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

  • tipoo - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    It just seems strange that they would ship a laptop which throttles in just minutes, this isn't even a super small ultrabook, it's a standard sized laptop. Maybe there's a problem with the physical seating of the heatsink? Or a BIOS issue maybe? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    They're working on the BIOS. I wondered about the problem being specific to my unit as well, but there are a lot of users reporting similar issues right now so that doesn't seem to be the case. Reply
  • dragosmp - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    Thanks for the reply. I missed the point of it throttling only when using both CPU and GPU.It makes sense that they'd size the cooling for a "typical" TDP and not for the 100%TDP. This is usual practice when sizing cooling systems for high end products, by the same rationale you'd get a huge ugly stuff if one were to size the cooling radiators for a Ferrari for the airflow @20MPH New York traffic without the ECU reducing power. It is form over function and I would prefer to have the cake and eat it too, but this perfectly acceptable in my opinion. I probably misread that one can't use the CPU by itself without throttling, that would be unacceptable. Reply
  • alfling - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    lol you can't play 10 minutes without throttlestop...acceptable? whith that price?? Reply
  • CeriseCogburn - Sunday, July 29, 2012 - link

    The point is "fanboys". Thus it will be marketed and sold. Reply
  • nerd1 - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    I've been a fan of anand site but I think it's getting bit ridiculous.

    I don't think this laptop will have lot worse thermal compared to MBP or rMBP - Why I cannot see any 'torture' test on MBPs, like bootcamp + CPU benchmark + GPU benchmark? Many of my friends have MBP and I know they are toasty enough, and some reviewer reported throttling issue with rMBP with such a test.

    And please compare apple to apples. How much apple charge for RAM or HDD upgrade? (It is plain stupid they are still using 5400rpm drive I think) How much does it cost to get SSD+HDD setup or blueray drive for macbooks? How much does it cost to upgrade macbook screen to 1680*1050? How easy is it to get discount coupons for them?

    In practice, you can get a good windows laptop (like the new xps 15) at around $1200 (with easy-to-acquire coupons) and you have to pay full retail price of around $2000 for similarly spec'ed macbook pro 15. I do own a MBA (Which I think is still price-competitive) but all the MBP lines are just plain ripoff.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    Give me a break. I am one of the least pro-Apple people around, as I really dislike OS X -- just ask Anand. I do a price comparison on the front page showing how they stack up and conclude that in many areas Dell has the lead. What about throttling on Apple laptops? Well, sadly I'm not the one doing MBP reviews so I can't run those tests. What I can tell you is that Vivek repeatedly ran HL2:EP2 on the latest MBP15 to see if there was any drop in frame rates:

    If I made a chart like that for the current A04 BIOS on the XPS 15, there would be a cliff after the first run, dropping from 160FPS to around 80FPS. But hopefully Dell can address that with the next BIOS. Will MBP15 throttle under a stress test workload? I'm almost sure it will, but perhaps not as badly as the XPS 15 right now. What about the Retina MBP? Well, that's a different beast with two fans and apparently significantly improved cooling, and early results suggest it doesn't have any issues with throttling.

    Apple makes some very compelling laptops, but ultimately the only reason I would ever consider one is if I were willing to run OS X. I'm not, and thus laptops like the XPS 15 are very much something I want to succeed. A bit more fine tuning and hopefully Dell will get there, as the throttling is the biggest issue I have right now. (The only other major complaint I have is the good but not great LCD.)
  • nerd1 - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    I just wanted to point out macbook are way more expensive in practice.

    And I don't think HL2:EP2 is a good benchmark for throttling - I'm pretty sure even internal graphics are sufficient to run them flawlessly these days. One german site used bootcamp and prime95 and they succeeded to make rMBP throttle at 1.2Ghz.
  • headbox - Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - link

    How about doing a RESELL price comparison?! You whine about Apple MBP cost, but in 2 years you can sell it for around 80% of what you paid for it, and tons of people will bid/call you about it. Sell a two-year-old Dell... that phone won't be ringing much, and you'll be lucky to get 50% of what you paid for it. I had the first gen unibody MBP- got it for $1800 and sold it 2.5 years later for $1500 within a couple hours of posting it on craigslist. Try to do that with a "cheaper" PC. Reply
  • alfling - Thursday, July 26, 2012 - link

    Someone who buys a 2-year-old used laptop for 80% of its original price (whatever laptop it is) is just a total idiot, no doubts about this. I guess it's full of idiot apple customers out there Reply

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