... It might not be as bad in some other games, but in DiRT 3 it makes it very hard to drive a consistent line, with the game actually slowing down and speeding up. Ugh.

    I also tried the A06 BIOS with ThrottleStop, and while it took longer for the GPU to throttle, it did after a few minutes. Then it stayed at 405MHz most of the time (with one 10 second drop to 270MHz), and the VRAM was more commonly at 1000MHz, but the 400MHz VRAM clocks do show up periodically and really mess with the gaming experience.

    So in short, A06 is still beta in my book, and I prefer A04 with the CPU throttling rather than A06 with GPU throttling.

    On a different note, when I flash the BIOS there's clearly one higher fan speed that kicks in that I'm not seeing in normal use. At this point, Dell should be looking at CPU clocks in gaming workloads closer to 2.1GHz and they should be running the maximum fan speed once the CPU core hits 80C. I'd be okay if they limited the CPU clock to 2.4 GHz any time the GPU clock was higher than 270MHz, personally -- it's not ideal, but it's far better than what's currently happening.
  • Flunk - Sunday, August 12, 2012 - link

    Hi Jarred, I have one of these and your experiences above mirror what I'm seeing. I've had 2 different L521x units in my house and they both perform identically (first one had a bad screen).

    Even if you set the CPU speed to 99% in power options to prevent boosting on A06 (which is up on their standard page now) it still downclocks the GPU in much the same way.

    Frankly it is quite infuriating that Dell would sell such and obviously flawed product in the first place. There is no reason to have a dedicated graphics chip if you can't use it.

    At this point I'm hoping that they get back to me and tell me they're going to replace the thermal solution because it doesn't seem like they can figure out how to do this with a BIOs update.

    Thanks for bringing this up in your review, the more pressure Dell has on them to fix this the better.
  • alfling - Tuesday, August 14, 2012 - link

    Did you experience any drops in battery life with A06 BIOS? I ask because of this post in notebookreview:
  • alfling - Tuesday, August 14, 2012 - link

    Thank you very much! I got the link in Notebookreview forum from an XPS 15 owner (not sure how he got it, but he shared it) Reply

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